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Ringmaster Sarah McLachlan brings her fem-centric Lilith Fair back to town.

By Randy Matin

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Sarah McLachlan doesn't need to go any farther than her hotel room nowadays to smell the flowers. A fresh bouquet has just arrived at her hotel room in George, Wash. "My goodness look at those flowers! McLachlan squeals with delight. They're the big, stinky lilies from the promoter."

The flowers are just a portion of the spoils this Halifax-born and Vancouver-reared singer/songwriter/classically trained pianist and guitarist has earned since turning the concert industry on its ear last summer with her groundbreaking, 35-city, all female Lilith Fair tour.

Earlier this year, McLachlan also picked up Grammys for Best Female Vocal ("Building a Mystery") and Best Instrumental Performance ("Last Dance"), both from her latest Nettwerk/Arista release Surfacing. This comes on top of the quintuple-platinum sales of her '94 release Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Boosted by Lilith momentum, the winners' list from this year's Grammy awards features several Lilith charter members. "Everybody I wanted to win won...," McLachlan smiles.

For those who missed Lilith 1, McLachlan, who grew up in a scientific home in the big city environs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, issued a live, 24-track compilation of it in April on her own, Tyde/Arista record label. "It's all crammed onto one CD with lots of main stage and lots of 'B' stage acts. We recorded everybody," McLachlan says. "I thought most nights [on the tour] were really happening, until I heard the tapes."

The easy part was choosing her own contribution from 10 live variations of "Building a Mystery" drawn from a performance she remembers, but a city she can't place. "I have no idea. I live in a bubble," McLachlan says. "I don't have any kind of a memory for names and places. I'm a musician. That's what I'm good at." Getting clearances to use the traditional folk ballad "Water Is Wide," on which McLachlan appears with the Indigo Girls and others, however, is proving to be a thornier affair. "It's an absolute, un-fucking-believable nightmare," an exasperated McLachlan says. "The artists are the easiest ones to reach. It's dealing with all the egos of record companies who don't want to release their artists to anybody else's label, and management, and the agents."

Turning her attention elsewhere, McLachlan is now comfortably back in her mogul seat with the second edition of Lilith Fair. Part of an expanded 48-city run, Lilith arrives August 1 at Coca-Cola Starplex and features McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Liz Phair, Lucinda Williams, Diana King, Ebba Forsberg and others.

With so many things on her plate, one might expect Surfacing to be a turbulent, up-tempo affair. But, if anything, the album exudes an even more languid posture than Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Suffering from writer's block, McLachlan spent some time adding piano, guitar and backing vocals to Gone, a (Canada only) solo album from Blue Rodeo's Greg Keeler when she broke through with the visceral anti-heroin plea "Angel."

"Angel" in hand, McLachlan entered the studio with only fragments of three songs, relying on her muse, bass player Jim Creeggan (on loan from the Barenaked Ladies), and the inspiration of Montreal-based producer Pierre Marchand to complete the project. "The only thing we set out to do was try and make a record that was a little more simple," McLachlan, who finds the recording process to be "slow and neurotic," explains. "If you are going to say something in a song, be direct. I think I achieved that on a few songs."

The 30-year-old McLachlan says she is "comfortable in my own skin. I feel very proud of what I have accomplished so far in my life. I feel very settled." Adding to that security is a new romance and marriage to her drummer of eight years, Ashwin Sood. Still, as settled and successful as she may be, McLachlan nearly regurgitates at the notion that she might go into the business of renting tour buses, as one of Reba McEntire's companies does, or opening a theme park to rival Dollywood. "Actually my dad wants me to open a tea room like [Canadian folkie] Rita McNeil's got in rural Nova Scotia," McLachlan says. "But for me, I'm just happy that we changed the silly old rules of an industry that said people wouldn't buy a ticket to see two female artists on the same bill. We really blew that shit out of the water, didn't we?"


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