26 years have passed since Sophie B. Hawkins released “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” but its case for being one of the greatest ‘side one, track ones’ in music history remains iron-clad. What arrived as a primordial tempest of female sexual empowerment has stuck around long enough to become both a rallying cry for LGBTQ acceptance and a reminder of everything missing from the American pop landscape in 2018. Regardless of how often Taylor Swift attempts to convey the anguish of her relationship du jour, she’ll never be as authentic as Hawkins was in 1992. In a business that has been peddling sex to the masses since the days of Elvis Presley, the fact that she couldn’t even get MTV to air the original cut of the “Damn” music video shows how little respect the industry had and continues to have for women in control of their creative destinies.
Despite earning her mainstream moment in the ‘90s, Ms. Hawkins has operated independent from the corporate machine for most of her career, and, as a result, has been able to compose the kind of thematically adventurous material that makes life worth living. Listen to the 2001 re-release of her 1999 album “Timbre,” and you’ll hear an artist whose talent and powers of seduction are too great to be at the mercy of a major label. She’s a voice that is best served hot and in the confines of a room intimate enough to feed off her aura, which is exactly what makes The Bear’s Den such an appealing location.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Hawkins in anticipation of her show at Seneca Niagara Casino on June 30, and, as someone who has yet to experience her music in a live setting, the show can’t come soon enough.
Music N’ Other Drugs: I’ve been covering the music scene in western New York for nearly a decade, but I’m yet to experience your music in a live setting. Have you played in this area before?
Sophie B. Hawkins: I’ve been up there a lot. I love it up there.
MNOD: How have you been mixing up the set from night to night on this tour?
Hawkins: I just finished a new album in 2017 and the response to that has been fantastic. Sure, I’ll always play “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” “Only Love,” and the other songs that audiences love, but I also include drum solos throughout that allow me to get back in touch with my African musical roots. I have a set worked out that I think plays well, so I’ll only change it if the venue tells me that it’s too long. Some places prefer a more rock ‘n’ roll set and that’s what they’ll get. I’ll meet fans after the show and they’ll tell me how many of my songs bring back memories for them, which is why I usually trust my gut when putting a set list together.
MNOD: 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of your debut album “Tongues and Tails.” How do you feel about that material today?
Hawkins: I love it now more than ever. I think it’s a wonderful album full of timeless songs that dealt with a lot of topics that made people uncomfortable at the time. I’ve always been about not conforming and making music that is pure, raw, and real, which is what that album represents. I fought like hell to make that album happen and I stood my ground in terms of having those songs be presented the way I wanted them. That album never disappoints me.
MNOD: “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” is the song that put you on the map as an artist. How do you think a song like that would be received in 2018?
Hawkins: I think it would be well-received, but I don’t think that there are any artists today that would release a song like that. It’s aged incredibly well, because it’s so original. It has three verses and is kind of a treatise. I love and adore it. It may sound wrong to say, but artists today aren’t all that smart when it comes to what they write about. You knew that Joni Mitchell was highly intelligent and articulate from listening to her songs, but there’s a narcissistic component in today’s artists that isn’t good. I’ve been outspoken politically in the past, but I wonder if anyone will speak out any longer about the things that matter. There’s a money factor involved that leaves no real incentive for artists to do that. Even if someone put out a song like that today, it wouldn’t feel real.
MNOD: I’ve always been drawn to the vulnerability of your songwriting. Is that something that came easy to you?
Hawkins: It may sound like the pretentious thing to say, but I started writing songs to heal myself. I started out studying classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music and was into African drumming. I write from the soul of life and for no other reason. I’m fascinated by the mysteries of life on Earth, so writing from a vulnerable place has always been natural for me.
MNOD: How did growing up in New York City influence your artistic direction?
Hawkins: Living in New York made me excited about being human and also more tolerant. I don’t really like the word ‘tolerant,’ though, because I’m interested in understanding where racism and other prejudices come from. That’s something I don’t think has been researched enough. New York also made me confident and in love with everyone’s faults.
MNOD: “Nocturne” has been my favorite song of yours since the day I heard it. How did that song come about?
Hawkins: Thank you, I’m glad that you love that song. I’ve always tried to remain open and accessible when writing, but certain ideas come up and then subside, come up and then subside again. The darker, adult style of “Nocturne” really captured what my songwriting process is about.
MNOD: You’ve been on a vegetarian diet for a while now. How did the decision to stop eating meat come into play?
Hawkins: It has to do with certain food tastes, really, as well as being against the harming of animals. I’m not against the industry and don’t want to cast dispersions against those that do eat meat, I just don’t enjoy the taste. Farms have gotten much better with their treatment of animals recently and I think farming animals for food is a natural part of life. I love that my son has decided to be a vegetarian, because he made the decision on his own and it’s such a genuine move.
MNOD: Because you became a mother later in your career, have you found that your children have influenced that way in which you write songs?
Hawkins: I recently did a song for Christmas called “Christmas Reminds Me of You” as a response to my son Dashiell not believing and it came from a very real place. 100% of the proceeds were donated to families in Puerto Rico. I also have a song called “You Are My Balloon,” which is directly inspired by my kids.
MNOD: I have a two-year-old son, so I know that balancing parenthood with your creative endeavors can be challenging. How have you been able to manage that?
Hawkins: I love my kids. They only have one parent, so I spend as much time with them as I can. The scale is probably tipped toward my kids, perhaps too much, but, when I die, I don’t want to feel as if I missed any opportunities to see them. I devote a solid five hours to writing and doing something super creative each day, which is more than a lot of people get. I’d say that I’m doing well.
Sophie B. Hawkins will be at The Bear’s Den inside Seneca Niagara Casino on June 30. See www.senecacasinos.com for details.