In September, 1987, an impressionable 19-year-old named Sarah McLachlan left her parents' home in Halifax and moved to Vancouver. Lured west by a five-album contract with the independent record company Nettwerk Productions, McLachlan dreamed of becoming a pop diva in the mould of Kate Bush, one of her idols. McLachlan had been assured she had a lovely haunting voice, but was uncertain whether she could actually write songs. Nettwerk executive Mark Jowett promised he would give her time and the help of other musicians. Now, the nine-month creative process that resulted in McLachlan's best-selling 1988 debut, Touch, is the subject of a high-profile lawsuit being heard in tiny Courtroom 44 of the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. And this week, 30-year-old McLachlan is to finish giving her version of how some of the songs on Touch came to be.
The case illuminates the whole process of creative collaboration and how credit is given on albums. It also offers a rare peek into the business of record production. On the one side is Darryl Neudorf, the 34-year-old former drummer with Vancouver rock bands 54-40 and MOEV, whom Nettwerk brought in to help McLachlan develop her first album. Claiming that he co-wrote four of Touch's 10 songs but has not been given sufficient credit or remuneration, Neudorf is suing McLachlan and Nettwerk for copyright infringement and breach of contract. "She took all the credit for herself," Neudorf told the court. "My feelings were hurt."
On the other side is international superstar McLachlan, who sold 625,000 copies of Touch and went on to win five Juno and two Grammy Awards for her five albums since then - and to launch the highly successful all-female summer touring show Lilith Fair. Taking the stand for the first time late last week, she acknowledged that Neudorf was hired to "put a fire under me and get me focused." But McLachlan vigorously denied his claim that he co-wrote four of the songs on Touch.
Her streaked copper hair pulled back by a rhinestone-headed bobby pin, the cherub-faced singer, dressed in a black pantsuit, sidled up to an electric keyboard to sketch out the first few bars of Steaming, one of the songs in contention. Her nervousness was betrayed by off-key notes and forgotten lyrics. "I was quite insulted by Darryl saying [in court] that I asked him what the difference between a verse and a chorus was," said McLachlan, a classically trained musician who studied piano, guitar and voice. McLachlan asserts Neudorf's job was not to co-write songs - "That was never brought up" - but merely to provide technical assistance. And while he contributed suggestions to simplify or enhance existing tunes, she contends he never co-wrote with her.
Songwriting, McLachlan testified, is a solitary process that "involves playing for hours and hours, working out things in my head and singing ideas to myself." When she recalled the selection from Touch called Ben's Song, McLachlan began to cry softly, remembering that it took her only one evening to write. She composed it after she learned a young boy she used to babysit in Halifax had died of a brain tumor. When McLachlan did collaborate, with musician Darren Phillips, the two worked very closely, sharing ideas for songs, the singer explained. Phillips, for instance, brought her the first four chords of Steaming, which led to the song's verse melody. That kind of intimate relationship, the singer said, never developed with Neudorf.
The singer testified that she often found working with Neudorf "far too regimented" because he laid out detailed plans of what they were to do each day. She did concede, however, that Neudorf imposed some necessary discipline on her, which, as an "unfocused" teenager, she needed. But McLachlan said she often ignored Neudorf's suggestions because she did not feel they were really useful. "I wanted this album to be as much mine as possible," she said. "I wanted the songs to come from me."
Neudorf had testified earlier that his friend Jowett got him involved in the so-called Sarah project to speed up the recording process, because production of McLachlan's first album was taking longer than anticipated. "Sarah was young, in a new city, and her main priority was to have fun," Neudorf told the court. He was paid $3,385 for his work, plus one-per-cent royalties, which amounted to $30,000. He is credited on the album for preproduction co-ordination, production assistance and "inspiration."
The singer has been coming to court every day since the trial began in early November, accompanied by her female bodyguard and bringing along a 12-string guitar. At least 10 adolescent girls always show up to watch the proceedings, and McLachlan dutifully signs autographs for each one. McLachlan said outside the courtroom last week that she will probably write songs about her experience with the lawsuit. This time, undoubtedly, she will be sure not to ask for any help.
Maclean's November 30, 1998