Edie Brickell

by Dan MacIntosh

On her collaborations with Paul Simon, Steve Martin and Willie Nelson, and her 2021 album with the New Bohemians.

The story 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").

After a second album, Brickell married Paul Simon, released a solo album, and raised a family. 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 lineup, plus two others.

Along the way, Brickell has collaborated with the best in the business. She recorded 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.

Brickell is soft-spoken but has a lot to say. In this interview, she talks about those high-profile collaborations and breaks down some key tracks from Hunter And The Dog Star.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I especially like 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?

Edie Brickell: Well, you're spot-on. It's observational. I had noticed, throughout that last 20 years, how they're [tattoos] 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.

Songfacts: You and I are pretty close in age. So, I imagine you were probably raised with the impression that people that got tattoos were not the most respected people, so to speak. And now, it just seems like there are people that are beyond that tattoo age that feel like they still need to represent themselves with a tattoo.

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: You made this album with the band, and I'm just curious because even all these years later, you still record together as a band. As a songwriter, how is it different when you write songs with the band versus how you write songs as a solo artist? Does the band bring out something different in your songwriting?

Brickell: They do. 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.

Songfacts: And you still have that relationship. That's pretty admirable to be able to still get along well and record together. Is there anything special in your relationships that you can point to that has kept you coming back together to make records?

Brickell: Just an ease and a comfort and a good sense of humor. I think that the longer you know somebody, the more a sense of humor 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.

Songfacts: One of the songs on the album that's getting a lot of attention is "My Power." It's kind of an anthem. What inspired that song?

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: The song "Horse's Mouth" kind of has that humor. Can you tell me more about that song?

Brickell: Years and years and years ago, I think I was 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 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.

Songfacts: I know that artists can sometimes have a love/hate relationship with their biggest hits, do you still enjoy singing "What I Am," and does it mean anything different to you now?

Brickell: 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.

Brickell with the New BohemiansBrickell with the New Bohemians
Songfacts: You mentioned Willie Nelson, and you've had some notable collaborations over the years. I was watching a clip when you and Steve Martin were on the Colbert show. You talked about writing songs with Steve Martin. We see the public image, where he always seems to need to be "on" and be funny, but you've probably seen a different side of him when writing songs. How is he different? Is he a very serious songwriter and very focused when you write songs with him?

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: Your husband is respected as a songwriter in some circles, I've heard. Have you ever collaborated on writing songs together?

Brickell: We did. We started a children's album when my oldest son was 5.2 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.

Songfacts: I've seen some videos on the internet where you're singing what seems like mostly oldies together where you harmonize together, and you sound really wonderful together.

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: Do you ever run songs by him to get his thoughts? Does he ever give you constructive criticism?

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: I wasn't even aware until recently about your collaborations with Steve Gadd with the Gaddabouts. That's also a very different type of collaboration. Is that still active? Do you still plan on making more music with Steve?

Brickell: 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 favorite 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 to wait.

Songfacts: Getting back to the new album. It's called Hunter And The Dog Star, and I'm not sure if I know the significance of that title. Is there a story?

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: How are you doing, as far as the pandemic and not being able to tour?

Brickell: 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.



Songfacts: I'm blessed because I get to work from home. I like to tell people I'm like the dog that wants to go in the car. If my wife says, "Do you want to go shopping?" It's like, "Yeah! I need to get out." And I think we all sort of feel stir crazy after a while, right?

Brickell: 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: I mentioned the songs on the album that I like. Are there songs on the new album that stand out to you as favorites?

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: How do you feel about your guitar skills, and how that goes into songwriting?

Brickell: 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.

Songfacts: So, there may well be an instrumental album from you one day?

Brickell: [laughter] 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.

March 22, 2021

More at ebnewbos.com

More interviews:
Paul Simon
Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek
John Prine

Photos (1,3): Instagram @ebnewbohemians

Footnotes:

  • 1] "Sing To Me Willie" (back)
  • 2] Adrian, the first of Simon and Brickell's three kids, was born in 1992, so that dates this story to about 1997. (back)

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