Ellis Paul and Sophie B. Hawkins
Saturday, Oct. 28
6:30 p.m. (doors, 5:30)
227 Maple Ave. E
Singer/songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins is at a place in her life where she’s being highly deliberate about what she does.
She’s sitting on a finished album but wants to figure out a way to release it strategically for maximum impact. A recurring theme in our lengthy phone chat last week is that there are lots of great ideas, but several are just not high on her priority list right now.
Newly single after nearly two decades in a same-sex relationship, the 52-year-old singer known for ‘90s radio staples “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down” is back in New York focusing on her art and raising her two young children, Dashiell, 8, and Esther, 2.
She makes a rare D.C.-area appearance this weekend at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on her fall mini-tour. Her comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How does it feel to be back in New York again after so many years in Los Angeles?
SOPHIE B. HAWKINS: Well I was born and raised in Manhattan so when I get home to New York or anywhere near, I feel a certain accessibility to my soul. I feel like this is where I came into the world, where I’m coming back to and where I’m allowed to be me. I can be my age here, I can be a single woman, so exotic and excited to be alive, just in the day, and it’s not weird. I don’t have to drive a fancy car, I don’t have to wear makeup, I can just live and enjoy everyone’s energy and creativity. That’s the difference between L.A. and New York. In California, it’s harder to connect with people and harder to connect with people’s creativity. In New York, it’s very much coming up from the ground.
BLADE: What can we expect at your show this weekend and why are you doing a mini-tour now?
HAWKINS: This mini-tour came about for a very specific reason. I wanted to go out and do solo shows without one single musician, just me because I’d never done that before until weekend before last. I did it in Massachusetts and Maine and I really felt like this was the time for me to just go on stage and really see if I’m a good-enough musician and good-enough artist and good-enough storyteller to get out there and be the person that I am (in my home studio) working and writing songs. … I loved the last two shows. They were my favorites in a very long time because I just got up there with my instruments, my banjo, my drums, my guitar and my piano, and I sang the songs and it was so relaxed and emotional and, of course, intimate, but it was something more. Sort of a heightened experience. … I wouldn’t say it’s me being me because I’m always me, but it’s really one on one. It’s scary but that’s where I really like it the best.
BLADE: How was it received?
HAWKINS: Both audiences, and not that this should ever happen again, but they both gave me standing ovations and they all came back and it was a different conversation after the show. … It really could have gone terribly — that’s why I didn’t do it in New York. I could have walked off the stage and said, “I’m never doing that again,” and called my guitar player. But I’m actually excited to do it more.
BLADE: You’re working on a musical, you have a new album in the can, you did the Janis Joplin play a few years ago and said you even wrote some songs as Janis. What all will you be singing? Stuff from your albums or some of that stuff as well?
HAWKINS: Well, OK, first of all, I’m always going to do my hits. They’re beautiful and I just want people to know they won’t get deprived of that. The second thing is I’m definitely doing some new songs. People seem to really love the new songs and I’m doing one I just wrote a couple weeks ago that’s a brand new original Christmas song so it’s going to be exciting to do one that I just wrote. As for the album, I’m going to be totally candid because I always am, I don’t quite know how to get it out. I don’t want it to just be the same old process of putting all this effort into something and then making no money from it. I’m trying to find a new way and really taking my time. I really love it, I put a ton of energy into it and the songs are, in my opinion, phenomenal so I don’t want to just throw it out and have it go nowhere. The musical is still a work in progress. … I may put the Christmas song out just to have a little something but … I can’t just throw things out there anymore.
BLADE: You did some shows in New York back in June that you said you were going to record to try to capture something elusive you said doesn’t always show up on your studio work. Did you?
HAWKINS: Yes, well, I don’t know if I captured that elusive whatever but I did record all three shows and they were filmed. I don’t know if the filming was good because I haven’t seen it yet. … I’m not sure if I’m going to edit them and put anything out because that takes so much work. I wish I had another me to do that kind of work. And sometimes you’re just too close to it. I thought it sounded terrible when I listened to it in June but then I heard it again in September by accident and I was like, “No, that sounds pretty good, I should get to editing that.” … But again, it goes back to not wanting to just put stuff out just to do it. I’m looking for a right connection. I’m not dying for people to say, “Oh she’s great, listen to this,” and then move on to the next thing. There’s no reason for that. Maybe once I figure out when the album is coming out, the live stuff could be like the thank you for being part of my life and here is this gift.
BLADE: What has it been like rebuilding after going through the break-up of a 17-year relationship?
HAWKINS: Oh, it was awful. Just so incredibly sad, I can’t even tell you. … It’s still so difficult to understand how that could have happened. … I felt like I was saved when I got back to New York … by the skin of my teeth. There’s this amazing other part of yourself that says, “I’ve got to move before the tsunami hits, I gotta get out of my bed and start running” and that’s what happened. The tsunami was coming down on me and my son and I actually got out of bed and said, “We’re getting up now, move, move, move, get the dogs,” and we got to New York and boom, we would have been dead if we’d stayed a moment longer. And I mean completely dead emotionally, psychologically, financially, everything. It’s scary to think about. That’s one aspect of it. But thank God I landed and … could begin again. … There is still a reckoning I’m dealing with in my art and in conversations with close friends, you know, walking around going, “I can’t believe this is part of my story now.” … I never thought it would happen — a betrayal on that level.
BLADE: One song of yours that’s always haunted me is “I Need Nothing Else.” I know songwriters hate to explain what songs are about but can you illuminate us at all on that one?
HAWKINS: I love that song too because of the combination of the visceral and the spiritual and accepting it all as one and knowing that all things go together with no boundaries. All these things need each other and pull each other and tug each other and there’s that feeling of passion that I really love and then the phrase, “I need nothing else,” is what you do — you go through your life and you eliminate, you start to realize what you need and what you don’t need and you come back to this very essential quality. … You bring the drama on when you don’t know what you need and you do so many things to mask and then you find it and it’s unmasked — that’s that song, it’s unmasked, here it is.
BLADE: It’s taboo to say you wanna have sex with Jesus but pop music is kind of this nice place where you can entertain both the spiritual and the carnal, which is forbidden in gospel music. Is that a fair interpretation or am I off base?
HAWKINS: No, you’re so on base and I love that you said have sex with Jesus. Yes, it’s so true and in a way, that’s sort of what we’re doing. … And yes, that is the great thing about pop music and great poetry, it connects all these things. … There’s actually a movie out now that’s about all this called “The Novitiate.” Have you heard of it?
HAWKINS: It’s not out yet but I saw a screening and it’s really a brilliant movie but it’s not with men, it’s with nuns. Oh my God.
BLADE: How long did it take to make “Tongues and Tales” (1992) and “Whaler” (1994)? How long did you spend recording vocals and how long were the whole projects?
HAWKINS: OK, well, “Whaler” took shorter than “Tongues and Tales” because I worked with Stephen Lipson and he was — well, for both albums by the way, we used my demos a lot, which was interesting, so we’d have to include that time. I’d recorded those songs at home first. Like in “Did We Not Choose Each Other” when you hear the frying pans and all the crazy percussion and the keyboards, all that stuff was done at home. “As I Lay Me Down,” the percussion, the keyboards, all that was taken from my original demo and we just overlaid and built upon it.
BLADE: You felt you’d captured something on those that couldn’t be bettered?
HAWKINS: Yeah. There were periods where different producers would try to get away from it but even the head of the record company, Don Ienner at the time, the head of Sony, he said, “No, you’ve got to use the vocal on her demo, that’s why I signed her.” So there were always those moments where we would go back to that. … So “Whaler” didn’t take a long time ‘cause Stephen works fast. “Tongues and Tales” took a long time because I’d never made a record before and Rick Chertoff is known for taking a really long time. He wanted demo after demo after demo after demo. He could spend years on just a thought. It takes him hours to get a freaking sentence out. But in some ways, that’s also why he’s brilliant. He’s like an old-fashioned director. He’ll take you to dinner and you have to include all that in the process. So on “Tongues and Tales,” they didn’t spend anytime on me. It was all about the radio, what will happen to the album, and Rick Chertoff takes everything into consideration but then when it came time for vocals, believe it or not, they gave me like a day. I was really upset about that inside, but I did not wanna complain because they didn’t make me write with anybody, they completely stayed true to my vision so I thought, “Well, OK, I have a day, I’m just gonna use a day.” So the vocals were very fast. … But that worked out OK because I’m one of those people you can’t overdo things too much with. On “Whaler,” though, he did take much more time with the vocals.
BLADE: What happens to all the alternate takes and photo and video outtakes when a major label project like that wraps? Do you get it all or is it sitting in box in a warehouse somewhere?
HAWKINS: I think Sony probably trashed it all because, you know, I fought with them by the third album. I have all the demos, which is shocking. … But they didn’t care about what they didn’t use so I would think by this time they would have trashed everything. I did get a bunch of pictures. … Great outtakes from sessions by David LaChapelle, Bruce Weber and Mark Hanauer. It would be fun to do something with those but at this point in my career, I don’t want to spend the time looking through photos.
BLADE: I sense from what you’re saying there was some frustration with the release of “The Crossing,” your last album in 2012. Was the rollout underwhelming? How do you feel about it now that you have a little distance from it?
HAWKINS: Well that’s why I don’t want to put out another record the same way. I think there are some songs on it that are amazing. I just love “The Land, the Sea and the Sky.” It’s so raw, I don’t know, I just love the feel of it. And I love “A Child.” There are some songs I love. But certain songs I think are terrible on “The Crossing” and those are the ones I actually worked the most on. Like “Betchya Got a Cure,” I think could have been a great song but I think it’s just terribly done. … My manager-slash-partner had lost interest in me as a person and as an artist or whatever and I couldn’t really — I mean, I did it totally alone. No producer, no nothing. I even engineered the goddamn record. It was a beautiful studio, but still. I put it out with zero, and I mean zero, support, so in a way, it’s amazing it sounds as good as it does and it’s as lively as it is. There’s no way really I could have done better in that situation.
BLADE: What was your cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from? I found it later on a compilation and wasn’t sure.
HAWKINS: That was for a charity album. It might have been breast cancer because they wanted songs by women and I chose that because Joan Baez sang it and I loved it. I recorded it in my apartment where I was at the time on Christopher Street and I just did it at the piano with all those crazy vocals and the djembe drum and that was basically it. But people seem to like it. Sony was pretty mad at me. They said it wasn’t professional enough. I was like, “Well, then, you know, give me some money and I’ll do it more professionally.”
BLADE: Melissa Etheridge’s VH-1 “Duets” special now seems like this amazing time capsule of great ‘90s women rockers. What was it like taping it?
HAWKINS: Well, the first memory is when she called. … I dove to the floor to pick up the land line at a house in L.A. where I was staying and I couldn’t believe I was talking to Melissa Etheridge because this was at the time when she was having her huge, breakout like big, big moment, and I hit my head on the closet door when I went for the phone so I was pretending to be completely with it and cool and obviously I wasn’t. … I remember rehearsing with her and just thinking she was so amazing, her guitar playing and her presence. I loved her and felt like I would have loved her even if she wasn’t Melissa Etheridge, but I never would have because she’s from such a different part of the world. So then we got to the show and I really thought I’d botched it and I was kind of embarrassed. But I loved being with her and Paula Cole was super nice too.
BLADE: I get what you’re saying about prioritizing certain projects over others but it’s been 25 years this year since “Tongues and Tales” and “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Are you doing anything to commemorate that?
HAWKINS: No, I didn’t really realize it was exactly 25 years. See that’s where it would be nice to have a team to help me remember those things.
BLADE: It’s so cool that you’re able to still devote yourself to art. New York and L.A. are both so insanely expensive and you’re raising two kids. Do you ever feel practical or financial concerns encroaching on your art? How do you soldier on?
HAWKINS: You do have to soldier on as an artist no matter what and as a mother because you cannot let those people down. It doesn’t matter if you have any money or not. The thing about being an artist in this day and age is that you cannot expect any kind of support if you’re in the music business. I’m lucky to have the support and recognition that I do. I see young people I’ve met and let open for me who have these amazing songs, they’re young and beautiful and talented and they’re in a way worse position than me. I’m doing really well, I actually am. … I could make a choice. I could make a lot of money, I mean relative to what I’m going to get back, and throw it in my career right now, but I really do feel the timing isn’t right and it would be a complete waste. I feel it’s a time to be really selective. … I learned with “The Crossing,” it’s not good enough to just stay afloat. It’s actually better almost to disappear and for everyone to think you’re gone forever and you were so beautiful and great then and if you have a rebirth or even if you don’t, then at least your work stands on its own. That’s a big concept. I hadn’t even really thought about it, I was just kind of talking out of my ass but yeah. I’m maintaining an amazing lifestyle in this amazing city and my children and art are doing amazingly well and I will tell you the honest truth — I’ve never been so happy in my life.
BLADE: How has being a mom shifted your artistic lens or has it?
HAWKINS: It’s made me more appreciative and patient with myself. … It’s moved me away from trying to be a perfectionist. … It’s also been fun to see how some things that I thought were just about me, they’re sort of genetic. Like the singing and stuff. … Not so much the creation of a song, but my son is like this amazing little walking poet and he says things that blow me away, but I think maybe he gets it from my mother. There’s some quality about it that’s really fun to see.