EDIE BRICKELL: the talk on a cereal box
Norman Warwick hears the snap, crackle and pop from Songfacts
´The story´, says Songfacts, ´is legend in New Bohemians lore. The band was playing a gig in Dallas in 1985 when Edie Brickell, an 18-year-old art student at Southern Methodist University, was coaxed to the stage to sing with them after working up her courage with a shot or two of Jack Daniel’s. She soon became their lead singer and primary songwriter, with an nuanced soprano and a deft hand with lyrics. Geffen Records signed them in 1986, and two years later they released their debut album, with the hit What I Am, a song with Brickell’s unique metaphors for philosophy (´the talk on a cereal box´) and religion (´the smile on a dog´).
I bought that album, as all my peers had, and I enjoyed Edie´s lyrics (particularly those examples above) and especially the title track. It was a close call but it never quite got placed on my ´right next to the turntable´ pile of albums. One great track, and several clever snippets, weren´t ´catchy´ or memorable enough to warrant further playing I thought,…. ´cos I was even more of an idiot then than I am now !
After a second album, Brickell married Paul Simon, released a solo album, and raised a family. Even after all this time, her bond with the New Bohemians remains strong; in 2021 they released their fifth studio album, Hunter And The Dog Star, with the same five members from that 1985 line-up, plus two others.
Along the way, Brickell has collaborated with the best in the business, recording some songs with Willie Nelson, did an album with drumming great Steve Gadd, and teamed with comedian/banjo virtuoso Steve Martin for the acclaimed 2013 album Love Has Come for You and its spin-off musical, Bright Star.
Soft-spoken but with a lot to say, Brickell talks in this interview, about those high-profile collaborations and dissects some key tracks from Hunter And The Dog Star.
About that album, Dan MacIntosh of Songfacts, told her he especially likes the first song that’s called Sleeves.
¨And I think what I like about it, is that – although it talks about tattoos – it really doesn’t take any firm position on whether or not they’re good or bad, it’s just sort of observational. Was there an experience that inspired that song?
Well, you’re spot-on. It’s observational. I had noticed, throughout that last 20 years, how tattoos were becoming more and more popular, and I’m always curious about what the symbolism these tattoos hold for the individual. They’re telling some story. You’re walking behind and you’re getting a glimpse of some either sacred or fun-loving expression that somebody’s decided to carry with them forever. I’m just noticing them all over the place more and more and wondering what kind of tribal or cultural mentality is leading all these people to make this choice to represent themselves in this way.
I said to our crowd, “Hey, I know that they said this in the press, but it’s not true, and if you don’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, you’re hearing it from a horse’s ass.”
The interviewer and Edie are pretty close in age and he imagines that she was probably raised with the impression that people that got tattoos were not the most respectable people, so to speak. he believes that these days there are people that are beyond that ´tattoo age who feel like they still need to represent themselves with a tattoo.
There was a time when it was only my great uncle who was in a war and came back on a Navy ship with the little anchor tattoo on him and it represented his experiences in the war. So, you’re right, it was a very different time for tattoos and what they represented. And now, it’s this big mystery to me, and I find it pretty interesting that people do want to put all this color on their body. Sometimes I want to stop them and say, “Why did you pick that?” But I don’t want to invade their privacy. Or even stare. But sometimes I do.
This lady had a beautiful tiger around her calf. She walked by and I was really looking at that tiger. Then I glanced up, and oh, she was loving it! She had a big smile on her face, as if I was giving her a really big compliment.´
The Songfacts interviewer refers to the fact that this new album has been recorded with the band, that has been together for a number of years. Knowing that some of the songs are collaborations with band members, and have been specially written for the album he wonders what different approaches there are for Edie in writng with the band, and what differences they bring to the ways she works when and writing independently.
They do bring something different to the writing process.. I am just responding to their energy with whatever it is they’re playing. When you’re staying at home alone writing, sometimes you imagine a band playing along and that changes the feel of the song. But in the actual room with players playing, there is this energy that just carries you on the wave of what everyone is expressing and it’s just very exciting.
Telling her he feels it is ´pretty admirable´ to be able to still get along well and record together, Dan Macintosh asks whether there is something special in the relationships that Edie can point to that has kept them coming back together to make records?
Just an ease and a comfort and a good sense of humour. I think that the longer you know somebody, the more a sense of humour develops that’s all your own. And it’s always a lot of fun to share those moments that wouldn’t make sense to anybody else.
The journalist refers to another song, My Power, on the album that is getting a lot of attention and that he feels sounds anthemic, and so asks what has inspired the track?
Just my feelings. I didn’t set out with any intention to write an anthem or to write that kind of song. I allowed it to flow out from what I was feeling. So, that was the most fun experience playing with the band, that a mystery is revealed – even to yourself.
´The album has great examples of Edie´s clever word play and the song Horse’s Mouth ´kind of has that humour´ Dan suggests as he invites Edie to tell him more about the song.
Years and years and years ago, I think I was about 20 years old, and we were still playing in the clubs, and one of the local newspapers said something about our band that wasn’t true. After that article came out we were really affected by it because when you’re so young, you’re unaccustomed to being written about, and certainly when somebody gets it wrong, it felt so crushing, and it was mildly insulting.
We had a regular following, and a crowd of kids who were there to see us every show. And in between songs, in one of those impromptu moments, I said to our crowd, “Hey, I know that they said this in the press, but it’s not true, and if you don’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, you’re hearing it from a horse’s ass.” And we all fell out laughing.
It was just something that stayed with me. I made a song with the Gaddabouts in the studio, we kind of improvised one, but I still felt like it wasn’t fully realized, so a couple of years ago Willie Nelson (right) and I were talking about doing a song together and I said, “This could be a good country song.” I gave him that chorus, and he loved it! And it made me feel so good that Willie Nelson loved that, so I went home and wrote this song.
I originally wrote it for me and Willie, but Willie ultimately chose the other song that we recorded,1 so I took this to the New Bohemians and I just fell in love with the way they played it. Everybody plays beautifully on that song, and it’s just a barnburner and a whole lot of fun to play.
Picking up on the fact that artists can sometime have a love / hate relationship even with their own compositions and even their own biggest hits the Songfacts questioner asks about What I Am, recorded on her debut album and still one of her best known and best loved songs, and he wonders if the song means something different to her these days.
I do not have a love/hate relationship, and I’m very grateful for that song because it allowed me to see the world. It allowed me to fulfill my dreams. It allowed me to take care of my family.
Even apart from Willie Nelson, Edie has enjoyed some notable collaborations over the years. having recently watched clip when she and Steve Martin (left) were on the Colbert show, talking about writing songs together. On screen Martin had conformed to the public image, where he always seems to need to be “on” and be funny, but Mr. Macintosh wonders whether Edie sees a different side of him when writing songs. ´How is he different?´ the reporter asks. ´Is he a very serious songwriter and very focused when you write songs with him?´
Absolutely. He’s a very serious and focused person – that’s how he’s accomplished all he’s accomplished. But he’s still a lot of fun. He’s serious and sensitive about what he plays, and he cares very much about being a good player, and yet he doesn’t take himself so seriously that he’s no fun to be around. He can still laugh and make you laugh. He’s a true joy to work with.
Having opened the door to a conversation about song-writing partnerships Edie´s interviewer asks whether she has ever collaborated with her song-writing husband, Paul Simon.
We did. We started a children’s album when my oldest son was five years old. I would go out to Central Park with my kids and I’d make up these goofy little songs, and some of them would be pretty good. I’d come in the house and we’d all be singing them, and Paul suggested we record them. He really loved one of them and said, “Let’s go record that song.” We recorded that song, and we were playing it in the kitchen and our oldest son put his head on the table and seemed very sad. We said, “Are you okay?” And he said, “I thought that was my song.” So, we stopped. We abandoned that project.
And then years later, we started writing a duets record. We went to Nashville and recorded several of them, and then Paul said, “Slow down a little bit. Let me write some of these songs,” because I was on fire writing these fingerpicking songs because I just discovered fingerpicking. And during that time, when I stopped, Steve Martin sent me his banjo tracks, and that just took off.
Steve worked very quickly. I worked very quickly. And then the Steve Martin publicity machine just Whoof, sent us right to work.
So, that’s what happened there. And we’re getting back to it, Paul and I, so we definitely do want to put out a record for ourselves for our kids. Throughout the years, we’ve made little recordings and sent them to friends for their birthdays, little songs like that. It’s really fun.
The Songfacts journalist comments here on their song selection and on how good the voices of Edie and Paul sound together.
You know, Paul sounds good with everybody. What a privilege it is to sing with that gorgeous voice. He makes everybody sound great. He has such a soulful, beautiful voice, and he’s got a voice that will affect my chemistry. He gives you a great sense of comfort and joy.
When the interviewer asks her if Paul Simon ever offers his wife constructive criticism, she responds with a laugh.
No, but I give it to him, thank you very much. Everybody assumes that. It’s so funny. People ask, “How about your kids. Do you teach them anything?” I say, “No, I watch and learn.” I think it’s very important to watch and learn and let people be who they are. I think if we worked on something together, there’d be collaboration.
I am aware of the work of Steve Gadd as he played on a number of John Stewart albums but like Songfacts´ interviewer I only become aware of Edie´s collaborations with the percussionist, in the Gaddabouts. (right)
Here’s another thing that’s funny about that. There’s a complete, new Gaddabouts album sitting on the backburner. It was finished just before I started working with Steve Martin, and everything with Steve Martin just took off so quickly and I was occupied with that musical and everything. So, there’s still an album that’s yet to be released and it’s probably my favourite of the Gaddabouts records. But the way that my manager and record labels want to do things, they want us to focus on one project at a time, and there are so many backed up here. It’s really tricky to have o wait.
Edie is asked about Hunter And The Dog Star, and the significance of that title, and what might be the story behind that?
I was reading about the constellations, and this phrase really struck me as something quite beautiful. It was talking about Orion and Sirius, and it said Orion, the hunter, seems to move across the night sky with Sirius, the dog star, following him, and that just before dawn, Sirius becomes the brightest star in the sky. I just thought that was gorgeous and with everything that our band has felt these last couple of years, it was an appropriate title.
Although the covid pandemic has been on-going around the world for more than year now, and although we, as a race, have found some coping mechanisms, and although there are signs at the time of writing this, I am not yet receiving press releases announcing any live gigs, let alone tour dates, so I am interested when Songfacts ask Edie how she is doing, as far as the pandemic and not being able to tour?
I’m doing fine. I’ve always been a very solitary person. Nothing much in my life has changed. The hardest part is witnessing and understanding how people are hurting. I don’t actually feel stir crazy because as long as I can go outside and walk outside, then I just feel, as you say, really blessed to be in that moment. So, obviously, I’d love to see things return to a sense of normalcy. But I’m okay.
Songfacts draw the interview to a close by asking Edie are there songs on the new album that stand out to her as favourites?
Well, that’s like picking a puppy. I love Miracles because that just flowed out like magic, and I remember the exact moment that was written. I like Tripwire a lot because that song literally just exploded in the studio in an improv. And I love Stubborn Love. I immediately had this image of this bowling alley and this couple. They really represent so many women that I know. So many women just make up their minds so early with such a stubborn sense of, “He’s the one,” and it’s like they’re banging their heads against the wall to make something fit that’s just hard.
Whenever I am conducting my own interviews with favourite and interesting musicians I am very conscious that I use the phrases, ´oh, that reminds me,,.´ ´just one more thing´ and then repeat the phrase ´one last question´ so often as to be in danger of being seen as impolite. Just as I thought the interview had been wrapped up Don Macintosh remembers to ask Edie about her guitar playing is coming along.
Well, every day I’m trying to get better and better at that. I realized a little bit late how important that is in expressing an individual sound. But Willie Nelson has taught me a lot about that because I adore the way he plays guitar. So, I’m trying harder and harder to become a better musician. I can play well enough to write, and I have for a long time. Now, I want to play well enough to express that other soulful feeling that I can hear, that I haven’t tried that much to play, with the exception of riffs and making riffs. It’s important to me, and I’m going for it now.
Don wonders whether there may be an instrumental album from you one day?
No. Probably not. Maybe from the New Bohemians. There will be a lot more music for musicals, because I adored that experience and I’ve written a couple more.
the primary source for this article was an interview with the artists by Dan Macintosh for Songfacts