The Cabin Of Solitude

The following transcript is from "Girls and Guitars", a series on BBC Radio 2 which interviewed North American female artists. This Sarah McLachlan interview was the last in the series of six, and was first broadcast in January 1999.

[Angel, fades to background]

Mindy:

Welcome to the final program in the series "Girls and Guitars". I'm Mindy McCready. The series has been a celebration of the new generation of female artists across North America, and tonight we focus on a woman who has done more than most to place us on an evener footing in the world of music. Sarah McLachlan is the founder of Lilith Fair, the all-women tour which has rocked its way across the States for two years. If female performers were beginning to get recognition, it was Sarah's vision that helped our profiles rise even higher. A Grammy-winning artist in her own right, Sarah was, like most of us, brought up in a nurturing and supportive family.

Sarah:

Sarah on acoustic guitar I started playing ukulele when I was four years old, pretty much because I was in love with Joan Baez. My mother was really into folk music and that was the kind of stuff that she was playing, and so that's what I was introduced to. You know - Joan Baez, Cat Stephens, Simon and Garfunkel - a lot of old, traditional folk music and I fell in love with it, and so I got a ukulele and started taking ukulele lessons, and then moved onto acoustic guitar when I was big enough to hold on to one, and...just...y'know, I always loved music. I took lots of lessons - I took piano lessons and voice lessons as I got older as well, and more than anything it was to learn how to play the instrument though. The only thing that was available to be taught at the time was Classical music, and I enjoyed it to a certain degree but it certainly wasn't my passion.

[Angel fades in]

Mindy:

Sarah graduated from High School and spent a year at Arts School, but it was plainly apparent that music was something she had to pursue.

Sarah:

When I was seventeen I joined a band called "The October Game" in Halifax, Nova Scotia where I'm from, and it was a Sunday a week kind of thing where I was allowed to go out and rehearse with these guys, and we had three gigs in the history of our existence, and the first gig was opening up for a Vancouver-based band called "Moev", and they were...essentially Nettwerk Records started to support this band, and the guy who was a guitar player at the time, he heard me sing and wanted me to join his band. My mother and father had a fit because I was barely getting through High School and they wanted me to finish High School and go to University and get a normal job - music was a very fun hobby, a nice diversion but not something to be taken seriously like that, and of course it was my dream so I was so angry that they wouldn't let me go, but in retrospect it was a really good thing because I've continued on...the band sort of fell apart, everybody was going to University, didn't have any money or any time to stick together, but I continued making music and they approached me two years later - Nettwerk Records - and offered me a five-record deal based on...really on that one show where they heard me sing, and I said to them "Well, I've never really written a complete song in my life before - are you sure you want to do this?" And they said "Well, yeah, just come out Vancouver, we'll give you an eight-track and see what happens." I'm really, really lucky - I was in the right place at the right time and I got this handed to me on a silver platter - and obviously I had to have had enough talent to sustain it and keep it going, but I was incredibly lucky.

[Adia, fades to background]

Mindy:

The record contract meant Sarah had to start taking her writing seriously for the first time, and that was a little daunting - but very exciting - for her.

Sarah:

Basically when I got the record contract offered to me I'd always found great joy and solace in music, and I was perfectly happy doing other people's music - at the same time I'd always been writing little bits of things but I'd never had the discipline to sit down and write a whole song; I'd never felt there'd been any reason for it. The contract was like, "Okay, you're supposed to write a record, I guess I'd better get to work". And I really had no clue what I was doing - it was just trial and error. I'd been rehearsing for this my whole life, and...I dunno...at nineteen I didn't have any fear - I don't remember having any fear anyway, it was just terribly exciting - and the thrill of my life, and my dream come true. So I just threw myself into it and...granted, certainly I had a lot of fun hanging around Vancouver and exploring, and I didn't work as hard as I probably should have - but that's mainly because I was following my instinct and I felt that these things had to come out naturally - and it's the same way I've always worked and it's ended up usually taking me a year and a half to make a record.

[Sweet Surrender, fades to background]

Mindy:

Sarah's music has evolved over the years from Classical to Folk to Pop, but her lyrics have always remained openly confessional and have often been painful to write.

Sarah:

Sarah playing live at Lilith Fair This, I think...one of the main reasons it takes so long for me to write a song or to finish it is because a lot of it is very therapeutic and cathartic, a lot of it is me sorting through my own stuff - working through issues or...and trying to do it in a creative and artistic form too, and not just "Here's my journal entry of Wednesday 1997". It's trying to make it interesting and trying to give it levels and it is difficult because you're mining your soul basically - that sounds kind of corny but you're trying to come up with answers and I think music for me has been such a form of expression, of personal expression and of finding truths, whether it's about myself or about other issues - so it is very personal, and it's brought up a lot of really harsh things that I haven't necessarily wanted to face. It's like going and talking to a therapist - which helps a lot too - [laughs].

[I Love You, fades to background]

Mindy:

For Sarah, as founder of Lilith Fair it was important to acknowledge that there has been a wealth of female talent in the US for some time. Most of us have been struggling against outdated, sexist attitudes in the music industry, and Lilith has been an effective tool in helping people to realize that we are worth listening to. Sarah thinks a number of factors have contributed to the rise of women in music.

Sarah:

Well I think it's a ground-roots revolution, I think there's been a lot of amazing women writing great songs for years and years - I just think that there's been a lot of things. The state of radio has really evolved and grown over the past five or six years, there's a lot of new formats that have opened up which have allowed a lot of female artists who have in the past fallen through the cracks - it's given them a place in music, which of course it just creates more genres and more pigeon-holing really: it's like, oh, "You fit on triple A" or "You fit on Modern Rock" or "You fit on AC". I can't keep up with all the different formats. It is still...they have a narrow attitude towards music but it has gotten better, and I think...some people say it's a reaction to the Grunge movement, where it was very male dominated, very hard, very angry music - here I am pigeon-holing myself essentially because I'm saying we're a reaction to that and I think it's a lot broader than that, but I think one of the reasons, perhaps, it's taken such a strong hold is that things always move to the left, to the right, and I think people want something different, want something that appeals to their senses and appeals to their souls and can draw something out from them, and I think a lot of...certainly the music I do is, like I said, therapeutic, and a lot of the music that I love and respect does the same thing - it draws you into yourself and it challenges you in some way - you know, it's not just fluff.

[Do What I Have To Do, fades to background]

Mindy:

Radio programming has played a bit part in keeping us out of the limelight, but Sarah feels promoters of live events have also been responsible.

Sarah:

Sarah playing acoustic guitar live One of the really positive elements of all these new formats is that they've opened up a huge new window for women artists, which is again, I guess...well, five or six years ago when I started taking singles to radio they would say "Well we can't add this, we added Tori this week" or something, which was just completely ridiculous to say our music, "Okay, so you're saying our music sounds like...so...or what?". It's like, "No, you're two women, we can't play two women back-to-back". It's incredibly insulting. And incredibly sexist, but it came out of their mouth like, "Well, there's nothing wrong with this" - you know, people have gotten trained into this position in radio where these Old School attitudes prevail, and they didn't even realize how sexist and how antiquated they were. And so we're all fighting that and the whole ridiculous thing about when we tried to put this festival together how so many people were saying "Oh, you can't put two women on the same bill - you're crazy to put a whole bunch of women on the same bill" - no-one would believe that it could be done, and this just seemed absolutely ridiculous to me, and of course I'm really up for any kind of challenge like that - you're gonna tell me I can't do it, I'm gonna force it through even more - it just seems like ridiculous.

[Witness, fades to background]

Mindy:

Outdated attitudes, and a strong need to celebrate the broad range of female talent in the US led Sarah to setting up Lilith Fair. But it was also born out of a sense of fun.

Sarah:

You know I...in all the hype of it I sort of forgot where it really started from. I was supposed to be writing my next record, I was supposed to be writing "Surfacing". I had quite a block, and my manager suggested "Why don't you do a few shows in the summer, just to get your creative juices flowing?", and I said "Well, okay, if I'm gonna do some shows I want it to be fun, I don't want the shows to be all on my shoulders - so how about we get a bunch of women artists to come and play us some shows?". And we did four, and they were wildly successful, and so we thought, well hell, let's do this next summer - do the whole summer - and thus Lilith was born, and it just...it came more from the idea of "Let's have some fun" - let's create a platform where I can actually sit and chat with somebody who I have great respect for, as opposed to seeing them at award shows and being able to maybe say 'Hi' to them. It's just so great to get to meet these people, to meet your peers, to get to know them, to get to sing with them - there's been tonnes of that, which is just brilliant - Emmylou Harris was singing "Angel" with me every night, one of the songs on my records which was just a huge thrill for me. And Paula Cole sings with me every night, I sing with N'Dea and...it's great, it's just that there's so much jamming and my husband, he's a drummer and of course he's in everybody's band - he's such a tramp!

[Last Dance, fades to background]

Mindy:

So now that Lilith Fair has proved itself, grossing sixteen-and-a-half million dollars in the first year, do those promoters who wouldn't back Sarah wish they had, or does the sceptisism still remain?

Sarah:

It's hard for me to know completely because I sort of get it filtered down through my management, you know no-one said to me you can't do it - of course they do, they say "Oh, that's a really nice idea", then they go to my manager and say, "What is she crazy?! You can't do that". - [laughs] - Most of the opposition came from promoters that we didn't have a prior relationship with. I've been touring in this country for ten years, and gotten some really great relationships, built up with people so, for the most part, that was an easy sell - it was just, you know, the people in the markets that we didn't know. And certainly there was grumblings in the higher echelons of the music world, saying "Are you crazy? You're gonna get killed out there!" - 'cause summer festivals were having a really difficult time.

[Full Of Grace, fades to background]

Mindy:

Sarah is also honest about how much Lilith Fair has done in terms of bringing each performer to a new audience, and how that in turn has raised profiles higher still.

Sarah:

Sarah McLachlan playing piano live I can speak only on my own behalf, but I can't play in front of twenty thousand people on my own - but together we can and we're all getting new audiences this way, whether it's from the main stage acts to the folks who are playing on the Village or the B-stage, you know we're all broadening our audience by doing this, which I think is really positive, and because every night...I mean you'll have a Hip-Hop artist, you'll have a Folk artist, you'll have a Pop artist, you'll have R&B, you'll have...just all sorts of different stuff - you'll have something really hard...but the cool thing is that the audiences, they listen to everything and are respectful of everything, which is really nice - you know it's not completely and utterly obvious they've come to see one person - it's like they come early, everybody shows up early and they spend the whole day and they go to all the stages. I have so many different influences from so many walks of life and different kinds of music that I hate to get called "Folk Pop" or "Pop" or whatever, you know? It's like, yes, I mean I write popular music - I do now 'cause it's getting played on the radio finally - [laughs] - I guess that's what Pop music means, doesn't it? But for a long time I was "Alternative", because I didn't fit into any nice little...genre, and I'd rather not - you know, I'd rather keep surprising people and keep doing something different, you know? Taking the music to different levels and different places.

[Black & White, fades to background]

Mindy:

Now that Lilith has firmly established itself in the US, Sarah is planning to bring the tour to the UK. Many of the artists featured in this series are still new to Britain, but this year you'll get a chance to see them for yourselves.

Sarah:

Well, we're hoping to have a full-on Lilith Fair next year. We did the show at the Royal Albert Hall, which was brilliant, fantastic and hope to do a...you know, we're going to do probably six or seven weeks in North America again next summer, then bring it to the UK and hopefully the rest of Europe grumbling.

[Building A Mystery, Mindy talks over]

Mindy:

This was the last program in the series of "Girls and Guitars". I'm Mindy McCready, thank you for listening.


The Cabin
Back to the Cabin's coffee table


Richie, the keeper of the Cabin, may be contacted here:
sarah_fan@musicplace.screaming.net

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