She'll take songs over spotlight
Edie Brickell has always been cool to fame, but her latest CD, 'Volcano,' could heat things up again
09:47 PM CST on Saturday, November 22, 2003
By THOR CHRISTENSEN / The Dallas Morning News
Like a lot of kids who grow up dreaming of stardom, Edie Brickell thought fame would be a cure-all for life's problems.
But when she became an overnight sensation at age 22, her celebrity created as many difficulties as it solved: The 1988 hit "What I Am" turned the Oak Cliff singer into everyone's favorite hippie-girl-next-door, but it also cast a painfully shy artist into a white-hot spotlight she wasn't ready to deal with.
"It was way too much, too soon," she says today. "It's been a long road to recover from all that."
Now - almost a decade after she quit the music biz to raise three kids with her husband, singer Paul Simon - she's returned with Volcano, a mature, jazzy solo album that's been getting rave reviews. She's not plotting a dramatic comeback, she says, just documenting a batch of her new songs.
Yet the CD brings back an old dilemma for the 37-year-old singer. If she doesn't promote it, it might not get heard, but if she does, it means squirming in the same limelight that made her so uncomfortable 15 years ago.
"Edie is a very shy person - she's had some horrible experiences in the record industry," says Jolene Cherry, the Universal Records artist-and-repertoire exec who signed Ms. Brickell last year.
"I think if she gets a great response to this record, it's going to make her want to interact and open up."
But no sooner does her door open than it starts to creep back shut. After giving a long interview one day, she calls back several times over the next few days saying she's "in a bit of a panic" about "exposing my vulnerabilities."
"I've got to figure out a way to handle myself in these interviews," she says. "I hate being misunderstood, but I also don't want all this personal history out there for public consumption."
That emotional hide-and-seek is partly what makes her music so intriguing. From her early days fronting New Bohemians to Volcano , her songs bare her soul but, at the same time, keep the listener at arm's length.
Take "Rush Around," the single from Volcano. It seems at first to be a nostalgic childhood snapshot: Mom hurries to put on her makeup as young Edie serenades her by playing an Aretha Franklin record over and over.
"I had a loving, vivid image of my Mom standing in front of the bathroom mirror saying, 'Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!' while we were ready, and she was the one we were waiting for," the singer says with a soft laugh.
But as enchanting as "Rush Around" sounds, she admits her childhood was often anything but.
Her parents split up when she was 3, and Ms. Brickell's mother, Larry Linden, worked long hours as a receptionist to try to pay the rent: Two of Edie's siblings were put up for adoption ("My mom just couldn't take care of them."), and the singer recalls moving constantly and spending tons of time in day care.
Some kids respond to constant flux by becoming extroverts, but Ms. Brickell was the opposite: "I was a loner," she says. "I suffered from unbearable shyness ... nobody ever knew me."
For years, her timid personality dictated her life. As a teen, she chose a job at the Lakewood Theater so she could work alone and look out at the world from the safety of a glass-enclosed ticket booth.
At Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she bypassed her real love - singing - for art because "I knew if I went into art, I wouldn't have to talk to anybody." After high school, she scraped together enough financial aid to study art at Southern Methodist University, but she didn't fit in there, either.
Then one night during her sophomore year in 1985, her universe began to shift. An old buddy from high school called and invited her out, and in typical Edie fashion, she declined.
"But after I hung up, I thought to myself, 'You never go out. You never have a boyfriend. You never do anything.' I was just this oddball, and my whole life was work, school, work, school, home alone."
So she called her friend back, and they headed off to hear the Cartoons play at B.B. Sunday's, a tiny hipster dive on Northwest Highway. Just before closing time, as the club was emptying out, some members of the local band New Bohemians asked the Cartoons if they could borrow their instruments and jam for a few minutes.
Ms. Brickell - her shyness erased by a shot of Jack Daniels - was nominated to sing with the band, and within a few songs, her fate was sealed.
"We had a magical connection and boom, that was it," she says. "When I was singing, I finally felt comfortable ... . It was either sing or be miserable."
She joined New Bohemians a week later, and before long, they were building a big fan base in Deep Ellum and expanding their Jamaican rock with bits of folk, jazz and Grateful Dead-style improv.
Onstage, Ms. Brickell still looked like a deer in headlights - especially anytime the music stopped. But as the audiences mushroomed, so did her ambitions to be a star. She dropped out of SMU and focused on the band.
"I wanted to make it so I could buy my mom a house," she says. "If you're from a poor background, fame and money look like your saving grace."
Hits and misses
The money began to flow in the form of a 1987 contract with Geffen Records. But even early on, success was turning into a colossal headache.
Record producers didn't seem to grasp the band's loose, rhythm-heavy songs, and the record label persuaded the group to fire drummer Brandon Aly. Geffen also decided the name should be changed from New Bohemians to Edie Brickell & New Bohemians - a decision none of the musicians liked, including Ms. Brickell.
Still, they went along with the program, and when Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars came out, the group's image was set: There were eight photos of Ms. Brickell spread over the album, but just one of her band mates.
The marketing ploy worked. MTV jumped on the video for "What I Am," and in an era of camera-savvy divas such as Whitney Houston, the public was charmed by New Bohemians' bashful, wavy-haired singer.
The band was earning respect from critics - one in Los Angeles wrote, "They are that rarest of discoveries, something modestly, but genuinely new." Yet more important, New Bohemians had a hit. "What I Am" - their very first single - cruised into the Top 10, and Shooting Rubberbands went on to sell nearly 3 million copies.
But all the fame and glory didn't bolster Ms. Brickell's confidence. Playing big theaters full of 3,000 cheering fans, she looked just as fidgety as she did in the Deep Ellum clubs.
When one interviewer asked her what she majored in at SMU, she lied and said English because she thought it would make her seem smarter. And when asked about life after Shooting Rubberbands, she was already plotting an escape route.
"It's a lot of fun, but I won't do this forever," she told the Chicago Tribune. "I want to be normal - you know, have a family, a dog, all that stuff."
In 1989, New Bohemians scored another hit, "Circle" - fittingly enough, a song about an introvert in which Ms. Brickell sang, "Being alone is the best way to be." But the singer was growing tired of the "hamster wheel" of touring and performing.
"We were on that go, go, go cycle until we made people sick of us. We were sick of ourselves, frankly. We became this bubblegum thing, and we should have taken a break, lived life and come back later."
Instead, the group rushed back into the studio and cranked out Ghost of a Dog, a patchwork album that has songs Ms. Brickell cringes at today. When Dog came out in late 1990, the skeptics were waiting with sharpened knives.
"Her views are so childlike and her images so pointless that it's hard to work up any feeling for them," wrote a critic in the Los Angeles Times. "This is an album to avoid if you have even one cynical bone in your body."
The album sold about 500,000 copies - a letdown compared with Shooting Rubberbands' sales - and in 1991, New Bohemians announced they were on hiatus. For Ms. Brickell, it was a welcome end to a long chapter "of angst and apologizing."
Meanwhile, the singer was dating rock legend Paul Simon, whom she'd met on the set of Saturday Night Live. Although he was 25 years older than she, the age gap didn't matter: Not only did she relate better to older men, but she and Mr. Simon shared musical bonds and the same misgivings about fame.
The two married in 1992 on Long Island in a ceremony that was so low-key the media didn't find out about it until days later.
"Everything in our society is geared toward celebrities, and I know that sounds contradictory, with who I chose to marry," she says, laughing. "But I don't consider him to be that. He's not interested in being a celebrity. He doesn't conduct himself like one."
She also doesn't feel overshadowed by her husband's legendary status. "I'm not intimidated by Paul's abilities ... . Everybody's perspective counts, no matter how many people relate to it."
The couple's first son, Adrian, was born in December '92 while she was recording her first solo album, Picture Perfect Morning. When the CD finally came out in '94, she didn't do much to promote it, and in retrospect she says, "I should have never really done that record ... . I had pretty much lost interest at that point. I really just wanted a family."
So for the next few years, she dropped off the radar and became a full-time mother. A daughter, Lulu, was born in '95, followed by a second son, Gabriel, in '98. Instead of living in tour buses and hotel rooms, she now spent her days pushing a stroller through Central Park (a subject she sings about in the Volcano song "Take a Walk").
Motherhood also came with a nice side effect - it helped her loosen up in public, says the singer's mom.
"She's always been a very, very, very shy person, but her children have helped her overcome a great deal of that - now she has to attend school functions and just be more sociable," says Ms. Linden, who still lives in Dallas but often baby-sits at the couple's main home in Connecticut.
Yet all the while Ms. Brickell was out of the spotlight, she never stopped making music. She took guitar lessons, kept writing songs, and in '99, invited her New Bohemians mates (including Mr. Aly) to her home in Montauk, Long Island, for some low-key recording sessions.
Things went so well that the old gang played a series of well- received shows in Deep Ellum - and suddenly, record labels were sniffing New Bohemians all over again. But it didn't take long for the ugly side of the music business to reappear.
Record executives decided the new songs weren't commercial enough, and Ms. Brickell worried that New Bohemians might be seen as a "throwback" band trying to milk nostalgia.
"We got booked into this sports bar in Chicago, and the [M.C.] came up and went through this spiel: 'Remember the '80s? Remember that song 'What I Am'? Did you ever wonder where they were? Well, here they are!' ... It was a nightmare," she says. "It made you feel so degraded - it felt like a cheap reunion tour."
After putting New Bohemians on hold, she began recording with an old friend, drummer Steve Gadd. At first, she balked at her manager's suggestion to hire a producer - she'd had too many producers try to shine up and dumb down her songs in the past.
But she changed her tune when Charlie Sexton came on board. The Austin guitarist knew a thing or two about uncompromising artists - he's worked with Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams - and when he heard Ms. Brickell's demo tapes, he simply added subtle guitar work and sent the songs back to her.
"When I heard the tapes, I flipped and said, 'That's my soul brother!' " she says. "Charlie knew and felt exactly where I was coming from."
With Mr. Sexton producing the sessions, Volcano turned into a collection of jazzy ballads and haunting waltzes. It's not a sure-fire chart-topper, but the CD could appeal to same crowd that flocked to Norah Jones, says Ms. Cherry, the Universal Records A&R executive.
"On top of that sexy, sultry voice, there's a lyrical depth she really didn't have in her early work," Ms. Cherry says. "I think she's the embodiment of every thinking woman, whether they're in puberty or 80 years old."
Since hitting record stores last month, Volcano has racked up glowing reviews but only modest sales (about 21,000 copies, according to SoundScan). Turning critical buzz into a hit album requires tons of promo appearances and concerts - things Ms. Brickell is still very leery of.
She's agreed to a handful of high-profile gigs, such as singing "Rush Around" on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and doing a Q&A with The New York Times. But in a business filled with egomaniacs who love to spew sound bites, Ms. Brickell stands out by rarely giving interviews - and when she does, by fretting over what she says.
"Paul always says, 'You can't think out loud - you've got to play it safe.' ... But that feels so phony to me, so I ramble, and then later, I'm hit by a big old wave of paranoia about what I've revealed."
That lack of media savvy might not boost her career, but to the people who know her, it's a refreshing part of who she is.
"Edie and I are the opposite," says her mom. "I used to love the glitz and glamour and gossip. But the glamour part is never what Edie's been about. She doesn't want everyone to think she's special, even though she is."
"Her whole motivation is the music," says Mr. Aly, the drummer in New Bohemians. "Some people might twist that the wrong way and interpret her to be a snob, but she just wants to make music that's timeless - the fame, it only lasts for a short time and it's gone."
At the moment, Ms. Brickell isn't obsessing over how many copies Volcano sells, even though she thinks it's the best album she's made. And while she plans to record more CDs (with and without New Bohemians), promoting her career isn't at the top of her priority list.
"I'm Mom first," she says. "I'll do whatever makes sense, but not at the expense of my family."
So this fall, as Mr. Simon hits the road with Art Garfunkel, she's camped out at home with the kids in Connecticut. The family moved there last year after she finally persuaded Mr. Simon - a lifelong New Yorker - to leave the city for suburbia. And now, she's happy to report, "He likes it more than any of us."
But as she tries to maintain a normal, celebrity-free life, she admits it's no simple task. Ten-year-old Adrian - a budding pianist and singer - recently announced his own designs on stardom:
"I'm gonna write songs," he told Ms. Brickell and Mr. Simon, "and I'm gonna be bigger than you, Dad."
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