Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Very Candid Conversation With Sophie B. Hawkins

Sophie B. Hawkins got off to a quick start with her 1992 debut album Tongue and Tails. The album went gold with a single that peaked at #5, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” It was also a top 20 hit in the UK. As a result of that success, Sophie was asked to play at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a musician. She performed Dylan’s “I Want You” (which also appeared on Tongue and Tails) at the anniversary. By 1993, Sophie had received a Grammy nomination as best new artist.

She followed that up with 1994’s Whaler, which also went gold and scored her another top 10 hit, “As I Lay Me Down.” There was also a documentary film made about Sophie , The Cream Will Rise. The documentary, made by Sophie’s longtime domestic partner Gigi Gaston, followed her on one of her tours. However, despite two gold albums and a documentary made about her, Sophie had gotten into trouble with her record company, Sony, over her 3rd album Timbre. The lead single “Lose Your Way” had a banjo track that Sony wanted to remove. Sophie refused to accommodate them, leading to a lengthy battle between the two. She left the label shortly after Timbre was released in 1999. Timbre would be re-released on her own album label. She would release one more album independently in 2004, Wilderness.

It would be eight more years before Sophie released a new album. But she kept busy. She became a mother (her son Dashiell turns four in November 2012), supported Hillary Clinton on her presidential campaign, and helped clean up the 2010 BP oil spill. On June 2012, Sophie released a new album, The Crossing. Sophie played multiple instruments as piano and drums on this one. While she used other musicians to help her complete the tracks, she was not working with a band on these tracks. The Crossing covers many autobiographical themes such as being a mother, the BP oil spill, the 2008 political campaign and accepting her father’s death. The album also shows Sophie’s voice in top form and showcases many of Sophie’s musical sensibilities from rock to piano ballads to jazz. In addition, there are bonus tracks, including reworked versions of her two big hits, “Damn I Wish Was Your Lover” [Click here to hear a 1 minute sample of the new “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover.”] and “As I Lay Me Down.”

Besides The Crossing, Sophie collaborates with Gigi Gaston again on Room 105. Sophie is playing Janis Joplin and singing Janis’ songs. Room 105 will be playing from October 6 to October 21. For more information on the play, go to

In this candid conversation, we look at her early rise, her battles on the banjo track of “Lose Your Way”, the eight year period between albums where she pursued other activities such as being a mother, the current album The Crossing, the play Room 105, and what’s next for her in her career. I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview between Sophie and I. Most of all, I want to thank Sophie for taking the time out to talk to me.

Jeff Cramer: I found it interesting that you actually started off as a percussionist.

Sophie B. Hawkins: Yes. I was an African drummer. First of all, I wanted to play drums since I was nine, but I couldn’t get anyone to take me to a drum lesson. I couldn’t just get anyone to focus on helping me find a teacher, so I pretended to be a drummer. I literally didn’t know a thing about it, and then, I was 14 years old. I finally had it, and I said to my mother, “I need to play African drums.”

And she said – we lived in New York, and she looked at me and she said, “Oh, I know a great African drum teacher,” which was great because she was such a hippie. She knew all of the Nigerian drummers who had come over in the ‘60s. So she said, "I'm going to get you together with Olatunji.” Babatunde Olatunji was a very famous Nigerian. He had lots of drum guys in his family.

So I got with one of his godsons named Gordy Ryan, and he ended up being my teacher, and then I'll tell you, since my first lesson, it was it. I went to my first lesson on 57th Street, and I never stopped. And I knew, after that first lesson, that I would never ever want to do anything else but music. It was so transformative.

JC: So it was the drums that actually got you into music?

SBH: Yes, yes and African drums. It always amazes me that I said African drums because I really love music so much, but what did I really know? It wasn't like I was a musicologist. There's no musicians in my family. It was like a soul thing is what I'm trying to say.

JC: Right. Then, of course, I know about you playing drums in a punk band, but the one thing you got to do in your percussionist career is being able to play with Bryan Ferry.

SBH: Yes. I got hired and fired from that gig. I was his percussionist, and like I don't remember the date of that. But Andy Newmark was his drummer on the tour. Andy Newmark basically recommended me for the gig, and I played with him for a couple of months and it was awesome.

I played vibraphone and marimba mostly because I knew I couldn't play the Cuban percussion that he wanted because his music was very Cuban, very tough percussion.

And so I focused on playing vibra and marimba, and actually worked out these parts for Bryan’s songs. And he was sort of stunned because I would come in a dress and have my mallets, and he loved it but then he said, “Ultimately, you're great. You remind me of Margaret Thatcher.”

JC: [Laughs] 

SBH: For some reason, he said that. Isn’t that weird? He then said, “And I love your parts, but they’re not on the record, and I really need a Cuban percussion player. So I’m going to have to let you go.” 

JC: Okay.

SBH: And it was an amazing moment because I went home that day, and that’s when I wrote “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”, over that weekend, over that period of time. So instead of trying to be this percussionist, I realize I am not this percussionist. I really – I knew I was a songwriter in that moment.

Sophie in “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” video 

JC: Is there any particular inspiration that ever came from – because it’s interesting you mentioned “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Was there any particular inspiration for that song? Was there a real live case where you wished you were someone’s lover? 

SBH: Yes, and I mean it happens today.

JC: Yeah, I know.

SBH: But this is one of the things about songs and novels and paintings and all art, I think what it is that you're triggered by something that happens in the present, and it brings up these feelings that have been latent or just there that you're really born with, or sometimes even from another life.

And I know that sounds corny, but how does a young person sometimes write such deep songs? I think you carry stories with you when you even come into this world, and now that I have a son, I really feel – he is so much more sophisticated and mature than I am. He has such a sense of propriety that I don’t have, and so I think, okay, this is what happens.

“Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”, yes, somebody triggered it. Some event triggered that song, but it was there. And I basically think the art is waiting for us to develop enough to manifest it, just like I think relationships wait until we’re ready to find them. I don’t think it’s something that we create as much as we think we do.

JC: Okay, so on your first album, Tongues and Tails, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” like hit the charts right away, but one of the things that must have also been exciting at the beginning of your career was playing “I Want You” for Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary at Madison Square Garden. 

SBH: That was the most amazing thing. Well, first of all, that was – that is the most amazing song, and I have to tell you that song, every time I perform it – and I do perform it at most every concert – is – it’s the greatest feeling of solace. I just – the words are a ballad and that – it’s like you can’t say anything. He’s sort of the Van Gogh of songwriting, I guess, or the Picasso of songwriting, whoever your – he does something.

And anyone can take any one of his lyrics and put any melody or any chord, and you can just act it, and that’s an acting song. So, when I got up there in Madison Square Garden, I just acted it, and it moved a lot of people. [Click here to watch Sophie’s performance at Madison Square Garden.] And I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s over the years. You don’t know how many people stop me and they say not, “Sophie B, Hawkins.” All they say is, “I saw you sing ‘I Want You’ at the Dylan tribute.” And it moves them in a deep way, so that’s cool.

JC: That’s cool. The next one, Whaler, was an interesting thing because it didn’t go right away to the charts but you got there eventually with your “As I Lay Me Down”, your second biggest hit.

Sophie in “As I Lay Me Down” video 

SBH: Right. It was a long running hit single and in some ways it’s a bigger hit internationally. But people don’t see it as stunning because it took so long to get there. Like you said, it took four years, and basically, Sony had moved when I recorded Whaler, they said, “Oh, go to Europe. This is not an American album.”And then they said, “We’re not going to promote it here.”

And I did. I went to Europe. I moved to London. I moved to London and Paris, and I just promoted and promoted for four years in Europe before ever – and then, basically, the European part of Sony said, “You guys are missing the boat. This is a real hit.” 

JC: Right. 

SBH: “This is a great album.” And they forced Sony’s hand, the U.S. end. People came up to me – I’m telling you, the American Music Awards and everything, and they said, “You made that a hit. The record company didn’t,” because it’s a great song, and nobody could really figure out how that became a hit because I was not supported at that time. And I am not saying that with sour grapes. It was the greatest experience of my life to realize I had to do it on – you know, that I had to take control. 

JC: Well, of course, where you did take control of course, which I’m glad you did prevail at the end, was, of course, with the third album Timbre, using that banjo track for “Lose Your Way.” 

Timbre album 
SBH: Yes. Oh, that was awesome. I loved that experience because, that song was written on the banjo, and it’s the only song I ever wrote on the banjo. 

The point of the matter of the song is part and parcel of that particular instrument, and Sony wanted to take the instrument off, and I said, “No.” And the reason this was changing, if they had said that on the first record, it wouldn’t have been a big deal because I was being supported, but what they kept doing is taking things away. 

And so, if you take away the banjo, then you're taking away this beautiful eccentricity and this quality of this song. So it was symbolic to me, and I fought for when they wanted to remove it. And that was the beginning of a lot of big fights. 

“Lose Your Way” was the lead track on Timbre, and Sony actually did think “Lose Your Way” was going to be one of my biggest singles. And it was on Dawson’s Creek, but they just couldn’t bear that I wanted to bring the banjo on TV and stuff and such a nightmare. It didn’t have to be such a big deal. It’s crazy that it was. 

JC: Yes. 

SBH: But, again, you either stand up and fight or you don’t stand for anything, and I guess I had to dig my heels in at some point because that what basically I think happened to the music business is that people have watered things down so much. 

And now, it’s – basically, it will get to the point where it doesn’t matter and then it will cycle through again, but I want it to make everything matter. 

JC: Okay, after that fight with Sony it would be awhile until we got to Wilderness. 

Wilderness album 

SBH: Yeah, well, because Sony, I had to leave – sue the record company. Luckily, we settled. Got my masters back which is amazing then – and I’m thankful for that – and then I had to release Timbre on my own and then go through that whole process and then Wilderness was on my own and then, when Wilderness and everything happened, it did take too long because, again, there’s no financing and I’m doing it all myself and it’s just – there’s no –   

It’s not like it was in the ‘90s. There’s no real money out there for records unless you're on a hit show or – I’m just a songwriter basically. And I’m still touring which is great, and I still have a lovely fan base, and I still get these great offers. And that’s amazing because a lot of people in my position don’t. 

I’m very grateful, so it does take longer to get each album out but that’s only – there’s only one missing link, and it's called money. And I don't care because I'm not doing it for the money. 

JC: Right. So, okay, after Wilderness, it would be another eight years before we got to the new album, The Crossing. Financing would be one of the reasons why, but another reason is that you became a mother during that eight-year period. 

SBH: Yes and that's the greatest thing ever in the whole world. Well, you know, having Dashiell, it just makes everything great. And this whole thing about standing up for something and really saying, “I’m an artist, and I'm committing to be an artist,” it makes so much more sense when you have a child because they’re the next generation. 

And if you don't represent something really strong and passionate, what are they measuring life against? That's our job and our duty, and he's a great, great kid, and he makes my work have so much more depth and meaning to me personally. 

JC: Anyway, so now we get into The Crossing. I'm going to talk about a couple of the songs on that. Now I had read that “Betycha Got a Cure for Me” was related to around the 2008 political race. Interesting, now that we are in the 2012 political race. 

 The Crossing album 

SBH: Right. “Betchya Got a Cure”, yeah, I wrote that around that time period, but I changed it so much since then. [To hear a sample of “Betchya Got a Cure”, click here.] 

I’ve rewritten that song about 15 times. That's why I have two versions on the album, and there are so many more versions that exist. It just a very hooky chorus that could go anywhere basically. So I think that's all I can say about that is a really – I wrote that song. Maybe it will never be finished. 

JC: One thing that I like, when we go back to your African percussion roots and I really like that African drummer work out on “Sinnerman.” 

SBH: Oh I love – that’s my favorite track, I have to say. By the way, that is the most simple track. That one I just did really, really right before I released the album . I did it to some – that was like one of the last tracks I did, and I just did it myself. 

I just sat there in the studio one night and said, “I’m doing this. I have to do this.” And – oh, it was about the Gulf. That’s what inspired me to do that. And, yeah, so that was the simplest track. 

JC: The BP oil spill on the gulf seems to be a constant theme on the album, cause there’s that other song…

SBH: “The Land, The Sea and The Sky.” Right. “Sinnerman” had the video that actually has the gulf in it. “The Land, The Sea and The Sky” has a great video – a great video, I can’t believe I said that. [To see that great video, Sophie is talking about, click here.] I’m not sure it has shots of the gulf, but “Sinnerman” actually has my trip to the gulf in it. [To see the video for “Sinnerman”, click here.] 

JC: One of the other songs that is on The Crossing is a song I found a YouTube clip of you performing it in 2007 called “Miles Away.” 

SBH: Yeah. I love that song. That’s about my father, obviously. [To see the YouTube clip, click here.] 

JC: I also notice one of the tracks “Gone Baby” has a songwriting co-credit with Mary Steenburgen. 

SBH: Isn’t she great? Well, she’s an Oscar-winning actress and songwriter. 

JC: Yeah. How did that come about? I didn’t know that Mary wrote songs. 

SBH: Well, I don’t think Mary knew Mary wrote songs. I guess she – well, she says that she woke up one day, and she just was writing songs, and I think that’s true. And that goes back to my point about, when you're ready, the art manifests.

She just woke up one day, and I met her when I was campaigning for Hillary, and of course, she’s one of Hillary’s great friends. And so I met her on the campaign trail, and she said, “I’m a songwriter.” And I said, “God, I’d love to hear your songs.” And she called me from the hairdresser, and she sang me “Gone Baby,” a version of it, and then I said, “Geez, can I finish that with you?”

Her version was finished for her, but I said, “Can I write with you on that and make it something else?” And she said she’d love to, and I love – I love what it turned into. So that was the Mary Steenburgen story. Literally, I just have a recording of her singing the song from her hairdresser on her cell phone and then I took it and ran with it and put my writing into it. It’s very cool. [To hear a 1 minute sample, click here.]

JC: Yeah. The one other track that I found was interesting was the jazz one, the “Dream Street and Chance.”

SBH: Okay. That’s one of my favorite tracks. “Dream Street and Chance.” That was all autobiographical. I mean you hear the whole story of my mother and my father in that one in New York and the weatherman’s castle in Central Park and the bridal path. [To hear a 1 minute sample, click here.] 

Everything, of course, had a meaning to me and it might not mean anything to anyone else but I leave it up to the listener what it means.

JC: Actually, one of the autobiographical tracks is easy to figure out – “A Child.” What interesting about that it reminded me of when Laura Nyro had a baby and wrote about her new experiences as a mother in her 1978 album Nested. There were two songs about it, “Child in the Universe” and “The Nest.” 

SBH: Okay, cool. I love Laura Nyro so much. I really gotta hear it. [To hear a 1 minute sample of “A Child”, click here.] 

JC: One of the things we'll talk about, besides the album is the play you are in on Janis Joplin. How did that come about? 

SBH: Well, Gigi came to me. She said, “You’re going to play Janis Joplin.” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And I want to say that I never say yes. It was just such an instinctual feeling or moment. And then that was a year and a half or less ago, and then we proceeded. 

Basically Gigi came and created the surroundings. She just would write scenes up and then say, “This scene is going to go into this song.” 

So I not only studied Janis Joplin singing, which is death-defying, but I studied who she studied. I studied Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and I had already been studying Odetta. I studied Big Mama Thornton and I studied Leadbelly. I studied everyone that Janis listened to because I wanted to know how Janis got there.
And then, of course, I’d learn Janis. So I would do these monologues on my tours, you know, my Sophie B. Hawkins shows. I did say to my audience, “I’ve just been taken over by Janis Joplin, and I'm going to do this song for you. I'm going to tell you the story, and I'm going to do a song.” And my audience just loved it. They just loved it when I became Janis and then people started to ask for it and look for it. And I kept doing that for the whole last year and a half. 

And then, finally, Gigi showed it to a fabulous man named Tommy Thompson. He's from Cross Creek Pictures. He started it. He’s the Cross group. It was a video of me playing Janis, and he was so moved by me doing her on stage on my own show that he said, “I'm going to put up the money, and I'm going to finance this play.” So I started also doing it in acting classes, like just taking -- a wonderful acting teacher named Carole D’Andrea. 

 Room 105 poster

I would just take scenes in and sing the songs a cappella and pretend I had the whole band. It was just awesome. It's been such a great experience. I can't even tell you. It's been so raw, and I feel like we are doing this like as if I was 16 years old in New York or LA or whatever, like with zero pomp and circumstances, all completely raw. 

And we’re doing it in a small theater, which is great, because it's just a good feeling. I can't even describe to you how great it is, and I have so much respect for the actors and the talent and the musicians. My god, I have the guy who played guitar with Etta James, Josh Sklair. Etta has moved on, but Josh was her ring man for 25 years. He’s the guitar player on this gig. That’s pretty awesome. 

JC: Yeah.

SBH: Such a great guitarist. And, you know, by the way, none of us are making any money, and we don't care. That's what I mean. We’re doing this because of the love of the show. It's a great play. Obviously, the songs are addictive. So, really, that couldn't be better. 

I feel like I was born to do this. It feels like – it feels so destined. Everything keeps falling into place. We’re opening in less – we’re opening in a week, and it’s got financing.

None of my records have been financed for years, and all of a sudden, I’m being the star of this amazing show. It’s a play, too. It’s not just a musical. It’s a play-sical. 

JC: Right. What’s interesting is that it is in contrast to The Crossing. On that album, you did piano, percussion, drums. You didn't really have a band and brought other musicians one by one.

SBH: Yeah. I did do that in The Crossing and it worked for that time, but guess how I'm doing the Janis show? We’ve done a record for the Janis show, and I brought everybody – we did it all at once. 

We did it on one Saturday, and we just did three takes of the song and chose the best take, and believe me, I’m very excited about it. If you go to the Room 105 website you’ll hear some of the songs we recorded. When the guys went into reherasal, I said, Look, I’m just going to record you, and literally a bass mike, a keyboards mike, you know, guitar mike, drum mike and me,” and I’m the only one in a separate isolation booth, but I can see them because my studio is set up this way. They’re out there together with headphones and we record tracks just the way recordings used to be made back in the 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s, 20s. It’s unbelievably satisfying.

JC: Are there any plans, besides the play? Are there any plans to tour behind The Crossing? 

SBH: Yeah, I’m doing every show I get offered. I was just in Madison, I was in Wyoming, I was in Denver, I will do the East Coast in December. I think we’re doing Philly, New York and some other cities. So in a way if I just do The Crossing it’s like the same old musicians crap, oh, you know, how do you promote it, how do you get the money to promote it, how do you get the people there? But then when you’re doing Janis Joplin it’s a whole another thing, because people want to know about that. When people come to see Janis, they’re going to say, “Oh, Sophie B. Hawkins is doing Janis,” and “Oh wow, she has a new record out.” It’s a very good thing to be doing both, because they both in a way help each other out. 

JC: Where do you see yourself in a music industry that has become more digital? 

SBH: I’m just going to keep doing shows. I have this musical written with Gigi Gaston called – I’m not going to say the name of it – but that’s ready to go. 

JC: Okay, so that’s a different musical than the Janis one we’re talking about now. 

SBH: Totally, and that one actually was on the front burner before Janis. You asked me what happened between Wilderness and this record? Well, that’s what happened. I spent three or four years of my life writing a musical, and that’s what it takes to write a really good musical, I think, and more. Kristin Chenoweth did the reading for it. She’s my friend and I love her, Kristin. She’s huge, she’s the biggest actress on Broadway, a Tony winner and she’s a great TV actress and movie actress as well. So she did the reading, and we have all this money, but the producer fell out and Kristin got busy with other theater, TV and movie stuff. So that’s Broadway. If you have no producer you have no show. But we took advantage of this momentary glitch to put Janis together. So that’s more like my talent. I think if any musician is going to be successful, is that you take advantage of every opportunity. You always have to be ready. I have the musical ready, I have songs for an album ready, I’ve got Janis. Three things, right now. Which one’s first, it doesn’t matter, I’m just going to go after it. That’s how life is. 

And so you asked me how are things going to go, it’s going to go with whatever opportunity comes to me, I’ll be there.

JC: And the other advantage is all the products are going to be done your way without record company involvement. 

SBH: Well, what I actually love is that it doesn’t feel my way now, it actually felt more my way on Sony. But now it feels like there’s a lot more collaboration, there’s tremendous collaboration, and I think that’s why I’m so happy. It was great to do it my way for many, many years, and it’s everything and it was Sophie B. Hawkins and all about me. But I got bored with that, to be honest with you. I’m so happy I’m collaborating. And being available to the best possible situation, and that I can grow as an artist. I can’t imagine anything better right now. And by the way, being a mother, how awesome is that?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Having seen Sophie over the last 12 years, this article is extremely well-done and represents so much of the history and path Sophie B. Hawkins has taken to this moment. One thing NOT mentioned in this blog is that Sophie is also an amazing and talented painter. As an artist, she has no boundaries, no borders, and will continue to surprise us with her multi-passions. And, yes, I saw the musical about Janis Joplin, and she was fabulous!