Behind the Song: Sophie B. Hawkins, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover”

It’s as intense an expression of desire as ever has graced the pop charts, so intense, in fact, that it needed a mild expletive just to drive the point home. But, as it turns out, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” was less about Sophie B. Hawkins striving for some sort of physical connection than it was about her finding her own self as a singer-songwriter.

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As Hawkins told American Songwriter in an extensive interview, the sequence of events leading up to her writing the 1992 Top 5 single helped, in many ways, to berth the song. At the time, Hawkins was thinking of a life in music as a percussionist, but her brief stint as a marimba and vibraphone player in Bryan Ferry’s band convinced her of a different career path.

“I was breaking into what could have been the dream gig for a drummer/percussionist, and then I got fired,” Hawkins says. “I had worked so many hours for so many days for so long, that I could’ve been upset about it. But I thought it was a ticket to my freedom. I thought, ‘You don’t really want to be a sideman and go on tour with these people. As wonderful as they are, that’s not who you are.’”

Thus, Hawkins willed herself into becoming a songwriter, with “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” one of the first fruits of this transformation. “I started writing the lyrics on my wall,” she remembers. “I didn’t know they were lyrics. They were just things on the wall. And I played those piano chords, (sings) ‘Baa-baah,’ with the G as the base. Which was a mistake, of course, because the best things happen from mistakes. I was so tired from playing over and over again that my hand didn’t move from the G chord, and it was just so beautiful, the A and D over a G, and I had never heard it before.”

“And I thought that was really something big. It was this feeling inside of me: Something big is about to happen to you, Sophie. And it was the first big thing that had ever happened in my life, because I had never had that feeling before. Because I was a total loser, D student, nothing ever really happened the way I wanted it to happen. I thought, ‘Something is coming out of you that you know is in there. And if you can just get it out, if you can just be here, this will happen.’”

As Hawkins continued writing, she came up with the idea of changing the emphasis in the chorus, a decision that would pay off huge dividends. “I remember playing with the chorus,” she says. “And it wasn’t DAMN! It was more like ‘Damn, I wish I was your lover’ (sings it softly). It was very soft. When you listen to it, there is a low voice that is actually the melody. And I loved it but I thought that no one is going to see this as a chorus.”

Hence, came the idea to shout out the word “Damn”, the passion of it mirroring both her longing for a new way of life and her exultation of realizing that she knew she needed one. “I wasn’t in any relationship that was as sophisticated as the song,” Hawkins says of the misconception that she had someone specific in mind as the object of her affection. “But I had been triggered by a lot of emotional events to bring the song out of me. There are times when you write a song and you think that it’s OK and it’s fun to play, people like it, whatever. But then there are the times when a song comes out where you feel like it’s almost ugly. It’s almost excruciatingly uncomfortable to listen to but yet you’re compelled. Those are the good songs.”

“It was so strong because I was at a point of so much loss, but with the potential to break out of my chains. That’s why I think loss is so important and failure is so important. Not because failure always leads to success or because you learn from your mistakes. Because actually you’re only failing at being who you really aren’t. Then you get to say, ‘Who could I be?’ And that’s ‘Damn I Wish Was Your Lover.’ The feeling and the sensuality and the depth of the story is my life story.”

Hawkins instinctively realized that the song, which would appear as the leadoff single to her 1992 debut Tongues And Tails, was something special. But she thought it might be too personal or too strange for public consumption. “I thought ‘Damn’ was cumbersome,” she remembers. “It was so real for me and so me. But I also thought it was so layered. I mean, ‘That old dog has chained you up all right.’ I thought, ‘Who’s going to get that?’ But it turns out a lot of people got it on a lot of different levels.

“Knowing is the curse of all art. Lots of people have said that. The magic of any great thing is the originality and the unwieldy sense that it almost doesn’t work. It just barely works. And that’s the thing about ‘Damn.’ It just works. It could have gone off the rails.”

Still, Hawkins didn’t have high expectations. “Before the record even came out, I was sure Sony was going to drop me when they realized how bad of a songwriter I was. And then when the record came out, I was almost apologetically on tour because I didn’t really believe that people were going to like it. Because I knew that I liked it and that already meant that it was weird. My expectations were that I would be dropped and that I would go back to being obscure.”

Those fears were allayed as “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” gained attention from music fans who knew something fresh and different when they heard it. As Hawkins hoped, people were drawn to the rawness and vulnerability of both the song and her performance. And, as years have gone by, the song has evolved into a fixture within pop culture. After all, that chorus sums up unrequited feelings better than any exposition could ever hope to do.

Hawkins at least had an inkling this end result was possible, and it’s something that can’t be taken away from her. “It may have been more successful if I had let Sony tamper with it,” she muses. “They’ve proven time and time again that they can make something an even more massive hit. But I think the longevity is because of the uniqueness of it.” 

“They can say in so many ways, I make bad decisions about business or whatever, because I have these really strong beliefs and I stick to them. But I always knew that this song, if it made it, was the big classic. Me as an artist, I thought I’d be thrown away in two seconds. But I thought the song had legs.”

So much legs, in fact, that when Sophie B. Hawkins gets to perform “Damn I Wish Was Your Lover” these days, she can’t help dancing along with it. “It’s when I feel most free on stage because it carries me,” she explains. “It’s where I do the most moves. And I get to be all those parts of myself during that song. I feel very unburdened.” 

“You bring it up and it reminds me that I never get to celebrate it. Every artist is so busy trying to survive and strive. But you never get to go, ‘That is a great moment for me and I’m so grateful it came out.’ And it could’ve not come out. That’s just the weirdest thing about life, isn’t it?”

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