Ask Sarah McLachlan what she dislikes most about being on the road -- the constant traveling, the endless restaurant meals, the perpetual parade of hotel rooms -- and she'll cheerfully answer, "All of the above!"
She has been on a more-or-less nonstop tour for the past two years, so the fact that she's speaking from her brand-new house in Vancouver, B.C., may color her judgment somewhat. After all, she's only been home for a week or so, and has to head back out on the road almost immediately.
But as she will be the first to admit, touring has been very, very good to her. "Touring sells my records," she says. "I don't have a huge single on the radio, though I've had radio play. But touring sells my records. Touring is what gets people to come out to the shows, and gets more people every time because of word-of-mouth. Because I think I put on a really good live show.
"And after touring for two years, you just keep coming back," she adds. "We've gone into most American markets three to four times this tour. First it was bars, then it was small theaters, then it was big theaters. Now it's amphitheaters. Really, it's fantastic, within a year and a half, to see that change."
Even so, it's not hard to wonder why, after so many months on tour, McLachlan has decided to head out on yet another road trip. It's not as if she was looking for work, she says, but the opportunity to play with the Chieftains was simply too good to pass up.
"Well, my agent in Canada is Sam Feldman, who is their manager, and he came with Paddy Malone to the New York show. A couple days later, there was a fax on my desk of a whole tour itinerary," she says, laughing. "It was, 'Hey, what do you think?'
"My first instinct was to put my head in my hands, and go, !B 'No-o-o, I can't tour anymore.' But then I saw the places we were going to play. And financially it was really feasible, too, because I had just bought this house, and this tour will really help that."
Besides, building audience familiarity through constant touring was what McLachlan had hoped for all along. But when she went from the feisty Canadian independent label Nettwerk to a mammoth American record company, Arista, she found that the rules began to change. Nettwerk, she says, "gave me 100 percent creative control when I didn't know what I was doing. They had blind faith, bless their hearts, and they just let me go.
"When I signed the deal with the American label, that did change," she continues. "They had a very different philosophy. They wanted singles. But I didn't write singles. I wrote songs. So we had quite a clash for a while. Because for me, I don't want to do it if I can't do it this way. Because I have to do it this way for it to be right. For me to feel right about it."
Fortunately, McLachlan was given enough leeway to show that things really would work better if she were allowed her head. "It was sort of a matter of us proving to them that, whether or not we had a single, we could make a successful record," she says. "And we proved that.
"Really, since then, they've been fantastic. They say, 'Well, we don't need a single to sell this artist.' I've just been really lucky and blessed that they've left me alone now to do my thing, and trust me with that."
Since its release in late 1993, McLachlan's last full album, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," has sold over a million copies. Since then, she's released an EP, "The Freedom Sessions," that mixes alternate and demo versions of songs from "Fumbling" with CD-ROM material. But she hasn't released any new material since embarking on this marathon tour, complaining that she needs to "hole up" in order to further her "painfully slow" writing process.
"I have little bits and pieces [of songs]" she says. "Verses or choruses, and ideas. I have to finalize them."
Fortunately, those desperate for a McLachlan fix won't have to go cold turkey for too long. Her version of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" is due out in early August as part of a Rock for Choice benefit album called "Spirit of '73."
McLachlan explains that the track isn't exactly a new recording. "I recorded it while we were doing 'Fumbling,' right in the middle there, because they had planned to put it out fairly quickly," she says. "I think it was in March of '93 that we recorded it, and for whatever reason the funding fell through, and it just didn't get put out. But I'm glad they are finally doing it now."
McLachlan offers a fairly personal take on the song, a move that required a bit of nerve on her part. "I always fluctuate back and forth between doing [someone else's song] exactly the way they did it, or changing it completely," she says. "So I kind of did a bit of both. God knows, I can't play like Joni, but the intro is fairly similar to hers. Vocally as well. But then I kind of go off and do all the other vocals, and change it quite a bit.
"It was such an instinctual thing; it felt right to go that way. I think we did it in three days, and so didn't spend that much time making musical decisions. It felt right, and we left it like that."
To hear excerpts from the Sarah McLachlan album "The Freedom Sessions," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6143 after you hear the greeting.
When: July 19, 8 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Tickets: $32.50 gold circle, $25 pavilion, $17.50 lawn
Call: (410) 481-6500 for tickets, (410) 730-2424 for information