Born 1966 in Oak Cliff, Tex., a suburb of Dallas, to Eddie and Larry (mother) Brickell; raised by mother from the age of three, when parents divorced. Education: Arts Magnet High School, a school for the visual and performing arts in downtown Dallas, 1980-84; Southern Methodist University in Dallas, art major, 1984-85. Addresses: Home-- Dallas, Tex. Record company-- Geffen Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10010; 9130 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.
Edie Brickell and New Bohemians can claim one of the decade's most remarkable pop-rock success stories. In their early days in Dallas's downtown art scene, they attracted a faithful core of local fans. That was 1985; one year later, word of their music had reached a few record-label talent scouts, and the group landed a deal. Then came Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, the debut album that, within months of its 1988 release, moved quickly up the charts into multi-platinum territory. "I liken our success to Jiffy Pop popcorn," Brickell, the lead singer, told Rolling Stone. "All of a sudden there's just a rise to fame. Poof. And we're transformed into ... something else." Coming up with a more appropriate metaphor, she added, "We shot rubber bands at the stars, and they hit."
New Bohemians include guitarist Kenny Withrow, bass player Brad Houser, drummer Matt Chamberlain, rhythm guitarist Wes Burt-Martin, percussionist John Bush, and Brickell, who strums an acoustic guitar and blows a blues harp in addition to singing. Straddling the line between accessibility and artiness, their songs alternately explore various genres--funk, disco, reggae, neo-rockabilly, psychedelia--while sticking to a catchy, hard-driving folk-pop base. The signature of their style comes from Brickell. Through her voice, which can be wispy and carefree, yet full of innuendo, she has the rare ability to evoke naivety and sensuality in a single phrase. She tends to sing around notes: like a bee hovering over a flower but alighting only briefly, she'll swoop up to a pitch or slide off it without meeting it head-on. It's a style that's loose-limbed and laid-back, tending to showcase her delivery of a melody more than the melody itself. And, like her neo-hippie looks--long flowing hair topped with a beret, faded jeans tucked into cowboy boots--it's a style that embodies the band's bohemian spirit.
Brickell first captivated listeners with "What I Am," the debut single of Shooting Rubberbands, which concludes with the disarming refrain "Choke me in the shallow water / before I get too deep." While some took the song as a kind of anthem for the Reagan era--a celebration of surface over depth--Brickell was actually expressing a philosophy of her own. "Spirituality, beliefs, the whole picture--I don't think you can make anybody see things the way you see them," she explained in Spin. "I'd rather die than be thrown into some heavy conversation." Instead, she uses her songs to philosophize--but subtly, often presenting her ideas in simple and poetic images. Most of her songs delve into the quirks and contradictions in human relationships, details that she gleans through continual observation. "I've never been that active socially but I've always watched people," she said in a publicity release written by Geffen Records. "I like to second-guess their thoughts and create songs about what I think's going on in their lives." She elaborated in East Coast Rocker: "I write about impressions I get from everybody, the way I see people think, the problems friends come to me with. It's usually the same things: 'She did this,' 'He broke my heart,' 'I want to be alone.' I take those things and roll them into one line or expression to hold it together, and get a universal feeling in a simple way."
Born in 1966 in Oak Cliff, a working-class suburb of Dallas, Edie had an unorthodox childhood. Her parents divorced when she was three, and spending time with her father, a professional bowler, meant hanging out in bowling alleys. Mostly, though, she was raised by her mother, a receptionist. "Money was short and we moved every year, all over Dallas," Brickell told People. "It was like One Day at a Time --crazy, and a whole lot of fun." Then as now, she was free-spirited and whimsical. "I always sang around the house," she told East Coast Rocker, "made up little songs on the guitar, my sparse picking. Music was a hobby then. I always wanted to play, but I was too chicken and I didn't know any musicians. I got my first guitar when I was in fifth grade, and I got to a certain point of basic chords and stuff." On the radio she'd listen to country and blues musicians. From her mother, who she recalls would get up early before work to dance to records by Al Green and Ike and Tina Turner, she inherited a love for soul music; such singers as Irma Thomas, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin became her idols.
During her teens, while driving around Dallas's suburbs in a Volkswagen bug (since replaced by a pickup truck), Brickell would listen to XTC, the Psychedelic Furs, and David Bowie. She attended Arts Magnet High School, an arts-oriented school, where her focus on the visual arts, combined with her striking shyness, kept her from hooking up with the music crowd. After graduating, she enrolled at Dallas's Southern Methodist University as an art major, waiting tables to help pay tuition, but left after three semesters. "I felt awful going there, because all the kids there were such dedicated artists, and I was just going along with it," she told Spin. "I realized that I was insulting them by calling myself an artist. They wanted to draw everything, and I didn't. My passion was writing songs."
Yet, as she confessed in Spin, "I never gave much thought to the idea of being a singer. It was like some faraway fantasy. I was way too chicken to try it." One night during her art-school days, she cast aside her fear. "A good friend of mine took me to a bar to see some friends of hers who were in a band. It was New Bohemians, though they were like a ska band, nothing like now. This was in mid-'85. My friend bought me a shot of Jack Daniels and I'd never drank whiskey before, so I got out of it in about 10 seconds. It was like a shot of bravery, so I asked the guys if I could sing one with them. They started playing some jazzy sort of jam and I improvised the lyrics. It was the greatest rush singing on stage with a band and I knew right there that it was what I wanted to do. I sang with the band the next week and afterwards they asked me to join." Faced with the choice of continuing school or dropping out to be a rock singer, she chose the latter. (In a Rolling Stone interview, Brickell noted that part of the story had been blown out of proportion. "It was frustration that got me to do it, not Jack Daniels," she clarified. "The Jack Daniels just said, 'Go for it, stop being such a chicken.'")
"For about a year and a half we were able to make enough money on weekends to survive during the week," Brickell recalled in Spin. "We were playing teeny-weeny clubs in Dallas, playing all originals. We were lucky enough to be part of the original live music club scene." The scene was Deep Ellum, a former red-light district east of downtown Dallas that was becoming a thriving artists' community. Though it was the mid-eighties, a l960s spirit was in full bloom. Musicians lived there in warehouses, drugs were in wide supply and demand, and the music, which ranged from punk to rock to the avant-garde, was played in the open-ended jamming style of the Grateful Dead. New Bohemians had come to the proverbial right place at the right time. "It was all weirdos, mostly under 20 or 21," recalled Brent Butterworth, a former Dallas scene maker, in Spin. "It was the first arty thing that ever happened in Dallas. If Deep Ellum hadn't happened, New Bohemians wouldn't have had a place to play."
In mid-1986 New Bohemians put out a demo tape that sold well locally and drew a wide audience for their Dallas gigs. Yet they were becoming increasingly anxious to expand their turf--especially Brickell, who resolved to quit the band if they didn't have a record deal by November. Her worries were needless. In November, a representative of Geffen Records flew to Dallas, saw one show, and offered them a record deal. (The rep had been tipped off to New Bohemians by an MCA scout, who liked the band but couldn't convince her label that they were marketable.) A year later they were paired with producer Pat Moran, whose credits included working with Robert Plant, and flown to Wales (Brickell's first time out of Texas) to record. The sessions were not without problems. When Geffen and Moran began making changes in both song material and band personnel, tensions developed within the group--mostly between the other band members and Edie, who, anxious to get the record done, sided with the label. The rift was exacerbated by Geffen, who changed the group's name from New Bohemians to Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. ("We were told that the band was breaking up," explained Geffen executive Tom Zutaut to Rolling Stone, "and we wanted to protect our huge investment.") But tensions dissolved with the completion of the album; as for the name issue, the band is unanimously pushing to resume its original name with its next release.
During the now-classic first encounter between Edie and New Bohemians, the singer revealed her uncanny ability to pick lyrics and melody out of the air. Since then, improvisation has become both an ends and a means for the band: not only does it define much of their live act, but as with Shooting Rubberbands, it also provides their basic approach to songwriting. "A lot of the time, we don't have any ideas at all and start with a really silly image, like biscuits or paper plates, to see how it goes," Brickell told the New York Times. "When we come up with a melody we all like, we blend it all together and somehow a song naturally arrives." Yet her fascination with wordplay began long before she met New Bohemians. "I've always liked words," she told Geffen. "I'd write little things on pieces of paper and put them in drawers. Strange thoughts would run through my head. So I started putting them in songs and brought them to the band."
In the band's early days, Brickell was far from self-assured. While other pop singers tend to bop around onstage, dancing or clapping or shaking a tambourine, she would bend down to pick lint off the floor. "Edie was excruciatingly self-conscious on stage," commented Tom Marstaud, a Dallas writer, in Spin. "She would keep her eyes down and fumble with her hands.... You really winced at how uncomfortable she looked." Gradually she overcame her shyness. But as several writers have observed, she has retained the girl-next-door folksiness that drew her early listeners in; for instance, she still spends time between sets mixing with the audience. "Spacey as she occasionally seems, Brickell seductively exudes down-to-earth normalcy--no small virtue in a pop singer," wrote Chris Willman in the Los Angeles Times. In Spin, Marstaud offered a corroborating anecdote: "One night she had the flu, so she laid out a quilt on the stage, wrapped herself in a comforter and sang from a prone position. If anyone else did that you'd just roll your eyes, but with Edie it came off completely unaffected."
Aside from music, Brickell is passionate about playing football and baseball, trampolining, drawing (the illustrations on Shooting Rubberbands are hers), walking at night, and driving around in her pickup truck. Yet when free time is limited, as it has become, her first concern is for solitude; as she told Spin, "I need to be alone to get my head together, to feel like an individual." That she, a private, basically introverted person, should become a national star is a source of bemusement to her. "I think it's really ironic that I'm doing what I'm doing," she told Rolling Stone. "But that's one of the reasons I'm doing it: because really, I didn't want to live a boring life. I wanted a challenge, and this really is." In the New York Times, she added, "Though it meant I had to choose between going to school or devoting time to a band--and everyone was against my joining a band--I couldn't risk blowing what I really wanted to do." And what does she want to do, now that she's shot a few rubber bands? "I want to write songs that make people feel good and escape and lose themselves in it," she told Musician. "When I'm driving on a great day with the windows rolled down, I want to hear something that accentuates it, that makes that mood blow over the top.... So that's what I want to present to people."
by Kyle Kevorkian
Edie Brickell's Career
As a child, liked to sing, play guitar, and write bits of verse. Less than halfway through college, dropped out to join a local band called the New Bohemians; became their lead singer and songwriter.
- With New Bohemians
- The Sound of Deep Ellum (compilation LP of local bands), 1987.
- Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (includes "What I Am," "Little Miss S.," "Air of December," "The Wheel," "Love Like We Do," "Circle," "Beat the Time," "She," "Nothing," "Now," and "Keep Coming Back"), Geffen, 1988.
- East Coast Rocker, February 8, 1989.
- Elle, April, 1989.
- In Fashion, February, 1989.
- Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1988.
- Musician, December, 1988.
- New York Times, November 18, 1988; November 21, 1988.
- People, September 12, 1988; October 24, 1988.
- Spin, March, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, May 4, 1989.
- Variety, December 7, 1988.