If it weren't for the warm, husky seduction in Sophie B. Hawkins voice, you'd swear you were talking to a child. Hawkins eagerly leaps at questions and insightfully discusses her life and music. In the background, Spearhead leaks in from the tape deck. We chat via cell phone as she and her band wind their way through Kentucky's bluegrass vista.
"God, it's so beautiful," she says.
Hawkins is back on the road and has just released Wilderness, her fourth album, on her own Trumpet Swan Records. Wilderness is the artist maturing, regaining control, putting the music first, and yet, it still possesses a beautiful continuity with her past endeavors.
"The sameness about [Wilderness] is the person and the spirit and the soul is exactly the same," she says. "I wrote it much more the way I wrote everything before I was ever signed --- which is in any kind of mood at any kind of day at any time because I wasn't signed to a label and I was very free. I was just living my life, recording in my little shack with vines growing through the walls and leaks in the ceiling --- which I love --- and all the animals running around making noise."
Sophie B. Hawkins grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the child of relatively unmusical parents.
"There was no one musical in my family," she says. "We weren't encouraged, in fact we were discouraged from taking any kind of lesson."
Never the less, little Sophie was struck when her mother spun some Dylan.
"It was when I was around six years old," she says. "It was 'Positively Fourth Street.' I felt such a oneness with New York and the music that was playing on the record player, such a oneness with humanity. And I was wearing my father's sunglasses --- which were huge --- and I was looking out the window and I started crying." This epiphany inspired the six-year-old to write her first song, or at least part of one.
"'Teardrops Behind My Dark Glasses,'" she sings. "That was it, the only part of the song. And I thought, 'I'm a songwriter.' And I didn't do it again until I was way older."
Hawkins studied at The Manhattan School Of Music and began sharpening her teeth in the NYC club scene at joints like CBGB, Kenny's, and The Bitter End.
Her 1992 debut album, Tongues And Tails, produced the hit "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover." The song's angst, passion, and sexuality burned to number five on Billboard's Hot 100 Single's Chart. And though she still performs it live and record label fat cats hounded her incessantly for its sequel, Hawkins is over it.
"I really love 'Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,"' she says. "I wish I could write another one, but I can't because it came from a life experience. If I repeated the life experience then I'd just be a moron repeating myself."
It was simply a song borne of a real life lesson learned.
"That's why that song has so much angst," she says.
You might call Hawkins' music "pop" if it weren't for its lyrical depth and soul. Her fingerprints are all over the different facets of Wilderness. She recorded most of the tracks herself.
"I think it's much more fun when other musicians play," she says. "However, I do it in my room and no one's there. So I'm engineering, I'm recording, I'm doing it just like a kid in their playroom." And this approach supports Hawkins' humble view of herself.
"I'm not a singer at all," she says. "I consider myself a musician who always wants to be a good musician and a composer who wants to be a great composer, and a songwriter who wants to be a great songwriter, and the rest, you know, just happens."
"You know what I'm looking for in a singer?" she asks. "I'm looking for a soul singer. I'm so sick of these singers who just fucking sing. I'm so bored with them. They're not believable."
Hawkins' persona is so believable, however, that Hollywood has come knocking.
"Every once in awhile I'll get these movie roles without pursuing them," she says. "And I really have fun doing them and that's that." So despite the classic Hollywood-esque ring to her name, and roles in three prominent pictures this year, Hawkins is a musician.
The music on Wilderness is still rooted in obvious power, mixed both with a kind of justifiable rage and innocence. Stylistically it rides the fence between too many styles to mention or at some times even discern. But throughout you can feel the intensity. You can taste it.
From the haunting beauty of tunes like "Angel Of Darkness" to the powerfully repetitious refrain of "Beautiful Girl," Hawkins looks at things as if for the first time.
She vacillates smoothly between brokenhearted laments and observations full of childlike wonder. Wilderness was clearly written from this perch.
"At some times I think I was pre-pubescent," she says. "Because I was in the happiness, the happiness of music. Not like 'I've gotta be intense, I've gotta get these feelings out, or blah, blah, blah, and compete with this artist or that sound.'"
So Hawkins is happy where she's at --- and the music shows with its prevailing joy and wonder. Now there's no one to restrict her like the hammerheads at Columbia (her former label) who told her she couldn't record banjo on a track.
"It's fun to challenge myself," she says. "I hear something and say 'Well, gosh, how can I get that sound?' --- because I'm not a virtuoso guitar player. Or, 'How can I get those string parts?' --- cause I'm not a virtuoso cello player. So I end up having a lot of fun."
Sophie B. Hawkins plays with guest Tony Lucca Friday, April 30, at The Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, at 7 and 10 p.m. Tix: $25 to $30. 232-8380
The band is the pistol-packin' ruler of Western swing and all the genres that lead up to it.