Throughout the 31 years of her music career, singer-songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins has never been one to back down. During the development of her third album, Timbre (1999), she clashed with her record label at the time, Columbia, over her use of banjo in lead single “Lose Your Way” due to worries that it would alienate mainstream listeners. She eventually got her way, despite a delay in the album's release, enlisting the help of her fans. Hawkins cut ties with Columbia Records shortly after and started her own record label, Trumpet Swan Productions.
At that point in her career, she had proven to be a mainstay in the 90s alternative scene. Her debut single, "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover," turned heads due to its non-heteronormative lyrics – Hawkins does not gender her lover until the third verse, when she says, "I lay by the ocean making love to her with visions clear."
The singer came out as omnisexual the same year, a rare and risky move for any public figure at the time. And still, the song peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two years later, her song "As I Lay Me Down" topped the Adult Contemporary Billboard Chart for six weeks.
In the time since, she has released three studio albums: Wilderness (2004), The Crossing (2012), and now, Free Myself (2023).
Free Myself is Hawkins’ ode to self-love and freedom through reinvention, all the while staying true to the passion for romance that she’s had since 1992. Now, in her “third act” of life, Hawkins reflects on the many stages of her career as she travels and performs on tour.
Free Myself is the first album you’ve put out in 11 years. What made you want to release an album now?
Well, the truth is I wanted to release it before many times, but I couldn't really get the support. It was that sort of timing in the universe where I had the songs, but they weren’t heard in the same way by people in the industry. I was struggling to put them out. And people around you are saying, “Do this, do that,” but nothing feels right, and it just feels like you're going up the hill backwards.
And then I said to myself, “I've been going up the hill backwards my whole career. Maybe I should just wait until there's an opening.” And lo and behold, that wisdom paid off! Because then there was an opening, and it was with a lot of the same people I've worked with – like the record company. But everything was different. People looked at my career differently.
And I can’t say it was one specific thing, but I think in life sometimes you go through these really heavy times, and you stay positive through them and you keep working. I guess my motto was ABP: “Always Be Prepared” – I learned that as a teenager from my drum teacher. Because the truth is a time will always come, so every day you have to act as if it’s happening. And then someday, when it does, you go, “Oh, thank goodness, I'm really, really prepared!” And even over-prepared, because by the time I was able to get into the universe with new work, I had so much new work and so many options. And then it was a matter of curating, which was fun.
So when did you start writing the songs that would eventually be on the album? What was the process of cutting down songs like?
I have a friend who's an editor, and she said, “Look, I'm going to help you curate this because there's too much and there’s too many different stories, and some of them have to be for your next [album], and your next, and your next.” And while I was used to that concept, I had never had anyone say it so clearly. And then I realized, it's also because I'm in a much clearer place in my life. So yes, I had to remove songs from this album.
Also, “Consume Me in Your Fire” is on this album as a demo. And that's because [there was] a beautiful, expensive recording with strings, and it was in a different key. It just was too serious and it wasn't as dramatic. We needed that one “Sophie surprise,” and I felt that the demo of “Consume Me in Your Fire” was that. And then people heard it and they said, “Yeah that’s better.” And we even thought that we should extend the demo, but then nothing worked. It was like: Nope, leave it raw.
How many songs did you have at first?
We recorded 20 songs – like in the studio recorded with strings, drums, guitar, the whole thing. The rest of them, look, they may not even make the next record. There's such a diversity in my writing. Some of them are really appropriate for the musical I’ve written. Some of them are definitely going to be on an album.
And then – get this – I was also approached to do sort of a retrospective box set for the Tongues and Tails anniversary. So I put all my energy into getting my cassettes from the 80s and 90s – and strangely enough I have those cassettes. So I have these original demos from when I was like, 19 years old, and I said, “Oh my god, these didn’t make the first album, but they’re wonderful!” And so then I said that I’m not going to do this retrospective thing because these songs are so good. I actually want to release these, because my songs aren’t linear. Just because I wrote them 30 years ago doesn’t mean they’re not still relevant now. And, at the same time, some of the songs on this album, like “Hungered for Love,” people say sound like an old Sophie song.
I actually thought the same thing. And you know what it is that makes it sound like one of your 90s songs? It’s the way you portray love, there’s such a melodramatic hunger to it – and yet there’s also a tenderness there. How has your relationship to love and romance changed over the years, especially since becoming a mother?
Oh, it's changed extraordinarily. In “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” I have that line that leads into the chorus that says, “And I return as chained and bound to you.” I don’t like the idea of being chained and bound anymore. Now, this album’s called Free Myself, and I’m really aware of my parts and my personality has these many different facets. And I’m aware of the passion and, as you said, the hunger for love, and to have that be so pure.
But I'm also aware of my need for freedom and my need to have my voice dictate where I'm going and what I'm doing. Because often in my hunger for love, I've subjugated my need for freedom or my voice all in the hopes of being so connected and so intimate; I'm going to follow along with this person. You know, “Lose your way and I will follow.” And I'm not saying that I won't meet that person again, but at the moment, I am more like, “If you lose your way. I'll be here when you find it again, but I’m going my own way!” It’s sort of a maturity. This is my third act. I only have one more act of life, and I want to be all the things that I've never gotten to be before. There are elements of all those sides of me in all my albums, but now it's crucial that I just feel the elements of freedom and freedom of expression.
Watching my children going through these stages of life and knowing that, if they can land on their feet, they're gonna have their own complete philosophy of love and living. And that's what I want to know – what is theirs?
Mine has come from this culmination of what you're hearing now: “Love Yourself,” “Free Myself,” “Consume Me In Your Fire.” It all exists within this one human entity, but not one of them really can dominate the other for the sake of pleasing anybody. Really, the sake is my art, the sake is my legacy, the sake is my movement now and where I want to be in ten years.
How is the tour going?
I mean, for me, as a performer, it’s going miraculously well because I really love my musicians. We all are so energized and creative on stage. It's just three of us, but we keep switching instruments. And we keep trying new things before every show – we're playing songs in the dressing room. And this is just not usual. At this point, we've already been through a major tour and some minor ones, and usually by this point people are tired of each other, but we're not. We're really excited to keep adding new songs and to have this great camaraderie. We all, for lack of a better word, believe in the same things. We all like to go on hikes and search for mushrooms. We all believe in the planet and other people. It's really an amazing synergy that we have together. And if you get to come see it, I would really recommend it.
What have you learned about your new music since sharing it with a live audience?
I think that when I was super supported by a major label, it wasn't as surprising, ultimately, that people would be singing along and loving [the songs] because I knew that they heard them on the radio, and on TV, and in movies. And I knew it was partly this huge support from the corporate world that I was getting. And I was so appreciative of it, and I always believed in my songs and knew the songs were great, but I also knew that I was being supported and fed to people.
But now it's completely different. People are finding me and they're loving the songs purely by the way I’m performing them and by them finding it. No one's shoving it down their throat. There's no major push like that. Of course there’s not. So now, it’s so organic. It’s unbelievable. And the sense of trust I have! Like, in the shows when I'm singing “Love Yourself” and people are singing along, it’s just shocking to me. It is beautiful. Because it's not coming from them having been forced to listen to it on pop radio, it's coming from them really liking it and resonating with the lyrics.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.