Sophie B Hawkins: Happy on her own

Sophie B. Hawkins

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 24, 2004) – When Sophie B. Hawkins made her major-label debut in 1992, she did it in a big way. Her album, “Tongues and Tails,” quickly went gold. Her first single, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” hit the top five. The following year she was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. Her follow-up album, 1995’s “Whaler,” also went gold, and that album’s single, “As I Lay Me Down,” cracked the top 10 and stayed on the singles charts for a record-breaking 67 weeks.

It was the kind of success that dreams are made of. But to hear Hawkins talk about it today, it was more of a nightmare than a dream come true.

“When ‘Tongues and Tails’ came out, I was just so afraid that I would wake up one morning and Don Ienner would call me and say, ‘We’re dropping you, you’re a piece of s---,’” said Hawkins, referring to the president of her former record label recently in an interview by cell phone from her car as she headed from Venice to Malibu.

“There were great expectations for me to be much more successful, but I think that there could be many reasons I wasn’t,” said Hawkins, who performs with her trio on Friday night at 9 at Club Helsinki. “I think that’s because I didn’t think of myself that way. I thought, how do I go out of the house? I acted the opposite to any normal person. Most people when they’re signed go, ‘Give me this, give me that,’ but I was more like, if I could afford popcorn. I’m lucky.”

Hawkins’s refusal to be pigeonholed musically or otherwise undoubtedly contributed to her difficulties navigating the pop marketplace. On the surface, her recordings in the early 1990s fit in loosely with some of the more prevalent trends in contemporary pop of the time, particularly with the post-Madonna, post-Cyndi Lauper, LilithFair crowd.

But a closer listen to her recordings, many of which were collected on a 14-track retrospective, “The Best of Sophie B. Hawkins,” released by Columbia/Legacy last year, betrays the restless heart and soul of an eclectic musician, composer and singer-songwriter who grew up in New York City, attended the Manhattan School of Music, and studied percussion with African drum legend Babatunde Olatunji.

And then, to complicate matters, shortly after some of her sexier dance-floor and radio-ready hits began garnering her the attention of the pop marketplace, Hawkins dropped a bombshell in the press: the songs were largely addressed to women, not men.

“For years I thought nothing of it,” said Hawkins, in answer to the question of how much she attributes her stalled career to questions about her sexuality.

“I started to wonder, maybe it did play a big role when I called myself ‘omnisexual,’” said Hawkins, using the term with which she frequently describes herself.

“I have to say it must have had some impact. It was almost like people treated me like I didn’t stand for anything, when actually I was standing for a big thing. I spoke the truth for me, but it didn’t resonate. I think it probably had a big impact.”

Hawkins released a third album on Columbia, “Timbre,” in 1999, but by then the die was cast and her career as a major-label pop star was down the tubes. But instead of giving up, Hawkins grabbed hold of her career and used the opportunity that freedom from a recording contract provided to recast herself as an independent artist.

Working out of her home studio, Hawkins recorded most of the instrumental and vocal tracks by herself for her new album, “Wilderness,” which she released on her own label, Trumpet Swan Records, in April. Co-produced with Christian and Frank Berman (Amber, Baha Men, Real McCoy), the album features a dozen original songs plus a jazzy version of Anthony Newley’s “Feelin’ Good,” inspired by Nina Simone.

“I learned how it’s more fun to make records without a record company breathing down your back,” said Hawkins, who has lived in California for seven years but still considers herself a New Yorker.

“Before I was ever signed I just did it for the love of doing it. And that’s how I did this record. I learned that is really the essence. After you’ve been on a big label for a long time and everyone’s telling you what to do, you sort of feel less confident. It was good in reinvigorating and reinstating my identity as a songwriter.”

Being able to put out an album on her own terms also allowed Hawkins to keep it honest and personal. “What I’m trying to convey in my albums are the relationships in my life at the time,” she said. “It’s almost like a present for somebody.

“Technically, I always want to achieve more as a musician and as a singer -- to go to different creative places and push myself. The goal is to really perform this on the piano and know that it’s not too overdone, not too overproduced. It’s really easy to do that with these songs. But I really wanted to portray the songs from a singer-songwriter point of view, not from an overproduced-record point of view.”

For her show at Helsinki, Hawkins will be accompanied by two instrumentalists: a keyboardist and a drummer. “It’s my power trio; it’s really big,” she said. “I’ll play a lot of instruments. Because of the sparseness, we have to play intensely, and very energetically.

“It’s a two-hour show, with all the hits, old favorites, and stuff from the new record. And songs where I really improvise a lot. And also humorous stuff, too.”

For reservations call 413-528-3394.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 25, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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