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Legendary women unite for Lilith Fair
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer

The Lilith lowdown

From 1997 to 1999, Lilith Fair was one of the highest grossing and most attention grabbing traveling music festivals across the globe. The brainchild of Sarah McLachlan didn’t just break down genre barriers and racial boundaries, but also gave women artists of all associations a massive platform, while simultaneously raising over ten million bucks for female-focused charities. Though it seemed like the history-making excursion was dead and buried long ago, the founding singer/songwriter recently teamed up with some music industry pals and has since promised a full-fledged 2010 revival.

“Every once in a while, I sit around and talk about Lilith with my partners, which are two managers and an agent, and [we remember] how it was really fun,” shares McLachlan, phoning in from Los Angeles just prior to the tour’s launch. “As opposed to saying ‘yeah, but it was way too much work and we can’t manage it’ because just the very thought of it was daunting, we were talking last year and saying ‘our kids are older and we could do something amazing with it and give it the energy and the time needed to make it really special.’ Instead of an unpleasant task, we looked at it as a fun challenge. We have an amazing group of new artists who were not there the last time and we’re also drawing on past artists who came the last time.”

The old school to new school split includes everyone from soul siren Mary J. Blige to classic rock legends Heart, indie innovator Cat Power, “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson, dance divas La Roux and alternative rock act Vedera, alongside tunesmiths like the headlining McLachlan, Kate Nash, Vita Chambers and Meaghan Smith. In addition to being the most diverse scope of artists Lilith’s hosted to date, it’s also shown just how far the festival has come in terms of earning cross-genre respect and all out mainstream awareness when compared to its burgeoning years.

“We certainly had to deal with the limitations of the fact that though we asked everybody of all different genres of music, we got who said ‘yes’ and we were limited to that,” relates McLachlan of the event’s typecast beginnings. “So the first year I know we were certainly dubbed ‘the white chick folk fest,’ which was upsetting to me because that’s not what I meant it to be nor what we were trying to do; it’s just we got the artists we got. With the success of every year, I think it got a little easier for different artists and genres to come on board. [At first] they were concerned about that stigma. ‘This is not going to be my audience. Why would I want to come on Lilith?’ So yeah, that was definitely a struggle, as far as dealing with negativity, but all I can say is we did the best job with the tools we had. I’m sure there’s going to be negativity this time around but I don’t pay much attention because I like to pay attention to the positive stuff.”

Regardless of reactions, there’s no denying Lilith’s past and present ability to expose massive amphitheatre audiences to a plethora of up and coming artists, plus possibly stretch music lovers outside their typical comfort zones and regular concert ticket purchases. McLachlan is especially committed to building a spirit of community on this year’s tour, which in light of all society’s changes since the last time through, is a long overdue goal.

“Certainly my own career was greatly advanced by Lilith and most of us got to play in front of more people than we would’ve on our own, but I think more importantly, there was a sense of community that was created, not only in us as musicians, but also the audience,” she recalls. “In bringing Lilith back, we need that even more in our society than we did 11 or 12 years ago with the onset of IM and Twitter and people living on their computers. People are spiraling so fast own in their own little universe that going out to a concert and being with a bunch of like-minded people who are all there for the same reason is quite powerful and it just doesn’t happen very much anymore.”

Of course, the summer wouldn’t be complete without a stop in the Chicago area, which includes a return to the tour’s old stomping grounds the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre (which for those scanning through their old ticket stubs mostly likely read “New World Music Theatre” at the time). Even though every artist seems to gush over the Windy City, Sarah seems especially sincere in her praises and hopes to hit some downtown hot spots if free time allows.

“I love your city, well, I have to say I don’t love it in February, but I’ve been there in spring and summer enough times,” she lets out with a laugh. “It’s a gorgeous city with beautiful architecture and I love being right on the lake. It was actually right on lake was where India, my oldest daughter, got her first bloody knee by all those outdoor terrace cafés and boardwalks, where she ran off the edge of a boardwalk and ripped her knee open. She was almost three at the time and that was her first bloody knee, so I figured we were doing pretty good!”

Sara’s struggles turn to smiles

For those keeping tabs on Sarah McLachlan’s personal life, it’s apparent that raising two children throughout the 2000s was a top priority, as evidenced by the lengthy break in between albums. To coincide with this year’s Lilith Fair, the tunesmith will turn in The Laws of Illusion (Arista), marking her first official offering since 2003’s Afterglow.

“Well it’s slowed things down considerably, and that’s just the way that things naturally happened,” she asserts of the decision to put family first. “I choose to have kids a little later and get my career going. I’ve had an amazing ride so far career wise and it’s enabled me to sort of take a step back and pretty much be a full time mom and pick and choose how much I want to be involved in music and how many shows I want to do, which is another reason it’s taken seven years in between records as well.

Even if that lengthy time frame felt interminable for core fans, McLachlan did maintain her public persona through a series of specialty projects. In 2005, she turned in Bloom: Remix Album, followed by 2006’s holiday-centered Wintersong, plus 2008’s pair of releases Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff Vol. 2 and Closer: The Best of Sarah McLachlan, though she’ll be the first to apologize for the delay in releasing a proper studio project.

“I’m sorry, but if I really thought about it chronologically, I’ve been pretty busy,” she reasons. “I toured for close to two years with Afterglow, because India was 18 months to three-and-a-half years old when we were on that tour with her. Then we went home, I took some time off and I got pregnant again [with Taja]. I remember being pregnant during an appearance for the Christmas album in Rockefeller Square and I was literally trying- I shouldn’t even be telling you this- to find a poinsettia to throw up in because I had such horrific morning sickness. I was thinking ‘great I’m on stage and there are people everywhere and I just want to throw up.’ Good times. I’m telling you all my horror stories here! But life gets busy and Taja’s almost three now, who’s running around naked in my garden as we speak. Like I said, I so appreciated and love the opportunity of being a mother and being present for all the fantastic moments. I remember her coming out of me and now she’s three and she’s so big. She’s getting heavy and it goes so quickly.”

In her spare time, the singer’s been putting pen to paper, turning in a dozen new tunes led by the joyful new single “Loving You Is Easy.” “It’s pretty much one of most poppy things I’ve ever done, and to a certain degree, it’s indicative of the new record,” reports McLachlan. “There’s sort of a new energy on it, but I’m terrible about talking about these kind of things. For one, I’m completely un-objective about these things. We finished mixing it at six in morning two nights ago [in mid-May] and it’s coming out June 15, so you can imagine it’s been down to the wire. All I can say is I’m really happy with it and really proud of it and I think it’s a musical footprint and musical journey of my life the past couple of years. It’s fairly autobiographical, as most of my songs and records are. Obviously there’s some creative license in there, but it’s pretty much the story of my head and heart and where I’ve gone in the past couple of years.”

Aside from raising children and releasing that series of specialty projects, it’s no secret that McLachlan separated from husband (and longtime drummer) Ashwin Sood in 2008. Even though there’s two years of distance between the incident, the topic is replete throughout The Laws of Illusion and her heart still sounds heavy when discussing the delicate subject.

“It’s about loss and denial- just look at the title,” she confides. “It’s so hard to even talk about it…Obviously it has a lot to do with the failure of my marriage, to put it bluntly, and there’s a great loss attached to that because I thought we’d be married forever. That was sort of a big check mark you check off in your life and think that’s settled and done. You build your whole reality around this path that you’re following that all of a sudden isn’t there anymore and you have to redefine yourself and reevaluate everything. Making this record is definitely a process of that, figuring out what was real and what wasn’t.”

Even with the heartache, there’s still plenty to celebrate in the McLachlan camp, from this comeback collection that could very well put her back atop the pop charts, plus a newly reinvigorated Lilith Fair that arguably boasts its most solid roster to date. Considering she first debuted in 1988, staying power is certainly in the performer’s corner, making it especially complicated to summarize a single career highlight.

“I guess it’s kind of nice that it’s hard to think of one because there’s been so many,” she sheepishly sums up with a humble inflection. “Well, the Order of Canada is pretty fabulous, the Cady Stanton award in New York and getting Grammys. I’m probably forgetting some big thing, and like I said, there have been so many amazing highlights and so many great opportunities, but it’s hard to pinpoint one. It’s also coming off a show, feeling like I’ve done the best I could and really connecting with everybody.”

Heart’s lasting legacy

When it comes to connecting with massive crowds, female rock luminaries Heart consistently captured that quality since the mid-1970s, making the sister duo comprised of Ann and Nancy Wilson the default mentor figures throughout this year’s Lilith line-up. Besides being the first ladies of arena rock, the pair shattered sales records notching up over 35 million albums, discs and downloads to date, all the while, evolving with the times while never loosing site of members’ artistic visions.

“We keep running into [artists we’ve influenced], and if you hang around long enough in the culture, that starts to happen and it’s great thing,” notices guitarist/singer/songwriter Nancy Wilson. “We’re seeing all these ten year olds in the audience and they’re not just our kids. There are teens and college age fans in the audience who are not being driven by their parents but coming own their own accord in groups. It’s really exciting, possibly due to “Guitar Hero” and “American Idol,” that people are remembering what the songs are and recognizing the music. The imprint of these songs has become part of their culture and it becomes the glue that bridges our [original] era and maybe translating a little further to the next era.”

That being said, Heart’s participation on this summer’s Lilith Fair isn’t just some victory lap comprised of the greatest hits, but a tour in support of its first new studio CD in six years Red Velvet Car (Legacy Recordings). The collection features the girls’ signature harmonies and guitars, plus a widely stretched arsenal of sounds including mandolin, dobro, banjo, fiddle, viola and cello (with the instrumental duties split between Nancy and producer Ben Mink).

“It’s as good as anything we did during the Dog and Butterfly and Bebe le Strange era,” she suggests. “But it’s also a completely updated Dog and Butterfly-era strength Heart music that’s very heavy and very rock, but also quite acoustic at the core of many songs.”

The band’s rootsy return on the new record is also causing members to reflect on its lauded history thus far, which practically influenced just about every female that falls under the rock n’ roll banner. Although endurance wasn’t a guarantee back in the day, Nancy had a hunch Heart would last for the long haul given the players’ personal principles.

“At the time when we started making albums and getting noticed, it felt like we totally breaking new ground because were coming out of an era of late ‘60s and ‘70s where everything was possible and the world was still waiting to be saved by music and poetry,” she remembers. “We always pushed for the poetic angle on rock that was greater than just relationship music. We were looking for a bigger piece of the sky with our songs and maybe that’s one of the reasons. There’s more substance for people to hang onto in their lives than just ‘baby, baby, baby.’”

Given that commitment to artistic merit over all out commercialism (aside from the group’s crossover to the pop charts in the ‘80s), Heart was never consumed by imaging, slickly packaged marketing or concentrating on any other variable besides rocking loud and proud. Nancy’s generally positive when reflecting on the current state of the scene, but has some reservations when it comes to society’s increasing demands on female artists.

“I think there’s amazing women in rock right now,” she enthuses. “Taylor Swift is amazing, who I guess is supposed to be country, but I think is an amazing pop artist. I think Pink and Lady Gaga are amazing and people like Mary J. There’s so much creative stuff going on that’s beautifully dressed in pop, but there’s more to it than meets the eye…I don’t want to date myself, but I think there is so much visual stimulation that you can hardly hear the music with Pink and Lady Gaga. There are so many fashion statements and so much sensationalism, which can be really fun culturally, plus eye catching and ear catching. But these days you have to be a pole dancer or a contortionist or a member Cirque du Soleil as well as a pop star, singer and make-up artist. I still wish it was just more about the music and people’s attention spans had not been relocated into such small dimensions.”

Even with the paparazzi presence at an all time high, Nancy also notices a return to stylistic diversity, whether that be on what’s left of the radio, the general concert circuit or the Lilith Fair. “In the late ‘60s and ‘70s when we grew up, there was everything from Glen Campbell to Ray Charles to The Beatles to The Rolling Stones going on radio and the net was cast really wide for influences,” she reminiscences. “And now that’s more what these Lilith shows are like, which is a much wider range of things. There may have been some burnout from the original Lilith era of a lot of singer/songwriters, but it’s opening up to a broader more diverse canvas of colors, sounds and ideology.”

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