Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
When most people think of ’80s folk-pop mainstay Edie Brickell, their minds might go to a few places: Brickell’s band New Bohemians, of course, their inquisitive 1988 single “What I Am,” her marriage to classic-pop icon Paul Simon, and maybe even that god-awful, Auto-Tuned Allison Williams “What I Am” cover on Girls.
But Brickell, who recently reunited with New Bohemians after 12 years with their genre-blending fourth record, Rocket, would much rather the world recognize her myriad accomplishments post-“What I Am.”
“I feel like since I abandoned [the band], [journalists] were like, [New Bohemians were] only this phase — but that’s not true,” says Brickell over the phone. “It’s not fair to limit the band’s potential. It lights a fire under me to say, you know, that’s absolutely not so. I’m going to show you another side of the band. Nobody officially said the band has broken up. Ever.”
Though the band never officially parted ways, Brickell didn’t record much with them after their second album, 1990’s Ghost Of A Dog. The reason came from a place of pragmatism and a shifting of priorities: After meeting Simon and getting married in the early ’90s, Brickell was careful never to accept work that required a long touring stretch, noting that she simply didn’t want to be away from her kids.
Instead, over the course of two decades, she recorded solo material, co-founded folk-rock project the Gaddabouts with renowned studio drummer Steve Gadd, and put out a bluegrass album, Love Has Come For You, with comedian Steve Martin in 2013.
Now, though, it’s been 30 years since New Bohemians’ breakthrough LP, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars, all of her children are either in college or graduated, and Brickell is loving being back on the road, touring for the band’s latest, the aforementioned Rocket. “We feel like we’re starting over again,” she says. “We’re having a great time and the people that are coming are enjoying it, and we’re loving them. It’s just fun to be together again and play music.”
Below, Brickell elaborates on her reasons for stepping away from her first-ever band, reuniting with New Bohemians, and her feelings about her best-known song getting covered on Girls.
STEREOGUM: When did you actually start thinking about getting the group back together and work on Rocket?
BRICKELL: I’ve always played with the Bohemians on and off throughout the years, but I couldn’t tour with them regularly. All the collaborative things I did [over the years] were not pressuring me to tour. But if I work with those guys I feel pressure to tour because they need to make a living. So any time I went to Texas or if they were passing through we would get together and play or write. But I felt that, I had made another record and I wasn’t intending on making a record with them any time soon, but then Kenny [Withrow] invited me last year to come and play a benefit for this place where he was working where they offered free lessons to kids in this neighborhood, near where I was born in Oak Cliff. So I said yeah, definitely, I’ll be there.
I went down and the band got together to rehearse, we started making up all these great songs, I just love the songs. That’s always been the nature of the band — if you put us in a room for an hour, we’re going to definitely come out with a few new songs, we just can’t help ourselves.
So then I slipped into Austin to record this song called “I Don’t Need A Man,” which was intended for my solo record as an update feature on my solo record that had been recorded in 2012 and 2011 with Charlie Sexton. We were a couple of months from releasing that, and Charlie was on the road, so I asked Kenny if he would come and work with our engineer who created that solo record with Charlie and play a guitar solo on the song. Where I saw Kenny in the studio with Kyle Crisham — the engineer from the solo stuff — I realized that Kenny was finally really comfortable in a recording studio and I’ve never seen that.
The way that our records were recorded in the past just never brought him to life in the same way. Kyle’s chemistry [combined with] Kyle’s leadership in the studio affected him. So I got very excited, I asked Kyle if he would record for a week since we had those new songs, just as an experiment to see if what I was seeing would translate to the whole band. He said yeah, so that summer we got together, and it was a dream come true in terms of a producer-engineer capturing the spirit of the band.
I think the joyous energy on the record is palpable. When I heard the record, I went back and said, “Can we put this record out instead?” The older songs that I’ve recorded weren’t as exciting to me anymore. It didn’t have the same energy or character or maybe it just aged out in my sensibility and the way I heard them.
Anyway, [Verve Records CEO and president] Danny Bennett, who I love at the company, at first wanted to continue to put out the record. But when I said I love the energy so much, he said “all right,” which astonished me to have someone from a record company want to work with an artist and understand that concept of really good energy and go with it.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that this was the first time Kenny seemed really at home in the studio. What do you think changed for him?
BRICKELL: He definitely evolved as a player, and gained more confidence in himself. But the first recording sessions that we had I think were no fun for him. The way that records were made, the band would play together but really they were only going for the drum tracks. Then you’d play a song, I don’t know, 30, 40 times and it would only take the drums and everybody would overdub on that. You could hear what the songs were, but you couldn’t feel them much anymore. It didn’t translate to us in the same way. I think that that left him a little… “traumatized” is too strong a word. But I think it left a bad impression of making records or being comfortable in a studio.
But Kyle had such a warmth and a genius about him, he understood that something doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s got to sound good and have a great feeling. That’s the nature of New Bohemians: It’s so much about vibe and character and not perfection.
STEREOGUM: How else does Rocket stand apart as a collection of songs compared to your earlier music with New Bohemians?
BRICKELL: We had the opportunity to choose what would be on the record, [as opposed to] record company cherry-picking our songs. We have a dynamic that suits us, and that’s a great feeling because we feel it represents us in a better way.
STEREOGUM: So with your first few records, you felt more beholden to the record company’s wishes?
BRICKELL: I think that the record company gave us an incredible blessing and they did a great job. That was a matter of trusting and then looking back and thinking, “Oh, I wish we’d done it this way.” So it’s not laying blame on anybody, it’s just a sense of learning and growing and understanding who you are and what you want to express.
But when you have a band like New Bohemians who can play so many different styles and express so many different personalities together, it’s really hard to pick the [songs] you love the most, and that’s a good problem. So any record is going to feel limited to us. But the way that they’re recorded, the vibe that is something that we always wanted to try to dial in better because it feels like no matter how good something feels, it can always feel better.
STEREOGUM: Did that sense of never getting it quite right in the studio impact the actual number of records New Bohemians made together?
BRICKELL: Well, yeah, that definitely came into it. But back then, 10 to 15 years ago, it would do you well to have a record company. But the first thing a record company will ask you is, “Will you tour?” Because if they’re going to put their money in and support you they want you to get out there and play. I actually would not go on any kind of lengthy tour. I would dip my toe in the water a little bit, here and there, but never. I wasn’t going to leave my kids.
STEREOGUM: That can’t have been easy. Especially considering how vital touring has become, from a money-making perspective, with physical album sales on the decline.
BRICKELL: Yeah. I made a record with the Gaddabouts — Steve Gadd put a band together for us, and for a while Verve Jazz was interested in putting that record out. But this woman Dahlia [Ambach Caplin, VP of A&R at Verve], she asked me, “I love this record, I’d love to put it out, will you tour?” And I said no, I can’t tour. So that was it, so we just released it independently, just to get the music out there.
STEREOGUM: So now your kids are a little older, correct?
BRICKELL: I have two that graduated college, and our youngest is a junior in college. I’m ready to roll.
STEREOGUM: So with Rocket out, do you feel amenable to touring more often?
BRICKELL: Yes. Especially if it stays this fun, then I would love to. Really I’m on a mission right now to really show how great these guys are, this band, and how flexible and free and different they are. I want to support that.
STEREOGUM: The band is also celebrating a special anniversary — 30 years of Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars. When you think about that time in your life, when that record came out and the success that came with it, what do you think immediately stands out for you?
BRICKELL: The mystery of a life-changing event and how grateful we all are to have had that experience and to get to have the jobs that we love. That’s huge.
I grew up in a blue-collar family, and seeing my grandmother’s generation and my mom and dad hate their jobs … [their jobs] were basically a means to get by, to survive. Not this getting to plug into this electric current of creativity that brings you so much joy and makes you feel so alive. That’s miraculous. I feel as the whole band, we were very grateful to get to experience that career.
STEREOGUM: Were your parents supportive of your artistic goals at that time?
BRICKELL: They were shockingly supportive. I was the first kid [in our family] to go to college, and I got into the best school in Dallas. It made my mother cry when I got the acceptance letter. I applied to one college because the application fee was $50. I knew that I could only go to one school and it had to be local. I wasn’t able to travel, because I didn’t even investigate financial aid or anything like that. I didn’t want it anyway.
When I got into Southern Methodist University, it was a huge deal for my mom. And after being in there a year, I joined the band in my first year of college and then by my sophomore year we were so well received in Dallas, we were selling out clubs night after night and I was able to quit my other job and pay my rent and even help out at home and everything.
All I could think about was music, all I could think about was writing songs, so I knew that my grades were slipping and I thought, I don’t want to be in college and pay all this money and owe all this money, and not make good grades. So I went to my mom I said “Hey, I’m thinking of taking a year off, and if we aren’t signed in one year I promise you I’ll go back to college.” She said, “You’re only young once. You’ve got to try for your dreams.” I was shocked.
We were signed 11 months later, it was a miracle. Geffen Records came into town and they saw our show. They said if you want a record contract you got it.
STEREOGUM: Wow, you almost hit your deadline.
BRICKELL: I know, it was just under the wire. Like I said, it’s all rolled out in a miraculous way. I feel like I sort of abandoned the band to go and get married and have kids and step away from the weird attention that I wasn’t very comfortable with.
But I adored making music. As I was reading to my kids I realized I was singing all the time, making up songs. I thought well, wow, it’s really not a fluke, it keeps coming out. So I would go to Texas and I would continue to play with New Bohemians, before my kids went to school.
STEREOGUM: People were writing that the band had been kind of a one-off?
BRICKELL: [Yeah], basically saying that the band is broken up and had a tiny, short career and only made one song. The funny thing is, when we’re on tour, when people reference “What I Am” all the time, it’s actually “Circle” and “Nothing.” To be in the band and to be in the audience is to know that what journalists’ description of who we were isn’t true. Time will determine that in more realistic terms.
STEREOGUM: Uh, speaking of “What I Am”… You didn’t catch Allison Williams’ cover in Girls, by any chance?
BRICKELL: I didn’t. I’ve heard about it, but I didn’t see it. What do you think of it? I didn’t know anything about it.
STEREOGUM: Well, to be honest, the cover isn’t meant to be very flattering. But that’s less of a reflection of the song itself and more of a reflection on the character’s lack of self-awareness. She’s reached a point in her life where she wants to be a singer, but she’s way too uptight and not particularly charismatic in her approach, so her version of “What I Am” comes off as rather cloying.
BRICKELL: When I heard about it, I was honestly sort of afraid. I didn’t want to feel like, “Oh, they’re making fun,” because that doesn’t feel good to be in the mix of something… I wrote that song when I was 18. It came from a moment of being in a World Religions class at SMU and listening to all of the chatter and all of the questions in the classroom, and it was a response to that.
So it’s strange when you have a song become very well known and it represents a minute of your thinking or a reaction to something in life, as opposed to the full spectrum of who you are or what you feel or what you think. So I guess you have to have a great sense of humor to create anything, because you never know how it’s going to spin.
STEREOGUM: Hmmm, maybe don’t watch that Girls episode, then.
BRICKELL: Thanks for the warning.