It’s such a cliché to say that someone “broke the mold,” and it doesn’t even apply to Sophie B. Hawkins — best known for her ‘90s hits “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down.” Because there is no mold to break. Hawkins, who will appear with G.E. Smith on Friday, July 27, as part of Smith’s “Portraits” series at Guild Hall, along with legendary folk guitarist and musician Trevor Hall, is utterly original.
It might be easy to peg her as a two-hit wonder for some, but then they don’t know Hawkins. Her first album, Tongues and Tails, featured not only a bevy of beautifully-crafted songs but also the noises of trains, other languages, whispers, rhythmic beats, animal calls; a compendium of sounds which created a mish-mosh of intrigue. It was so much more than what the 1992 hit single promised, which was perhaps a few frothy pop confectionaries. She continued in her own style with other albums, telling her powerful stories in her raw and pure voice.
Hawkins composes, sings, plays percussion along with piano and guitar (and even a little cello), and is known for her colorful paintings depicting both the figurative and abstract. “I always have been most inspired by emotions expressed in images and stories told symbolically,” she said, though musically “I did flip out for Billie Holiday, David Bowie, and sometimes Bob Dylan. I liked different things about each one, but now I would say I love an artist like Nick Drake the most.”
Hawkins is also the mother of two young children, having had the foresight at the age of 30 of freezing her fertilized eggs for a later date.
But first, let’s talk about her new stuff, and what she’ll be bringing to Guild Hall. How is it valid, how does it connect to her life today?
“I’m so glad you asked that,” Hawkins began, as we chatted at the home of Smith and his wife, Taylor Barton, who is producing the “Portraits” series. “First of all, when I was writing these new songs, I was experiencing a personal tsunami. I didn’t ask for it. It wasn’t coming from me, but it was happening to me.”
Her son, Dashiell, was five, when Hawkins, a long-time denizen of the West Coast, decided to move back East. “Back to the Upper West Side,” she said, near where she went to high school. “And then all of these songs started pouring out of me. I was gigging around and basically finding my feet again — this single mother wanting to record, wanting to begin again.”
The new album carries Hawkins’ signature style, painting beautiful scenes of love, heartbreak, self-awareness, and everything in between. “I’m Better Off Without You” is an empowering tale about betrayal and the strength that comes from it. She explained, “The worst thing that could happen, the thing I most feared, actually set me free.”
“Love Yourself,” which she rehearsed with Smith that afternoon in Amagansett, is a wonderful lesson of self-acceptance, in which Hawkins learns to enjoy the peace of just being herself. “Consume Me In Your Fire” is a raw poem about being drawn to the fire and letting yourself burn, not worrying about anything else, because it’s all transitional.
After moving back to Manhattan, she then got pregnant with Esther at 50 years old. These were, of course, both planned pregnancies, but Hawkins swears that she heard Esther calling to her to come into being before she even made the decision to have another baby. “She was talking to me,” Hawkins said, becoming emotional. “The same with Dashiell. I heard his soul literally speaking to me for a year before I got pregnant. I had been so insecure about being a good mother, but he reassured me. And then he just came. It was no effort at all. The same with Esther.”
She had initially frozen the embryos “for stem cell research, ostensibly,” she said. “So I could donate them to someone who had an accident, a spinal injury.” And she didn’t plan on getting pregnant at first. “My career has always been like climbing up a hill, backward,” she said. “I’d been fighting against the currents forever. But nothing makes me happier than my kids.”
Working with G.E. Smith on stage gives Hawkins a chance to “introduce the new stuff. I feel like this is going to be a turning point for me creatively,” she said. So how has her sound evolved?
“I’m not sure my sound has evolved,” she said, “but I’m definitely saying different things as I live, as I grow. I would say I include more parts of myself each passing year, and I’m more comfortable with all parts. There is a beauty to my old songs, an austere purity, and there is a comforting acceptance in the new songs. I think the emergence of my mother self has given the music a more roomy, perhaps less urgent, but equally as passionate quality.”
And she’s really looking forward to her Guild Hall performance with Smith. “I worked with G.E. 20 years ago, and I adored his playing of course, but more so his presence,” she said. “He is generous, alert, like a child, and yet wise. I suppose he’s grown into his wisdom. I look forward to being present with him onstage. It will be a surprise for both of us. I know he can explore with me in the moment, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Tickets for G.E. Smith’s “Portraits” with Sophie B. Hawkins and Trevor Hall can be purchased on the www.guildhall.org website, or by calling the Guild Hall box office at 631-324-4050. The performance, which starts at 8 PM, is also eligible for student rush tickets.