The wary waif

Sarah McLachlan was recently described by the New York Times as “a touchstone for the mystical young women who drape scarves over lamps but consider themselves too cool to listen to the New Age diva Enya.”

A fair (if smug) assessment? Well, McLachlan concerts do tend to bring out hordes of rapturous teenage girls in long, flowing dresses. (McLachlan herself has expressed surprise at her appeal for this audience, saying about one typical show, “The number of teenage girls [was] unbelievable — probably about 80 percent girls under the age of 19.”) And, with wispy love hymns like “Sweet Surrender” (from her latest CD, Surfacing (Arista, 1997)) and a tenderly beautiful, doe-eyed face that begs to be photographed in forest settings, it’s tempting to peg the Nova Scotia native as some sort of transcendental woodlands creature — to call her a waif with a lavishly pretty soprano voice who embodies the ethereal “feminine,” and leave it at that.

But this is also a woman who — in response to a Billboard magazine writer’s question on the eve of the release of her American breakthrough, platinum CD, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (Arista, 1994) — snarled, “I’m 25 years old. … So what the f••k would I know about life?”

A woman who told another interviewer, “Depression is really a tangible emotion that you can sink your teeth into. There are lots of words to describe it and lots of meaty stuff to whine about.”

A woman who, speaking of a past relationship with her former keyboard player and her recent marriage to her drummer, Ash Sood, said, “Oh, yeah, I’m such a slut. But who else is there? You’re on the road for two years — what do you do? Shag groupies?”

And a woman who, in addition to legions of young girls, has attracted an inordinate number of often disturbed male fans, who elaborate in endless letters about their sometimes violent sexual fantasies about her. One such fan committed suicide, presumably because of his obsession with McLachlan.

In fact, she went on to pen a song — “Possession” (from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy) — written from the perspective of an obsessed fan. And she later told Mondo 2000 magazine that writing this lushly edgy song with its frankly sexual and hypnotic hip-hop beat “appeased me. It was just sort of a sicko fantasy in my brain.” When asked if the song didn’t eroticize violence, McLachlan replied, “I think we all have that kind of violent streak in us somewhere, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.”

What McLachlan does choose to acknowledge is that any misconceptions about who she is — as a musician and as a woman — are wrapped up both in marketing and in her own reluctance to reveal her true self. “For the first two or three years of my career,” she told Rolling Stone, “I was constantly billed as a wispy waif. Maybe it was the nice soft dresses and the soft focus. It really stayed with me for a while. [Then], almost to the point of being reactionary, I tried to be gross.”

The real Sarah McLachlan, of course, lies somewhere between angel and hellion, in a space her public will never quite be allowed to enter. As she once put it, “A lot of [my relationship with audiences] has to do with revealing some things, but not everything. I want to keep some parts secret. Often, I’ll put on another character and say things, but under the guise of somebody else. I can always go back and say that it wasn’t me.”

McLachlan’s music mirrors her hide-and-seek, masked persona. Even what appear to be the most intimate, confessional love ballads are not necessarily all that personal. Witness “Do What You Have to Do” from Surfacing, in which she sings: “I have the sense to recognize/That I don’t know how to let you go/Every moment marked with apparitions of your soul.”

Sounds like she’s baring her soul, doesn’t it? But here’s what she says about her writing: “I have this huge separation between me and my music even though, when I’m writing it, it’s very personal,” McLachlan told a journalist. “It’s almost like I’m two people, or three, or five people. In one verse I’m talking about me, and in another verse I’m talking about someone else. But because I’m talking in the first person, it always seems like me. Half of the experiences in the songs aren’t mine. They’re me putting myself in other people’s shoes. … And then there’s creative license, too. A lot of it is pure fiction.”

McLachlan directly explores this process of creating personal “fictions” in “Building a Mystery,” also from Surfacing. “The song … is about people trying to create really interesting facades for themselves,” she explained to one music critic. “It’s about that, on a deep level — but also, on a light level, it’s a playful song [about] beautiful, f••cked-up people. It’s about me. About all my friends.”

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1968, McLachlan began studying classical guitar, piano and voice as a small child. Discovered fronting a New Wave band in a small club at the age of 17 by the then-fledgling, Vancouver-based Nettwerk Records, only the reluctance of McLachlan’s parents kept her from signing with the company for two more years. Her first album, Touch, released in 1988, went gold in Canada thanks to underground favorites like “Vox” and “Steaming,” and a dedicated fan base was born. Solace (Nettwerk) followed in 1991, featuring hits like “Drawn To the Rhythm” and “Into the Fire” — songs that moved McLachlan solidly into the Canadian mainstream, with ripples spilling over into America.

But it was 1994’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and the power of songs like “Hold On,” “Good Enough” and “Possession” that brought McLachlan success with a capital S (the CD to date has sold 5 million copies) and planted her firmly in the American — and international — consciousness. Ironically, the songs from that slickest, most commercial of her works to date were created in a cabin in the woods under what McLachlan describes as the harshest of circumstances. “It was winter, about minus 35 degrees Celsius every day,” she reported. “It was just hellishly cold, and I regressed to animal form. I went a little nuts.”

And after Fumbling, despite its double-platinum success, McLachlan took a creative nosedive. Burned out from two solid years of touring and the pressures of her newfound fame, she suffered serious writer’s block. “I thought Fumbling was my swan song,” she confided last year. “The voice in my head was saying, ‘Quit while you’re ahead, ’cause the stuff you’re putting out now sucks.’ She spent eight or nine months in agony. “I didn’t know who the hell I was,” she told a reporter. “It was victimizing and horrible.”

McLachlan eventually rallied, though, resulting in two milestones: Surfacing and a starring role in last summer’s Lillith Fair tour. Surfacing is a lush, atmospheric CD that combines often dark and haunting (but still somehow catchy) melodies with instrumentation — including McLachlan on both guitar and piano — that’s just sparse enough to showcase her voice: gorgeously earthy, impossibly clear, saturated with yearning. And Lillith Fair, a 35-city road show, featured more than 70 female artists along the way, including Paula Cole, the Indigo Girls, Fiona Apple, Tracy Chapman, Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega. The tour outsold such mega, male-oriented traveling rock shows as Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. and proved once and for all, despite the initial skepticism of even Lillith Fair organizers, that putting women back-to-back on the same bill works.

What’s next for this enigmatic diva? Well, right now the newly married McLachlan says she’s a little too happy to write music. “I’m so Zen-ed out and content, I have nothing to write about,” she reported recently. “I haven’t yet found a place to write from about happiness. I’m not sure if happiness is supposed to be written about. It’s something untouchable and intangible for me, this beautiful thing, that trying to describe it would belittle it or would taint it.”

But McLachlan’s fans shouldn’t worry too much. “Bottom line is you can almost count on some crazy thing happening in your life,” she told Mondo 2000. “I’m sure something will happen that will rock my world, that will be less than rosy. ‘Cause there’s a lot of s••t out there, that’s for sure.”

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