Interview: Sarah McLachlan

She sings delicate hymns to lost love. She also burps loudly and has bizarre sex dreams

Musical guest Sarah McLachlan performs on 'Saturday Night Live' on November 22nd, 1997. Credit: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

THEY ARE ALL HERE — the husband Sarah McLachlan sometimes wonders whether she deserves; the parents she battled as an insecure teenager in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the friends who have provided her with a sense of acceptance; and the musical peers who have helped confirm that she has, in fact, made it. They have all come here tonight — head long out of some dream she might have had as an awkward adolescent, a late bloomer who still had baby teeth at fifteen.

It is a surprise party for McLachlan's thirtieth birthday, and we are at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, celebrating. Her husband, Ashwin Sood, who has been helping to plan the event for two months, stands on one side of the room, beaming. You can't blame him. Around the room, approximately thirty friends sit drinking wine; Joni Mitchell, matriarch of all Canadian singer/songwriters, arrives bearing gifts; Paula Cole, McLachlan's contemporary, is on the way. Across the restaurant, McLachlan peeks over a wine glass at her parents, who have never been in Los Angeles before tonight.

"I thought Ash might do something," she says. "But when I saw my parents, my jaw hit the floor.

"It's been a year for that sort of reaction. First there was her marriage to Sood, her best friend and drummer of seven years. Next came the release of Surfacing, the multiplatinum follow-up to McLachlan's multi platinum Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. And finally there was the Lilith Fair — the all-female festival that McLachlan organized and headlined, and whose just-released live album now stands as a document of last summer's most successful concert event. It's no wonder McLachlan considers her twenty-ninth year the best of her life thus far.

"This all goes back to being twelve years old and so wanting people to accept me and lime me," says McLachlan of life today. "It's lime I'm still living that dream. I get to go up onstage and have all this adultation. People accept me. People like me. That feels great. It's the best drug in the world."

And so she indulges the high. At her party, McLachlan strolls from table to table, happy to hug each of her guests one by one. Her look is designer flower child — Stevie Nicks with an eye on the fashion runways — but in person, Sarah McLachlan doesn't play the part. Perhaps it is because she doesn't bother to hide her business savvy. Or because her favorite pastime is burping louder than anyone else in the room. Whatever the reasons, the Sarah McLachlan who stands before you is not the one you recognize from the wispy photographs. For instance, she does not say, "I'm very lucky," but rather, "Don't think I don't count the horseshoes on my ass daily."

Demure she is not. "There's almost a certain part of her that rebels against nice manners," says Kharen Hill, a friend of McLachlan's for eleven years. "When Sarah comes over to our place and burps at the table, my eldest daughter gives her a filthy look and says, 'That's disgusting.' We always laugh that Sarah is our manners brometer."

At the moment, we are in McLachlan's hotel suite, and she is considering the question of her image. She wears a flowing skirt with a lacy, delicate top, lights a number of candles and then laughs when it's pointed out that this is exactly the type of thing that plays into a hippiechik mystique. "People have this preconceived notion of me, and often it upsets them when I try to set the record straight," says McLachlan, settling onto a couch. "But at this point I could give a shit if the Internet is all atwitter. You wouldn't believe the video treatments we get. It's all me on some white stallion with long, flowing robes in a forest. Jesus Christ, enough already."

What she is is bright and straightforward, albeit occasionally with a New Age bent. If you can judge a performer by the people who surround her, then McLachlan is in good stead. She has a family like bond with her band mates and managers, all of whom are laid-back and affable, and most of whom have been with her for the majority of her ten-year career.

In that time, McLachlan's music has developed from adolescent Kate Bush worship to mature roots-driven folk (like the hits "Building a Mystery" and "Sweet Surrender") and ballads ("Witness," "I Love You") that border on hymnody. She is a classically trained guitar player and pianist, and her songs are usually tales of love — longing for love, mostly lost love — but McLachlan does her best not to whine. They are less specific peeks into her daily life than general treatises on the subject itself. But it is McLachlan's voice, much more than the words she sings, that makes us believe her. It is a voice that conjures the complexities of love, drifting effortlessly from low, cool confidence to a high, aching insecurity. Much like McLachlan herself. "The trick is not to give a shit," says McLachlan of songwriting. "It's an elusive thing."

She stands and lights more candles.

"I'm a sensible girl when it comes right down to it," she says. "But I also have a blind romantic streak. I love romance. I love beauty. But I also love the flip side, when you turn the stone over and there's worms and mud and shit, and it's really ugly."

SARAH MCLACHLAN ADMITS THAT HER SONGS often deal in generalities — subtle hints at pointed events but with a universality to the emotion. It is what simultaneously connects listeners to her music and yet keeps them at a respectful distance from her private life. It is also why we are forced to probe her subconscious for insight.

McLachlan doesn't remember most of her dreams, but when she does, it's usually the violent ones. Like the one where she was held down by pigs who bit her hands and feet while a man in a black cloak raped, sodomized and beat her until she was unrecognizable.

"Isn't it awful?" says McLachlan. "I remember thinking that the man was whoever you think is bearing down on you to the point that you can't deal with your own life anymore. I've felt a lot of that pressure — like I wasn't myself anymore, I was just being led."

And then there is the dream she had two nights ago.

"Oh, Lordy," says McLachlan as she begins. "OK: You could tell the liars from the people who told the truth because they had this car exhaust coming out of their butts." She laughs. "And I had it coming out of mine. So did everyone. Ah, more industry insight."

She laughs again and continues: "So then we were in this religious congregation, this Billy Graham kind of thing. It was almost like a high school gymnasium. I was with someone I'd known a long time, but I kept morphing, so I wasn't really me. It was almost an out-of-body experience, and suddenly I was Courtney Love and all these people were masturbating me. They were kind of doing it to put on a show and horrify this evangelist. And he started screaming."

And?

"I woke up," says McLachlan. "So I never climaxed." Interpretations can be mailed care of Sarah McLachlan, Vancouver, British Columbia. Non-Freudians need not apply.

McLACHLAN'S DREAMS BEGAN IN Halifax, a conservative town of 300,000 in the extreme east of Canada — the kind of town that teaches a girl to be practical while it forces her to imagine other, more exciting realities.

McLachlan's parents are both transplanted Americans, both academics. Her brothers, Stewart and Ian, are three and five years older, respectively; they are not particularly close. All three children are adopted, but McLachlan's struggle for a sense of self was not caught up in the mystery of her birth. When she eventually met her birth mother, at nineteen, while at art school in Halifax, it was through what McLachlan calls "a complete coincidence." The woman had been looking for her, and because Halifax is relatively small, a mutual acquaintance put two and two together. "People have this preconceived notion of me. You wouldn't believe the video treatments. It's all me on some white Stallion with long, flowing robes in a forest. Jesus Christ, enough already."

"It was strange and continues to be strange," says McLachlan of the reunion. "I never really was interested in knowing her. I love my mother dearly, and she's really insecure about the whole thing. I don't want to hurt my birth mother, either, but my mother is my mother. To me, it's fascinating to know my birth mother, genewise. That's really it. My mom and dad gave me a wonderful life."

It was, however, a life of unsparing ritual. Piano practice before dinner, guitar practice after, homework following that. McLachlan was allowed to go out one night a week and even then had to be home by eleven. Once she was grounded for a summer.

"They were very, very strict," says McLachlan. "It wasn't out of meanness. My mother was strict because she loved me and she wanted to keep me safe. It's easy to look at those actions as an adult and not find any blame. I sure did when I was younger. I blamed her for everything."

It didn't help matters that McLachlan was, as she puts it, "a hurtin' teenager," a frail kid with frizzy hair and teeth that needed braces. She remembers being desperate to fit in and begging her mother to buy her a pair of cowboy boots. When her mom bought them at the wrong store, the kids teased her anyway.

And then, in high school, McLachlan discovered other kids who were into art and music. "It was, 'Finally somebody likes me,"' she says. "I knew I wasn't all messed up and ugly and stupid." She began playing in a New Wave band (her yearbook lists her as Sarah "Boy George" McLachlan), and her first show was an epiphany.

"I got up there, this lonely kid who had been kind of dissed her whole life, and people were smiling at me," says McLachlan. "It was so clear to me what I wanted to do."

At seventeen she was offered a chance to record demo tapes for the Vancouver label Nettwerk, but her parents refused to let her go. "The only thing they'd ever heard about rock & roll was when someone OD'd," says McLachlan.

Two years later, after McLachlan had graduated from high school and attended a year of art school, the independent label tried again, this time offering a recording contract. McLachlan bolted at the chance, moving to Vancouver, where she still lives today, and recording her first album, Touch.

"As much as I had some core thing which always guided me and kept me smiling and upright," says McLachlan, "I left Halifax with a long way to go."

LOS ANGELES LIES MORE THAN 3,000 miles southwest of Halifax, four time zones and an entire lifetime away. It is here that McLachlan lounges poolside at the city's trendiest hotel bar, a martini by her side, trying to make sense of her life. She orders the drink conspiratorially — more like a convent schoolgirl breaking the rules than a minor media mogul. When she starts in on her second round, she cackles. "Oh, my God," she says, "I'm already drunk."

She is in town for the business of being Sarah McLachlan, an increasingly busy and lucrative profession. In the next few days, she will spend two sixteen-hour days shooting a video for her next single, "Adia"; conduct an MTV interview; play live on CNN; help finalize the lineup for Lilith '98; tape an episode of VH1's Storytellers; and appear on The Tonight Show. After that she heads for a tour of Japan. When you ask her how financially secure she is these days, McLachlan answers quickly. "Very," she says.

Up until two years ago, despite three albums and a live EP, McLachlan was $400,000 in debt to her record label, mostly because of the answer to our first quiz question: What do you do when you're an artist who writes songs, not singles? "I love the ride. I'm the kind of person who has to have the experience, the roller coaster. I would have tried heroin ten years ago, but I never got the chance."

"You tour your ass off is what you do," she answers correctly.

It's easy to be cavalier now, but McLachlan's second record, Solace, was also her first for Arista Records, a label known for its reliance on heavy radio play. It was not a match made in heaven.

"We'd send them stuff that we just felt great about and the label would call and say, 'That's not it,"' remembers McLachlan. "I'd say, 'Doesn't it make you feel something?' And they'd say, 'That's not the point.' But then what the fuck is the point? I got so heartbroken. At one point I wanted to stop making music."

Couple that with the fact that McLachlan had begun coupling with producer Pierre Marchand and it was a disaster waiting to happen.

"If we hadn't been making a record together, I would have told him to fuck off and I would have gone home," says McLachlan of Marchand. "But, instead, I thought, 'No, I'm not going to go home with my tail between my legs.' I had too much pride for that."

In the end, McLachlan, Marchand and Arista all stayed together (creatively, not sexually) and have been partnered through Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and Surfacing. Not that McLachlan is one to learn from her mistakes. She began dating her keyboard player, Dave Kershaw, during the tour for Fumbling, only to have the relationship implode midway through.

Exactly how McLachlan turned everything around is the answer to our second quiz question: How do you get well after life with your keyboard player goes bust? But the answer to that query (you marry your drummer) is getting ahead of ourselves.

IT'S HEARTBREAKING TO READ SOME OF THE letters I get. I actually cry. I want to call them up and say, 'Come live with me,' but I know I can't." When McLachlan says this, she speaks less emotionally than matter-of-factly. She is talking about the chord her music strikes in many listeners — the young girls who write to tell her that they are being abused by stepfathers or boyfriends. But there are also other letters, different types. And these are why McLachlan no longer goes through her own mail.

A number of years ago, McLachlan began receiving letters from an obsessive fan. "He would write things like, 'I watched you last night on TV. You seemed really tired — you looked like you were on drugs. Please come to me and I will take care of you,"' says McLachlan. "Meanwhile, I thought, 'I was there last night and I was having a great time."'

The man was devoutly religious and claimed that McLachlan had been betrothed to him before her birth and that he would stop at nothing to reach their destiny. He even approached McLachlan once after a show, but she didn't make the connection until the encounter was over. She did, however, write "Possession."

The song, which became a hit off Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, was written from the perspective of a deranged fan and relied on the man's letters as source material. When he recognized his ideas in McLachlan's song, he sued ("his last-ditch effort to contact me," says McLachlan flatly), saying that his words had inspired the song. Before the matter could be resolved, however, the man committed suicide.

Just like that, the episode was over. McLachlan speaks of it with an almost unsettling detachment.

"I was in Copenhagen when I found out he killed himself," says McLachlan. "I didn't really know how to feel. I didn't feel guilty, and I almost felt guilty that I didn't. I just thought, 'It's not my thing. This has nothing to do with me.' I had a pretty clear understanding of that right from the beginning."

WHEN ASH SOOD FIRST BEGAN PLAYING drums for Sarah McLachlan, he had never heard of her. "I was touring with another band that had the same manager," he says. "They had a couple of tracks that Sarah was finishing and asked if I'd play. We just clicked. I've always just thought of her as my best friend." He smiles. "And now I happen to work for my wife."

For many years, however, Sood was simply another friend and band member. And when McLachlan and Kershaw's relationship began skidding out of control on the Fumbling tour, Sood had the best seat in the house, right behind the two of them every night, watching.

"Sarah and Dave were two of my best friends, so I would become very angry at both of them for not being able to work their shit out," says Sood. "I'd come offstage screaming at the both of them, saying, 'You guys sort it out — it's affecting the show.' I never took sides. I wanted it to work out for the both of them. I wanted us to all be happy."

They weren't. After the tour, McLachlan suffered a block that left her wondering whether she would ever write again. In many ways, Surfacing is a small miracle simply because it exists.

"I slowly but surely lost almost every inch of myself, right down to the core," says McLachlan. "Things would come out of my mouth and a half-hour later I'd think, 'What the fuck was that?' I'd had all this experience and no time to process it. So that was the block."

McLachlan retreated to a cabin in the woods. She and Sood had begun dating, and he would occasionally visit. Mostly, however, she lived alone for eight months and began working. ("My goodness, darling, I wrote the most self-indulgent garbage," she says.) But things didn't completely right themselves until the making of Surfacing, when she met a woman skilled at massage and regression therapy. (Did we mention McLachlan's New Age bent?)

"She'd go right to the root," says McLachlan of the woman. "She'd take me back to these times and give me the responsibility of picking myself up and giving me what I needed, which is love — my mother's love, but I had to give it to myself. It was a miracle. I fucking will this woman the world."

And so McLachlan has ended up here, on the other side, by a pool in Los Angeles, martini in hand, talking about the catharsis of Surfacing, the international success it has garnered and the sense of contentment she has from being in a happy marriage. And how it is all heightened because of the pain of getting there.

"I love the ride," explains McLachlan. "I'm the kind of person who has to have the experience, the roller coaster. I would have tried heroin ten years ago, but I never got the chance. Now I wouldn't even think about it. I haven't had the chance to try a lot of things, but five or ten years ago, if I had, I would have."

SARAH McLACHLAN is in an odd position. Her success has been gradual and quiet. So despite her metamorphosis, and all the songs, psychotic fans and soap operas, it is still Lilith Fair for which she is best known.

When McLachlan first hatched the notion for Lilith, she referred to it jokingly as Girlapalooza. It was a far-fetched idea. She had met resistance to plans for a two-woman tour with Paula Cole, and, in response, McLachlan decided to add even more women to the bill. All women, all day long, all summer.

"I wanted this to be all women," says McLachlan, pausing. "I don't even know why. Because we can."

And so it grew. Dozens of women signed on: Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, Victoria Williams. In total, more than sixty women took turns on the thirty-five-show tour, with only McLachlan playing every city. The new live album, twenty-four tracks on two CDs, showcases many of them: Suzanne Vega, Meredith Brooks, the Cardigans, Jewel, the Indigo Girls.

"You were definitely a guest on her thing," says Joan Osborne of McLachlan. "When you first came on the tour, she'd give you a little gift and a letter. It was like a Tupperware party or a Welcome Wagon. She was very gracious and welcoming."

By summer's end, Lilith had grossed more than $15 million — making it the most successful and most publicized event of the season, if only because it is hard to imagine Metallica handing out "welcome to Lollapalooza" presents. The hype hit its apex when McLachlan appeared on the cover of Time magazine in Canada, although in the U.S., the cover photo looked suspiciously like that of an Alaskan folk singer and featured the cover line JEWEL AND THE GANG.

"I was a bit pissed off, but, unfortunately, politically it made perfect sense," says McLachlan of the cover. "Time Warner owns Time magazine; Time Warner owns Jewel's record label. There you go."

But such issues were trivial. The tour was sweeping the country. In some ways, time constraints kept artists apart. Osborne, for instance, would often be finished and on her way to the next town before Jewel even pulled into the parking lot. But after a tentative start (McLachlan likens it to a dorm that never had an initiation meeting), the artists began knocking on one another's doors.

"There were these expectations that because it was all women, we were going to instantly bond and have Wicca meetings in the hot tub," says Osborne. "But it takes you a while to warm up to people and get to know them. I remember the day that Sarah and Tracy Chapman and I sang 'Proud Mary' together for one of Tracy's encores. We went over it in the dressing room beforehand. I had never even met Tracy before. It was just really cool. The music was the icebreaker — which, of course, it always is."

Fans (mostly rabid, mostly female) lined up in droves. And because Lilith donated a dollar from every ticket sale, it ultimately doled out $1 million to charity. And then, because this is the Nineties and it is America, the backlash hit. Specifically, critics said the lineup was not diverse enough. McLachlan bristles noticeably at the charge.

"We asked all sorts of people from all different kinds of musical outlets and walks of life," she says. "Nobody had heard of Lilith before, and especially people from different kinds of music were like, 'This doesn't sound like a festival I'd be on.' It's like someone asking me to be on last year's Lollapalooza. To their credit, I bet they asked all sorts of female bands. But you look who's headlining and say, 'Metallica? I wouldn't want to go on that bill. I'd be intimidated as hell. That's not my audience.' You might think you want to diversify, but that's pushing it."

This summer, pushing things will be much easier. In just one year, Lilith has become a brand name. Sponsors have lined up to kick in tour costs; artists are inquiring about spots on the bill. Diversity will not be a problem. Erykah Badu, Natalie Merchant and Bonnie Raitt have all signed on. So have Missy Elliott and Sinéad O'Connor, the peer whom McLachlan most wants to meet. Dozens more will follow. Just don't expect to add another chromosome to the mix. After waffling a bit, McLachlan has kept the back-stage bathrooms single sex. After all, it was Lilith — Adam's first wife, in Jewish mythology — who was tossed out of the Garden of Eden for being too independent. And it was Lilith who was forced to make it on her own.

"Emmylou Harris came up to me one day," says McLachlan. "She said, 'It's not my place to say this, but this is a really wonderful thing that's happening, Sarah. Why would you want to change it?' Right then it became very clear to me: Why in the world was I even thinking that? It was a gentle smack on the face." The decision is final: No boys allowed.

TODAY SARAH MCLACHLAN TURNS thirty, but you are not going to hear her complain. Becoming the person she is today has taken too much time for her to quibble over distinctions of young and old, twentysomething vs. thirtysomething.

"If I felt like I hadn't reached the goals I set out to achieve, I'd probably be looking at being thirty very differently," says McLachlan. "But I'm happy. I love where I'm at."

Specifically, McLachlan is on a sound stage somewhere near the Los Angeles airport, rehearsing for VH1's Storytellers. She runs through some of her greatest hits — "Building a Mystery," "Hold On," "Possession" — her voice booming through the cavernous space, first low and earthy, then reaching its more delicate heights. She grins. Paula Cole arrives to run through a set she will perform, and the two women let out matching shrieks, then hug for a long time at the edge of the makeshift stage.

There is a laid-back air to the work day. Band and crew straggle from here to there, chatting during the downtime, then quietly getting to work when duty calls. What is striking is that it all seems so easy. Asked about the biggest difference in her life today, McLachlan says simply, "sense of self." Asked about the biggest difference in her music, she repeats: "sense of self." She smiles.

McLachlan finishes her own songs, then bides her time until she will rehearse a duet with Cole. Her band members all sneak away quickly, off to the surprise party that will take place in less than an hour.

"I feel incredibly loved and incredibly lucky," says McLachlan, assessing her arrival into what her dad keeps reminding her is her fourth decade. "I have an amazing husband, which sometimes baffles me, but he loves me to pieces. It fucking blows my mind. I always felt sort of like I deserved it, but I wasn't sure. It's that Prince Charming thing, that person to sweep you off your feet and make you feel like the best person in the world." McLachlan strolls back to the stage for the last of her work. A car sits outside, and Sood waits excitedly for McLachlan to finish dueting with Cole so he can transport her. To the surprise party — another night, another chance for Sarah McLachlan to score the elusive drug of affirmation.