Q&A: Sophie B. Hawkins

(Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)

I chatted with Sophie B Hawkins about the 30th Anniversary of her hit album “Whaler” and how she’s always been at the forefront of the industry.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

When I was six years old, I would walk around like an Indian and bang a drum. My grandmother took me to one piano lesson but I never got to go back to it. I kept trying. At 9, I said “I have to have drum lessons!” My mom found a Jazz drum school in Harlem and we went there for one lesson..couldn’t find it again. I couldn’t find it meant I couldn’t do it. Finally at 14, I could leave the house and do it on my own. And that’s what I did!

Your album “Whaler” was released in 1994. Why tour with it now?

People love it AND it’s the anniversary. Whenever I post something about “Whaler”, the emotional reaction is so deep. It was an incredible part of my life. I’m a little known for my independence and doing things a few steps ahead of everyone else. I came out as omnisexual in 1992; leaving my label and starting my own in 1998.

After the first album, Sony said “move to Europe, America doesn’t understand you.” Of COURSE I’ll move to Europe. I got to make the album outside of the constraints of the U.S. and made the album. I got to develop a whole different side of myself. It started me off on my independent ways.

What is your favorite song off the album and why?

That shifts and changes. I love rediscovering my music. All of the songs off my albums are written so well. They’re just produced differently. I enjoy sitting in the seat of the song. I’m loving performing “Don’t Don’t Tell Me No”, which I didn’t appreciate when I first recorded.

“As I Lay Me Down” is one of those comfort songs for me. My parents would play the album and I would get excited when the song came on..

Oh wow!

..or on the radio. Why do you think your music still resonates profoundly today?

Because it’s so true in spirit. I don’t accept things that sound like someone else. I work it out until it’s intuitive. I think that’s why those songs left. I don’t settle for mediocre albums. I wanted to leave behind a legacy of music that were iconic. They’re not intellectual. It’s what’s eternal for me.

You sued your previous label to get back your song masters. Take me through what happened.

I’m more than ten years ahead in that thinking. Sony and I had this argument about wanting me to start writing with these tribes of songwriters at the time. I wrote all of my songs, ten number one hits in Europe, three number ones in the United States. Why would I start writing with others? These people didn’t even have a track record. Joni Mitchell was never asked to write with someone else. Why would they want to dilute me?

I produced the next album but they were unrelenting. They said “Lose Your Way” would be a big hit but I would have to lose the banjo. And that was the straw that broke the camels back. I composed that song with the banjo because it’s the only instrument made in America. It symbolized my freedom as an artist. They sent me a version of the song without the banjo and it was literally a rip off of Four Non Blondes. They told me to talk a walk and I did. They said “wait wait wait, you’re a catalog artist; you’ll always sell records, let’s focus on this.” If I sued them for all of the money they owed me, it would’ve taken years and a lot of money on my end, and none of my music would’ve been re-released. So we settled on just the masters. By 1999, I started releasing my albums independently.

You’re free.

It was a good idea at the time because I got a big advance to start my independent label. I got to make my own life. A few bad decisions, but a lot of good ones.

What is the biggest difference in the industry from say 1994 to now?

Wow ::pause:: I think the power of the labels. The power is now dispersed. Obviously the biggest difference is the internet and streaming. You don’t have to commit to a full album.. just cherry pick which songs you like. It hurts artists, but some of the young artists seem to be doing just fine.

Touring is still the most important thing. A bad difference is that songwriters don’t get paid anymore. I didn’t survive on my tours, those song royalties kept me afloat and still is. It should be illegal that songwriters don’t make any money now.

When I used to get an ASCAP check, when my songs were featured in films or TV shows, they were enormous because I had hit songs and I wrote the songs. But digital and streaming is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what we used to get. Some artists make 0.006% of a cent on ONE SPIN. I have a lot of spins and if I were getting at least 1 cent per spin, it would be a lot better for artists.

Your songs have been featured in “Dawson’s Creek”, “Cold Case”, “Now and Then”, and “New Years Eve” to name a few. What is it like now being a part of those films and shows legacy?

It’s great. It keeps my music out there. The only feelings I have is when I’m making that art. That’s what the artist craves. The food we like.

During lockdown, I binged “Dawson’s Creek” and a few of your songs were in that first season. And then I watched “Now and Then” not long after. Your songs were everywhere!

That’s so amazing! “Dawson’s Creek” had the song WITH the banjo! That’s funny!

There was an episode of “Community” that revolved around you and a Sophie B Hawkins dance. What was that like?

That was SO fun. I LOVED it. I loved the actors and the process of it. It was 100% a great experience. I couldn’t be in that world because you have to be present so much.

Are you excited about your show in Columbia ?

Yes! It’s a place I haven’t been before. It’s a different market for me. I’m usually in the Northeast. It’s great to keep venturing out and build connections. I have some very, very dear mementos from Maryland. When my son was born, I bought this boat made out of wood in Annapolis. I bought my very marimba in Bethesda. I have some history in Maryland! ::laughs:: It’s funny how when you get older, all things start to come together again.

Sophie headlines The Collective Encore in Columbia on May 29th!

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