10/20/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
Singer and avowed shopaholic Sarah McLachlan was browsing through a rack of sweaters at a shop in Calgary, Alta., when a young girl came up, cocked her head and asked, "Aren't you Sarah McLachlan?" Startled, the Canadian says, "I looked at her and said, 'No.' She said, 'You bitch,' " and marched away. "I felt so horrible I ran after her and tried to apologize," McLachlan recalls with visible dread. "All I could think was, 'How could I hurt this little girl?' "
Surrendering to her fans' adulation is a new act for the slim 29-year-old singer-songwriter with the haunting voice and ethereal lyrics. But if her recent success is any gauge, she'll have plenty of opportunity to get the hang of celebrity. Following on the heels of 1994's Grammy-nominated Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, McLachlan's latest CD, Surfacing, turned platinum in less than eight weeks. She also produced this summer's all-female Lilith Fair tour, which played to sellout crowds in 35 cities and raised about $700,000 for such women's groups as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. And an unauthorized biography, Building a Mystery, is due for release this fall. "McLachlan is a very gifted musician," says the Indigo Girls' Emily Sailers, who appeared with her on the second half of the tour. "Her spirit and sensibility are inspiring."
The roots of McLachlan's songs are in the windswept, rocky soil of Nova Scotia. She was born in Halifax, the adopted daughter and youngest of three children of expatriate Americans Jack and Dorice McLachlan, a now-retired marine biologist and a homemaker. McLachlan says she has "been singing for as long as I can remember, and it always felt wonderful. Like a friend." Her mom taught her her first song, the Prohibition-era ditty "How Dry I Am," and had her sing at tea parties. "These nice ladies must've been shocked—a little kid singing about booze," the artist says laughingly.
McLachlan took ukulele lessons at 4, guitar at 7 and piano and voice at 13—about the same age she was nicknamed Medusa because of her crooked teeth and curly hair. A gawky, angst-ridden misfit rejected by the in crowd at Queen Elizabeth High ("I just sucked"), she found solace in music and sneaked out at night, trying to be a hip punk. "I was constantly grounded," she says.
Considering becoming a jewelry designer, McLachlan enrolled in the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1986, the same year she made a stunning discovery. Only when an acquaintance pointed out that McLachlan looked a lot like friend Judy Kaines, an artist who worked with McLachlan's roommate, did McLachlan and Kaines realize the connection: Kaines was McLachlan's natural mother, who had given her up for adoption shortly after birth. The two women see each other at Christmas and occasionally throughout the year.
McLachlan's professional break came when the president of Nettwerk records saw her perform in a local new wave band and signed her to a five-record deal. The first perk of success: the cozy three-bedroom house in Vancouver, which she bought in 1995. "I'd picked up little bits of furniture over the years," she says. "Now I have somewhere to put them all."
The second perk: husband Ashwin Sood, now 29, whom she had hired as a drummer in 1991. Dating since '95, they tied the knot while on vacation in Jamaica last February. Contrary to her grungy youth, she has found contentment in convention. She and Sood roam the nearby woods with their black Lab, Rex, rent action videos and talk about family. ("Not a day goes by that I don't think about having kids," Sood says.) Fame may still be freaky, but she says, "I love married life. I feel very settled."
Ulrica Wihlborg in Vancouver