Miley Cyrus can buy herself all the flowers she wants. On her new album about single life, Sophie B. Hawkins recommends other indulgences.
“Went to a party, the folks were fine. I ate coconut cake, and drank all red wine,” Hawkins sings in the opening lines of “Love Yourself,” the lead-off track from her new album “Free Myself” released last week. The singer, 58, gained fame in the 1990s for her songs about unapologetic lesbian longing (”Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”) and a chart-topping lullaby (”As I Lay Me Down”).
But whereas in her current divorce earworm “Flowers,” Cyrus sounds like she’s taunting ex Liam Helmsworth, Hawkins exhorts everyone to savor that pinot and enjoy an epiphany with a slice of cake rather than schadenfreude.
“Oooo baby, love yourself. Ain’t nobody else gonna fill that hole, ain’t nobody else gonna carry your soul” she sings, in catchy neo-soul chorus that sounds less twee than it reads. And most importantly, Hawkins said, unlike Cyrus, she’s singing “without angst” about a true story.
Hawkins spoke this week from her home in Connecticut, reflecting on that night she went out solo, ate coconut cake and confidently went to bed alone. And yes, this is the same Sophie B. Hawkins who crooned, “I’d rock you to the daylight comes, make sure you are smiling and warm.”
Hawkins’ spring album release tour includes a series of DMV dates, including Rams Head Annapolis on Thursday, The Hamilton in Washington, D.C., April 1 and Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia on April 14.
“Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” led off Hawkins’ platinum 1992 album “Tongues and Tails” and has been streamed on Spotify more than 40 million times, a sign of its enduring popularity. One version of the music video was deemed too risque for MTV. Two years later, the dance-pop single “Right Beside You,” stressed the importance of connected coupledom. So it’s noteworthy that on her sixth studio release, Hawkins is comfortable singing about the opposite of longing.
“It’s not a break-up album, it’s a breakthrough album,” she said of “Free Myself.” “And realizing that the other person is not as important as all the people within myself.”
Put another way, she’s come to the realization that, “How I respond to other people is basically how well I’m taking of myself,” Hawkins said. Her new album also includes a minor key ballad about a lying partner (”I’m Better Off Without You”) and a bluesy number called “I’m Tired of Taking Care of You,” backed by Hammond B3 organ, strings and even a harmonica.
Throughout the record, Hawkins comes off as more balanced than bitter, and several songs reference her two school-aged children. In 2014, she split with her longtime partner and manager Gigi Gaston, with whom she had a 5-year-old son. A few years later, Hawkins opted to become a mother again via a frozen embryo, and blogged about being pregnant at 50 for People magazine. The songwriting material she has to draw from now is very different from the life she had as a 20-something, flannel-wearing rocker in 1990s, but little in her process has changed, Hawkins said.
“All my songs are true stories,” she said. “And then the song writings comes from being able to bestow some higher wisdom.”
Thirty years ago, Hawkins’ frankly written pop songs successfully bridged grunge rock and Lilith Fair, the all-female touring festival founded by Sarah McLachlan. Multi-generational mainstage acts included Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. While in retrospect, Lilith Fair can be criticized for its lack of racial diversity, the late 1990s were high times for female singer-songwriters. Hawkins’ said she and her peers built on the groundwork laid by Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, Carole King and Joni Mitchell.
Today, she says, fewer women achieve success and airplay based on the strength of their own original songwriting. There are exceptions — she points to Brandi Carlile and Maryland native Maggie Rogers as examples — but by and large, she grieves that female songwriting seems to have stalled in favor of music written by algorithms.
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“That’s the whole thing about our culture now. It’s almost like the worst job to be is a songwriter,” Hawkins said. “You have songwriters who are really good getting very small amounts of money writing songs for a TV show. It’s just degrading and horrifying.”
The rather depressing analogy she’s devised for her generation, post-Lilith Fair, is the same fate as characters played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in an iconic 1991 film. “We broke through like Thelma and Louise. That was our time. And then Thelma and Louise went off a cliff. They got somewhere, and then they had to be killed.”
The film’s ending is symbolic for women in music who took risks during the same era. “That’s what happened in the ‘90s as we went on. You could be brave. You could be a complete, unique artist, but you weren’t guaranteed to get in the Hall of Fame. You were probably going to have to go off a cliff in a burning flame.”
The personal narratives of Hawkins’ peers Alanis Morrissette and Liz Phair became entwined with addiction. Hawkins had to cope with being out and queer, and fighting with her former producers. She was told to write with “tribes of people,” and ultimately left Capitol Records because the company wouldn’t let their former star include a banjo on her third album. “It wasn’t just the record company,” she said. “It was the times.”
So now, after devoting much of the past decade to her children, Hawkins is back on the road again, but playing with a pair of musicians instead of a dozen like in her ‘90s music videos. Her most-ardent fans have aged alongside her. But what gives Hawkins hope is that the same Gen-X fans who slow-danced to “As I Lay Me Down” in high school are now bringing their own teenage children to her shows.
“So many people’s children were born listening to that song,” she said of the No. 1 hit. “So there is a connection with the ‘90s now for me at these shows, to who I was in the ‘90s to these 17-year-olds. Isn’t that interesting? And they love the ‘90s songs. So the legacy goes on.”
Tickets for Hawkins’ Rams Head Annapolis performance Thursday night can be purchased at ramsheadonstage.com/events/detail/468631. Doors open at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.