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Sophie B. Hawkins Opens Up About Breaking ‘Free’ From Her ’90s Cage

Ken Grand-Pierre
Ken Grand-Pierre

Sophie B. Hawkins, the trailblazing singer-songwriter who shot to fame in the early ’90s on the backs of hits like “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down,” has a lot going on that she can’t wait to talk about, namely the impending release of Free Myself, her first album in more than a decade. But first, she needs to tell us about the huge gray wolf she saw yesterday in her neighbor’s driveway.

“It was really shocking. It was like out of a dream. It was five in the morning, and I look up, and there’s a timber wolf just sauntering down the driveway,” she excitedly tells The Daily Beast over Zoom from her home in Connecticut. “It was like a message from a dream. They were alone, and I thought wolves travel in packs.”

It’s impossible not to think of her “lone wolf” story over the next 40 minutes as Hawkins not only describes Free Myself—an album she made after ending a 17-year relationship—but reflects on her unlikely fame in the ’90s. It’s not that she lacked any of the talent or determination to become a star; the multi-instrumentalist has the kind of husky voice that instantly seduces you as well as a knack for evocative, quirky songwriting. But she never felt like she belonged in the mainstream pop lane she stumbled into with her seminal debut album, 1992’s Tongues and Tails, and subsequent Grammy nomination.

“I’m not sure I ever quite fit the exact mode of the day,” Hawkins, 58, says now, with a hint of amusement in her voice. “I didn’t ever care if people liked me. But if you can end up in a place where your work is seen in a certain light that’s true for you? Then that’s amazing.”

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The road to get to that place hasn’t always been smooth for Hawkins, who became an independent artist after a career-stalling dispute with her former record label, Sony Music, in 1998 before the release of her third album. She’s faced both the ire of bigots who hated her use of “she” pronouns in “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” and the “gay mafia” who came after her for coming out as “omnisexual” in her twenties. But with Free Myself, out this Friday, she’s accepted that pleasing everyone is impossible, and that radical self-love is her truest aim.

Below, Hawkins talks to The Daily Beast about the “new beginning” that inspired her latest music, the ups and downs that have defined her career, why the original “Damn” video was deemed too racy for MTV, and more.

What was your mindset going into the making of this album, Free Myself?

Well, the song that’s the single now, “Better Off Without You,” was the beginning of the end of one life and the beginning of the new Free Myself life. You know, I had this image. I was living in California, I was living in Venice in this house that I had built with my partner where we lived for 17 years. We had this whole life of doing everything together, never really spent a night apart. And then it just blew up—seemingly suddenly, but these things never really are sudden. I remember standing looking at the eucalyptus leaves flipping in the light, and I said, the gates are open, the guards have gone, why are you still here? So that’s when I got my son and I said, I’m going home to the East Coast and I’m going to start with a new beginning.

So that’s the mindset of Free Myself. It’s really saying I don’t need all these burdens anymore. I don’t need all these trappings and these ways that I’ve been thinking. Obviously they led to complete combustion, so I’m going to start again. And it’s why it took me a while to get it out. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an album’s worth of material to put out in the 10 years [since 2012’s The Crossing], although I did have another child and wanted to focus on that as well. But it was more that I wanted to have a runway. I didn’t want to be bumping around and getting thrown off my path all the time. That’s why it’s coming out now, because I do feel there is a clear path. I feel it in my heart. I’m not worried. I’m not burdened. I also wear the success or the failure of it very lightly. The fact to me is just that I’m living it. That’s the important part.

In “Better Off Without You,” there’s a lyric where you sing, “We changed the world until you took my best friend to bed.” That made my jaw drop. Was that a real-life experience?

Yes. Everything I write is true. Yes, that actually happened. It sort of made my jaw drop when it came out so truthfully. Because when this stuff happens to us, it’s so difficult to tell the person who’s done these things to you what they’ve done and how much it hurts you. It’s so hard to be simply clear when you’re in that position of being left. So luckily in the song, it was just boom! And it’s humorous, but it’s true. It’s absolutely true.

Was it nerve-wracking to put that in a song so candidly? And did you wonder how your ex would react to it?

Well, I hope the person thinks and remembers that they did that, and lost me and lost everything because of it. So I hope the person can deal with their own stuff, and that’s why I say [a few lines later], “I hope you heal your heart.” It’s not that I don’t love that person, it’s just that I don’t want to be the receptacle of the fallout from their bad behavior anymore. And I think if you’re constantly in relationships where you can be taken advantage of… this is the whole thing of “Better Off Without You.” It has nothing to do with the other person. Until you realize you are better off without that person, and that you have allowed yourself to be coerced and convinced—it’s almost like you can’t blame the other person for doing it if you’re going to let them do it, you know? But it happens. So when it came out that way, no, I was happy, because after all that time of me just trying to say “you did this,” it finally came out in a song.

So was “Better Off Without You” the first song you wrote for this album? Did the process start there?

You know what, “Love Yourself” was the first song. So maybe that was the beginning, because “Better Off Without You,” I wrote on the East Coast, when I was fully in the throes of rebuilding my life. But “Love Yourself” was the first song to say you’re truly in a new place. This isn’t like some guru told you to love yourself, or some meditation tape. That came from my own brain, at a moment where I really needed it.

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Can you describe that moment to me?

Yes, so in the lyrics it says, “I went to a party, the folks were fine / I ate coconut cake, I drank old red wine.” That’s all exactly what happened—I went to a party in L.A. The folks were fine, the wine was great, the coconut cake was divine, and then I was driving home and I thought, wait, should I have done that? Did I say the right thing to that person? And then I sort of almost beat myself up, and then this voice in my head said, “No, love yourself.” And then I went to my piano and the song came out. I decided to make the choice to love myself and to enjoy and digest myself, rather than metaphorically spit out a part of myself that I had really enjoyed at the party.

That was the beginning of a new Sophie; not constricting, not judging. You know, we all have a performance side. And that wonderful, joyous, outward, social Sophie sometimes used to get bashed by the other Sophies when I would come off stage. And I think that is really common. I think it’s why artists do drugs all the time. And I didn’t do drugs, actually; drugs was never my thing, but I was very familiar with those voices. So “Love Yourself” was the beginning of all the work I had done for all those years; the work to love myself, respect myself, support myself. You know, even leaving Sony Music and fighting for my music, I was always fighting for something. Fighting for animals, fighting for turtles, protesting George W. Bush. But never fighting for my inner self. “Love Yourself” was the beginning.

There’s a similar sort of fighting spirit on the title track, “Free Myself,” though it seems to be speaking to something larger than yourself. There are lyrics about how we should all be able to make our own decisions about who to love and who to marry. What were you thinking about when you were writing that song?

Yes, you’re right. That has also been one of my lifelong struggles, and I can’t help it. It’s like, when I came out as omnisexual in 1992, when [New York Times music journalist] Jon Pareles said “Are you a lesbian?” I could have just said no. But I thought that’s not truthful. Even if I don’t want to define myself as a lesbian, I love women, and I have been with women, and even if I’m alone, I don’t know who my next partner is going to be. So I had to invent a word that was free to me: “omnisexual,” meaning, I have to grow and discover my own soul and my own journey. I don’t know what it is yet. So “omni” fit the bill for me. When I said that, I was meaning to say, my choice of partner isn’t based on their gender. It’s not based on their actual sexual apparatus. It’s based on their soul and my soul. And also my sexuality isn’t based on my sexual organs. It’s based on my spirit and my creativity. So how can I put a “gay,” “straight” definition on that? It just seems so limiting to me.

Sophie B Hawkins
Fred Prouser/Reuters

You mentioned your relationship with Sony, which I know turned into a fraught one over the years. When your first album, Tongues and Tails, came out in 1992, how much control over your art and your music did you feel that you had at that time?

Well, I had total control over my art and my music. Because when I chose Sony—and I got to choose from seven labels. I mean, literally from [working as] a coat check and having nobody want to sign me, and no publishing deals, and people apologizing for my singing because I was singing from behind the drum set—to go from that to having this demo tape that was discovered by one individual, Ralph Schuckett.

It was all timing, because all of the first album was there on this one demo tape. So I signed with Sony because they were going to let me do my record, and that was totally clear. They had an A&R guy, Rick Chertoff, who was so smart and he got my music. And I knew that I had to keep fighting, and I had to always have my military persona on the outside, but that if I did, and if I didn’t let up, that I would make the record I wanted to make. I hired the band I wanted, I used my keyboards from my bedroom, I used a lot of the backing vocals from my original demos. And I wouldn’t change a lyric, I wouldn’t let anybody write with me, and they kept trying. “You can’t say ‘damn’ on the radio!” And I just said, “Oh, fuck off! I’m gonna say ‘damn,’ I’m gonna have three verses, and I’m gonna say ‘making love to her’ [in the third verse].”

I was just not gonna let them push me around. And I was a New Yorker, for one thing, so no one was going to mess with me [laughs]. I had already been carrying my drum set up and down four flights of subway stairs twice a day for years. So I will say, I had total control of the music, the lyrics, all that. But the image part was hard.

How so?

I didn’t understand… we didn’t grow up looking in mirrors. I never valued the outside of myself very much. And here I was having to be in front of cameras and people commenting about, “Oh, you have a mole. Oh, your eyes are deep-set. Oh, you’re a little fat.” And I just wanted to be myself and free, and it took a long time to navigate that.

And now, it doesn’t matter. Now I’m way too old to have that matter. If I get a good photo, I’m freakin’ lucky. But then, there was a lot of good photos and it was like, was I too sexy? Was I showing too much? Of course I made every mistake in the book, but I recovered, and then I tried by the second album to really, really be in control of my image. But it never quite worked the way I wanted it to.

So were you finding yourself having to compromise a lot in those days when it came to things like your image, or were you able to definitively say “no” and have that stand?

No, what happened was awful. There were photographers like Merri Cyr, she was great. That was for [her 1994 sophomore album] Whaler. There were photographers like her that I really was myself [with], and I said to Sony, “That’s the image I like, this is the kind of photographer I love.” I would have these amazing wins and moments, and I would say, this is my image, this is my image, and they would use it and promote it. But then there would always be the experience again where I’d be fighting to keep my clothes on. And it wasn’t like anybody got me drunk and took my clothes off. Nobody did. But I’m a very joyful and exploratory person. So I would end up doing things that I then regretted, and I didn’t have the protection of a manager. So it’s really my fault. I was old enough to know better, but, strangely enough, I didn’t know better. And then I would regret it and beat myself up. And look, I have some great images out there, like phenomenal, really iconic images that I love. But I also have some images that I’m really embarrassed by.

Really, like what?

Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. You know, they’re just bad.

It’s interesting that the one photographer who you mentioned that you loved working with was a woman. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence.

It’s true! [With her], I wasn’t objectified. And that was the thing I was looking for. What you’re looking for is to not be objectified when you’re an artist. When you’re a pop star, of course you’re looking to be objectified. You’re looking to manipulate your audience. That’s the thing: I didn’t want to manipulate my audience, and you can tell by my songwriting and by my singing. I wanted to always find the truth; the truth of the song, the truth of the moment. That can be manipulated very easily by the wrong person, and “wrong” meaning that our agendas are completely different.

You described having this kind of militant mindset early in your career. Things like the “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” video being too racy for MTV, or even you singing the word “damn” in a single—were those things that you were prepared to have to fight about? Or were you surprised that those were made into such big deals?

You know, the “Damn” video, I could not believe what was the problem with that video. I had always thought it was me wearing that cloth and being Mowgli in the jungle. Because that was my image of why I was crawling like that: I was Mowgli in the jungle, just like “come inside my jungle book,” which I mention in the second verse. I thought that was the problem, but it wasn’t. I found out really recently. Do you know what the problem was with that video? There’s a section where it’s me and a Black dancer. And that was the problem: that we were touching each other like this [caressing her checks with her fingers] on the face, me and this Black dancer. So they had a problem with the color of our skin. I just found that out.

Wow. How did you find that out?

Somebody who worked for Sony told me. And I guess they all thought it was obvious. It’s something that, growing up in Manhattan or L.A., you would never even think of that, right?

Right. I guess 30 years ago, MTV was totally different. There was a viral clip a few years ago of David Bowie criticizing MTV in the ’80s for not playing enough videos by Black artists, and clearly that was a problem that they continued to have for a long time.

Well, there you go.

Speaking of interviews, the other day I was revisiting this appearance you did on Jay Leno’s show in 1992 where you’re talking about the album title Tongues and Tails, and you’re describing how it was inspired by a person’s imagination being just as sexy as their body. I thought it was a really beautiful description, but the audience is kind of laughing at it and laughing at you. And Jay Leno is, too. That kind of thing seemed to happen to you a lot. Did you feel misunderstood in those kinds of situations, or find it hard to connect with people?

Yeah. I mean, I was giving a truthful answer. I do think that people laughed sometimes with me, but sometimes mockingly, and I wanted to always wear it lightly. I didn’t want to be so self-serious. And I didn’t know why I wasn’t connecting, but I think I was so used to it that I didn’t respond to it. I think it all added up to me having a lack of self-confidence. I think that probably if I had had a great publicist that they would have said, this is how we protect your message and deliver it better. But I didn’t have a manager for the whole first album. And Sony said, oh, you don’t need a manager, we’re behind you. I should not have listened to them.

So yeah, it’s true, I was misunderstood, but it’s a tiny thing. Now, if I said all these things—I mean, now people do say these things and people would take you seriously because they’re true.

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Yeah, even you describing yourself as omnisexual at the time—I don’t think that would be such a big deal today. You see people, including young, mainstream pop stars, being really upfront about their sexuality all the time.

Do you know what? Remember the movie The Hours? It comes from that great book by Michael Cunningham, it’s about Virginia Woolf. I was watching the movie and then I was watching the extra bits at the end, and Nicole Kidman said—you’re not going to believe this, it was one of my most pat-myself-on-the-back moments—she said Virginia Woolf was omnisexual. And I coined that phrase, I made up the word. And I know I made it up. And there was Nicole Kidman saying that one of my heroes, Virginia Woolf, was omnisexual, and I felt like, wow! So all the while that you’ve been laughed at, Sophie, there have been people who have really heard you, and it meant something to them what you’ve done. And that has happened all throughout my career, where I’m not getting anywhere, people are telling me I’m doing all the wrong things, and then there’ll be just this occasional thing where I go, wait a minute, people are listening to me. They do get my music. And that was one of those moments.

It does seem like there has been a sort of reconsideration of that whole era and of artists like yourself. Do you feel like you’ve gotten your flowers? Do you think your place in pop music history is acknowledged and documented correctly?

You know, that’s a really good question. I feel like there’s people who really, really appreciate my music. Absolutely. And they come to the shows, and there’s people in the press, and there’s people all over the world who really appreciate my music. When you say my “place,” I think that might be yet to come. And it’s not to say that I deserve a bigger place. It’s a more specific place. Because now, other artists have told me that I inspired a whole generation of songwriters, and I’m finding that out little by little. So while I think I was very unique, and I did a very unique thing, and I can hear it, and I think other people can too… I think that there will be a time when the place will be clear and recognized, and it hasn’t happened. But I need to get out there more and keep performing and reminding people. And this record, I think, is really good for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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