By Alison Powell, Interview, July 1997
Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman take their hammers to the knotty question: Why a women’s festival?
When Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Skoal, and other summer music tours started turning into macho mosh pits. lyrical Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan felt it was time for an alternative to the so-called alternative. Her brainchild, the Lilith Fair, which begins this month, is an all-female affair of good music and good vibes. It is not, however, a travelling girl’s ghetto. Since we live in a time when pop democracy makes it possible for both sexes to create music that is either tremendous or horrendous, gathering the best women naturally also meant netting many of the most important performers, period. The lineup so far: Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, the Cardigans, the Indigo Girls, Suzanne Vega, Paula Cole, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, and Emmylou Harris. Here concert organizer McLachlan talks from Vancouver with one of Lilith’s troubadours, Tracy Chapman, who is in New York City a couple of months before the fair’s opening date. Though they speak across a three-hour time difference, it feels like early morning to both of them. Interview’s Alison Powell places the wake-up call.
SARAH MCLACHLAN: Tracy! How are you doing?
TRACY CHAPMAN: Oh, pretty good.
SM: So, what’s going on for you this week?
TC: Well, I’m in New York recording, and I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. What about you?
SM: I’ve been in the studio working on my new record.
SM: We’re almost done, and I had a wedding reception – mine – to come home to this week.
TC: Congratulations! When does your record come out?
SM: If all goes well, around the fifteenth of July. And then of course there’s the Lilith tour. You know, I haven’t been this excited in a long time. I’m so happy you said yes to coming along.
TC: Well, it sounded like such a great Idea when you mentioned it to me.
ALISON POWELL: When was that?
SM: I met Tracy for the lust time at Christmas. I’m pretty shy, but I just bowled into her dressing room and said. “Hey, how ya doin’? What’re you up to this summer?”
TC: You didn’t seem shy at alii
SM: I think I kind of freaked you out. I’m sorry, I was a little over the top. I was nervous to talk to you ’cause I’m no good at selling myself. Gosh, it’s so bloody early in the morning.
TC: How early is it for you?
SM: It’s nine.
TC: That is early. It’s noon for me In New York, and even that seems early.
AP: How about this for a wake-up question: If the established tours, like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E, hadn’t become so masculine in recent times, do you still think there would be a Lilith?
SM: Oh, definitely. Lilith Fair was only slightly begun for reactionary masons. I think it’s been coming for a long time. In fact it’s odd to have to put this out as something new and different – Tracy, I think you’ll understand this. People ask, “So what do you think about this new fad of women in music?” And I think, What do you mean, fad? Have women never made music before?
AP: I think what people noticed was that there were suddenly a lot of women clustered at the top of the charts.
TC: The chart position Is what makes R.
AP: Tracy, you were a part of that.
TC: Yeah. But I think I know where Sarah was going with what she was saying. Of course women throughout history have always been making music, and crossing genres too, but it’s only in recent years that the press has made it seem as if these movements are moments in time when women are somehow becoming more popular, or in some cases dominating the Industry, which of course is far from the reality. But there are more opportunities out there right now for women who write their own songs and play on their own records.
SM: Yeah. If we had tried to put together a women’s music festival like this five years ago, the promoters would’ve laughed at us. Now they’re so excited about all these women – it’s nice to see that some things can turn around quite quickly. Who knows why? I guess people just had a desire to hear something different, and women were offering it.
AP: But Sarah, that was hardly still the early days of the women’s movement.
SM: Which is pretty sad.
TC: Yes, but even though I think all women owe something to the women’s movement – the right to vote, to own property, and to have control over our bodies and lives – the music made by the women who are part of this tour doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with politics. The position we are in also has a lot to do with the pace of music – a lot has happened In It.
SM: The curious thing about all this is that the idea for Lilith came from a humble idea, which was: Wow, wouldn’t it be fun to get together with a bunch of women I love and admire and have a tour? I never get to see anybody play live, so it’s really a selfish act.
TC: I was thinking that too. I haven’t seen a lot of the women who’ll be playing on the tour. It reminds me of when I did the Amnesty International shows. I’d never seen Pater Gabriel or Bruce Springsteen or Sting play live, so as much as I was a participant I also felt like a fan, and I feel the same way about Lilith: It’s a free concert every night.
SM: Yeah, that’s the prime motivator for me. Then along came all these huge feminist undercurrents, which of course are going to exist. But like Tracy said, the important thing to focus on is the incredible diversity of music that’s happening.
AP: Do you think Lilith Fair will test how well people can set aside their views on how what’s happening onstage is related to sex?
SM: Well, women are women.
TC: You can’t completely Ignore it.
SM: That’s a huge part of who we are.
TC: Right, and what we write about.
SM: That’s our perspective.
TC: And how we’re positioned In the music industry.
SM: And the world. I appreciate what you said, Tracy, about the fact that this didn’t start five or ten years ago. A lot of young women today don’t realize that eighty years ago we couldn’t vote. We’ve got it relatively easy compared to back then, so we really have to pay homage to those women, and remember them in all of this too.
AP: There’s also a generation of women who didn’t go to high school at a time when it was considered rebellious to pick up a guitar. There are different role models now.
SM: I had Pat Benatar.
TC: Right, and Joan Jett, those were the rockers. And Chrissie Hynde Is from Ohio, like me. There’s Heart, too, and Patti Smith and Blondie. Women were definitely out there being successful. So maybe, like you were saying, the only reason why women seem to be so strong now is the chart positions and the number of women artists being played on the radio.
SM: When we’re talking about Lilith, most interviewers ask, “Why do you think there are so many women happening now?”
TC: That’s why I would say we’re just talking about music and what people want. Audiences listen to the radio stations that play the records they like. it’s not about whether it’s a woman or a man singing. It’s Just a matter of “Hey, I like that song.”
SM: Exactly. It’s not that women have completely dominated the charts. I hate to use the word, but there’s a little more “equality” now.
TC: One thing I’ve never really liked is categorizing “women’s music,” or even “women’s culture.” I think there’s so much diversity In the world that even if you’re talking about people who have some commonality, a term like that can never fully describe what something or someone is. So I think in the case of Lilith Fair, the only real link is that we’re all musicians.
AP: I would guess the women on the bill are people who would hate to be lumped together just because they’re women. How have you dealt with that?
SM: I just love women. It just so happens that a lot of the songwriters and performers and musicians I like right now are women – and again, the tour was put together for selfish reasons. I never get to see anybody play live because I’m always on the road. And yeah, I think women deserve to be celebrated; I think people in general deserve to be celebrated. “I’m a humanist before I’m a feminist, or anything else” – that quote came from the first press release for Lilith, which my promotion company strongly recommended I do because they were afraid it was going to turn into this big hard-core feminist rally. That’s the last thing I want. I love men, I love people, and I don’t think this is about excluding anybody – it’s simply a celebration. We probably should have just said it was a celebration of music. But of course, you know, we are women.
TC: The other thing, and I’m not trying to speak for you, Sarah –
SM: Oh, please help!
TC: I just think you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with celebration of any kind, and certainly nothing wrong with celebrating women. I think it’s worth pointing out that often women are not celebrated in this culture. And they aren’t celebrated in the music industry. Truthfully, women are treated differently than men are, and it makes sense to bring a positive force into our representation and to be active participants in It. I mean it’s great that you did that press release, that you had an opportunity to explain your reasons for putting the tour together –
SM: Before all the misconceptions came.
TC: Right, and I think the tour Itself can do the same thing, We as women will get an opportunity to provide more Information to people about who we are, and to explain and describe ourselves instead of being explained and described by other people, who often misinterpret us.
SM: Songwriting is a big part of what we give to the world. I don’t know about you, Tracy, but that too is a selfish act on my part.
TC: Oh, completely. [laughs]
SM: It’s pretty much therapy, and then once I feel good about what I’ve made, it’s a gift to everybody else – the gift of myself. I’m writing from a human perspective, but I’m writing from a woman’s perspective as well.
TC: I understand you, and to follow up on what I was talking about Just a few minutes ago, I tried to do something I thought would be beneficial not only to myself but also to the whole musical process I was Involved In, and that was to ore, ate opportunities for people In my touring bend and in my craw. That meant opening up the selection process not only to women, but to people of color and younger people who might not have a lot of experience but who have a lot of energy and bring a lot of passion to their work. Those are Important actions to take, because it’s a way to respond to a word that doesn’t always create opportunities for people like them.
Anyway, given the ticket sales for this event, It seems there’s a let of Interest in seeing all these different women together on one stage at the same place and time. That’s not to say there aren’t great men out there, or that they couldn’t be on the stage with all of us at some point In time. It’s Just that this is, once again, a way to represent ourselves and to do so in a positive way.
AP: Do you expect to have a lot of men in the audience?
TC: Well, I always have men at my concerts. I mean I get all different kinds of people, so I’m assuming It’ll be the same on this tour.
SM: I think so too. We did sort of a trial run last year of four shows, and it was the same audience I usually get: lots of men, lots of women, very varied in age and everything. And as Tracy was saying, about being able to give something back and trying to change the system from within: One of the things we want to do is showcase young artists, so there’ll be a B stage as well. The reason I’ve been successful is not because of radio stations playing my songs, but because I got out there and played and played and played live, for two or three years at a time. If you’re good live, people are going to get into you and want to buy your record. So it’s a bit like getting played on the radio, only better.
AP: How will you decide who’s performing when? For example, who goes last?
SM: Well, personally, I don’t like going on last, so I hope it’s not me! Tracy, are you going on last?
TC: Am I? No!
SM: I don’t want to go on last either! I like going on second to last
TC: I like that spot as well. But Sarah, people might expect you to go on last because It’s your idea and your show.
AP: Well, at Live Aid, Bob Geldof went on like fifth.
SM: There’s only five acts in each Lilith Fair show.
TC: Right, SO Sarah can go on fifth.
AP: But that’s last –
TC: Shhh! We don’t need to say that.
SM: Oh, it’ll be great. I can’t wait. I want to get on the road right now. Tracy, take care, and we’ll see you in a couple months. Don’t work too hard.
TC: You too. Bye!