I didn't know what box to put Sarah McLachlan in the first time I saw her video for "Building a Mystery" in 1997. At 29 years old, she had the wholesome face and slicked-back hair of a Seventeen cover model. But intelligence gleamed from behind her iridescent green-lined eyes. The song was delicate folk-pop, but there was darkness in the lyrics: McLachlan was singing about some vampire-like person who built up an aura of inscrutability with voodoo dolls and suicidal poems. Even though she could see right through all that artifice, she also embodied it, in a goth black-and-red dress whose skirt bloomed into a glittering mountain.
The vision confused and bewitched me. It may have even tricked me, a 13-year-old fan of Nirvana, Hole, and the Sex Pistols who fancied herself a true punk rocker, into giving McLachlan more of a chance than I otherwise would have. I discovered that she was a songwriter who could dig deep into love and friendship, two kinds of relationships I wouldn't understand well until years later. For the girls who wore long skirts and cultivated hippie-ish affectations like incense and scarves — don't tell Johnny Rotten, but I was briefly one of those too — she was a gentler guide through adolescence than Courtney Love. (I'm not the only listener she recruited from across genres: Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC credited McLachlan's "Angel" with saving him from suicide, and the two later collaborated.)
"Mystery" was a single from Surfacing, which dropped just as McLachlan's female-forward touring festival Lilith Fair was becoming the summer's hot ticket. My friends and I dreamed up elaborate plans to attend, even though there was no way we were getting there. We weren't conscious of it at the time, but I think we were less excited at the prospect of seeing any particular act — even though the lineup included Tracy Chapman, Jewel, and Fiona Apple — than at the idea of being in a rare space that catered to women who loved music. In the context of pop-culture misogyny, Lilith became a bit of a punch line. (Insert hilarious armpit-hair joke here.) But when it comes up in conversation now, especially when I'm talking to women who grew up in the '90s, everyone goes starry-eyed. If someone says she actually made it to Lilith, we ask the same questions we might ask of someone who'd visited Charlotte Perkins Gilman's all-female utopia, Herland.
Which explains why I was so excited to speak with McLachlan, in advance of her upcoming Christmas album, Wonderland , about a 30-year career that's consistently been as bold as Lilith Fair and as uncategorizable as "Building a Mystery." She was at home in Vancouver, looking out at the Pacific Ocean and looking forward to a paddleboat outing, when I called her from New York earlier this month.
Judy Berman: You're an incredibly successful artist, but you don't play by the rules of the music industry. For most of your career, you've released an album every three to six years, rather than cranking out one record after the next. You're moving at your own pace. How have you managed to do that — and if the market isn't driving you, what makes you sit down to write?
Sarah McLachlan: I was lucky early on because I was an artist on a small, independent label that didn't put any requirements on me. They just said, "Make the music you want to make," so I was given the opportunity and the time to discover who I was without any pressure. I write from an emotional point of view. I write about things that affect me, that affect others, that make me feel. It's probably my best way of processing information. It's very cathartic, because it's a lot of sorting through my own emotions.