Room 105, The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin is not exactly a narrative bio-play, one woman show or revue. Nor is this lusty musical just “cheap thrills.”
Starring Sophie B. Hawkins, Room 105 is more — to borrow a term from Jimi Hendrix — “the Janis Joplin Experience.”
Hawkins is a successful (As I Lay Me Down, Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover) singer in her own right, and selecting her to play the iconic crooner was a canny casting choice.
In this no-holds-barred conversation Hawkins reveals what enables her to dig down deep to depict the troubled Texan rocker who expressed an entire generation’s blues, who the real Janis Joplin was, and what it’s like to play the “role of a lifetime.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: This play Room 105 flashes back to Janis Joplin’s childhood to put her later years in context. What was your own background like?
Sophie B. Hawkins: I was born in New York City, and grew up in Manhattan — it was total freedom for me! It was all Jamaicans and Koreans and old New Yorkers. It was incredibly cheap rent-controlled apartments with wonderful families.
Really, I ran around like a wild child with my brother Nicholas and sister Phoebe. We spent our springs and summers barefoot in the Park, ice skating in the winter — it was heaven. Everything — rowboating — everything a kid would ever want to do, we did. Without any kind of money, but the world was my oyster –New York at that time was an open door to the world. I came out to Los Angeles in my thirties because I wanted to just see what the rest of the world was like, beyond the Hudson River.
RCM: Tell us about your musical career. Did you always want to be a singer?
SBH: I always wanted to be a drummer. I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a songwriter, but my father used to play Bob Dylan records, and I remember being in the living room of our apartment and listening to Dylan when I was about six, and I said, “I am that.” That was Positively 4th Street — whatever that was, I wanted, I felt I was.
But for some reason, the journey to being a songwriter started with wanting to be a drummer. Because I just loved music so much. But there are no musicians in my family and my mother is a novelist, a fiction writer. So I was around a very creative person, but we were never pushed; we never had any kind of lessons. For my parents, the whole idea was to let us be free and that we would find our way. And that happened with me.
SBH: At about 14 years old, since I was never taken to any lessons, I felt behind the eight ball, and I finally found an African drum teacher – Gordy. He became my teacher and then he became my lover for many years, and I got really into music. Gordy was the most amazing person in my life; he not only taught me African drums, dancing and singing, he pushed me into vibraphone and marimba and piano. He thought I had incredible talent and he pushed me and he loved me. It was what I needed, because I went from totally unfocused wild child to a really driven artist.
RCM: Your career actually begins as a percussionist, right? Before being a singer?
SBH: I got to the point of being [Roxy Music’s] Bryan Ferry’s percussionist. Which is a huge gig for a young female in New York City. But then at a certain point during rehearsals he said, “Look, you’ve done all these beautiful arrangements of vibraphone and marimba, but what I really need on the road is a Cuban percussion player – and you’re not that.”
So he fired me, and I went home and wrote Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover, so I consider that a milestone.
Because life said to me: “You can try as hard as you want but you’ll never be a Cuban percussionist. You’ll never be something you didn’t grow up as. But you are an artist, so be an artist.”
And it wasn’t like I wrote it to make a hit, I wrote it from my heart. I’d written many songs before and I knew when I wrote that I had arrived. I knew it was big, I felt it.
RCM: And still, singing came later, right?
SBH: Years after that I got a record deal. I was a coat-check in Joe Allen’s Restaurant at 46th Street, and Mark Cohen walked in and said, “You have such a beautiful speaking voice I bet you’re a singer.” And I said: “I’m a crappy singer, but I have about 1,000 songs. Do you want to hear any?” And he took my demo tape and left it at a studio and somebody picked it up and the next thing you know, I had literally seven record companies fighting over me.
RCM: And then success came quickly. What was it like when in 1993 you were Grammy nominated for Best New Artist?
SBH: That’s actually when life started to get — life went from magical to really sad for me. Because I should have been so happy. But that’s when all the things of not being supported as a child — not being believed in as a child. Which doesn’t matter when you’re a kid. But when you start to get fame, if you don’t have a core belief and confidence in yourself, you can self destruct. It happens all the time.
And I did some self destructing in the sense that Sony said, “Don’t bother going to the Grammys, you’re not going to win.” I took that as a “You’re not good enough,” and I didn’t go and enjoy being part of the musical community, which is what I should have done. I should have appreciated the people who gave me that honor. But Sony was so negative — and I’m not trying to blame them, because all these record companies are negative. But what you need to combat that is positive support around you, and I didn’t have that.
So basically, by the time the Grammy nomination rolled around I was already in self destruction mode, because I didn’t know how to build support emotionally; I thought Sony hated me. So sad. I wish it could happen now.
RCM: Didn’t you battle Sony to regain your independence?
SBH: Yeah. In many ways I won that battle. Because I got my masters back and I still have a career and my songs are still played in movies and I still get some really great recognition all around the world from those classics and also new songs on the Internet.
I’m really lucky; I survived. Lots of people didn’t survive. I think I’m the only person who battled Sony, and I was definitely the first. It wasn’t just a Sony issue, it’s a global issue, and that’s what I love about Janis. She says: “Weren’t we right about the corporations taking over the world?” Goddamn she was right.
That was my battle — you’re supposed to support art and learn artists can make you money just by being who they are, which is what Janis did! She made her record companies money just by being Janis.
By the ’90s you couldn’t be who you are, you had to alter everything about you because they had those stockholders who really insisted that no matter how much money you made for them — believe me, I made a lot for money for Sony! I had major hits for them… Right Beside You; As I Lay Me Down is the longest running hit single in the history of music. Only Love is a huge hit; Lose Your Way still plays in every grocery store all the time — that’s what the fight was about. Then I had hits in Europe that I didn’t have here; but in America it was basically those five.
But it still wasn’t enough. And if only I did this, if only I was writing for that person, then I could make them more money. That’s the tragedy — the greed… that has marked my career a lot. But I think it’s a good fight, god-damn it! I think I was right to fight them and I’m still standing.
RCM: Did you listen to Janis Joplin growing up?
SBH: Yeah, but I listened to her as a drummer. I remember playing drums to Big Brother and the Holding Company. But I never dreamed I would be a singer — ever.
RCM: What is your personal take on her?
SBH: Janis is really one of the most brilliant bandleaders of our time. You hear it because Big Brother wasn’t even a good band. I love that about them. They were an art band who didn’t care about being in tune or in time. She made them so extraordinary. Think about those guys without her. I love that they’re razzing me in the play that I would be nothing without them, but she really did put them on the map. She made them from a raggedy art band with no focus with no musicianship to speak of into a great band, because of her singing. She was like a horn player, guitar player and bandleader all at once.
People love all the bad girl stuff about her, but Janis was very disciplined. Nobody really knows all that went into making her Janis Joplin, the incredibly intelligent human being. She gave women so much freedom — but of course, women are always too stupid to ever hold onto it. Janis did singlehandedly what no woman had ever done: She was an untraditionally beautiful — and some people might say not beautiful — white woman who took the blues and made massive pop hits with a bad band. She became a superstar!
RCM: What did you think of Bette Midler in 1979’s The Rose?
SBH: I thought she was great and I loved The Rose and loved the song The Rose. It’s beautiful because it’s emotional. That last scene in the phone booth… Bette Midler was somebody Janis really admired and was really afraid was going to surpass her, and take her place.
RCM: How did you get involved with Room 105?
SBH: Gigi Gaston’s been my manager for 17 years, and creative partner. She came to me and said: “You’re going to play Janis Joplin. And this is how you’re going to play her.” I should have said “hell no,” but I said “hell yes.” I don’t know why, every fiber of my being said, “This is a challenge I want to take now.” In tandem, Gigi started writing scenes to put into my Sophie B. Hawkins’ shows on the road and suddenly I’d just say, “I’m channeling Janis Joplin,” and do a monologue from her play, and then go into a Janis song. That was the genesis of it. And my fans loved it. We started realizing we have something here. Gigi is totally responsible for doing this.
RCM: What kind of research did you do to play Joplin?
SBH: First thing I did was pretend I was Janis at nine years old. That whole year I learned and wrote out every single phrasing of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly — I learned what Janis learned. I figured there was no better way to get to Janis than through her influences. It was the most awesome period of my life, last year, immersing myself into what Janis did.
After that, then I got to Janis, and it was like diving into an Alaska ocean. Because Janis is very different from Big Mama Thornton. Then I started to listen to Janis and learn Janis verbatim, I’d write down the phrasing to the sixteenth note, and my band would always argue with me — and this is something people don’t know about Janis.
When we’d start rehearsing, I’d say, “She’s coming in on the sixth eighth note, she’s not coming in on the damn beat,” and they’d go: “You’re crazy; she just felt it. She didn’t even know what she was doing.” And I said, “No; you guys are wrong about her. She knows everything she’s doing, and I can prove it to you.”
But the band never wanted to listen, because they’re a bunch of guys. And guy musicians never think a girl can do it, that a girl has the intellectual capability, to really get music and become a great bandleader, which Janis was. So I learned Janis, with pride, and so much forcefulness, I’d say “No.” I walked in her shoes as much as I can and this is who she is. That was a huge part of my growth as Janis was becoming her advocate. Learning how to sing like her is freakin’ challenging man! But I feel like I’ve done it to a great extent.
RCM: How do you replicate Joplin’s unique, throaty, raspy sound?
SBH: I actually learned how she got there. I think I’m correct, because I listened to so many recordings from her friends, who are now my friends and lovers. They’ve given us demos nobody else has, and I’ve heard Janis even before she had that rasp. I heard Janis’ voice when it was a pure soprano and sweet as it can be, like her mother’s singing voice. And I said, “How did she get from that to this rasp?” I kind of figured it out — I think I did; I could be wrong.
But I think onstage I’m able to get people to the point where they feel like I’m doing it. It was really a process of dissecting, kind of like a musicologist: How’d she get there? Why’d she get there? I know how she got there — I can give the credit to [guitarist and Joplin’s lover] James Gurley and Big Brother, because she was doing his part. She was so influenced by James Gurley and Big Brother that she wanted to sound like him. I’m positive of it.
RCM: Had you ever professionally acted before Room 105?
SBH: Before I got my record deal with Sony I pursued acting because I loved it so much. I studied acting with some really great coaches and classes, and probably went on 10 auditions a day. I did get some stage work, but nothing I was ever paid for, just Off-Off-Broadway. I stopped it when I realized that if I focused on my music I thought I’d be able to be the artist I decided to be.
It didn’t mean I lost my love of acting. But I didn’t ever think about it because once I became the songwriter I wanted to be I really had to concentrate on that 1000%, and that’s what I did. This opportunity has brought back all those — it’s like an addiction to theater. But this is a role of a lifetime!
RCM: How do you get into character?
SBH: Gigi’s writing is so emotional and unique. I really had to personalize the experience. Through the writing of Gigi — not according to anybody else, because she’s the playwright and director — when I can nail Janis is when I have personalized it correctly. So I’m bringing all of my emotions from my personal life and it really does speak Janis. Because of course I watched hundreds of hours of video and read five books on her, so the physical thing is one thing, and studying her accent. That’s not the hard part — the hard part is understanding what would have been her emotions and how she would have played it.
RCM: Is that your hair or a wig?
SBH: No, this is my hair. I’ve been criticized because they say it doesn’t look like Janis’ hair. I said to the director many times, “Do you want me to wear a wig or dye my hair?” And Gigi said, “No, because you’re channeling Janis.”
RCM: Your performance is very physical. Do you have a workout routine?
SBH: Ha! That’s the cutest question I’ve ever heard! I love workout videos, because I’m a mother of a four-year-old. So I only can spend a half hour on my body because there’s too much to do. I do these great workouts called “10 Minute Solutions.” They kick my butt!
RCM: In a key emotional plot point in the play Joplin goes back to Port Arthur, Texas for her high school reunion. Did that actually happen?
SBH: Yes! And it really did devastate her. Her very close friends say that was the beginning of the end — because she realized they were never going love her, approve of her. She tried so hard to fit in, to be approved of by her mother; her family was the biggest thing in her life. And I think that killed her. That reunion was only about six weeks before her death in 1970.
RCM: The title Room 105 represents the room where Janis died of a heroin overdose, right?
SBH: Right - in room 105, the Landmark Hotel, in Los Angeles. And it took them 18 hours to find her body. That’s how much they cared about her, those motherfuckers! I’m so pissed!
They were living off of her, you know? She was making that record Pearl and they were partying on her dime and nobody notices she’s not at the session for 18 hours?!
She was dead. I’m sorry, it enrages me when I think about it!
RCM: Janis had lots of angst and troubles, as Room 105 shows. What in your own life enabled you to draw on the dark side in order to play Janis Joplin so convincingly?
SBH: Well, on a lot. We had totally different upbringings. But, but, but — there’s a film Gigi made about me called The Cream Will Rise that goes into childhood sexuality, which I guess would today be called abuse, but at the time we didn’t see it that way. Incredible alcoholism that I dealt with — both of my parents. Shame beyond humiliation. I can relate to Janis on all those levels of alienation and pain. It’s almost too hard to go into in an interview. They use that documentary Gigi made about me to help women in abuse centers. I could definitely understand Janis’ pain. Well, okay, no one can understand anyone’s pain.
[Trailer for The Cream Will Rise, by Gigi Gaston, starring Sophie B. Hawkins]:
RCM: “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.”
SBH: That’s right. When I listen to that song — by the way, I’ve been listening to that exact song lately, because I’ve been painting to gospel music. I know I can never understand Janis’ real pain, but at least I can draw on those feelings of humiliation, isolation and shame. They’re very important in Janis’ evolution. Her death says it all: Dying alone and not being discovered for 18 hours. The way she died — I don’t think she intended to die, but I think she probably knew she could die. I mean, she said it a lot. She said, “Now that Jimi [Hendrix] died two more months before me he’s more famous and will get all the attention.” There’s a lot I can draw on. People always told me I should play Janis Joplin.
RCM: Can you discuss the selection of songs used in the play?
SBH: Some songs were chosen because we couldn’t get others. We couldn’t use Mercedes Benz because her estate wouldn’t give us permission. The Gershwin Estate only let us use Summertime for a short time and then they said “no.”
RCM: What was it like performing with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson in the MACHA Theatre’s audience?
SBH: I love challenges. And this is the most exciting thing, like jumping out a plane. I loved it, because they’re both artists. You want to get to the best point of truth, because acting is all about authenticity, not about performing. It’s about finding those moments every night onstage.
RCM: And celebrity audience members is a common occurrence?
SBH: Mel Gibson came to see us. He gave notes until four in the morning. He is a genius! That was one of the highlights of my life. I got so much out of his notes as an actress.
RCM: The play purports that Janis was bisexual and promiscuous. Do you feel comfortable talking about your own private life?
SBH: Me and Janis are really similar. Talking to several of her lovers, male and female, I’ve gotten that Janis — and I really relate to her on this — she really did love showing, expressing her love for people sexually. She loved being loved because she loved affection. She just loved the whole deal. She didn’t discriminate against women or against men, she was truly — and I am truly — omni-sexual. She was truly a bisexual woman. She made no bones about that and she would never have wanted to be labeled as gay. Ever. That’s what everybody says about her. And I agree with her — labels suck.
I’m gonna turn you on. You’re gonna set me free. I’m gonna make you come. You’re gonna live with me. — Listen by Sophie B. Hawkins
RCM: What do you think Janis Joplin would be like today?
SBH: The Joplin I’m playing is ageless because she’s a stiff and comes back inhabiting my body. I think Janis would be living in Northern California and probably be the head of an artistic community. Sober, and have a few children. I don’t think she’d be in a permanent relationship.
Room 105, The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. The play’s run has been extended through Dec. 30 at the MACHA Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, CA 90069. For more info: (323) 960-1055. or click here: Room 105 Musical.
More information on The Cream Will Rise documentary on Sophie B. Hawkins:
Gigi Gaston convinced Sophie B. Hawkins to allow her to film during Hawkins’ 1996 ‘Moxy Tour’ across the United States. The film’s focus sharply turned from the professional life to the personal as Gaston kept rolling while Hawkins tracked down the people from her past.
The Cream Will Rise proved Gaston’s supposition that the pain and angst of Hawkins’ songwriting had roots in a traumatic and abusive past. What begins as a simple rockumentary evolves into a compelling expose that is instructional for any woman who wants to take control of her own life. DVD is available HERE in the Rock Cellar Store.