June 2010

Incoming: Lilith Fair

Plus, The xx, Imogen Heap, Athlete and more

gossip, turn it up Photograph by Lee Broomfield

If the words Lilith Fair conjure up misty ’90s flashbacks of a white-chicks folk festival with the likes of Natalie Merchant and Suzanne Vega, prepare to be surprised. After an 11-year absence, the festival, spearheaded once again by Sarah McLachlan, is fully reloaded for a new genre-busting century.

From newcomers like Gossip and Corinne Bailey Ray to R&B icons like Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu, the new lineup reaches far and wide. Of course, a lot has changed since Lilith began. Back in the day, the paradigm for female artists needed a punch in the arm. It was rare to find concert promoters or radio program directors willing to play two girls in a row. But McLachlan never intended to be an activist. “Ultimately, I thought it would be fun,” she says by phone from her Vancouver studio, where she was finishing her new album, The Laws of Illusion. “And it’s why I’m doing it this time—that’s the basis for everything I do.”

There was no shortage of doubters at the time. But, she says, “I never had an ounce of uncertainty that if you put all these great artists together, people wouldn’t come.” And so in conjunction with her Nettwerk Management partners Terry McBride and Dan Fraser and talent agent Marty Diamond, the concept of an all-female festival tour was born. The plan was to traverse North America with a traveling circus of three stages and an evolving roster of the top female performers of the day, as well as a slew of secondary artists and unknowns.“We said from day one it would be three years,” recalls McBride. “That was basically the cycle of Sarah’s album Surfacing, and what we didn’t want was for it to get tired. We went out on a high.”

Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza kicked off the concept of taking a festival on the road in 1991, and while Lilith Fair, too, tapped into Generation X and the burgeoning alt-rock movement, it was aiming for an under-served audience—college-educated women who didn’t want their ears blown out.

Because, like McLachlan, many on the Lilith slate were acoustically based, critics dubbed it a folk fest, ignoring the inclusion of artists like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah. Has the booking strategy changed? “We had a real challenge getting artists of different genres to be part of it back then,” McLachlan says, “but as we started to show success, it got easier. This time, the criteria was simply to get artists that would make for a diverse show.”

There are a few performers making a return appearance, such as Sheryl Crow and the Indigo Girls. “They’re still valid and interesting, and they’re still making good music,” says McLachlan. “Plus, I want to bring some of the history of Lilith along—call it loyalty. These women were here in the beginning and a lot of the music these artists made set the pace for women musicians today.”

This year’s lineup also includes Rihanna, Norah Jones and Kelly Clarkson. But has the mainstream caught up with Lilith, or is it the other way around? “With Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift filling arenas and selling albums by the millions now, no one underestimates women in 21st-century pop,” says New York Times chief pop-music critic Jon Pareles. “Lilith Fair was one of those great pop ideas that’s blindingly obvious 10 seconds after someone comes up with it. The new lineup is still dominated by guitar-strumming songwriters, although clearly there’s an effort to include R&B. The festival is not—and maybe it can’t be—the full spectrum of women in pop, from metal to indie rock to electronica.”

  • Minus the Bear
  • Stars
  • Luna Is Honey
  • Tift Merritt
  • Fang Island

Minus the Bear
“My Time”

This Seattle group—which releases its tunes through L.A. label Dangerbird—boasts an ever-expanding pop-prog-rock sound. This track is a dancy number built around an early-’80s Omnichord synthesizer.


The Five Ghosts EP

Since their early Toronto days, Stars have consistently made “eloquent indie pop.” This single from their fifth album finds Amy Millan on lead vocal, floating nicely in a synth-driven mix you’ll find yourself wanting to dance to.


Luna Is Honey
“Who Wouldn’t”
Copy Cats EP

I came across this L.A. band when I stumbled on their EP as I was sifting through a bunch of CDs. My daughter’s name is Luna, so it caught my attention. A catchy-as-hell guitar riff and swirling keyboards sealed the deal.


Tift Merritt
“Six More Days of Rain”
See You on the Moon

This North Carolina–based songwriter is in fine voice with a whole new clutch of poignant musical stories that truly resonate. This track is an inspiring piano-driven reflection of human resilience.


Fang Island
Fang Island

Fronted by RISD grads, this group has been described as a classic high-five rock band, but the latest self-titled album shows a penchant for introspective power pop along with the underlying feel-good arena-rock vibe.


As a founding concept of Lilith, part of the proceeds from every show go to a women’s charity in each city. The original tour raised some $10 million, but this time around, organizers are utilizing technologies that were not previously available to decide where that money should go.

“Ten years ago, there were no search engines. We had to make phone calls in each city, asking, ‘Do you know a good women’s charity?’ ” says McBride. “Now through the Web, there’s an ability to involve the community in helping to narrow down the charities in each market. I think that is far more compelling and respectful of the actual city.” And so the organizers joined forces with Involver, a social-media platform, and the Choose Your Charity campaign was born, wherein Facebook users vote and Lilith principals pick the local winners.

What’s it like for some of the younger artists now involved? “I like the idea of musicians playing a stage together not because of the genre they belong to but because of something so natural as being a woman,” says Ximena Sariñana, an alternative singer-songwriter from Mexico. Emily Haines, appearing with the rock band Metric, says, “I was impressed that they included Gossip, Cat Power and Mary J. Blige—I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with all of them.”

So, does McLachlan still think, with all the advances by women performers, they really need a festival all to themselves? “It has become more acceptable for women to be in bands,” she says, “and it’s a great form of expression for women to write songs. I don’t know why more women aren’t doing it. Have things gotten better? Absolutely? But is there still inequality? Absolutely.”