The Herald - The Herald Magazine
Music with Edie Brickell
Edie Brickell on life with Paul Simon, and working with Willie Nelson and Steve Martin
“I wanted to know why we are here, I had this big feeling in my heart and also a disconnect.”
WHEN Edie Brickell was invited to perform What I Am on Saturday Night Live in November 1988 it was a life-changing moment and the effects continue to reverberate. Aside from scoring an international hit and a double platinum album, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars, with New Bohemians, she would almost fluff her lines during a love-at-first-sight encounter with Paul Simon.
While music industry nuptials are often short-lived their union has proved a rare exception. While What I Am is often described as a one-hitwonder, Brickell has continued as an enduring presence in American music collaborating with luminaries such as actor Steve Martin and more recently country music legend Willie Nelson.
In 1989 she provided a cut of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall for the score of Born on the Fourth of July while appearing onscreen as a folk-singer.
This year’s release of her fifth album with New Bohemians, Hunter And
The Dogstar, follows 2018’s widely acclaimed Rocket which arrived after a 12-year pause for the band. During a Zoom video interview Brickell still easily resembles the free-spirited personality that appeared on Saturday Night Live all those years ago, her hair swishing from side to side with an easy-going Texan charm.
While many artists grumble about a definitive hit single she describes
What I Am as “a complete and total blessing, it allowed me to go and see the world and allowed me a life outside of the one I’d known. I’m very thankful for that song. I don’t understand when people say it’s a curse and a blessing, I think the curse is your perspective.”
Her eyes widen as she describes how the song was about “the mysteries and why we are here.” Brickell had taken a world religion class “because I had this big feeling in my heart and also a disconnect. I wanted to know what the rest of the world thought about God and I was hoping some mystery would be revealed to me. But when I got into class I was listening to everybody’s questions and everyone complicating everything. What I Am was written in class as a reaction.”
My Power, the debut single from the new album, was written by the same partnership and shares the same energy and optimism. “That song really surprised me because it flowed out in a stream of consciousness,
Kenny (Withrow) came in with that cool riff and progression and I just started singing over it. That’s what I ended up singing on the record. With the band, you step into the mystery of allowing the music to tell you what the song should be.”
Life on other planets, as well as astronomical and other supernatural concerns, continue to inspire the writing. The star constellation in the album’s title, she suggests, represents “a new day for the band.”
She says: “Sirius follows Orion, the hunter, through the night sky, and then Sirius is the brightest star just before dawn”.
UFOs are also a recurring theme, with Brickell morphing into an alien during the recent promo for Tripwire. “It’s one of those universal mysteries and all the mysteries are very beautiful. I’m fascinated by the stories I hear.
“There was one time in Brazil I was looking at all these lights on a hill. It opened my mind to new possibilities, ideas and questions. It’s arrogant to say that you know about much of anything. The people who say things are impossible: that’s the mindset of people who say the earth is flat.”
On more worldly matters, she describes taking part in a “global sigh of relief” when Donald Trump left the White House for the last time as US president. “That has brought new life and joy to us all, the people we are close with at least.”
During lockdown, the release of Sing To Me Willie, a duet with Willie Nelson marking the singer’s 87th birthday, provided funds for a Covid19 relief charity.
Horse’s Mouth is another playful country song written for Nelson that appears on the new long-player. “We were having a ton of fun with that. I gave him several choices. I knew he liked that phrase Horse’s Mouth. It made me so happy that he thought it was funny. We recorded it and I loved how it turned out so much that we put it on this record.
“He’s a beautiful musician, so soulful. I’ve loved his phrasing, voice and the way he plays guitar since I was a little girl.”
Last year also brought a duet with her husband Paul Simon, their
Steve Martin started sending me his banjo tunes and that just took off
stunning harmonies on I Wonder If I Care As Much by The Everly Brothers prompts the question, will they ever record together?
“Every time we started to do that something else came up. When our oldest son was five [they are the parents of three grown-up children] we used to sing him this song I made up.” After recording the track it provoked some discord with their normally “joyful” boy.
“He said: ‘I thought it was my song; if you guys put it out it will be everyone’s song’ so we abandoned the project.”
The couple’s rarely seen musical chemistry was also apparent during a live performance of Willie Nelson’s Remember Me recorded for a tribute concert in 2015. When the pair made another attempt at recording, Brickell was diverted again, this time by Steve Martin.
“We were making a duets record and had recorded about three or four songs. I was on fire and in a writing mood when Paul said: ‘Slow down, stop writing and let me write some of the songs’. Around that time Steve Martin started sending me his banjo tunes and that just took off. Steve is very fast, I don’t like anything to stop me, I like to keep writing and working, Steve is the same way.
“Then he said, ‘let’s make a musical’ so my focus changed and Paul’s shifted to his solo album which became Stranger To Stranger.”
With Martin, she recorded the bluegrass album Love Has Come For You winning a Grammy for the title track. The work would also inspire the pair to collaborate on the 2016 Broadway musical Bright Star after taking the album on the road.
One of the new album’s standouts is Rough Beginnings, an antidote, she says, to unlimited songs about ne’erdo-wells. “I’ve heard too many songs and sad tales about people who make terrible choices. The girl in the song was pretty and didn’t get pregnant in high school. I wanted to write about someone who brings comfort and joy rather than making everyone fall like dominoes. She came from rough beginnings but didn’t wear it like a crown.”
It’s difficult not to read something of Brickell’s early life into the character’s success story. “We moved around the same town a lot. I was raised by a single working mother, we never went on vacation or anything like that. I saw my dad and I loved my dad, we had big dreams of seeing the world so it meant a lot to be an artist and express creativity for a living. I will never take that for granted; it’s so empowering…it frees your spirit.”
Brickell was still a teenager when she was invited to join New Bohemians. It was an opportunity that could easily have passed her by had a friend not persevered to get her out of
the house. Brickell, who turns 55 next month, reflects on her 18-year-old self.
“I was a person that went to school and to work and lived in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment, my room-mate had the bedroom. Nothing in my life ever changed. One of my friends from high-school would invite me out but I always said ‘no’.”
A moment of epiphany encouraged a change of heart after rejecting the offer once too often. When Brickell arrived at the Texan club, a glass of whiskey was placed in front of her. “My friend whispered: ‘you need to loosen up’, I was stunted I guess, I didn’t party or drink. This place was closing about 1am and the New Bohemians got up and played the other band’s instruments.”
After some coaxing she joined them on stage.
Once signed to the Geffen record label they traded Texas for Wales where recording commenced at the famed Rockfield Studios, the subject of a recent BBC documentary.
“Yeah, we felt the sense of magic and were in awe coming from Texas and going all the way across the ocean to this new land having been nowhere. I used to walk from Monmouth to town every day just taking in the beauty and things like people singing in the pubs at night, it was such a beautiful, warm sense of community.”
Hunter and the Dog Star is out now