Interview: Sophie B Hawkins - The pain that shaped a star Passion

An extraordinary film reveals that the power of Sophie B Hawkins' songs stems from an unhappy childhood, discovers Lucy Broadbent

Lucy Broadbent
Tuesday 10 March 1998 01:02

Sophie B Hawkins pulls up at the coffee shop on her bicycle and chains it to a lamp-post outside. As she slips into the cafe in her yellow anorak and jeans, not a single head turns. Were the coffee drinking crowd to know that this was the voice behind Damn, I wish I were your lover, or the singer of As I Lay Me Down - the longest-running hit single in the history of the American Billboard charts - they would be asking for autographs in true LA style.

But fancy cars and the other accoutrements of stardom are not Hawkins' style. And it is her voice, rather than her face that has found fame around the world.

That, however, is about to change. Two years ago Hawkins consented to a documentary to be made of her 1996 `Moxy Tour' across the States. Several weeks into filming they reached New York where Hawkins grew up and an interview with her mother prompted such startling revelations of abuse and trauma during Hawkins' childhood that the documentary was transformed from souvenir rockumentary into a compelling expose of an individual.

Cleverly entwining performance footage with unexpectedly intimate and private moments, Gigi Gaston, who made The Cream Will Rise, demonstrates how the lyrics to Hawkins' songs had been subconsciously telling the tale of her unhappy childhood all along. It took Gaston's probing for Hawkins to see her lyrics' true meaning and the film's conclusion sees both mother and daughter attending therapy sessions in Los Angeles, where Hawkins now lives.

After receiving a standing ovation at the Aspen Film Festival last year, the film has astounded audiences at festivals across the States ever since. This weekend it will be screened at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in London, and Hawkins is due to attend.

"Gigi says she thought she had a bad childhood until she met me; I say I thought I had a great childhood until I met Gigi," laughs Hawkins, 29, who even on film angrily says at one point that she doesn't want to be scrutinised any more. It was after long consideration that she eventually consented to the film's release - but only on the festival circuit.

"At first I minded the documentary quite a bit. I was exposing myself so completely. For a long time I was very critical of it. But now it doesn't seem to matter.

"There is a whole lot of it that has been censored. I mean, a lot of it is so explosive. Daddy declined three or four times to be in the movie, and Gigi had to keep asking him because the stuff my mother said about him, which we wanted in, was so volatile. Eventually we had to cut a great deal."

The film is deliberately ambiguous about what form the abuse takes. A neighbour who used to demand the 10-year-old Hawkins sit on his lap while he was naked is one example that is talked about in specifics. She also admits that she had affairs with her teachers at the age of 10 and 11; and her mother confesses to enjoying some aspects of masochism. But there is a lot more to her story than is revealed here.

"It's what people don't say that is often the most revealing," says Hawkins, pushing back a long tendril of curly blonde hair. She laughs easily, wears no make-up, talks fast and seems effortlessly comfortable with people - even a homeless gent who comes into the coffee-shop demanding change, which she gives.

Born in New York into a family she describes as "eccentric" - her father was a lawyer, her mother a writer - she left home at 14 to train with African drummer Babatune Olatunji and ended up moving in with Gordy Ryan who played with him. She says she always knew she wanted to be a famous musician and idolised David Bowie. For a short time she was a percussionist with Bryan Ferry, then landed a job singing an advertising jingle, which led to her self-produced demo tape including her first hit song Damn I wish I was Your Lover.

Had she not had the kind of childhood described in the film, she says she probably would not have been the same singer and songwriter. "I don't think I'd have half the passion if I didn't have that upbringing," she says. "I don't think I'd have as passionate relationships as I do, because its so meaningful to have really strong, strong, in depth connections with people - and I don't think I would seek those out if I relied heavily on my parents and they were really normal..." Then she adds, after a pause: "I'm pretty lucky, there are a lot of people that are really destroyed."

Fame seems not to have affected her in terms of an oversized ego, as so frequently happens with pop stars. Her favourite story to relate is walking to play tennis one day and hearing four school girls singing As I Lay Me Down. "I thought that was the hugest compliment that could ever be paid to a singer," she says. But did she go over and tell them who she was? "No, of course not. I'd be too embarrassed," says Hawkins. And even though the royalties from her records must make Hawkins a millionaire, she chooses to rent only part of a small house in a modest district of LA to live in. "I'm not the kind that could lead the millionaire lifestyle," she says. "I've got a truck and I've got my bike. I've got a lovely Labrador and two kitty-cats. I live very modestly."

She refuses to say who she lives with. But a casual observer might be tempted to think that something more than just friendship developed between Gaston and Hawkins during the making of the documentary. Hawkins, who has a huge gay and lesbian following, has always preferred to call herself "Omnisexual" rather than gay or bisexual. Gaston arrives half way through the interview and the bickering between the two clearly shows a deep and familiar trust.

"I'm not going to say who I'm with," says Hawkins eventually. I will always talk openly about my sexuality, but I'm not going to be specific." But did something develop between you two during the filming? "We struggled a lot making the film, and we came to respect each other a lot. Although sometimes we can be very competitive, the thing is we keep supporting each other and pushing each other further. I think that's very rare between two women."

Hawkins says she is grateful for the documentary for helping her see herself more clearly. She says it has made her a stronger person and enabled her to fight her record company to make sure her third album, Timbre, due out this summer, was exactly what she wanted it to be.

As anyone who watches The Cream Will Rise will see, she was already a fairly forceful personality.

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