Sings Like an Angel, Laughs Like a Texan

Edie Brickell and New Bohemians win over audiences with their country-flavored rock songs of love and loss

SHE'S a bohemian artist par excellence, a Renaissance woman who sings like an angel, writes like a poet, dresses like a hippie, and laughs like a Texan. Edie Brickell is woman-rocker chic, from her commanding voice to her touching, witty rock-and-roll songs of loss and love. When Ms. Brickell performs, she doesn't twist and tease like Madonna. She stands still, in faded blue jeans, cowboy boots, brown suede jacket, and a natural, smiling face.

At a recent sold-out show here in Boston, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians played songs from their new album, ``Ghost of a Dog,'' which has already zoomed to the top 15 at Boston-area record stores in the two months it has been available. She is popular among the collegiate set.

The album sounds much like the band's 1988 debut album, ``Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars,'' but Brickell's lyrics have matured - serious stuff from a woman who is just 24. For example, here's an excerpt from the new song ``This Eye,'' which the audience loved:

One night the howlin' dog sings a lullaby Drift you into peaceful memories One night the howlin' dog cries out lonely life Break you like the light between the trees. ... This eye looks with love This eye looks with judgment Free me, take the sight out of this eye.

Another concert favorite was ``Woyaho,'' a new song the band also performed on TV's ``Saturday Night Live'' on Dec. 8. In the midst of a singing frenzy, Brickell reached into her back pocket, and suddenly she was playing the harmonica.

In a telephone interview with the Monitor, Brickell talked about why she sings, what she loves, and what she sees in her future.

She grew up in Dallas and lives there now. She started playing the guitar in fifth grade, with a few lessons but taught herself most of what she knows.

``I'm not a disciplined player,'' she says in her soft Southern drawl. ``I'm not one of those people who is in love with the instrument, you know? The guys in the band are in love with their instruments, and they're constantly playing. On the other hand, I'm constantly thinking about a song,'' she says. The members of the New Bohemians are Kenny Withrow and Wes Burt-Martin (guitars), Brad Houser (bass), and John Bush and Matt Chamberlain (percussion).

After three semesters at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Brickell quit. School was tough, she says, and she didn't want any of the jobs college would prepare her for. But her mother encouraged her to stay in school. ``It meant a lot to her, and to see her happy meant a lot to me. But at the same time, her happiness cost me mine, and so I just had to stop. I made a deal with her.

``I said, `Listen, I know this is going to break your heart, but I'm going to quit this school and join this band. Just let me try it for a year, and if it doesn't work out, I promise you I'll go back to that school.' And luckily, after a year playing with the clubs, we got a record contract.'' She was 19.

In fact, Brickell says the greatest influence on her has been her mother, who raised the girls alone (her father moved out when Brickell was a child) while holding down several jobs at once. Before making it in music, Brickell worked in a pizza parlor, a record store, a movie theater, and a restaurant. Waitressing was her least favorite: ``It was so humiliating sometimes. I never figured out how people could go out to eat and be in a bad mood.''

Brickell sings about love and the difficulty of loving. ``I think that's something that touches everybody, and not just in a romantic relationship. I think loving [our] relatives and loving [our] friends can be a real trial for people.... My goal is to awaken some kind of remembrance or some kind of feeling in people. I like it when it happens to me - when I listen to a record, and I can relate to it, and it can make me feel things again, or make me aware of feelings I try to hide. That makes me feel good.''

Motown singer Aretha Franklin does just this, says Brickell; so does Paul Morrissey, former lead singer for the Smiths, who juxtaposes melancholy words against beautiful melodies.

``I like a good story, and I like anything that I think has truth in it,'' Brickell says, talking about country music. She used to listen to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, as well as older musicians. About old-time country crooner George Jones, Brickell says: ``He can cram a whole life into three minutes!''

Brickell says she is learning a lot while on tour. ``I've changed a lot, from traveling and being alone. The more I'm alone, the more I know myself, and the more I realize a lot of my behavior early-on was imitative, or just like my family's.'' Her short-term plans for the future include an international concert tour this winter and another American tour next spring.

Hip and chic, Brickell is a woman to watch in a decade of music filled with solid messages and no-nonsense attitudes from a host of women singers: Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs, Sinead O'Conner, the Indigo Girls, and rapper Queen Latifah, to name a few.

``I feel things from a woman's perspective, [but] I want to reach as many people as possible without discriminating one way or the other,'' says Brickell. ``My hope is to have a universal appeal. That's why I strive to switch perspectives all the time in the writing. I just want to touch a human being, no matter what.''

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