To the younger Americana audience, Edie Brickell is most recognized as Steve Martin’s duo partner, and to others she may be best known as the wife of Songwriters Hall of Fame icon Paul Simon. But before she was either of those, she fronted Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, whose breakout (and pretty much only) hit, “What I Am,” took Top 40 radio in a different direction in 1989.
The band’s folky jazz sound was a breath of fresh air for radio listeners who were recovering from a decade of hair bands and omnipresent MTV acts. Driven by a fretless bass, “What I Am” was heralded as everything from beatnik-inspired existentialism to complete gibberish. With lyrics she spoke nearly as much as she sang, Brickell came across to some as a person who didn’t know a lot about life and maybe didn’t really care to. A deeper look at those words, however, revealed an artist who was a whole lot smarter than she may have seemed.
Many writers struggle to rhyme the last word of every line, even though a rhyming word isn’t always what’s best for the song. In this case, not a single line of this song rhymes with any other line in the same verse. There are rhymes, however, from within one verse to the next. In other words, two of the lines of the first verse,
Philosophy is a talk on cereal box religion
Is a smile on a dog
rhyme with two lines of the second verse,
Philosophy is a walk on slippery rocks religion
Is a light in the fog.
The lines even contain the same number of syllables. It’s clever, outside-the-box lyric writing, and when combined with a sound that was unlike anything else at the time, it’s easy to see why the song, and the album it came from (Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars), did so well. Brickell generally shares writing credit on the song with guitarist Kenny Withrow, though all five members of the band are listed as writers in the ASCAP ACE database. But she told Vanity Fair in 2011 that she was the lyricist on the tune.
“The lyrics came from my one elective in my first year in college, world religions,” she said. “From the time I could first think, I wondered, ‘What does the rest of the world think? I know what these Texas folks think [laughs], but what’s going on in the rest of the world?’ So I took this world religions class, and I was immediately annoyed at the chatter going on in the classroom. To adopt behaviors, to adopt some sort of dogma, I felt defeated the purpose of evolution. That song just blossomed from irritation.”
The band broke up a couple years later without ever having had another major hit, but they sometimes regroup to record or play a one-off show. Brickell has gone on to become a respected singer and writer outside the pop world, winning a Grammy with Martin and collaborating with him on the Broadway musical Bright Star.