Sophie B. Hawkins On "Nocturne," Songwriting & Dark Mystery
Most listeners first became aware of Sophie B. Hawkins with the release of her 1992 album, Tongues And Tails, and its breakout single, "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" — a debut powerful enough to earn her a Best New Artist nomination at the 35th GRAMMY Awards.
Hawkins went on to create more hits, including 1995's "As I Lay Me Down," but some of her deeper album tracks have served as equally powerful showcases for her darkly poetic lyrics and distinctive vocals.
A case in point is "Nocturne" from her 1994 sophomore release, Whaler. The song's mix of soothing groove and unsettling imagery make it comforting and spooky at the same time, which Hawkins says was exactly the point.
"The inspiration for the song is really my inspiration for being a songwriter, because that song is about being carried by something that's frightening but also familiar and familial," she explains.
"It's a way of romanticizing or 'magicalizing' something terrifying. That's what children do when they're dealing with chaos in the world around them and that's basically what I'm always trying to do as a songwriter."
Hawkins says the lyrics to "Nocturne" were something of a breakthrough in explaining her perspective as an artist.
"Some of my friends used to ask me why there was so much darkness in my writing, and I'd have to tell them that I didn't know, because I didn't really have the words for it. But deep inside I think I did know, and 'Nocturne' was a song that was trying to get to that and explain it.
"The opening lyrics are, 'Nightmare bring me to the dawn.' It's about being carried by a dark force to a bright place, and about making yourself vulnerable in order to create something powerful. That's still a pretty good description of my songwriting process."
Somewhat surprisingly given its substance, the song was not one that Hawkins had to toil over. She was living in London during the making of Whaler and after studio sessions she would go home to the piano on the fourth floor of her brownstone to write songs and record demos. One night, the words and music to "Nocturne" poured out of her.
"It's one of the very few songs of mine that just came out all at once, like a gift," she recalls. (One of the other songs created during those same demo sessions was "As I Lay Me Down.")
Hawkins was in such a state of inspiration while writing "Nocturne" that she ended up using a good part of her demo recording as the song’s finished tracks.
"There was something in those demo vocals that I wasn't going to be able to get again in the studio, so we just used them," she says. "And then it seemed to make sense to use a lot of the original keyboard sounds and the percussion sounds from my old 808 [drum machine]. A lot of what ended up in the song came straight from the home demo."
At this point in her career, Hawkins — who is currently on tour in the United States — says she doesn't make much of a distinction between her hits and deep cuts.
"'Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover' was the one that went out to the world and got people to come to my shows. But 'Nocturne' is that song's amazing little sister, who I love just as much. To me, they're equal children."
Asked for a favorite deep cut by someone else, Hawkins doesn't hesitate to name a song by another master of spooky vibes, Bobbie Gentry, best known for the mysterious No. 1 hit "Ode To Billy Joe," and Best New Artist GRAMMY winner for 1967.
"People don't realize that she recorded eight albums," says Hawkins. "On the second one [1968's The Delta Sweete], she has a song called 'Jessye' Lisabeth' that's just so beautiful. I heard that when I was growing up and it has really stayed with me. It's tender and vulnerable and there's something going on there that you can't quite figure out. It's still hard to tell who she's singing to, but I don't ever want to find out. The mystery is part of the beauty."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)