Q&A with C.J.: Lee Hawkins, journalist and songwriter

  • Article by: C.J. , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 6:48 PM

Lee Hawkins

Photo: Virginia Sherwood, NBC Universal

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Wall Street Journal reporter and Minnesota native Lee Hawkins' "I Love You Woman" was Grand Prize winner in the R&B category of the 2011 John Lennon Songwriting Contest.

Winning the contest "prompted me to release a few songs from my catalogue on iTunes under the title 'Midnight Conversations,'" he told me. Hawkins writes, sings and hosts "The Business of Celebrity with Lee Hawkins" on YouTube. It's the kind of smart family content that Magic Johnson mused about while being interviewed for the show -- programming that the NBA Hall of Famer and businessman would like to see on his new network, "Aspire."

On rare occasions, Hawkins is able to integrate journalism and singing, as he did in an interview (startribune.com/a1511) with boxer Manny Pacquiao. "Reporters had been asking Manny to sing all day as part of his [Timothy] Bradley-Pacquiao fight, but I was the only reporter who was willing to sing with him. He kept telling everybody 'No' but when I started singing with him, the fun began." The results are charming, even though neither Pacquiao nor Hawkins can fully recall the lyrics to Lennon's "Imagine." Still, it's "one example of how being a musician helps me with my guests," said Hawkins. I conducted this Q&A with him via e-mail and was left with the impression he'd like to interview with Katie Couric.

Q Who gets hit on more, Lee covering a story or Hawk performing on stage?

A I rarely, if ever, get hit on when I am working as a journalist. I have had interview subjects invite me to parties or to hang out with them, but I haven't done it. Plus, I think they are mostly viewing it as a professional thing. At least, I hope. I am a very serious guy as a journalist. I think I walk around during the day with a very determined and sometimes harried look on my face, because I am trying to get so many things accomplished. I come off as aloof or like I am not really in a social mood. When I am performing, it is always different. I am singing songs about love and relationships or dance songs that are high-energy and fun, so that's when women have felt most comfortable approaching me. I think you attract the energy you put out.

Q How do you get in the frame of mind to write a song -- or is it all inspiration?

A I get my inspiration from feelings. As a journalist, I really observe the world, and people and their feelings and how their emotions motivate their actions. I take scenarios that I've seen, based on real people. Like my song, "I Love You Woman." It's a man saying how deep his love is for his woman, who is a single mother. He has seen her raise a child with dignity and be elegant and graceful through it all. So that song is really for single mothers everywhere, because people think that just because a single mother is raising children she doesn't want to find love. Everybody needs love, so why wouldn't they?

Q What comes more easily, writing a song or a story?

A I would say writing a story comes easier for me, because I've written more stories than I have written songs. I probably wrote more than 2,000 stories when I was working mainly on the print side of the business. Do you know how happy I would be if I had 2,000 songs? Man, that would special.

Q Name a musician with whom you'd like to collaborate.

A I have kept up with your column over the years, and I don't think you two like each other too much, CJ (!!!), but I gotta tell you, Prince is in my musical spirit. I've been influenced by his use of the falsetto voice interspersed with the baritone voice. My vocal cords are set up the same way as his. He has an incredible high-pitched voice and a resonant low voice. His middle voice is not extraordinary, but he knows where his strengths are, and he really exploits his strengths. That is me, too. I write songs for my voice, but if they are not ideal for me, I will bring in someone else to sing them. I don't know who it was, but someone taught Prince how to go about being great, which gave him a special talent for knowing how to make other performers great. Who knows? It could have just come from listening to Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane and playing along, but he's not from the 80s era ... his influences reached way back. I know if I did a song with Prince he would recognize things within my voice and songwriting that could be accentuated, and he would turn it into something even better.

Q I don't dislike Prince; I'm averse to his eccentricities while respecting his musical genius. Would you ever perform (and to answer this we'll pretend you no longer have journalistic bosses) in buttless breeches, as has your musical spirit?

A Lol. Of course I wouldn't, but I still think the dude is a genius! Lol

Q Name a singer with whom you'd like to duet.

A That would be the late Curtis Mayfield. I would do that because I would invite my father [Lee, Sr. of Maplewood] to the studio session to play guitar and sing with us, because he was heavily influenced by Curtis and then influenced me with his music. I think Curtis Mayfield would have some heavy modern day observations about our society, and he would infuse that both into his delivery of the song and the songwriting. We would do a duet that would say something to black people about how little those of us who have achieved some level of success have done with that success. Many black artists today aren't really writing songs that are meant to truly empower black people to love themselves and each other, and that's what Curtis Mayfield stood for. It would be refreshing to do a song with him that could begin to get the young generation thinking about what they are going to do to become great.

Q Who is your favorite male singer?

A My favorite singer is Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy. He is the best living commercially known singer in the world, a gospel singer. No one can touch him. I hope to interview him someday.

Q Who is your favorite female singer?

A Sade Adu ... another interview I hope to get. 

Q As a journalist, does unnecessarily poor grammar in songs trouble you?

A I don't mind poor grammar in songs because the grammar in songwriting is often based on the characters in the story you're trying to tell.

Q Scenario: You are on an elevator with Katie Couric and Katy Perry. You can only strike up a conversation with one of them. Which one and what is your opening remark?

A I would probably want to talk with Katie. I would ask her why she didn't start the "Katie Couric Women's Network" instead of going to ABC. I think she could have partnered with some major media mogul and essentially done the same thing that Oprah has done. I have always been fascinated by her brand and how she's taken authenticity and turned it into millions of viewers. I would want to find out if she really knew during that period of transition in her career how powerful her brand was -- that she had enough cachet at that time to get millions of women to watch her on her own network instead of doing what she chose to do.

Q Three most incredible concerts you've attended?

A Michael Jackson, Prince and a Japanese jazz pianist named Hiromi Uehara.

Q I give you a choice between breaking the Watergate story and being Prince?

A Watergate all the way. I don't think I would change places with anyone on this Earth.

Q Ever been an idiot with a celebrity you've run into unexpectedly?

A I'll never forget a time in about 2001 when I was in a casino in Las Vegas during the late morning hours. This particular casino had a zoo in it, and Michael Jackson asked for them to open it up in the middle of the night to get a tour! He was standing basically right next to us. We said hello to him and he was standing there, actually looking like he wanted to talk more ... but I froze up. What do you say to someone like that? "I love your work?" I am never fazed by celebrities -- I meet so many of them, and they are just people. But MJ made me nervous. I am paid to communicate every day, but I could hardly speak in that instant.

Q Whose music career to do envy?

A I guess I would say I envy rappers the most, because they actually get to go on the road stress-free. They can get no sleep and frolic and play around from city to city, and when it comes time to do the show, all they have to do is jump around with hype men, remember their lyrics and make sure their voice sounds like the record. Being on the road as a serious singer can be very stressful, because you are always having to worry about taking care of your voice. If you blow out your voice, you've lost everything. Think about it - Adele had to cancel all those shows.

Q Would you leave journalism if promised the same success in the music world?

A Absolutely not.

Q Do you go to church as much as you did when you lived in Minnesota?

A I would say no, because when I was young it was a requirement that I be in church every Sunday, participating in service, in a suit and wing-tipped shoes. I still wear wing-tipped shoes, but I don't go every Sunday. I actually have a beautiful Catholic church across the street from my office, and I go there three or four times a month for a 15 minute prayer service and also go on some Sundays. Once you have true faith instilled in you, it never leaves. That said, I will never forget when I used to come and visit Minnesota and stay with my parents during college. I would go out partying downtown Minneapolis all night with all my friends and my Dad would come pounding on the bedroom door at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and say, "Time to get up for church boy! After last night I know you have a lot of praying to do!"

C.J. can be contacted at 612.332.TIPS or cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9.

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