Sarah McLachlan returned this spring with Shine On, her first new studio album in four years and a return to her atmospheric musical roots. The new set debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200 with first week sales of 42,000 units, and she is currently close to wrapping up an American tour in support of the release. I spoke to her in early May for Grammy.com, and there was some extra material that was compelling in its own right and has made its way to A.D.D. Here we discuss the short-lived resurrection of Lilith Fair, the listening habits of her two daughters, and the current state of feminism.
You’ve always been interested in cultivating younger artists. Lilith Fair had a lot of newer artists mixed in with the established ones. I know that you briefly resurrected in 2010 and that it didn’t do well. What lessons did you learn from that, and has it inspired any new ideas for another kind of festival in the near future?
It was a huge endeavor the first time around, and I think rolling it out the second time we didn’t do our due diligence as far as how the market had changed and how our fans who had gone to the first one had changed. They now had children and jobs, and it wasn’t so easy for them to shell out all that money to spend a whole day in the hot sun watching bands. It’s a harder sell. It better be damn good. We had a real hard time with it, and to me it was a bit of a failure, which is very sad. I didn’t want the legacy of Lilith, which I think is really important, to be marred, but you live and learn. We went away, licked our wounds. I’m very forward thinking. I don’t tend to spend too much time thinking, I wish I hadn’t done that. You’ve got to learn from it and go, How would I do that differently? I think if we ever did Lilith again — I’m not saying I’m going to because I can’t even imagine that right now — but if I did think it would be a destination. We would probably do a weekend and have a big thing in one place. I’m not saying we’re doing that — don’t get excited!
I remember when I saw you twice on the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy tour back in the mid-’90s, you made a point on stage of mentioning how the industry had a hard time dealing with the concept of two female artist touring together. That night in Boston, Paula Cole opened up for you prior to recording her hit album. How much have you seen that attitude change since then?
I do think that we really turned those antiquated attitudes around. Do I think they still exist? Yeah. We did prove that you can put two women on the same bill, [and] you can play two women back-to-back on the radio and people won’t change the channel. Bottom line is it comes down to the quality of music. Maybe I’m terribly idealistic, but I do believe that. Music is really cyclical too. It goes back and forth. What I like to see these days is there’s a lot of great music being made by men that is more heartfelt and — Christ, I hate these words now — authentic. It’s such a freaking marketing phrase now.
It’s like DIY was in the ’90s. I hated that term.
Yeah, exactly. It’s been sullied. A truly good word has been sullied. I’ve been in such a bubble too, making my own record, that I’m a terrible person to ask these days about the state of the music industry. I’m babystepping my way back into it and trying to figure out what’s happening. I’ve chosen to be on a record label because it seemed too daunting to do it myself quite yet, so I’ve gone that route and I’m working with Verve, which is a new label and so far so good. They’re lovely people.
Are there any younger artists you admire right now?
I love Adele, I think she’s fantastic. Lorde is really talented, and I think she’s got a really good head on her shoulders, from the few things I’ve read about her.
“I’m blessed in that I’ve literally almost never been A&R-ed. I just make the kind of music that I want to make because it feels good. It’s very instinctive.”
She’s like a new Bjork in terms of her attitude and not caring what people think.
Yes. Well, she’s a Kiwi. They’re kind of like Nova Scotians.
In what way?
Kind of salt of the earth, and don’t go thinking that you’re different than everybody else or any more special than anybody else. It’s a very Nova Scotian thing. It’s not demeaning, it’s more like we’re all the same here, we’re all equal. It’s a really solid, simple moral code, and I find a lot of similarities with Kiwis.
What are your daughters listening to, and is it driving you up a wall?
[laughs] Thankfully they love Lorde, and I also force them to listen to Tom Waits and the Beatles. They’ve got a pretty good cross-section of stuff. At the risk of sounding like anybody else in the world, Pharrell Williams. I love that song “Happy”. Funnily enough, I’m not sick of it yet, and every time it comes I want to jump up and down, it’s ridiculous.
I feel bad for teenage girls today. Thanks to the Instagram/selfie world and the Miley Cyrus/twerking world, it feels like feminism has taken a turn back.
I absolutely agree with you, and I think there is a complacency that the work has been done and there is no need for feminism anymore. We’re just going to do the same stuff we’ve been doing for centuries. You think you’re doing it because you want to do it, but you’re really doing it because that’s what we’ve been programmed to do for centuries. I think it’s very dangerous for women to get complacent about where feminism is at because there is still huge inequality in the workforce. It’s a very slippery slope where at any moment our rights for sexual freedom or for childrearing can be taken away from us. We wouldn’t be able to get abortions anymore. All these things are still very tenuous.
You have explored different styles of music throughout your career. Is there any style that you would really like to try either in a single or on an album?
No. Not really. I’ve never had a yearning to be a country artist or never wanted to do a dance record or a rap record or anything. I do what I do. I’m blessed in that I’ve literally almost never been A&R-ed. I just make the kind of music that I want to make because it feels good. It’s very instinctive. The song and the mood dictates itself. I don’t feel unfulfilled in any way. I don’t feel like an opera record is waiting.
Not a musical or anything?
Well, you never know. A lot of the song ideas that I write are too schmaltzy for me. Maybe musicals. Who knows? That might be fun. I actually did a song for a King Kong musical. It’s touring Australia, and I think they’re going to try to bring it to Broadway. The song is called “What’s It Going To Take”. It’s a bonus track [on the deluxe edition].