Sophie B. Hawkins is no stranger to drama.
After living as a street drummer in New York, Hawkins decided to make a demo album and send it to a few record companies on a whim. What ensued after that was a bidding war that at the time was unsurpassed. Sony Records won, and within months that demo tape became ‘Tongues and Tails’, which housed one of her biggest hits, ‘Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover’.
Things went smoothly enough for Hawkins for the next few years. ‘Tongues and Tails’ went gold, as did her second release ‘Whaler’, and her single ‘As I Lay Me Down’ broke records in the Billboard Top 40.
Then, in 1997, Hawkins was chosen by filmmaker Gigi Gaston as a subject for a documentary, which was shot during her tour supporting ‘Whaler’. What came out was ‘The Cream Will Rise’, a violently honest and almost painful portrayal of Hawkins' complexity and intrigue as both a musician and person. The film was a huge success at Sundance, and although Hawkins herself is a little apprehensive about the film’s intrusive nature, Hawkins found herself in the limelight once again.
Things changed very fast when Hawkins went to work on her third record, ‘Timbre’. Even though she had proven to be a big success for Sony, the album was delayed for almost a year due to problems with her record label refusal to include a prominent banjo riff in the first single "Lose Your Way". the record company had a problem with Hawkins including a banjo. Sony refused to release it, but rather than back down, Hawkins stood her ground promoted the single on a radio station in Florida, imploring that people write Sony if they liked the song. Letters poured in, and the record was released. While critically acclaimed, it failed to have the success of her previous records, largely due to Sony’s unwillingness to publicize it properly. Soon after that, Hawkins and Sony parted amicably, and signed with indie record label Ryno which gave her full creative control and will be releasing her fourth record, "Wilderness", in mid April.
Hawkins' musical journey has beena long and fruitful one and despite it all Hawkins remains grounded and candid, not unlike the songs that mark her turbulant, yet fascinating career.
Sophie B. Hawkins:‘Wilderness’ is envisioning way ahead of time, and then taking action. The concept is simply that I was completely homeless so to speak. It’s starting from the first song.
I left Sony [her previous label], then released a record, toured, I kind of got my sea legs in being independent, which is different than starting out independent. I woke up and wrote in a space that was very fun, and self accepting. I had success, and so much failure. It washed through me. It was very clean. I preceded to write and record in my most simple pure state of living, not worried about the outcome, and not thinking about the outcome, enjoying. This is what I do. I live, and I am involved in life, in a street level, nature level. It’s also very spiritually different.
What can fans expect as far as an artistic shift?
It is not as a somber as ‘Timbre’. It's excellent music, and I really went for it in composition, in a fun and musical way. I play how I play, and it gets better on each record…Well, maybe not better, but more confident. I’m more confident. There’s many surprises, I can tell you that. This will remind them of the first record in terms of no self-consciousness. I’ve utilized everything I’ve learned. It’s turned a very clean and rich album.
It’s been over 12 years since ‘Tongues and Tails’ was released. What advice would ‘Wilderness’ Sophie give ‘Tongues and Tails’ Sophie?
That’s such a great question. No ones ever asked me that. To her, I’d say you have everything you need to have a really artistic career, and that’s worth more than money. The pitfalls you’ll fall into is that people will tell you you’re wrong, and there gonna try and strip your confidence. You have to do what you’re gonna do naturally and never get involved with people who want to exploit you. I wish I could’ve been there though, with her, keeping those people away, because they make you think you’re shit. Then you lose your footing. But advice doesn’t go well with young people.
I agree. Its does have to be learned, and I think it’s a very…It’s a very human experience.
Yes, you have to go through it. Some people are born into protection, and some have no protection, but they become stronger in the end because it.
What is one of your songs that you are most proud of, and why?
Well, you know, that’s a great question too. As cliché it sounds, I say ‘Damn’....not because it was a hit. The minute it came out, I knew it was important. So when I wrote it, I felt like a songwriter. I knew I could write songs, but my songs felt weird. ‘Damn’ crystallized for me, and showed me where I was going, and it had passion and power within to tap, and I was really proud.
You know, a lot of young people are always preaching about the old classics, like the Rolling Stones or The Beatles. I feel like it’s a modern day classic.
That’s what I wanna do. I know that a small percentage of my songs are going to reach ‘Damn’s’ potential, so I go thank God. Talent doesn’t always come through. It’s a strange combination, and I was thankful it hit.
You once declared yourself omnisexual? Is that still an apt description of you, or were you just a wild child?
Yeah, even now. At the time, this guy in NY times asked me if I was a lesbian, and I thought, I’ve never been with one, but I could be, so I thought how could I answer this. I didn’t feel heterosexual, and I didn’t feel I patched the gender. I felt free and open depending on who I loved and I didn’t want to limit myself. At the time the ‘who was gay/who was straight' thing was going on in New York and I was never bought that gender concept. I am not gonna close my sensation or concepts off. People think they have to make a choice, but what’s really hard is staying in a relationship. Choosing the gender is not the hard part. Just because I love men or women doesn’t mean the opposite is threatened, and bisexual would mean be being with both. So it’s totally descriptive and appropriate.
Your tour documentary (1996’s The Cream Will Rise) is such an honest and startling portrayal of you. How do you feel about that time in your life being on film forever?
I’m so glad it’s over. I almost never think about it. I was such a pressure cooker. The director had insight and knew what she was going for but I was so internally resistant to seeing all the things she was pointing out. I was at war with myself. One side of me said grow, and one side said stop. Everything in the film. that was what I was going through. I wondered why [director Gigi Gaston] was doing it. I thought I wasn't interesting and thought nobody else would be into it. But then people were and the things that came out were life changing.
Who are some the women in music today that you can, if not appreciate, respect?
You know who I like? Amy Lee (of Evanescence). I think she’s superb. I was really struck by here lyrics, melodies and emotions. I don’t know anything about her but her record made me go ‘wow’. I always liked Tori Amos. I went to her show in Maine and I really, really appreciated her on a deeper level. Just seeing her live. And, of course, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, as far as going back. They’ve accomplished more than anyone since. They blow everybody out of the water, myself included.
You have recently been working on a film with Jessica Simpson, in which you are playing her mother. To be honest, that seems like an odd match up. What made you decide to do it?
The producer is working with my manager, and he said I should do it. He thought it would add to plot, and that was different, like you said. I said yes, just because it was so strange. I felt like it is bound to be good because it was so strange.
Ok, are you ready for some goofy questions, cause I am ready to ask you some.
Ok. I want you to give a song that is, so to speak, a guilty pleasure, or to be more blunt, a song that would make people go “Oh my God. You actually like this song?”
“Take my breath away” by Berlin.
I love that song. You think that would make people would laugh?
Oh, o.k. Let me think. I’ve got one. Although, I’ve never heard it, but I’ve had people sing it to me: ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’. I think it’s such a funny phrase.
You’ve never heard that? They used to play it all the time!
Nope, never heard it, just of it.
I bet you’d like it. One of my guilty pleasures is that song ‘Barbie Girl’
I don’t know that one.
You know, it goes (sings) “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world…”
I’ve never heard that, but it sounds cute.
You recently presented at the Grammy’s. Meet any groovy people there for the first time?
You know, it was it was fun being there. I didn’t meet anybody groovy but that was cause I wasn’t there at the right time. When you’re working, you just present and then leave. Oh wait, what the hell am I talking about? I did meet some people! I met the guys from Matchbox 20 and they were awesome.
Isn’t this whole Janet Jackson breast thing stupid?
Yeah, I think it’s bizarre, obviously to conceive of something of that. I can’t believe Justin Timberlake wasn’t in on it and that he would remove himself so far from it in an undignified way. Its fine for the public to go, 'oh you nasty thing' but I don’t think the artist should have to apologize.
Speaking of stupid, what’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you while playing live?
I never get embarrassed on stage. I thought I’ve done a horrible job, but nothing embarrassing. I have embarrassing pictures though.
Do you people ever approach you and say “Damn, I wish I was your lover?”
No one has ever said to me. I think it was would be cool, but they’d have mean it.
Ok last question. I am switching back to serious mode. What is one of the most important life lessons you’ve learned?
I think I’ve learned there is no replacement for myself within myself. We tend to give ourselves away, and we think it’s expected of us, but to be successful is to learn you have to start saying "This is who I am". These are my qualities and this is my originality. It doesn’t matter; rich, poor, famous, not famous. You can create anything, but if you have a false sense of yourself, it’s gonna be a nightmare.