How hard is it in this day and age to bounce back from a pop music career misstep? One likes to think pop culture — America ultimately voting with its pocketbook of course — eventually rewards and rediscovers the deserving.
One thinks of Kelly Clarkson who managed a comeback after the ill-advised downer (though it still went Platinum) 2007 album “My December.” And love her or hate her, Mariah Carey beat the odds with the monster-selling “Emancipation of Mimi” after her epic “Glitter” failure (both film and soundtrack).
But what if your supposed misstep isn’t even a bad album? Sophie B. Hawkins was well on her way to establishing distinguished career by the end of the ‘90s. She was red hot right out of the gate — “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” which hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1992, is a defining song of the era. She was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy that year (co-nominated with Billy Ray Cyrus, Kriss Kross and Jon Secada; Arrested Development won). She survived the sophomore jinx with another mammoth hit “As I Lay Me Down,” a VH-1 staple from her second album “Whaler” that peaked at No. 6 during a 44-week run on the Hot 100 and a whopping 67 weeks (six at No. 1) on the AC chart. Unless you were in a convent that year, you heard it many, many times.
With that kind of start, the sky was conceivably the limit and expectations ran extremely high for her 1999 follow-up, “Timbre.” But trouble loomed — it’s a famous story, actually: Hawkins’ then label (Sony) only reluctantly released first single “Lose Your Way” with a banjo accompaniment. They argued it was poison for pop radio. Hawkins said it was essential. Though re-released independently in 2001 and followed by an indie follow-up called “Wilderness” in 2004, Hawkins lost her commercial, but not her artistic, footing. “Wilderness” turned out to be an unfortunately apt title — she spent years wandering.
Perhaps this wasn’t a total surprise, though. Anybody who’d paid attention knew Hawkins had a wild streak. She shimmied and writhed like a woman possessed on her duet with Melissa Etheridge on the latter’s VH-1 special in 1995 with a slate of then-hot female singer/songwriters like Joan Osborne, Jewel and Paula Cole. Those who caught Hawkins in concert knew of her penchant for the unconventional. As her audiences got smaller, her jeans got more shredded, her stream-of-consciousness stage meanderings more fluid. She wrangled memorably with Howard Stern about why she doesn’t shave her legs.
Though she’s long shunned labels for sexual orientation, the fact that she’s been in a same-sex relationship with filmmaker Gigi Gaston for several years (Gaston’s “The Cream Will Rise” follows Hawkins on an early tour) is one of the more conventional aspects of her persona. And it’s easy to forget that her wildly eclectic albums are full of intricately crafted and sometimes epic, sometimes disarming power pop that at times rivals Joni Mitchell’s best stuff for complexity and lyrical depth — check out “Mysteries We Understand,” “Only Love” “Help Me Breathe” and “I Need Nothing Else” especially.
Her hit singles are only part of the story. An early MusicHound review said, “Dig (further) than (the hits) and her abilities to seamlessly weave in and out of jazz, folk and dance, all driven by a kind of tribal percussion sensibility (emerge).”
But Hawkins, now 44, is starting to sound her age. Not vocally — her singing still has the luster that struck her chart gold all those years ago, but her insights during an hour-long phone chat last week show a woman who’s thought long and hard about life, pop culture popularity cycles, music making in the Internet age and much more. With no apparent time constraints, Hawkins gamely goes anywhere the questions take her and beyond, from hair tips and why she’s a dog person to the deeper story behind the banjo battles and her still-complicated relationship with her mother (explored memorably in “Cream”). The impetus for all this is her interminably delayed new album “The Crossing,” her first collection of new material in seven years, which dropped last week.
“People were always telling me, ‘Oh, you sold out with ‘Tongues and Tales,’ or, ‘Oh, you sold out with ‘Whaler.’ I’m not saying ‘Tongues and Tales’ was just art for art’s sake, but that was really the best I could to try and reach people,” Hawkins says. “Those albums were the least weird I could possibly be. You want your music to reach people, you want it to get out there to as many as possible, otherwise it’s too isolating. It’s like masturbation, you’re not doing it with anybody.”
Hawkins considers herself part of a group of ‘90s women singer/songwriters — she mentions Paula Cole and Tori Amos as peers — who barely “squeezed through” the music industry gate before the doors shut altogether, from the advent of file sharing to endless label buyouts that left precious few major players in the game. Yes, there are still women hitmakers — Rihanna, Adele — but they’re few and far between and getting younger all the time.
“I think everybody knew what was going to happen, the chilly winds were already blowing,” she says. “I felt with the first album like, ‘Wow, I really got away with something’ in spite of all this. Then with ‘Whaler’ it felt like that again, although that was really the beginning of the fight. … In the ‘90s, it really started turning against the individual artist into this totally corporate thing in every way. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m with this group, I’m with that group, this is Sophie’s sound, this is the lesbian sound, the country artist, the right wing, the left wing — I feel like several of us just barely squeaked through in spite of all that.”
And yes, some of that line of thinking is what’s led Hawkins to shun traditional LGBT labels.
She admits she and Gaston have been in an exclusive relationship (Gaston is also her manager), but says a lack of general perception of nuance causes her to avoid certain language.
“It’s because nobody listens,” Hawkins says. “They just want to say it, and shut up and not hear any more about it. I love the word bisexual but it has such a negative connotation, I don’t know why. It’s like this big, scary thing for people so I’ve tried to come up with something that’s what I really think I am … I’m definitely not heterosexual or homosexual, I love men and women equally and passionately. I’m just having a relationship right now with a woman and I think there are very few men I could have a relationship with. I’m a very singular person. I’m committed to this woman, but if I were not, I’d probably be alone.”
The years since “Wilderness” have not been inactive for Hawkins. She became a mother — her son with Gaston, Dashiell, is 3. She popped up at the Grammys pre-show as a presenter, campaigned avidly for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, released several singles along the way including one (“The Land, the Sea and the Sky”) as a benefit for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.
She released a live album and her song “Life is a Bomb” was on the soundtrack for the 2011 Garry Marshall film “New Year’s Eve,” a feat Hawkins says was wildly against the odds. She also tweaked “The Crossing” endlessly as the years went by and various proposed release dates came and went. Hawkins says it’s “a miracle” the album came out at all.
She also worked with Gaston on a musical for Kristin Chenoweth that’s on hold until Chenoweth’s producer of choice is available and she has high hopes for an October musical in Los Angeles (Hawkins lives in Venice, Calif., and has been on the West Coast for more than a decade) in which she’ll star as Janis Joplin.
Hawkins says she knew instinctively, she was supposed to do the Joplin piece.
“My reaction was just, ‘Yes,’ and I never say yes to anything right away. I just think there’s something I can do with Janis that will speak to every creative person out there who feels overlooked or treated in a way that’s not fair. … If we can get this ball in the basket, I have a good feeling about this, I think it could be a slam dunk. It will be so relevant to now, it really gives me a freedom I cannot even tell you.”
Hawkins guesses, counting the Chenoweth musical and “The Crossing” material, she’s written about 300 songs in the last seven years. The album will include acoustic remakes of “Damn” and “As I Lay Me Down.” Hawkins has a distribution deal with EMI for the release.
Hawkins says she’s a huge dog lover because she could never have one as a kid. She loves them because there’s “no barrier” to their affection and presence.
Of her trademark abundant tresses, Hawkins says her only hair care tip is to avoid washing it as much as possible. She insists hers looks best when it’s been weeks since the last shampoo.
“That’s when I always get the most compliments, people saying ‘Oh, you have such great hair.’”
She’s also realistic about “The Crossings” commercial prospects. She says she’ll never stoop to giving her music away but realizes the chances of duplicating her early chart success are practically nil.
On one hand, Hawkins says her art (she paints too) is something she “couldn’t not do.” Conversely, she says it’s Gaston who has urged her to continue against increasingly difficult industry and commercial odds.
“She’s so much more than a manager,” Hawkins says. “Things bother her more than they bother me. Oh, believe me, I would have just gone away by now and written and painted by myself if it weren’t for her. I don’t think I could have survived but she tells me, ‘You’re not giving up, you’re a great artist, it kills me that people don’t see this.’ She really takes it on as one of her missions.”
So in hindsight, was the banjo battle worth it?
Hawkins says the story has gotten oversimplified as a kind of cautionary tale for supposedly overambitious pop singers — as in, “Remember Sophie B. Hawkins? Look what happened to her.”
She says it was more an issue of increasing pressure to write songs in huge groups of collaboration Hawkins found unwieldy and artistically stifling. She says she would have agreed to remove the banjo line for the radio version and kept it on a remix or B-side version (“Believe me, all those scenarios were discussed”), but push came to shove when label execs put their foot down over her using it for a live TV appearance.
“It was really the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says. “It was such a clear thing to me. They were taking away my horse, in a way. I thought, ‘I can’t ride into battle without my horse. I can’t win without the horse.’ It just made me realize we weren’t on the same team anymore. … They were no longer rooting for me to win, they were trying to destroy me.”
Hawkins says she’s learned to find rewards in non-traditional places. Even though her relationship with her mother is still every bit as complicated as it was portrayed in “Cream,” Hawkins says there are sparks of healing and inspiration there too.
“There are artistic people out there struggling who never make at all,” she says. “So when somebody tells me they get it, it’s like winning an Oscar. My mother called me the other day and told me she’d listened to the new album. She said she’d felt it, whatever it was, this profound thing in the music. If your parents are alive and you get that, that’s my Grammy.”