Hawkins, the reluctant pop star, takes stage at Aspen festival
ASPEN -In 1992, Sophie B. Hawkins achieved what every songwriter aims for: a hit song that listeners couldn’t avoid if they wanted to. The soul-pop tune “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” from her debut album, “Tongues and Tails,” reached the top five in the U.S. and charted throughout much of Europe (and even spawned a comic parody, “Damn I Wish I Used a Rubber”). Then Hawkins did what every musician who makes a hit craves: She created another hit, with “As I Lay Me Down,” from the 1994 album “Whaler.”Hawkins hasn’t come close to those heights since and basically has given up hope that she ever will. She has a new album, “The Crossing,” set for release in June, and she can’t envision it selling particularly well. “How can it be a hit? Where is it going to be a hit?” she wondered from her home in Venice, Calif. “It’s a miracle that it’s going to come out.”Hawkins shows little sign of frustration over this: doesn’t rail against changing tastes, shifting technology or her own abilities. In fact, the prospect of never having a hit again seems almost like a relief.The hit-making phase was hardly all fun and glory. It was expectations, a sense of being used. “I understood on the deepest level why people related to the songs,” she said. “But you get the other side of things – the comparisons, ‘You should be more like so-and-so.’ I didn’t like the business. I thought it was crass.”With “The Crossing,” the 44-year-old Hawkins has rethought her reasons for writing songs and making music. Several years in the making, and having gone through phases when it looked like it might not be released, “The Crossing” marks a return to artistry and purity. Hawkins, who had not released an album in eight years, says the birth of her son, Dashiell, three years ago, has sparked the transformation.”That has completely changed my perspective on writing songs and what songs are for,” she said. “Whatever the freshness is of being a child has come back to me. I feel I’m not a master of anything, but totally at the beginning. I’ve realized the best is when you don’t have anything. Winging it – that’s a good place to be.”Hawkins has been revisiting songs from the past of late, the kind of tunes she plays for her son – Woody Guthrie, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” – finding in them a simplicity and directness that resonates with her. “I’m seeing how they affect Dashiell,” she said.”The Crossing” has little obvious relation to “This Land Is Your Land.” For the most part, the album carries on Hawkins’ past approach – soulful pop, sexy, knowing and dark. On “Sinner Man,” Hawkins echoes the fire of Janis Joplin herself; the introspective piano ballad “Life Is a River” is breathy and beautiful; “I Don’t Need You” is confidently defiant. If “The Crossing” fails to gather attention, it won’t be because Hawkins has declined in musical capacity.Hawkins’ counterculture sensibility has been long in development. She left her parents’ home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 14, with failing grades and a drug addiction, to move to the Ansonia, in an apartment where Babe Ruth once lived and which had become home to a group of African drummers. She learned to drum, but when she tried singing, she was told she was no good and should stick to playing jazz vibraphone.”But I really wanted to write songs. I really felt that in me,” she said. She left the Ansonia, joined bands and, from behind the drums, sang the songs she had written. “I found it was my reason for being.”After the years of early hits, her pop-music career went into decline. Eventually she began turning to other outlets: She wrote a musical, based on actual characters from 1793 Pennsylvania, for Kristin Chenoweth; did a one-woman show; got heavily involved with Hilary Clinton’s presidential run and with Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group for which she wrote the song “The Land, the Sea and the Sky.”Back to her recording career, Hawkins is half hoping that nobody notices. She wouldn’t mind returning to the days when people actually told her to stop singing.”I’m back to my first purpose,” said Hawkins, who performs Saturday in the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival. “When I was so not popular – in a good way – nobody cared, no one’s looking at you, and you think you might get away with something. Even my friends didn’t like what I was doing – and that was great. It gave me this freedom.”I feel like no one is supposed to like me, no one is supposed to care. I’m doing it to make me excited. I’m trying to be not trying.”Then there is the other side of Hawkins, who hopes that “The Crossing” serves as validation that the music she is making is on a different level of significance than most everything else on pop radio. (“Gone are the days of Laura Nyro. Gone are the days of Joni Mitchell,” she said of today’s music landscape.) “If it does really well, that will be amazing,” she said. “And I’ll trumpet that to the artists who don’t think anything good happens, that I’ve got this great new story.”email@example.com
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