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A genuine piece of Sarah McLachlan

Some real-life hard knocks led to "Laws of Illusion," the singer's most emotionally direct work in years. She is heading a revived Lilith this summer.

June 29, 2010|By Ann Powers, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — —

Warm sunlight streamed through the windows onto the gently stained wood floors of Sarah McLachlan's West Vancouver home on a recent Thursday morning. The lady of the house was in her kitchen, making truffles.

"Organic raw chocolate!" she enthused, pouring the confection into a mold. Later, after saying goodbye to her yoga partner and sharing a few choice hugs with her 3-year-old daughter, Taja, the singer-songwriter would pack those sweets in Tupperware and bring them downtown to a band rehearsal for her summer tour headlining the revived Lilith.

What a life. It almost felt like a setup, staged for a visiting reporter: the pop star as deeply fulfilled mom, surrounded by friends and family and the flowers in her lovely garden, with a recording studio in the guest house and three pianos scattered throughout the property for whenever inspiration strikes.

Yet this 42-year-old working mom has troubles others will recognize. Taja is an easy kid, but her older sister India is "challenging." Grandpa, who lives five minutes away, suffers from Parkinson's disease. Family demands are "the reason it takes so damn long" to make music, said the singer-songwriter, whose June 15 release "Laws of Illusion" is her first all-original album in seven years. Another imperfect reality has bought her more time alone: McLachlan recently split from her husband, Ashwin Sood, the longtime drummer in her band.

"There are not many benefits of separation," McLachlan said. "One small benefit is that my daughters go to Dad's a couple of days a week. And so there are those mornings when I wake up and have the place to myself."

McLachlan isn't much for complicated ruses or dark secrets. When she became a star in the 1990s, some faulted her for being the most facile member of a class of strong women artists that included thornier singer-songwriters such as Tori Amos and Polly Jean Harvey.

"That's the way I am in every element of my life. I'll talk to any stranger about everything. I'm not guarded," she said.

On "Laws of Illusion," McLachlan's lack of pretense serves her well. It's a vulnerable and clear-headed set, putting McLachlan in the company of Court Yard Hounds, Tracey Thorn and Erykah Badu, a vanguard of artists getting at the complexities of feminine adulthood.

"It's terribly pedestrian," said McLachlan of the life that's inspiring her current music. "There's nothing special about it. Half the bloody world is going through a divorce, more than that are having children. All of us have parents who are dying, or have died. It's just the life cycle."

McLachlan wrote "Laws of Illusion" with her longtime producer Pierre Marchand, but the mood that rules the album is not the swooning romanticism that made her 1990s albums so beloved. Instead, it has the sober-minded insight that comes after some hard knocks.

Even the sugar-poppy "Loving You Is Easy," about a post-marital romance that's over, was born of McLachlan's doubts. "I thought, I'm 40, and I've got two little kids," she said. "It doesn't matter how successful I am, how famous, how wealthy. I'm 40 and I've got two little kids! My friends all shook their heads and said, that's crazy talk. But I didn't feel that way. And it took a good while for me to come out from under that and feel good again."

I came up to Vancouver to find out how McLachlan had created the most emotionally direct music of her career, and why she and her partners at the Nettwerk Music Group were bringing back Lilith, a festival that made McLachlan a household name and greatly aided the rise of women in pop during the 1990s but whose purpose may not be so clear now, when female artists dominate the Top 40.

Talks with McLachlan and Nettwerk Music Group cofounder and Chief Executive Terry McBride revealed that a long road led up to Lilith's revival. For McBride, Lilith is a business opportunity that realizes several goals: doing work that's politically progressive; responding to the Internet's global reach; and making possible the work-life balance Nettwerk's flagship artist demands.

"Part of the conversation now with Sarah is, 'I can only tour in the summer because I'm not going to take away from my kids,' " said McBride in an interview at the Nettwerk offices in downtown Vancouver. "But you can't run a tour like that. Especially based in Vancouver. The only way to put Sarah in front of a whole pile of people in a short amount of time is Lilith."

McLachlan values the flexibility Lilith offers — if her dad's health declines, she could take a few dates off and other acts on the tour could take the final slot. But she's also eager to stress Lilith's ideal of female-centered community — not the end of men, but maybe a break from them. Equally important to her is the roving community Lilith creates. It's a realization of an approach to life that puts connections with other women, and the feeling of family, at the fore.

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