OF ALL the unforgettable details that transpired from the Monica Lewinski affair, the fact that the President listens to Sarah McLachlan is one of the few to reveal him as a sensitive soul. "When I was hiding out in your office for a half-hour", wrote Lewinsky in a letter to Clinton, "I noticed that you had the new Sarah McLachlan CD. I have it too, and it's wonderful... Song five is guaranteed to put me in tears when it comes to you." "It's funny more than anything," says McLachlan flatly. "I mean, God... how did I get myself involved with these two? I'm Canadian, I have nothing to do with it!" The involvement adds up to a piece of publicity the Spice Girls might have punched Mandela for.
McLachlan can afford to be blase. Her name may be unfamiliar in Britain, but worldwide she has sold 10 million albums. Surfacing (Arista), her fourth album, won two Grammys this year, and her brainchild, the Lilith Fair, a mammoth all-woman music roadshow (which she headlines), was so triumphantly successful it propelled her into Entertainment Weekly's Power 101. Accordingly, she wears head-to-toe Voyage, and we meet at the Dorchester, where US reps usher her away from my one puff of cigarette smoke.
Given how clean-living and savvy McLachlan is, her mother's misgivings about letting her join a band for fear of it leading to an overdose must have felt outrageous. She bakes, gardens, walks the dog, lights candles and fiddles with the Lilith Fair line-up on her computer every day. Thankfully, she's not as wispy as you might expect. "You wouldn't believe the video treatments," she says. "It's all me on some white stallion with long, flowing robes in a forest. Jesus Christ." After dating her keyboard player, she recently married her drummer. "After all, you can't sleep with the groupies."
McLachlan's first taste of music came when she was four; she memorised all her mother's Joan Baez records. Ukulele lessons were followed by years of studying classical piano, guitar and singing. Then she discovered Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, and fell in love with "taking the roots of melody to all these wild places". Now 30, her ship came in at 17 when the frail, persecuted schoolgirl and her band took the stage in Nova Scotia for the first time to cover Blondie and Cocteau Twins songs. "I remember it so clearly," she says sparkling. "There were 400 people all dancing and smiling. Mass acceptance all of a sudden." Such was her talent (not to mention luck) that she was spotted that night and later offered a five-album deal.
Like her Lilith Fair, where flowers are thrown instead of mud, McLachlan's sound stands in direct opposition to the raw attitude of rock'n'roll. What marks her out in the world of pretty, inoffensive (she has sung for the Pope), honest-to-the-end folk pop is the limpid, searing exquisiteness of her voice - a voice that moved Annie Lennox to run after her as she left the stage in Central Park and tell her she was brilliant. England now looks set to embrace her too - whenever Adia, her first UK single, is played on the radio, "the phones light up", she tells me coolly. Wondering about the smoking policy on her tour bus, I leave her amid the gold fittings, and light up in my own small way.