Hawkins, Sophie B.
Sophie B. Hawkins
Singer, songwriter, musician
When Sophie B. Hawkins emerged on the charts with her 1992 hit, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” critics rushed to categorize her. In spite of the song’s soulful hook, Hawkins’ background was rock and an eclectic array of influences that ranged from David Bowie to Barbra Streisand to African folk music. Sophie Ballantine Hawkins, it turned out, did not fit the established categories.
As a blond who attracted attention with nude pictures in Interview magazine, she might seem like another Madonna. But she eschews comparisons to the pop diva, and again, her songs have a passion lacking in most of Madonna’s hits. Nor does she fit anyone’s attempts to dismiss her as “just another female singer,” since she writes her own songs, plays keyboards and percussion, and is heavily involved in production.
Born in New York City in 1967, Hawkins grew up in Manhattan, the youngest of three children. Her parents, a wealthy lawyer and a writer, raised their children in an unorthodox fashion: Hawkins’ mother, British novelist
Born Sophie Ballantine Hawkins, 1967, in New York City; daughter of Joan Winthrop (a writer), and a lawyer father.
Studied and performed with drummer Baba Olatunji, early 1980s; toured as percussionist for Bryan Ferry, 1991; obtained recording contract with Columbia Records, released Tongues and Tails, with hit “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” 1992; released follow-up, Whaler, 1994; moved from New York to Los Angeles, 1996.
Addresses: Management —Stiletto Entertainment, 5443 Beethoven St., Los Angeles, CA 90066.
Joan Winthrop, smoked marijuana and would sometimes pull her daughter out of school to go with her to Coney Island. But even her liberal parents were not amused when at age 14 Sophie fell in love and moved in with an older man. The older man was Gordy Ryan, percussionist for an ensemble led by Nigerian master drummer Baba Olatunji, whose troupe lived at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City. Hawkins gained her introduction to them from her aunt Linda, masseuse for Paul Simon, but it was far from her first exposure to the world of music.
From an early age, Hawkins saw herself as a drummer, and she and her siblings would pretend that they were a band. “I used to set up the couch and chairs and make them into a drum set,” she recalled in a Sony website article. “I’d play the ‘drums’ to all the songs and sing the bass parts while my brother and sister would ‘play guitar’ on tennis rackets.”
But only Sophie burned with a dream for stardom even at the age of seven. Hawkins told Rollling Stone’s David Wild that she “was going to be a Mick Jagger or a David Bowie or a Bob Dylan, whatever it was they did. I remember sitting there, looking out of a window, listening to a record and saying: That’s it. That’s who I am.’”
Bowie’s name has often come up as a principal influence in Hawkins’ early years, and he was closely tied in her mind to the single greatest influence of all: her mother. “I always thought my mother was [German actress and sex symbol] Marlene Dietrich,” she reported to Wild. “And to me he was like the male Marlene Dietrich.”
At age nine, Hawkins began taking percussion lessons at a Harlem jazz school. Drums were not exactly the instrument of choice for most musically inclined girls, of course, but then Hawkins was always unusual. One day at age 14, she skipped basketball practice and went with her aunt to meet Olatunji and his troupe at their quarters in the Ansonia. Olatunji showed her a few things on the drums that afternoon, then taught her an African song. “When I left three hours later,” she told Wild, “my life made sense. This was the incarnation of everything I wanted.” Hawkins never went back to basketball, and she soon left her home and school as well, to move in with Gordy Ryan.
During the decade between moving in with Ryan and the recording of her first album, Hawkins bounced around from job to job. She sang with a punk band called the Pink Men, formed a group called Sophie’s Private Wave, and of course toured with Olatunji’s ensemble. (She lived with Ryan until the age of 20.)
Hawkins even gave up singing for awhile, for a stint in performance art and acting. Other non-musical work included tending bar, waiting tables, and coat-checking. She still knew she wanted to be a star, and when she received an offer from Roxy Music founder Bryan Ferry to tour as a percussionist, it might have seemed like the break she was waiting for. But after three months he called her and, though professing that he and the rest of the band liked her style, told her she just didn’t mesh with the rest of the band musically. The next day, she said, she woke up crying. She was 24, young for almost any profession except that of popular musician, a realm in which people who break out in their late twenties are considered late bloomers. Desperate and uncertain about her future, she was inspired to write, and came up with the song “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.”
Soon afterward, while she was working in the coat-check booth, a man told her that she had a nice speaking voice, and suddenly her demo tape was circulating to various record company executives. A bidding war followed between Sire, Arista, and Columbia, with the latter winning out over the others and signing Hawkins. In 1992, Columbia released her album Tongues and Tails, with “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” The song reached number five on the charts, and Billboard called it “a potential single of the year.” Hawkins was on her way. “I feel pretty comfortable with the attention that I’m getting lately,” she told Rolling Stone. “Things are pretty much happening like I always imagined that they would. I remember when I was eighteen… I told my guitar player that I’d be making my first album when I was twenty-five. So I guess things are basically on schedule.”
Hawkins’ optimism would remain somewhat unfulfilled. Her follow-up effort, 1994’s Whaler, received considerably less attention than its predecessor. Entertainment Weekly’s Peter Galvin, who apparently could not resist playing on the aquatic (Moby Dick) theme, observed that the album had “sunk.”
Hawkins also endured flak from her record company for her nude pictures in Interview magazine. But the complaints revolved not around morality, but appearance: Sophie had allowed herself to be photographed without makeup, the executives complained, and did not look “glamorous enough.” In response, she told Details magazine, “with most women it’s posed and they look beautiful and sexy and glamorous. I look like a cow. It doesn’t look like I think I’m pretty or have a good body or like I think I’m going to turn somebody on—but why do women always have to turn someone on? So it was a big statement.”
Clearly Hawkins marches to her own drummer—herself, much of the time—and that has not always earned her a great deal of good will. She has said that she has only one celebrity friend, comedian Rosie O’Donnell. Not content to identify herself as heterosexual or homosexual, having had both male and female lovers, she has been described as “omnisexual,” and has demonstrated an affinity for the works of the feminist author Camille Paglia.
Audiences have remained loyal to Hawkins, and she has a wide fan base on the Internet. Moreover, after an initial tepid response to Whaler, she enjoyed a hit single with “As I Lay Me Down,” which in June of 1996 earned the all-time record for longest-running single on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts.
A documentary on Hawkins’ work, The Cream Will Rise, gained critical attention when it debuted on February 11, 1997. She remained in the limelight throughout the year with appearances on ABC’s Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher in July and the contribution of an Elton John cover, “Border Song,” for the soundtrack of the movie The Associate. In August of 1997, several newspapers reported that Hawkins, who had moved to L.A. from New York and set up her own recording studio in her house, was working with famed producer Peter Asher on a CD to be entitled Angels Get My Mansions Ready.
In a short career that has defied attempts at categorization, Hawkins has established herself with a style that Rolling Stone aptly characterized as “[crossing] rhythmically ambitious, sensual dance pop with the introspection of singer-songwriter rock.”
Tongues and Tails, Columbia, 1992.
Whaler, Columbia, 1994.
(Contributor)The Associate (soundtrack), 1996.
Advocate, February 6, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, October 1995.
EQ, March 1996.
Harper’s Bazaar, January 1992.
Hollywood Reporter, April 6, 1995.
Interview, September 1991; January 1994; February 1994.
Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1996.
Mademoiselle, September 1992.
Musician, October 1, 1994.
New York, April 13, 1992.
New York Times, May 13, 1996.
Rolling Stone, September 3, 1992.
Us, March 1996.
Washington Post, May 16, 1996.
Additional information was provided by Sophie B. Hawkins sites on the World Wide Web.
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