Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Very Brief but Candid Conversation with Sam Jones

Sam Jones and myself at Monstermania on Sept. 29, 2012

Like Mark Walhberg’s character John Bennett and Ted, the talking bear himself, in the movie Ted, I love Flash Gordon. Sam Jones was the man, with babes such as Melody Anderson’s Dale Arden and Ornella Muti’s Princess Aura by his side and fighting Max Von Sydow’s evil Ming. He would fight Ming with the help of Brian Blessed’s Prince Vultan and Timothy Dalton’s Prince Barin. The film was set to a rocking score by the legendary Queen.

Flash Gordon would go on to be a childhood memory till I saw Ted this summer. Ted was about a teddy bear who comes to life when the childhood version of Mark Walhberg makes a wish that his teddy bear was real. The wish comes true and the two remain best friends throughout life. One of the things they share is their love of Flash Gordon. Sam Jones appears in the movie Ted, playing a goofy send-up version of himself. Before seeing Ted, I had forgotten about Flash Gordon and how cool Sam was.

I would get my chance to meet him at Monstermania in Hunt Valley, MD. In addition to signing my Queen album, I was able to ask him a few questions for my blog. This blog entry is not as long as my others and probably the shortest interview on the blog, but it is a chance to speak to a childhood hero and get answers to some questions for all of us who loved him in Flash Gordon and now love him in Ted. In addition, Sam remains in great shape: he did some pushups, which you can watch in this YouTube video here, before doing this interview. As you will read in the interview, he needs to be in great shape, because he has another occupation besides acting. I want to thank Sam for taking the time out to do the interview.

Jeff Cramer: Here with Flash Gordon himself, Mr.Sam Jones. So how did you get started in the industry?

Sam Jones: Yeah, excuse me, a little out of breath, been doing pushups at the Monstermania. The way I got started in the movies?

Jeff Cramer: Yeah, the movies.

Sam Jones: Let me see. Well, the first film was Ten with Bo Derek.

Jeff Cramer: Right, you were Bo Derek’s husband.

Sam Jones Yes. And then after that, we did the audition for DeLaurentis’ Flash Gordon, and that was 1979 that I got the part, and here we are, about 46 films later.

Jeff Cramer: Now, were you familiar with Flash before you got the part?

Sam Jones:Well, absolutely. Yeah, the comic books and then, of course, the Buster Crabbe black-and-white serials.

Jeff Cramer: In one scene, you fight the future Mr. James Bond before you two become friends. Did you have any idea Timothy Dalton would become James Bond?

Sam Jones: Yeah. Timothy Dalton who played Prince Barin went on to become James Bond. We had no idea, but he’s very well trained and a great actor.

Jeff Cramer:You mention you did 46 roles between Flash Gordon and Ted. Out of those 46 roles, what was your favorite?

Sam Jones: I don’t know. I guess – the TV series Highwayman in which I was the Highwayman, I liked a lot. Of course, Ted was a blast.

Jeff Cramer: Let’s talk about Ted.

Sam Jones: Well, I mean, basically, I played myself as Flash Gordon, and I did a parody of that sort of over the top. The main characters were friends of Flash Gordon in Ted, so it just enhanced my character a lot. I had a great time. It was a blast, fun.

Jeff Cramer: What was it like working with Mark Walhberg and Seth MacFarlane?

Sam Jones: Very good people, very humble people, and I think Seth did a great job for his first time directing.

Jeff Cramer: What’s next after Ted?

Sam Jones: Well, we have a couple projects in development that I can’t talk about now, but they are in development.

Jeff Cramer: Is there anything else you do besides acting?

Sam Jones: Well, I also run security operations in high-risk environments, primarily Mexico, so I live in San Diego, and we run security ops into Mexico on a daily basis, and we protect executives and high-value assets from kidnapping and assassination.

Jeff Cramer: Right, okay. Thank you, Sam.

Sam Jones: Thank you.

A Very Candid Conversation with Michael Des Barres

Since the 1960s, Michael Des Barres has had an extensive career in movies and music. He was first seen as one of Sidney Poiter’s students in To Sir, With Love. Following that, he would lead two of the most underrated bands in the 70s. First was Silverhead, a band in the early 70s that was considered a favorite of the glam rock scene. (Although when you read this interview, you will see Des Barres does not consider Silverhead to be a glam rock band.) The second band in the late 70s was Detective. They were signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label Swan Song where they supported Led Zeppelin and KISS. Classic Rock magazine has described their debut album as “the best album Zeppelin has never made.” Detective’s music appeared on an amusing episode of WKRP In Cincinnati where Michael played the lead singer of the band Scum of the Earth.

The 80s would turn out to be a very special decade for Michael, both as a musician and an actor. He wrote the song “Obsession” that would become a big hit for the group Animotion. In addition, he toured as a singer of the Power Station, a supergroup that featured Robert Palmer, Duran Duran members John Taylor and Andy Taylor, and Chic drummer Tony Thompson. When Palmer decided not to tour with the band, Michael got the gig as lead singer and toured with them, playing one of the most legendary concerts ever: Live Aid. In addition, they would make a guest appearance on Miami Vice. After The Power Station, Michal would make his most notable appearance as an actor in the TV series MacGyver. He played MacGyver’s most deadliest villain: Murdoc. Murdoc was MacGyver’s enemy from the very beginning, even before MacGyver decided to start fighting crime. In addition, despite falling off a deep cliff or mine shaft, Murdoc never died and would live to fight MacGyver the next season.

After MacGyver, Michael continued to keep busy, doing plenty of TV and movie appearances in the 90s and 00s. Seinfeld, Roseanne, Ellen, and Melrose Place are just few out of the many TV series Michael did. He appeared in NCIS on October 9, 2012 as a rock star.

Most recently, Michael has returned to music, releasing a solo album, Carnaby Street. The album gets frequent airplay on Steve Van Zandt’s radio station. Other musicians besides Van Zandt are fans of the album such as Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Michael’s old colleague John Taylor and the Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom. The Philadelphia Inquirer has given the album 3 ½ stars out of 4. Carnaby Street is a return to the type of blues-oriented rock ‘n roll that was playing in the late 60s. Fans of bands such as The Rolling Stones and Humble Pie will love this album.

In this candid conversation, we cover the long and extensive career that Michael has had. We talk about his groups Silverhead, Detective, Power Station and his current stuff. We also discuss highlights from his acting career such as playing Murdoc. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview, but most of all, I want to thank Michael.

Jeff Cramer: Was your initial interest in acting or music?

Michael Des Barres:  Dental technician is what I wanted to be first. I was fascinated by floss.

JC:  [Laughs]

MDB:  I don’t know, man. Jeff, it’s a question, I’ve been asked a couple a times. I think the answer to it is self-expression is the most important thing to me, and I just really wanted to be able as an artist to express myself. It happened in various ways. I was in these boarding schools for eight years, eight to sixteen, and it was a very myopic, conservative upbringing.

Fortunately, there was a guy there that had a terrific collection of blues records, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Mitchell, Muddy Waters, the usual list. And I became very obsessed with that kind of music. At the same time, I was fascinated by dramatics and acting because it was one of the only arty programs at the school, and I didn’t really identify with the science side of things. So it was in tandem. There was a parallel interest in both music and performance.

After I left school at 16, I was fortunate enough to get into the movie, To Sir, with Love, which really determined that I would act for the next couple years as a kid. And then I did a musical which combined across both my loves, which were music and acting, and Robert Stigwood introduce me toAndrew Lloyd Webber, and I got a record deal in Silverhead.

JC: Okay. Well, even though you mentioned blues, Silverhead was a glam band. Silverhead was signed on Purple records, when Deep Purple was huge enough to have their own record label.

MDB: Yeah. Glam. See, the thing is, Jeff, journalists and writers, and the media tend to all want to categorize, and I understand it. It’s the easiest way to access description. Glam. We were about as a glamorous as a rat in the sewers of Berlin.

JC: [Laughs]

MDB: We’re not – we were determined “glam” because we were very aggressive, which, you gotta understand where I come from, which is the late ‘60s, probably before you born, this is the revolution of androgyny and drugs.

So you get a joint of hashish and get a girlfriend and she puts eye makeup on you and now you’re glam. It’s such a lazy journalistic description. I would never – certainly Silverhead never thought they were glam. We were a blues band. But because our makeup was two weeks old and that the Sweet [one of the most famous glam bands of the 70s] had just arrived, we were categorized in that sort of very odd description. I had nothing against glamour. I spent my whole life fascinated with glamour, but to determine that we were a glam band, that is incorrect.

JC: My impression of Silverhead being a glam band came from the debut album. In the inner sleeve, you are wearing that hat.

Michael wearing hat

MDB: The artful dodger wore that hat. That hat was from the 1800s. With a kid in the streets of London – you know what I mean? Keith Richards wore that hat in ‘66. You know what I mean? When you look back as a writer, I guess you determine what is what simply because of the information that you have in front of you. But why – I mean is a top hat glamorous?

JC: Um – [laughs]

MDB: I mean if you wanna get philosophical about it, it’s just expression, self-expression, which is determined by people that are not wearing a top hat as glam. You listen to the music, does it sound like glam rock to you? [Readers can make their own judgment if as to whether Silverhead is glam by clicking on a video of Silverhead performing “Rolling With My Baby” by clicking here.]

JC: Silverhead does sound a lot like a glam band, I know, but they also did blues covers as well, The New York Dolls.

MDB: Yeah.

JC: I do remember David Johansen saying that the Dolls’ first concerts were at places where there were these retired old black men, and they were trying to see if they were coming off authentic enough to them.

MDB:Well, that’s Johansen being romantic. The fact is, is that David started off playing Max’s Kansas City. He’s a incredible blues musician but this was a reconstruction of history. But it is under the bridge. I mean who gives a fuck? It was blues music. It was derivatives of the blues. If you want to categorize it, go ahead. To me, it’s the least interesting thing about the band, how they were described. It was more important that we were twenty years old and wanted to express ourselves in the best way that we could, and we dressed like our girlfriends, and our girlfriends dressed like us and we played guitar and made a lotta noise, got laid, toured the world, and took lots of drugs. If that’s glam, great.

JC: Actually, now that you’re talking about blues, I’m now thinking about “Wounded Heart”. That song is kinda bluesy.

MDB:Yeah. They all are three blue chord progressions, all of the sounds on both of those albums. I think “Wounded Heart” is beautiful. It’s a sad song, not written by me, written by this wonderful guitar player that we initially had called Steve Forest, who was a very fragile guy, and wrote this beautiful “Wounded Heart.” [To hear “Wounded Heart”, click here.] I had a heart made of ice and steel at the time. And nevertheless, I loved the song, but it was not emotionally what I was going to do at the time. But I think I learned really early on that it’s great to interpret songs. I mean even my current band with Carnaby Street we do a couple songs, whatever song that happens to turn somebody on at that moment, we’ll do, because it’s just a wealth of wonderful songs to sing. Why would you inhibit yourself from singing them?

Yeah, “Wounded Heart”, is a beautiful piece of music. Remember, that we’re nineteen. [Laughs] We hadn’t been that wounded yet. And Steve left the band, because he just couldn’t take the conditions and rigors of being on the road.

JC: Its interesting about Silverhead because two of the other performers went to other things besides glam. Robbie Blunt, the guy who replaced Steve Forest, went on to play with Robert Plant. Nigel Harrison went onto Blondie. Of course, we’re going to talk about Detective and Power Station, which was all different from Silverhead. In an interesting way, we mention Johansen himself who didn’t continue glam right after The New York Dolls.

MDB: Yeah. And you begin and you life continues on different forms. I feel I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to play with all these disparate musicians. I’ve played with members of Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran, Blondie, all the incredible experiences. That’s good and Johansen did the same thing. I mean God bless him, tremendously talented guy. Now he’s a DJ on Sirius, and a terrific one. We’re lucky. We’re alive. Eighty percent of the people I came up with are dead.

JC: Silverhead eventually ended. Why?

MDB: Drugs.

JC: After Silverhead, we’re gonna get into Detective – I’m not gonna go into what band Detective reminded me of – but you were signed onto Led Zeppelin’s label: Swan Song. You had several people coming from different bands– not just you, but you had Michael Monarch from Steppenwolf, and Tony Kaye from Yes. All three of you did not make something that was, that sounded like any of your previous bands.

Picture of the group Detective

MDB: Good. Do you go out with the same girl every time you get a new girlfriend?

JC: [Laughs] No. Hell, no. [Laughs]

MDB: Well, that would be the analogy.

JC: Yeah.

MDB: Yeah, I fucked her and I did that, and that didn’t work. Let try something else. Or it did work, but I want to do something different. [To hear what Michael did different with Detective, click here for “Got Enough Love”, click here.] I think the key to longevity is change. Do you agree?

JC: Absolutely. I mean it’s not just music, but anything –whether it is another form of art, businesses, politics, religion, you can’t keep doing the same thing. It doesn’t matter what it is but if you don’t keep bringing in new people, you won’t survive.

MDB: Well, that’s it. I think that’s true. I think you’re absolutely right and very articulately described. In my life, I’ve found that the repetition is what drives people insane. And doing the same thing night after night. Unless you have a great overview of what is happening, like Mick and Keith do or like Townsend does. They were – I’ve spoken to them all about it, the fact that they consider that they are answers to generations of people that mean so much to. In my case, I was never in a band that huge, so I’ve always been working. I sometimes feel that it’s a prison, that it’s a beautiful prison. It’s a prison with velvet bunks [laughs]. And the warden’s tall and blonde. But it can be imposing. I think to continue the same process every day. Boy it can be. But when I played Murdoc I did it for six years, and even in a great character like that, after a while you start thinking, well, “Oh, my goodness this is getting just a touch repetitive.”

JC: But before we get to Murdoc, there’s one other TV character I want to get into first, the one you did while Detective was still going on: The Scum of the Earth band on WKRP in Cincinnati.

MDB: Yeah, that was so fun.

JC: Now let’s look at the whole character: well dressed, well spoken and yet having the mannerisms of a punk rock band.

MDB: It was written as a punk band, when we read it, and I had just met the producers of W KRP in ‘77, I think, and I just realized that the jig was up. The music is about the change, radically. And I suggested that maybe it was a little obvious and perhaps it would be even funnier to have well-dressed idiots then it would be if we wore safety pins. [You can watch the WKRP episode by clicking here.]

JC: Now with Detective, I’ve heard that Jimmy Page produced the debut album under a pseudonym.

MDB: Well, it’s a myth that I really can’t comment on. It is what it is.

JC: Okay. So I guess that’s that. And like Silverhead, would you say drugs is a similar reason to why Detective broke up after two albums?

MDB: Any band breaks up for two reason: drugs and money. That’s why bands break up. Ego equals money and drugs. One member lives in Beverly Hills, the drummer lives in Burbank, and that doesn’t work unless that group is a democracy. A democracy in rock ‘n roll is very difficult, Jeff, because you have the writer, you have the visionary, and you have the guys that fulfill that vision. Now, if a snare roll is considered part of the song because the drummer says so, then the band breaks up. Or if the singer fucks the guitar player’s girlfriend. You have your reasons. I will amend what I said. There are three reasons: sex, drugs, and ego [laughs].

And the same is true of Detective, which was an amazing experience because we were supporting Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin, at the peak of their popularity, of course, we were a part of that incredible experience, and it was amazing. It was truly fucking amazing, the power of it.

JC: Before you got into Power Station, one of the songs you actually wrote would turn out to be this massive hit for Animotion: “Obsession”. How close was Animotion’s cover of “Obsession” to your version?

MDB: It was pretty close. The music, I went with Holly Knight who wrote “Better be Good to Me”, “Simply the Best” for Tina Turner. And a list of extraordinary ‘80s hits,“Love Is a Battlefield”. Very gifted writer, and I was very lucky, and I got to write some words for her. I wrote the lyric and the melody, and she wrote the music. The music is ‘80s. The irony, I suppose about “Obsession” is that it’s about drugs. I had just recently quit drugs, and everywhere I went, I would hear this word “obsession” in my head.

"Obsession," I was just obsessed with – I’ve always been obsessed with things you know, but I just don’t act on it. And sort of the lyrics was really about somebody who was, I just turn into a relationship context where the object is a woman. But one can be obsessed with anything. But the music remains the same, than Animotion cut. What is different is, is that vocal delivery is of the ‘80s, which would mean very kind of flat and not particularly dramatic.

Holly and I cut it to a movie, and it was – and I almost spoke it because to sing it seemed inappropriate. It was so heavy. If you really listened to the lyric, it’s very demanding. It had a certain cinematic theatrical quality to it, but Animotion, God bless ‘em, made a wonderful version of it and it sold millions of copies. To this day, I’m very grateful. My accountant has the word “Obsession” tattooed on his ass.

JC: [Laughs]. Now how did you become involved with Power Station?

MDB: Well, it’s this great story. I was in a band Chequered Past, and we were supporting Duran Duran in San Diego. We got on really well. We did a great show and they went their ways. Cut to a year later, I think, and I got a call. I’m in Texas with my buddy Don Johnson, and he was making a movie and I was just hanging out. “Obsession” was number one all over the world. It was ‘85. I was very excited. It was a wonderful time.

I got this call saying, “Come to New York. Would you like to come to New York? There’s a singer that’s left this band, and this band needs a singer.” I said, “What band?” They said, “Well, we can’t tell you that. There’s a ticket waiting for you at the –” we were in Texas at the Marshall Texas Airport. We had to go to Dallas or something. Anyway, they said, “What are you doing this summer?” I said, “I’m hanging out.” “Come to New York. You’ll be very excited by this prospect.” I said, “Oh, okay.”

So I go to New York, and I go into this office. I get off the plane with this huge, white stretch limousine there, and I get into the limo. I go into Manhattan. I go into this office. There’s John and Tony. And they’re both looking extremely nervous and very glamorous, I realized it’s the fucking Power Station. They had the number one album. And they said, “Would you like to do this tour? It’s six months.” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “But you’ve got to go to London tonight to see Andy.”

And so we went from the office to the Power Station studios, which is in New York. I took the album, and then they took Robert Palmer’s voice off the album so I had the album with Robert and the album without Robert, and I got on the Concord and I flew to London. This is all in the same day.

JC: Yes.

MDB: I get to London, and I met with yet another stretch limousine, maybe six inches longer, and then taken to the – she said, “Story of my life.” And then taken to another hotel in the city. Stayed in the hotel. Sleep. Get up in the morning, go to a recording studio that I’ve been told to go to where I will meet Andy Taylor who is driving down from the north of England.

I’m in that studio for six hours. He doesn’t show up. I got it set off with the engineer and I had the great vocal sound. It’s all set up in the studio . He comes in, in a crowd of marijuana smoke, two bodyguards, he’s a little guy, brilliant, love him. They come in. He tells me,“Sing, Michael.” I sang one verse, one chorus. He hits the com, he says, “Let’s go shopping” [laughs] So I go out. We go to pick the clothes. I get back on the Concord. This is the next afternoon, fly back to New York, and we start rehearsals, to start rehearsals in a couple of days.

That night, I go to dinner with Don Johnson at a Chinese restaurant. Lo and behold, as I’m going to the restaurant, I get a phone call saying, “You’re out. Robert Palmer wants to do the tour. You’re gone. We had a lovely experience, but thanks so much. Bye-bye.” I go, “Fuck.” What a nightmare. I go to the restaurant. Lo and behold there’s me and Don in the restaurant and John Taylor walks in a little drunk. Don goes, “Fuck this,” and goes over to John, takes him outside and talks to him. To this day, I don’t know what he said. He comes back to the table. We don’t discuss it. I go back to the Carlisle Hotel. I go to sleep bummed ‘cause I was really looking forward to playing with them.

7:00 am, the phone rings, “You’re back in, Michael.” My manager had made a deal that Robert would – who really didn’t want to do the gig because he wasn’t the kind of artist that really could play in front of 20,000 topless girls, and I am [laughs]. So that’s what happened. They made a merchandizing deal with him where he would get a piece of this and a piece of that, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And that’s how I joined the Power Station. What was it, ten days later, we did a show call Live Aid. [To see the Live Aid show, click here.]

JC: Live Aid held here at Philadelphia, where I am calling you from.

MDB: Yeah, right there. Right at JFK. Where you are at this second. That’s right.

The Power Station

JC: I am glad you mention Johnson, I’m glad you brought this up because that’s when I first saw you, heard of you, all that. That was during the Power Station. I was watching MTV, and Don and you were on it together and I remember Don introduced the band at Live Aid.

MDB: Yeah, that’s right. And then about a week or so later, went to Miami and we did the show, we did Vice, and he came up and sang with us, which was hilarious because the entire thing, he was a huge star.

JC: I know Miami Vice was my favorite show at the time.

MDB: Of course. It was everybody’s favorite show. And what we did was what he sang. Because, again, I’d known him for ten years before that, before he got Miami Vice. He was with my ex-wife. We were one big family. And when we did play, what did we do? We did “Some Guys Have All the Luck”. You remember that song?

JC: Yes.

MDB: We did that song. But while he was – and he sang. While he was out front singing to his screaming kids – now that we got John Taylor, Andy Taylor and Don Johnson [laughs]. They were about to die. We all had Ray-Ban shades and when he looked around there were all wearing them. It was the cutest moment. I’ll never forget. And we got all these strippers to come out at the end of the show, which we knew would excite him. And it was just a momentous event, and just hilarious. It was literally a week or two after Live Aid.

Fuzzy picture of Michael and Don Johnson

The thing about Live Aid was nobody knew at the time about the singer of Power Station and suddenly he left. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We did the biggest show in history, it is not as difficult a transition as it might appear. What was difficult was learning how to sing his songs. That wasn’t easy because Robert and I are diametrically opposed as singers.

It was a hell of a time. It was really extraordinary.

JC: Now this band, I know you’ve given the answer already to Silverhead and Detective  drugs, ego, and money but Power Station was bigger than the other two bands at this point, they just disappeared.

MDB:Well, the Power Station disappeared?

JC: I mean you had a top ten record, Live Aid, Miami Vice. If that couldn’t tell John and Andy that they could do it without Duran Duran, I don’t know what would.

MDB: It was just another project for John and Andy. I mean Simon and Nick had Arcadia. It was just they got bored. At 22, they were multi-millionaires. They couldn’t get any bigger in terms of rock ‘n roll, they went out and did something else, and then they came back together, again.

JC: Yeah, I know. I mean I am just surprised they would still come back to Duran Duran after all that success.

MDB:p; They’ve been together since they were nine years old. Why wouldn’t they not come back?

JC: No, I’m not saying that they had to breakup Duran Duran, but I’m just surprised Power Station just didn’t like keep going on – I mean I understand it can be hard to be in two bands at the same time.

MDB: I don’t know that anybody’s ever done that, Jeff.

JC: Yeah. Anyway, I know it was a side project and everything, but for a project it was incredible. As for Duran Duran, Andy didn’t stay very much longer with Duran Duran afterwards.

MDB:Yeah, you see he was fifteen years older then them. He had his own solo statement to make as an artist, and they were young kids. It was just this wackiness moment in time. It wasn’t a career move. It was just an artistic expression, and they did it together. They’ve always admired him. They loved Chic so they got Bernard and Nile to produce it. And Andy left to play harder rock guitar, and Steve Jones was his idol, and eventually, I introduced them both because I’d been with Steve and it’s just there’s no predictability to this thing is what I’m inarticulately trying to explain.

But things happen and you go with it. I think it’s a plot of strategize and this is working, let’s keep doing it. It doesn’t really work. It’s what you feel you want to do that matters. Makes things more authentic. And they made better music with Duran Duran, than they did with the Power Station. Yet, I think The Power Station album is an incredible record.

JC:Of course, right after that, you went on to MacGuyver, let’s talk about the villain, Murdoc. First off, I want to say that character must have the same genes that Friday the 13th’s Jason has. He never dies [laughs].

MDB: Yeah, he never dies. It’s hilarious. It’s very interesting. I went into one episode, and then ended up doing it for six years. So they had to make up something.

After the Power Station I went into audition and I got it, and I did it, and the network liked it. The fans like it and determined that I should come back, and I did. I mean, an AA meeting, I kept on coming back. It was fantastic and an incredible experience. And I got to work in Canada, and I love Vancouver. I love Canada. Beautiful.

Michael as Murdoc

JC:; Right. The other thing I liked about that character was not just the constant dying, but the constant changing of costumes.

MDB: Yeah. It was so lucky as an actor to be able to do that. How wonderful. How fitting that I could play a different accent and do all that, and it’s just a gift, absolutely and just beautiful, grateful. And I loved playing the character, and people to this day, I mean not a day goes by and some young kid doesn’t come up and start shooting with an imaginary gun. It’s sweet. It’s sweet to think that I was part of that culture, the ‘80s, TV villain. It’s very rewarding. I was voted Best TV Villain, very satisfying.

JC: You also got to play a villain against Clint Eastwood in Pink Cadillac.

MDB: Yeah.

JC: What was it like working with him?

MDB: I liked him. I really liked him a lot. You know, he is a huge music fan. And we were shooting in Nevada, in the mountains of Nevada I play an Aryan biker, a real bad guy. The first day I remember I arrived and we just really hit it off. That night, he said, “Come and watch this documentary I’m producing,” and it was on Thelonious Monk, the great avant-garde jazz musician. He had Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trailer gym and we watched the Monk documentary there. It’s very surreal, there to arrive in Nevada and look in the face of Dirty Harry, a guy I’d grown up watching, and then be the bad guy. I mean it’s just utterly incredible. Can you imagine it?

We really bonded over the movie. We never talked about politics. It was always about art. And he worked like I liked to work, just fast. Do it, you shoot it, and you get on with it, you do the next thing, sing the next song, play the next role, do the next take.

JC: Okay. Well, you kept busy on TV for the ‘90s, ‘cause I know I did see you on Melrose Place, Ellen and Seinfeld.

MDB: Yeah.

JC: But the one part I’m gonna ask you about is a small independent film where you were reunited with John Taylor in Sugar Town

MDB:Yeah, that was a beautiful experience, too, because John had never acted before, and it was directed by a brilliant writer/director named Allison Anders, and we were an incredible cast. And I get asked to play rock ‘n roll people a lot for obvious reasons, but I say no to most of them. This one was so authentic I thought, and so real because it was about a ‘80s band trying to do it, again. There’s a certain poignancy and sadness and that I thought was really interesting. And I had a great time doing it. Now a lot of it was improvised and it wasn’t really written. It was these situations that were set up by the director and then we would play them out. But everyone was so fucking talented. It was Ally Sheedy and Beverly D’Angelo, actors that are credible. And John Doe and John Taylor himself. It was a great pleasure to be involved in a movie that I thought was very authentic.

JC: I want to talk about one great scene where you’re at the bar, and these teenage girls come up to you with a vinyl, which by that point was no longer in service, and asks you for your signature. So first, you say, “Okay, well, none of my stuff’s on CD,” which was then the norm on how we listen to music at that time at which the movie was made. I know it has to be heartbreaking for that character, when the girls say, “It’s not for me, it’s for my mom.”

MDB: Yeah. And it’s a very real moment, and the girl’s name is Bijou Phillips.

JC: Oh, yeah, I didn’t recognize it was her that comes up to you.

MDB: Well, and it was a very beautiful moment. I remember that Allison had written it, and that thing where he finds out that she wants it for her mother, there was a speech that I started to say, but then I thought, “You know what? The most powerful thing here is what she said, not what I said. The real statement is my face.” How am I gonna respond to something, and realize that I’m not what I think I am anymore, and I thought that that was the more persuasive for an audience in silence than it would be explaining it verbally.

JC: I’m glad you bring up the silence, because another subtle scene in Sugar Town is the last scene between you and Beverly D’Angelo. We know you two had great sex, not by showing it, but we know it by the discussion you two have afterwards.

Michael and Beverly D’Angelo in Sugar Town

MDB:Yeah. It’s a good movie. A very well made movie, and I’m glad you picked up on it. It’s one of the things that I’m the most proud of because most of these rock ‘n roll projects, and I’d just done one for NCIS which airs in a couple weeks, but – which is equally incredible. This one was good because it was real, Jeff. We’re so used to seeing Jack Daniels bullshit, groupies nonsense peripheral surface of what rock ‘n roll is. Rock ‘n  roll is played by human beings¸ who are vulnerable, who are arrogant, who are people.

Hollywood has a real strange view of rock ‘n roll. They decide that you’re an idiot. That’s portrayed by Ozzy, or Russell Brand or some dufus. Not that I have anything against them, but its setting up an archetype that isn’t true. When I went to see Sid and Nancy with Steve Jones and Gary Oldman, Gary Oldman was on my left, and Steve Jones was on my right. And at the end of the movie, the lights came on and Gary turned over to me, looked at Steve, and said, “What’d you think?” and Steve took a beat – took a breath, stood up and said, “It’s got nothing to do with it.”

So it’s very difficult to capture rock ’n roll because it’s got nothing to do with what really happens. It is the music that happens.

JC: The one question I have to ask, even though it was not that big of a role, was what was it like working with David Lynch on Mulholland Drive?

MDB: Well, it’s a sore subject with me because I shot the pilot for ABC. ABC decided not to pick it up as a series because they didn’t know what the fuck it was about. What happened to David was he shot something that was incomprehensible and they didn’t understand it, so he took it away and made it into a movie. Then the pilot, I had a terrific role as the bad guy. In the movie, I’m not in it. I’m eating a hot dog. Working with Lynch for two weeks and then ending up on the cutting room floor because he then came up with the device of the two girls and turned it into a movie, but initially that wasn’t what I shot.

So it’s bittersweet. I spent two weeks with one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, but I had my memory and what I learned to show for it. But you know but that’s it, and one shot of me in black leather. So it’s a little – there’s a classic story about what show business is in that experience.

JC: Right. Now you hadn’t done music in a while. What made you decide to come back and record Carnaby Street.

MDB: Well, I took stock. It’s one of the things that I know you’ve had them, Jeff, yourself, where you, “What am I doing? What do I like to do? What do I want to do?” I’m 64 years old. I was 61-62 when I was down in Texas a lot. A friend of mine has a beautiful ranch down there and I go down there and hang out. And I was reminded by these incredible musicians down there what it was all about, and I would get up and sing.

It increased my awareness of what I really love to do the best, which is sing in a nightclub with a guitar around my neck and play rock ‘n roll music. And that is what I love, so that’s what I’ve proceeded to do. I wrote a bunch of songs. I became very familiar with the social networking and I wrote these posts and people started to dig ‘em and thousands of people started to read them in Facebook and Twitter, all of that stuff.

And I started to get back into lyrical writing, and I put these songs to like the music of the late ‘60s which I was inspired by the blues the Stones, the Faces, Humble Pie, music that nobody can play anymore or tries to play anymore. And I wanted to revisit that, and I wanted to reintroduce that to people. And look what happened. It’s the biggest record I’ve ever had. It’s gotten the best reviews I’ve ever gotten. Steve Van Zandt’s playing it hourly. And it’s selling.

I mean, what a shock. And I’ve been invited to go to New York and sing with Steve Van Zandt and the E Street Band October the 16th, and we’re packed everywhere we play, every club. And in January, we’re going on a major tour, which I can’t tell you who with, because blah, blah, blah. But it’s been the most satisfying thing of my entire career, Carnaby Street.

JC: One thing you mention about the late ‘60s – ‘cause the one thing that struck me when I first heard the album was an instrument I haven’t heard in a long time, and I’ve missed it for a long time: The Hammond organ.

MDB: Yeah, fucking A! That’s very smart of you, Jeff. Because what it does is, it reminds you of this long joyous sexy music that nobody is playing. Rock ‘n roll is either ironic, aggressive, angry, apologetic, or sweet and sensitive. There’s no sex in there. Rock ‘n roll is a sentiment for fucking. That’s what it is. It comes from the blues. I want carnal, sexy rock ‘n roll records. And that requires B-3 keyboards.

So I know that if I had that on top of a really great guitar player, which Eric Schermerhorn is ‘cause he was with Iggy for years, that he’s got all the roughness and he’s also a great blues player, but that is saying I’m so glad you picked up on that, and it’s so great because that’s what makes that album what it is, why everybody’s gone crazy for it because it’s got a warmth to it. It communicates something. It’s not preaching or shouting at you. It’s just letting you sit in that pocket and bathe in that incredible blues and rock ‘n roll.

JC: I understand “Little Latin Lover” [To hear a sample of “Little Latin Love, click here] is the current single, but there were several songs that I thought that could be easily the next single.

MDB: What would you put up for a single?

JC: “Hot and Sticky.”

MDB: Yeah, that’s my girlfriend’s favorite song. [To hear a one minute sample of “Hot and Sticky”, click here.]

JC: “Hot and Sticky” reminds me of a little roller coaster going up and down.

MDB:Yeah. It is ‘cause people go crazy, especially the girls, when we do it live. At the end of it, it really goes off into a sort of a Stonesy,- “Midnight Rambler”-like ending that is so infectious which just hit on a groove. I wanted to make a record that was very short, like Beggar’s Banquet, that was really three-minute songs, and that’s it. And I think that’s another reason why people like it because there’s no excess. There’s no indulgence on it. It’s . . . we’re just getting to the point, play with it, and then we recorded it in a week.

JC: That was one of the things I like about Carnaby Street is that it is back to the length albums used to be – around 35 – 40 minutes. I don’t think there’s any song that goes beyond four minutes.

MDB:“Please Stay” is five minutes, which is that ballad, as it were. [To hear a one minute sample of “Please Stay”, click here.]

JC: Oh, yeah, “Please Stay”, okay.

MDB: It’s a Gospel thing, and that, I wanted them to play. I really wanted you to hear that keyboard solo – I think that’s important on any album that you should hear the musicians shine.

JC: Well, “Please Stay”, that’s another one I could say that could be easily a single. “Sugar” was another one.

MDB: Yeah. [To hear a sample of “Sugar”, click here.]

JC:Also this is another thing we’ve talking about – different directions. Carnaby Street is not Silverhead. It’s not Detective. It’s not Power Station.

MDB: Yeah. The difference this time is I play guitar. In the last three-four years, that’s all I’ve done. I’ve done a few movies and I’ve done a couple of TV things, but essentially what I’ve done is play guitar, play guitar live. I played guitar in every song on the album, while I was singing. I’ve never made a record where I was playing guitar and singing at the same time, like in one take, two takes, tops. Everything you hear is live. I’ve never fixed anything. I didn’t go in and say, “Oh, I’m a little flat here. How ‘bout an ad-lib.”

Michael and band live in action

I didn’t do any of that. The only thing I did was put some tambourines on it, some backups and it worked. It’s real music. Now I’m not saying that Lil Wayne isn’t real and there’s some brilliant music out there, there’s no question about that, but it’s just not my kind of music. But I appreciate everybody who goes in, whether it’s a laptop or a slide guitar, God bless you. Good luck. But it’s just my cup of tea, is Muddy Waters and skinny white guys in London in velvet trousers.

JC:So is the music now your biggest top priority over acting?

MDB: No, it is completely my priority. It has to be because we’re asked to play everywhere. We’ve never played a gig where people didn’t go bonkers. I’m not saying that out of arrogance. It’s because we’re doing it together. This is my thing. After every song, I say, “We love you. We’re so excited to be with you playing these songs with you. Not for you, but with you,” because they’re with us. That music is so inclusive. It’s not exclusive. It really invites people into your life. And if you listen to the words, I’m talking to specifically about love, about redemption, about sex, about connection, and people feel connected. If you sing about connection and you do it with a smile on your face and your band members are obviously enjoying themselves, you’re going to enjoy yourself. So it’s a conversation. It’s not a sermon.

And there’s so much music out there where people are literally playing at you. They’re not playing with you. Not even for you, but with you. Like one – especially in the clubs, which I really much prefer to anywhere else. It’s just a packed club where it just becomes like one thing, like one organism. Everybody’s there together. The music is so in people’s DNA. They might not know it, especially the young ones. I mean, at least 80% of the audience is in their 20s.

JC: That’s great. That’s great.

MDB:Which means that people long to hear the Faces again because it’s so infectious. So I’m tremendously proud of my band, and I think the record is fucking awesome and everybody should go out and get it immediately and enjoy themselves and make love to it.

JC: This is gonna be the last question I ask you. If you just had the acting career alone, that would be impressive, likewise with the music, and you did nothing else, that would be impressive. Here, you have the case of a great music career and a great acting career, what would you say the reason for why you were that successful or what do you think’s the secret to your success?

MDB: The secret to my success is saying yes. I have said yes to everything. I have never, ever said no to anything. I’ve said yes to everything. I’ve been prepared, and I’ve been ready, and I have been an ensemble actor and musician. I love to collaborate with people. I never say no to something without playing or hearing it first. I’m a collaborator, but the most important thing, man, is I love the arts and I love to communicate with fellow artists. And there’s no greater feeling than achieving something together.

It’s not something that you do egotistically, narcissistically. It’s something that you do with people. So, the main thing throughout my life has been about connecting, not only with an audience, but with your fellow artists. Your life exponentially is more rewarding the more connected you are, and I think that the discipline of theater when I was young, when I was very young – eight, nine, ten, is when I first started to act. I’d do little bits and pieces and then I’d go away to these schools and then I’d do some acting and it was always about the discipline of the learning those lines and being ready to do it. Even when I was out of my mind on cocaine, I still had a sense of discipline. So, I would say discipline, and I would say doing things for the love of it, and always saying yes and being eager to please.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Very Candid Conversation With Sophie B. Hawkins

Sophie B. Hawkins got off to a quick start with her 1992 debut album Tongue and Tails. The album went gold with a single that peaked at #5, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” It was also a top 20 hit in the UK. As a result of that success, Sophie was asked to play at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a musician. She performed Dylan’s “I Want You” (which also appeared on Tongue and Tails) at the anniversary. By 1993, Sophie had received a Grammy nomination as best new artist.

She followed that up with 1994’s Whaler, which also went gold and scored her another top 10 hit, “As I Lay Me Down.” There was also a documentary film made about Sophie , The Cream Will Rise. The documentary, made by Sophie’s longtime domestic partner Gigi Gaston, followed her on one of her tours. However, despite two gold albums and a documentary made about her, Sophie had gotten into trouble with her record company, Sony, over her 3rd album Timbre. The lead single “Lose Your Way” had a banjo track that Sony wanted to remove. Sophie refused to accommodate them, leading to a lengthy battle between the two. She left the label shortly after Timbre was released in 1999. Timbre would be re-released on her own album label. She would release one more album independently in 2004, Wilderness.

It would be eight more years before Sophie released a new album. But she kept busy. She became a mother (her son Dashiell turns four in November 2012), supported Hillary Clinton on her presidential campaign, and helped clean up the 2010 BP oil spill. On June 2012, Sophie released a new album, The Crossing. Sophie played multiple instruments as piano and drums on this one. While she used other musicians to help her complete the tracks, she was not working with a band on these tracks. The Crossing covers many autobiographical themes such as being a mother, the BP oil spill, the 2008 political campaign and accepting her father’s death. The album also shows Sophie’s voice in top form and showcases many of Sophie’s musical sensibilities from rock to piano ballads to jazz. In addition, there are bonus tracks, including reworked versions of her two big hits, “Damn I Wish Was Your Lover” [Click here to hear a 1 minute sample of the new “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover.”] and “As I Lay Me Down.”

Besides The Crossing, Sophie collaborates with Gigi Gaston again on Room 105. Sophie is playing Janis Joplin and singing Janis’ songs. Room 105 will be playing from October 6 to October 21. For more information on the play, go to

In this candid conversation, we look at her early rise, her battles on the banjo track of “Lose Your Way”, the eight year period between albums where she pursued other activities such as being a mother, the current album The Crossing, the play Room 105, and what’s next for her in her career. I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview between Sophie and I. Most of all, I want to thank Sophie for taking the time out to talk to me.

Jeff Cramer: I found it interesting that you actually started off as a percussionist.

Sophie B. Hawkins: Yes. I was an African drummer. First of all, I wanted to play drums since I was nine, but I couldn’t get anyone to take me to a drum lesson. I couldn’t just get anyone to focus on helping me find a teacher, so I pretended to be a drummer. I literally didn’t know a thing about it, and then, I was 14 years old. I finally had it, and I said to my mother, “I need to play African drums.”

And she said – we lived in New York, and she looked at me and she said, “Oh, I know a great African drum teacher,” which was great because she was such a hippie. She knew all of the Nigerian drummers who had come over in the ‘60s. So she said, "I'm going to get you together with Olatunji.” Babatunde Olatunji was a very famous Nigerian. He had lots of drum guys in his family.

So I got with one of his godsons named Gordy Ryan, and he ended up being my teacher, and then I'll tell you, since my first lesson, it was it. I went to my first lesson on 57th Street, and I never stopped. And I knew, after that first lesson, that I would never ever want to do anything else but music. It was so transformative.

JC: So it was the drums that actually got you into music?

SBH: Yes, yes and African drums. It always amazes me that I said African drums because I really love music so much, but what did I really know? It wasn't like I was a musicologist. There's no musicians in my family. It was like a soul thing is what I'm trying to say.

JC: Right. Then, of course, I know about you playing drums in a punk band, but the one thing you got to do in your percussionist career is being able to play with Bryan Ferry.

SBH: Yes. I got hired and fired from that gig. I was his percussionist, and like I don't remember the date of that. But Andy Newmark was his drummer on the tour. Andy Newmark basically recommended me for the gig, and I played with him for a couple of months and it was awesome.

I played vibraphone and marimba mostly because I knew I couldn't play the Cuban percussion that he wanted because his music was very Cuban, very tough percussion.

And so I focused on playing vibra and marimba, and actually worked out these parts for Bryan’s songs. And he was sort of stunned because I would come in a dress and have my mallets, and he loved it but then he said, “Ultimately, you're great. You remind me of Margaret Thatcher.”

JC: [Laughs] 

SBH: For some reason, he said that. Isn’t that weird? He then said, “And I love your parts, but they’re not on the record, and I really need a Cuban percussion player. So I’m going to have to let you go.” 

JC: Okay.

SBH: And it was an amazing moment because I went home that day, and that’s when I wrote “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”, over that weekend, over that period of time. So instead of trying to be this percussionist, I realize I am not this percussionist. I really – I knew I was a songwriter in that moment.

Sophie in “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” video 

JC: Is there any particular inspiration that ever came from – because it’s interesting you mentioned “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Was there any particular inspiration for that song? Was there a real live case where you wished you were someone’s lover? 

SBH: Yes, and I mean it happens today.

JC: Yeah, I know.

SBH: But this is one of the things about songs and novels and paintings and all art, I think what it is that you're triggered by something that happens in the present, and it brings up these feelings that have been latent or just there that you're really born with, or sometimes even from another life.

And I know that sounds corny, but how does a young person sometimes write such deep songs? I think you carry stories with you when you even come into this world, and now that I have a son, I really feel – he is so much more sophisticated and mature than I am. He has such a sense of propriety that I don’t have, and so I think, okay, this is what happens.

“Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”, yes, somebody triggered it. Some event triggered that song, but it was there. And I basically think the art is waiting for us to develop enough to manifest it, just like I think relationships wait until we’re ready to find them. I don’t think it’s something that we create as much as we think we do.

JC: Okay, so on your first album, Tongues and Tails, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” like hit the charts right away, but one of the things that must have also been exciting at the beginning of your career was playing “I Want You” for Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary at Madison Square Garden. 

SBH: That was the most amazing thing. Well, first of all, that was – that is the most amazing song, and I have to tell you that song, every time I perform it – and I do perform it at most every concert – is – it’s the greatest feeling of solace. I just – the words are a ballad and that – it’s like you can’t say anything. He’s sort of the Van Gogh of songwriting, I guess, or the Picasso of songwriting, whoever your – he does something.

And anyone can take any one of his lyrics and put any melody or any chord, and you can just act it, and that’s an acting song. So, when I got up there in Madison Square Garden, I just acted it, and it moved a lot of people. [Click here to watch Sophie’s performance at Madison Square Garden.] And I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s over the years. You don’t know how many people stop me and they say not, “Sophie B, Hawkins.” All they say is, “I saw you sing ‘I Want You’ at the Dylan tribute.” And it moves them in a deep way, so that’s cool.

JC: That’s cool. The next one, Whaler, was an interesting thing because it didn’t go right away to the charts but you got there eventually with your “As I Lay Me Down”, your second biggest hit.

Sophie in “As I Lay Me Down” video 

SBH: Right. It was a long running hit single and in some ways it’s a bigger hit internationally. But people don’t see it as stunning because it took so long to get there. Like you said, it took four years, and basically, Sony had moved when I recorded Whaler, they said, “Oh, go to Europe. This is not an American album.”And then they said, “We’re not going to promote it here.”

And I did. I went to Europe. I moved to London. I moved to London and Paris, and I just promoted and promoted for four years in Europe before ever – and then, basically, the European part of Sony said, “You guys are missing the boat. This is a real hit.” 

JC: Right. 

SBH: “This is a great album.” And they forced Sony’s hand, the U.S. end. People came up to me – I’m telling you, the American Music Awards and everything, and they said, “You made that a hit. The record company didn’t,” because it’s a great song, and nobody could really figure out how that became a hit because I was not supported at that time. And I am not saying that with sour grapes. It was the greatest experience of my life to realize I had to do it on – you know, that I had to take control. 

JC: Well, of course, where you did take control of course, which I’m glad you did prevail at the end, was, of course, with the third album Timbre, using that banjo track for “Lose Your Way.” 

Timbre album 
SBH: Yes. Oh, that was awesome. I loved that experience because, that song was written on the banjo, and it’s the only song I ever wrote on the banjo. 

The point of the matter of the song is part and parcel of that particular instrument, and Sony wanted to take the instrument off, and I said, “No.” And the reason this was changing, if they had said that on the first record, it wouldn’t have been a big deal because I was being supported, but what they kept doing is taking things away. 

And so, if you take away the banjo, then you're taking away this beautiful eccentricity and this quality of this song. So it was symbolic to me, and I fought for when they wanted to remove it. And that was the beginning of a lot of big fights. 

“Lose Your Way” was the lead track on Timbre, and Sony actually did think “Lose Your Way” was going to be one of my biggest singles. And it was on Dawson’s Creek, but they just couldn’t bear that I wanted to bring the banjo on TV and stuff and such a nightmare. It didn’t have to be such a big deal. It’s crazy that it was. 

JC: Yes. 

SBH: But, again, you either stand up and fight or you don’t stand for anything, and I guess I had to dig my heels in at some point because that what basically I think happened to the music business is that people have watered things down so much. 

And now, it’s – basically, it will get to the point where it doesn’t matter and then it will cycle through again, but I want it to make everything matter. 

JC: Okay, after that fight with Sony it would be awhile until we got to Wilderness. 

Wilderness album 

SBH: Yeah, well, because Sony, I had to leave – sue the record company. Luckily, we settled. Got my masters back which is amazing then – and I’m thankful for that – and then I had to release Timbre on my own and then go through that whole process and then Wilderness was on my own and then, when Wilderness and everything happened, it did take too long because, again, there’s no financing and I’m doing it all myself and it’s just – there’s no –   

It’s not like it was in the ‘90s. There’s no real money out there for records unless you're on a hit show or – I’m just a songwriter basically. And I’m still touring which is great, and I still have a lovely fan base, and I still get these great offers. And that’s amazing because a lot of people in my position don’t. 

I’m very grateful, so it does take longer to get each album out but that’s only – there’s only one missing link, and it's called money. And I don't care because I'm not doing it for the money. 

JC: Right. So, okay, after Wilderness, it would be another eight years before we got to the new album, The Crossing. Financing would be one of the reasons why, but another reason is that you became a mother during that eight-year period. 

SBH: Yes and that's the greatest thing ever in the whole world. Well, you know, having Dashiell, it just makes everything great. And this whole thing about standing up for something and really saying, “I’m an artist, and I'm committing to be an artist,” it makes so much more sense when you have a child because they’re the next generation. 

And if you don't represent something really strong and passionate, what are they measuring life against? That's our job and our duty, and he's a great, great kid, and he makes my work have so much more depth and meaning to me personally. 

JC: Anyway, so now we get into The Crossing. I'm going to talk about a couple of the songs on that. Now I had read that “Betycha Got a Cure for Me” was related to around the 2008 political race. Interesting, now that we are in the 2012 political race. 

 The Crossing album 

SBH: Right. “Betchya Got a Cure”, yeah, I wrote that around that time period, but I changed it so much since then. [To hear a sample of “Betchya Got a Cure”, click here.] 

I’ve rewritten that song about 15 times. That's why I have two versions on the album, and there are so many more versions that exist. It just a very hooky chorus that could go anywhere basically. So I think that's all I can say about that is a really – I wrote that song. Maybe it will never be finished. 

JC: One thing that I like, when we go back to your African percussion roots and I really like that African drummer work out on “Sinnerman.” 

SBH: Oh I love – that’s my favorite track, I have to say. By the way, that is the most simple track. That one I just did really, really right before I released the album . I did it to some – that was like one of the last tracks I did, and I just did it myself. 

I just sat there in the studio one night and said, “I’m doing this. I have to do this.” And – oh, it was about the Gulf. That’s what inspired me to do that. And, yeah, so that was the simplest track. 

JC: The BP oil spill on the gulf seems to be a constant theme on the album, cause there’s that other song…

SBH: “The Land, The Sea and The Sky.” Right. “Sinnerman” had the video that actually has the gulf in it. “The Land, The Sea and The Sky” has a great video – a great video, I can’t believe I said that. [To see that great video, Sophie is talking about, click here.] I’m not sure it has shots of the gulf, but “Sinnerman” actually has my trip to the gulf in it. [To see the video for “Sinnerman”, click here.] 

JC: One of the other songs that is on The Crossing is a song I found a YouTube clip of you performing it in 2007 called “Miles Away.” 

SBH: Yeah. I love that song. That’s about my father, obviously. [To see the YouTube clip, click here.] 

JC: I also notice one of the tracks “Gone Baby” has a songwriting co-credit with Mary Steenburgen. 

SBH: Isn’t she great? Well, she’s an Oscar-winning actress and songwriter. 

JC: Yeah. How did that come about? I didn’t know that Mary wrote songs. 

SBH: Well, I don’t think Mary knew Mary wrote songs. I guess she – well, she says that she woke up one day, and she just was writing songs, and I think that’s true. And that goes back to my point about, when you're ready, the art manifests.

She just woke up one day, and I met her when I was campaigning for Hillary, and of course, she’s one of Hillary’s great friends. And so I met her on the campaign trail, and she said, “I’m a songwriter.” And I said, “God, I’d love to hear your songs.” And she called me from the hairdresser, and she sang me “Gone Baby,” a version of it, and then I said, “Geez, can I finish that with you?”

Her version was finished for her, but I said, “Can I write with you on that and make it something else?” And she said she’d love to, and I love – I love what it turned into. So that was the Mary Steenburgen story. Literally, I just have a recording of her singing the song from her hairdresser on her cell phone and then I took it and ran with it and put my writing into it. It’s very cool. [To hear a 1 minute sample, click here.]

JC: Yeah. The one other track that I found was interesting was the jazz one, the “Dream Street and Chance.”

SBH: Okay. That’s one of my favorite tracks. “Dream Street and Chance.” That was all autobiographical. I mean you hear the whole story of my mother and my father in that one in New York and the weatherman’s castle in Central Park and the bridal path. [To hear a 1 minute sample, click here.] 

Everything, of course, had a meaning to me and it might not mean anything to anyone else but I leave it up to the listener what it means.

JC: Actually, one of the autobiographical tracks is easy to figure out – “A Child.” What interesting about that it reminded me of when Laura Nyro had a baby and wrote about her new experiences as a mother in her 1978 album Nested. There were two songs about it, “Child in the Universe” and “The Nest.” 

SBH: Okay, cool. I love Laura Nyro so much. I really gotta hear it. [To hear a 1 minute sample of “A Child”, click here.] 

JC: One of the things we'll talk about, besides the album is the play you are in on Janis Joplin. How did that come about? 

SBH: Well, Gigi came to me. She said, “You’re going to play Janis Joplin.” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And I want to say that I never say yes. It was just such an instinctual feeling or moment. And then that was a year and a half or less ago, and then we proceeded. 

Basically Gigi came and created the surroundings. She just would write scenes up and then say, “This scene is going to go into this song.” 

So I not only studied Janis Joplin singing, which is death-defying, but I studied who she studied. I studied Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and I had already been studying Odetta. I studied Big Mama Thornton and I studied Leadbelly. I studied everyone that Janis listened to because I wanted to know how Janis got there.
And then, of course, I’d learn Janis. So I would do these monologues on my tours, you know, my Sophie B. Hawkins shows. I did say to my audience, “I’ve just been taken over by Janis Joplin, and I'm going to do this song for you. I'm going to tell you the story, and I'm going to do a song.” And my audience just loved it. They just loved it when I became Janis and then people started to ask for it and look for it. And I kept doing that for the whole last year and a half. 

And then, finally, Gigi showed it to a fabulous man named Tommy Thompson. He's from Cross Creek Pictures. He started it. He’s the Cross group. It was a video of me playing Janis, and he was so moved by me doing her on stage on my own show that he said, “I'm going to put up the money, and I'm going to finance this play.” So I started also doing it in acting classes, like just taking -- a wonderful acting teacher named Carole D’Andrea. 

 Room 105 poster

I would just take scenes in and sing the songs a cappella and pretend I had the whole band. It was just awesome. It's been such a great experience. I can't even tell you. It's been so raw, and I feel like we are doing this like as if I was 16 years old in New York or LA or whatever, like with zero pomp and circumstances, all completely raw. 

And we’re doing it in a small theater, which is great, because it's just a good feeling. I can't even describe to you how great it is, and I have so much respect for the actors and the talent and the musicians. My god, I have the guy who played guitar with Etta James, Josh Sklair. Etta has moved on, but Josh was her ring man for 25 years. He’s the guitar player on this gig. That’s pretty awesome. 

JC: Yeah.

SBH: Such a great guitarist. And, you know, by the way, none of us are making any money, and we don't care. That's what I mean. We’re doing this because of the love of the show. It's a great play. Obviously, the songs are addictive. So, really, that couldn't be better. 

I feel like I was born to do this. It feels like – it feels so destined. Everything keeps falling into place. We’re opening in less – we’re opening in a week, and it’s got financing.

None of my records have been financed for years, and all of a sudden, I’m being the star of this amazing show. It’s a play, too. It’s not just a musical. It’s a play-sical. 

JC: Right. What’s interesting is that it is in contrast to The Crossing. On that album, you did piano, percussion, drums. You didn't really have a band and brought other musicians one by one.

SBH: Yeah. I did do that in The Crossing and it worked for that time, but guess how I'm doing the Janis show? We’ve done a record for the Janis show, and I brought everybody – we did it all at once. 

We did it on one Saturday, and we just did three takes of the song and chose the best take, and believe me, I’m very excited about it. If you go to the Room 105 website you’ll hear some of the songs we recorded. When the guys went into reherasal, I said, Look, I’m just going to record you, and literally a bass mike, a keyboards mike, you know, guitar mike, drum mike and me,” and I’m the only one in a separate isolation booth, but I can see them because my studio is set up this way. They’re out there together with headphones and we record tracks just the way recordings used to be made back in the 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s, 20s. It’s unbelievably satisfying.

JC: Are there any plans, besides the play? Are there any plans to tour behind The Crossing? 

SBH: Yeah, I’m doing every show I get offered. I was just in Madison, I was in Wyoming, I was in Denver, I will do the East Coast in December. I think we’re doing Philly, New York and some other cities. So in a way if I just do The Crossing it’s like the same old musicians crap, oh, you know, how do you promote it, how do you get the money to promote it, how do you get the people there? But then when you’re doing Janis Joplin it’s a whole another thing, because people want to know about that. When people come to see Janis, they’re going to say, “Oh, Sophie B. Hawkins is doing Janis,” and “Oh wow, she has a new record out.” It’s a very good thing to be doing both, because they both in a way help each other out. 

JC: Where do you see yourself in a music industry that has become more digital? 

SBH: I’m just going to keep doing shows. I have this musical written with Gigi Gaston called – I’m not going to say the name of it – but that’s ready to go. 

JC: Okay, so that’s a different musical than the Janis one we’re talking about now. 

SBH: Totally, and that one actually was on the front burner before Janis. You asked me what happened between Wilderness and this record? Well, that’s what happened. I spent three or four years of my life writing a musical, and that’s what it takes to write a really good musical, I think, and more. Kristin Chenoweth did the reading for it. She’s my friend and I love her, Kristin. She’s huge, she’s the biggest actress on Broadway, a Tony winner and she’s a great TV actress and movie actress as well. So she did the reading, and we have all this money, but the producer fell out and Kristin got busy with other theater, TV and movie stuff. So that’s Broadway. If you have no producer you have no show. But we took advantage of this momentary glitch to put Janis together. So that’s more like my talent. I think if any musician is going to be successful, is that you take advantage of every opportunity. You always have to be ready. I have the musical ready, I have songs for an album ready, I’ve got Janis. Three things, right now. Which one’s first, it doesn’t matter, I’m just going to go after it. That’s how life is. 

And so you asked me how are things going to go, it’s going to go with whatever opportunity comes to me, I’ll be there.

JC: And the other advantage is all the products are going to be done your way without record company involvement. 

SBH: Well, what I actually love is that it doesn’t feel my way now, it actually felt more my way on Sony. But now it feels like there’s a lot more collaboration, there’s tremendous collaboration, and I think that’s why I’m so happy. It was great to do it my way for many, many years, and it’s everything and it was Sophie B. Hawkins and all about me. But I got bored with that, to be honest with you. I’m so happy I’m collaborating. And being available to the best possible situation, and that I can grow as an artist. I can’t imagine anything better right now. And by the way, being a mother, how awesome is that?