The Forge is an intimate venue, newly refitted in steel and glass. Only three hundred people can get through the doors, just off the well-trodden Camden High Street, and tickets sold out long before tonight. It’s Sophie B. Hawkins’ first London show in fifteen years and she is absolutely thrilled to be here. “This has been the best time I’ve ever been in London in my life,” the songwriter smiles warmly. “I think because I have my children with me, who are friendly and fun and want all the adventures, so I’m seeing new parts of London that I’ve never seen when I come here. When I lived in London I was completely alone. My only friend was George Michael (and I’m not saying that to drop names, but it’s true), and when I saw him it was with his entourage, and sort of isolated in a way. This is my first time being in London with people who are so excited to be here like I am. I would never have gone to Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park, or high tea at Wolseleys. I wouldn’t have gone shopping…not that I even like to shop but we’ve been shopping our brains out!”
Sophie B. Hawkins @ The Forge
While Hawkins is enjoying her visit to the capital, she’s here to promote her new album, Free Yourself, her first release in eleven years. Hawkins’ time away from the studio has resulted in an extension of her sound rather than a total change. “I do think we evolve all the time, but I don’t think I’ve gotten to somewhere better. I haven’t gotten to a better version of myself,” she says thoughtfully. “Some things about me are better, but I have this vast curiosity [about] styles and subject matters that I want to do, and only when I cross one bridge do I get to go into another place and cross another bridge, but it doesn’t mean that the first place wasn’t really evolved. When I think of the first album, that was really spiritually evolved. The experiences are different, and I’m taking the spiritual quality that I’ve always had, and the searching, and the yearning for deep love, and I’ve taken it into new places in my body and my soul. I’ve used my wisdom to recover from such betrayal between The Crossing [Hawkins’ last release in 2012] and this album, and that’s what Free Myself represents, literally. I’ve been on this earth a long time. None of us ever think that what’s going to happen happens, but I’ve managed to come to a better level of myself through this instead of being dragged down by this and tarnished.”
Her latest single, Love Yourself, takes this positive message and runs with it, telling the story of a real incident in the New York native’s’ life. “It’s a totally true story,” she shares and quotes the opening verse of the song. “I went to a party, the folks were fine, I ate coconut cake and drank old red wine. On the way home I thought about life, how much good is run with so much strife…and in those thoughts were whether I was going to turn in on myself. Maybe I didn’t say the right thing, maybe I didn’t look right, maybe so-and-so doesn’t like me or whatever. But I finally crawled into bed, and this true, and this consciousness, this higher self, said ‘love yourself’. Don’t take this night where so many things were happening, and so many kinds of people were there, and judge yourself, and make yourself the lower of the existing humans. Love yourself. It could make me cry right now because it was almost as though all the work that I’ve done, and the opening to our higher consciousness, came in and helped me. I went out to the piano and started writing this song, and it was such a clear moment.”
Live, Love Yourself is played much faster than in the studio with more pep and reassurance. Imploring enjoyment sweeps over every note that Hawkins sings, opening a personal window into her world. She opens her show with 1994 hit Right Beside You, and rid of its studio clutter the song is clad in the softness of recognition. A grinning chorus echoes each word back to her. In performance, Hawkins is all elfin solemnity and sincerity as she seems to float above us. We stand in wonder, letting the sound float over us like floral incense. Her classic single As I Lay Me Down is bursting with spiritual minimalism and organ gravity that tethers her ethereal voice. She extends her microphone to the crowd for the chorus, her blonde curls bouncing in time to the music and a tender intimacy in her tone.
Love in all its forms occupies centre stage in the 59-year-old’s music, as does caring for humanity in general. She’s supported a multitude of environmental and political charities in the past, and one of her newer songs, Meaningful, explores her resolution to change the world in light of a specific tragedy. In August 2023, shop owner Lauri Carleton was shot and killed outside her business in Cedar Glen, just outside Los Angeles for displaying a pride flag in her shop window to show her support for the LGBTQ community. This senseless act of violence spurred Hawkins to pour her emotions into her music. “It was building up, this grief about what’s going on in humanity, that hate crimes haven’t ceased. There seem to be more abuse of the LGBTQ+ community, and more prejudice in general, and the whole world seems to be dividing. If people were a crust, they’re separating, and there’s going to be a big quake in the earth. It wasn’t just Lauri Carleton, but at that moment…” Hawkins pauses to collect her thoughts. “I had just been through what they call ‘Earthcane 2023’, where it was a hurricane and an earthquake in LA. I was having to drive through it to get to this show, which was cancelled the minute we got there, and I had to leave my kids yet again for it. I just felt frustrated for all of us vulnerable people, like we are doing everything we can to show up, and these bigwigs are just like ‘oh we’ll wait til the last minute so we don’t have to pay them’. That’s the idea, ‘we don’t care about the people out there’. We are shaping society, artists always have. It’s us people on the ground who are creating the most positive difference, and it’s a frustration…and that day she was shot, and I couldn’t believe it. It was the fact she was a mom, she looked similar to me…it could easily have been me! She was in California, I was in California…I felt this resonance. This wasn’t even a gay woman, this was an ally! She was in a store in the country. It was so bizarre to me. She was friends with a lot of people that I know, and it was closer to home. It was like if you or me, we just walked out our door and someone shot us. And that could happen! The song came pouring out. It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back in my songwriting process. What do we do with all this pain?”
Photos by Nick Donnelly
While Meaningful has yet to be released, Hawkins’ latest songs are focused on processing emotions and rising above the negative circumstances that you can find yourself in. The title track of her new album, Free Yourself, is about embracing the new and covers the crowd at The Forge with a delicate piano dusting. Better Off Without You, with its message of ‘Let yourself be free’, as Hawkins calls to us, is a record of an emotional breakthrough and rebuilding etched in each address to the unknown protagonist and each chord progression until her voice flies. We raise our hands and applaud her epiphany and strength. Hawkins’ set isn’t entirely about serious soul-searching, however. Hungered For Love, a newly released album track, was inspired by her role in Room 105, a play based on the life of Janis Joplin, and comes from a reinterpretation of a chat-up line said to Joplin by one of her lovers. A sweeping hopeful romance flows from her piano displaying her vulnerability and humour.
Hawkins clears her own dance floor efficiently, chatting to herself, before ending her set with her breakout 1993 single, Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover. Cameras grow upwards like vines, powered by our adoration, bioluminescent tones and she bends over to propel both the long note out of her chest and herself into the floor. She pulls her gilet over her head and high kicks to resume after the bridge, twirling her vest over her shoulder and making fiery balloons of our voices. Each ‘damn!’ is flung out like a stone while she jumps gleefully, owning the spotlight and finishing on a bold and definite stamp of her foot.
Fortunately, Hawkins will be returning to the UK in the spring to share her affirming brand of uplifting and tender music in a wider tour. However, it will be difficult to replicate the charm and positivity experienced by the lucky few at this rare and exclusive performance.
Photos by Jade Fenster
An interview with and review of Sophie B Hawkins at The Forge, London on 26th November 2023 by Kate Allvey. Photos by Jade Fenster and Nick Donnelly.