Photo: Kharen Hill

Sarah Shines On, Talks Kissing Girls & Being 'Pretty Straight'

Musician On Lesbian Flings, The Public's Curiosity About Her Sexuality & Inspiring A Transgender Kid

By Chris Azzopardi

If you're still wondering whether the soundtrack to all your heartache, Sarah McLachlan, swings both ways because she plays the guitar and she's earthy, wonder no more. She's been there, done that ... but not in a long time.

While promoting her first album in four years, "Shine On" (out May 6), the singer herself broke the silence in our recent interview, revealing that though she's "pretty straight," she's loved up on the ladies.

At what point in your career did you know you had a big gay following?

Mmm ... probably Boston 1991. (Laughs)

That's very specific.

I'm serious. Maybe 1992. It was with my second record ("Solace") and I remember going to do a gig in Boston. I hung out with a lot of women after the show and, uhh, there was one bartender in particular who was really hot! And I'm not gonna say anything else, but yeah. (Laughs)

Wait, no, no. You can't just leave me hanging like that.

(Laughs) She was a good kisser - that's all I'm gonna say! That was my first sort of foray. It didn't go past that, but that was, mmm, yeah.

I just remember there being a lot of women holding hands in the audience - and not only that, but it was a really intelligent audience. I don't even know how I could tell that, but I just remember this feeling of, wow, this is just a great, great audience. I wish I could say why, but anyway, that was sort of the beginning of it and I think it just progressed from there.

So girls aren't just good kissers but also super attentive?

(Laughs) I can generalize with my fans in that way, and all my fans - gay, straight - are coming for the music. They're coming for church. I say that because that's how I feel, especially about playing live; for me, that's sort of my church. I get to be a part of something bigger than myself and be really connected to other human beings on a real emotional and visceral level. It's very powerful.

It's a mutual feeling.

It's a mutual lovin'!

You mention your girl-on-girl foray in 1991, and for the longest time people have made assumptions about your sexuality. What do you think of the public's interest in whether you're bisexual?

People are always interested in how people bend. I've never shied away from it. I mean, I'm pretty straight. Let me just put it this way: I've never had sex with a woman. I haven't. I've made out with more than one woman, but it just sort of happened. And there may have been alcohol involved with one of them. (Laughs)

But not all of them?

No, no. But yeah, I'm pretty much straight. But at the same time I am such a strong advocate for gay and lesbian rights because I truly believe that we are all equal. We should be able to choose whom we love and how we love, and it's not anybody's goddamn business, really.

Of course. I'm absolutely with you.

Oh, I know you are! I figured I'm speaking to the converted here. (Laughs) But it's the same for any group that is ostracized or demonized for something that simply shouldn't even be an issue. It's the same with race and racism. It's absolute bullshit.

I got involved with Lifebeat (the leading national nonprofit focused on educating America's youth about HIV/AIDS prevention) really early on in New York. There was all this stigma around AIDS, and it's horrific. People are dying, they're suffering - and it's got nothing to do with anything except we need to help, the world needs to help.

As the modern face of feminism and someone who made a bold statement with Lilith Fair, what are your observations on the inclusion and representation of women in music today?

There's a pretty good cross-section going on, but it's very dangerous for young women to become complacent and think that there is no glass ceiling. Feminism has almost become a dirty word in the past 10 years, like, we don't need that anymore; our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers did all that work and it's done. It's like, no, honey, there's still growth in equality in this country, much less the rest of the world, which is even more frightening. At any moment, if we're not on the ball, our sexual freedom can be taken away from us. You know, our freedom to choose. In a lot of states, that's in flux. So you cannot be complacent. We have to have vigilance and keep an eye on things. Equality is still a fight that needs to be fought.

When you look out at the females making music nowadays, what do you see?

I see someone like Lorde who shows pictures of herself Photoshopped and un-Photoshopped and says, I have pimples, this is who I am, don't take that away from me; don't try to make me something that I'm not. She's a great example of how a young woman should talk about herself, but you know, she's a Kiwi.

I think Adele is a fantastic representation of beautiful, powerful strong music being made by women. She's not a stick; she doesn't try to be. She is bold and proud and beautiful and has pretty much the best voice out there. I bow down to her.

Then there are a lot of young girls who are being overtly sexual as women have been since the beginning of time, because it is a powerful tool. It's a powerful tool that men pretty much control, though. I don't think much has changed in that department. Women think they have total control, and they're doing it because that's what men have told them for centuries to do. I think it's really naive to think that it's any different than that.

How aware are you of the role your 1993 album "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" has played in the lives of many queer people?

I've heard that story a lot and it absolutely warms my heart. For me, some of the best validation an artist can have is to have someone you don't know tell you that what you've created has had a profound impact on helping them through something. It's absolutely fantastic. I'm typically and purposefully ambiguous (in my music) because I don't want it to be about a guy falling in love with a girl or vice versa. People fall in love. People.

But furthermore, "Fumbling" was relatable to the gay community in that it was coming of age, and it explored issues of self-actualization, doubts and fears - all things gay people go through.

Mmhmm, yeah. I mean, "Elsewhere" was on that record. "Good Enough" was on that record. I know with "Good Enough" I strayed away from ambiguity and was very much talking about "she." That was sort of about the importance of women, the sisterhood of having other people. For me, I was talking about a heterosexual relationship gone bad, an abusive male in that particular situation, and women coming to the rescue.

Have you ever been inspired to write about one of your lesbian flings?

(Laughs) They were so short-lived. Basically, like, one night ... or two nights.

A long weekend?

Yeah, over a long weekend all those years ago. (Laughs)

You mentioned "Elsewhere," and I know lots of people who connected particularly with this lyric: "Mother can't you see I've got to live my life the way I feel is right for me / Might not be right for you but it's right for me."

Absolutely. Total rite of passage. And that for me, personally, was directed toward my mother, but I met a transgender kid about a month ago who introduced me to his mom because he was involved in this program that was addressing all the issues that he was facing, which includes coming out to your family. As you know, that can be incredibly difficult. His mom was just wonderful. She gave me a big hug and said, "Thank you so much. You've done so much for bringing us together because I've connected through your songs. He's reached out to me and explained what's happening and he used your music to help explain it." She just gave me the hugest hug and I'm like, "Oh my god, come here. Come here everyone. Group hug!" And we all started crying. Again, what a beautiful thing. The greatest gift for me is that I get to be a part of something like that, something that is helping other people feel good about themselves, and feel whole.

Can you ever make an album like "Fumbling" again? I know you probably can't recapture that time, that moment...

No, no... you can't. Because I was how many years younger? I'm hoping that "Shine On" is a little more like that in that it's joie de vivre, in that it's really open. It's certainly speaking to a different rite of passage. This, for me, is the arc of the last six years of my life - separating from my husband, losing my father, and separating from my management and record label of 23 years ago. So all these male anchors.

And loss. Lots of loss.

A lot of loss. A lot of this is the second half of my life. I'm entering into it and asking, "How do I redefine myself? What choices am I gonna make? Is this as good as it gets?" Hell no. I wanna suck the marrow out of every day, and that's from the title too.

My best friend and I talk so much about all the issues we're going through. She went through a really horrible divorce a couple of years ago too and she's like, "I don't just wanna endure. I don't just wanna survive. I wanna shine." That's where the title came from. And I'm like, "Oh my god." I always struggle greatly over album titles, and it's like, that's what this album signifies to me. I'm not succumbing to "this is as good as it gets." I'm gonna push. I'm gonna keep pushing, keep trying, keep growing and keep discovering.

How does music help you with that?

It's huge. It's the single most important message of expression for me. Embarrassingly, I'm not a great communicator. I'm working on that! But I am in my music. I shy away from conflict. I'm terribly conflict averse, and so a lot of things that should be said don't get said in my personal relationships. So, for me, writing them down and processing through songwriting has always been a great way of getting stuff out.

The difference on this latest record is the forthrightness. I'm not trying to hide personalities or ideas in parallel universes or in different people. It's like, "No, this is me, this is where I'm at, this is what I'm talking about," and I think it's a lot closer to the bone. I think "Fumbling" was too. It was raw, simple and direct, and I feel like this record is as well. I'm hoping that. It certainly was for me.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.

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