In 1997, local musician Lauren Hoffman almost had the world in her hands. A three-album deal with Virgin, rave reviews from music magazines, and a growing audience in Europe. Then something went wrong. And when she launched other albums, something went wrong again, despite packed shows on several continents. Now she’s ready to talk about it.
Hoffman’s eating disorder became a constant wrecking ball in her career, yet she still managed to put out a series of critically acclaimed albums and build her body of work. On the 20th anniversary of her first release, with her current band, The Secret Storm, she has launched her fifth studio album and has finally made peace with her body and food.
“I come from a long line of people with eating disorders,” Hoffman says. “…It wasn’t a really great example for me in my home. My grandfather, when we would go visit him, had a lot to say about what people looked like, what their weight was. He had a pillow on his couch that said ‘You can never be too rich or too thin.’ …I was kind of in a wounded, scared place trying to be defiant. The wounded, scared place was probably a little bigger than the feminist, I’m-not-going-to-fall-for-that-bullshit side of me.”
Hoffman’s father, Ross, saw promise in her as a songwriter from a very early age and worked to develop her talent. Ross Hoffman spent more than a decade in Los Angeles as a professional songwriter. After moving to Charlottesville he was among the first people to recognize Dave Matthews’ talent and became his first manager before Coran Capshaw replaced him.
“When she was 3…with no help from me, she wrote a lovely little baroque four bars,” says Ross Hoffman. “And then…she and I were driving into town with a radio on and there was a song she was familiar with and I was pointing out structure. Verse, chorus and bridge. She was 5. And she was so cognizant of the structure. Me indicating and then her expounding. So clearly a prodigy.”
In eighth grade, Hoffman was asked by jazz musician John D’earth, who was teaching music at Tandem Friends School (he is now director of jazz performance at the University of Virginia), to learn to play the electric bass.
“They had a middle school rock band,” Hoffman says. “I wanted to play guitar but there were already a bunch of boys playing guitar and he said, ‘How about you play bass? The first four strings are the same as the guitar and we need it in the band.’ …There’s a version of kind of jazz-guy-music-theory that he taught us that is pretty different from classical music reading and that was what clicked with me and started making sense, and that’s when I started writing songs.”
In high school, Hoffman had a stint as the bass player with Shannon Worrell’s band, Monsoon, where she learned the ins and outs of playing real gigs. Her father’s background as the original manager for the Dave Matthews Band also gave her some exposure to the music business. At the time she was listening to musicians like PJ Harvey, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Billie Holiday.
At the age of 17, Hoffman had amicably parted ways with Monsoon, picked up the guitar and decided to record some demos of her own with the help of John Morand, owner of Sound of Music, a recording studio in Richmond.
“John was working with David Lowery from Camper Van [Beethoven] and Cracker. …Then John talked to David about it and they said, ‘We want to develop your thing. We think you’ve got great songs, we want to produce them with you for free and then take them to labels and see if we can get it paid for by a label and put it out.’”
Cracker was a big deal in the late ’90s. David Lowery had a string of hit singles such as “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Eurotrash Girl.” Suddenly, Hoffman had some powerful allies working to make her The Next Big Thing.
Hoffman moved to New York City in 1995, started playing gigs there and spent more than a year weighing offers from different record labels before settling on Virgin Records. She bounced between NYC, Richmond and Los Angeles to complete work on her debut. Tensions grew between Virgin and Lowery over the way that those early demos were turned into an official release.
“This one song, ‘Lolita,’ we completely re-recorded,” Hoffman says. “David Lowery was a bit pissed and he had a conversation with my manager that was like, ‘I’ve got all of your tapes in the back of my truck and I’ve got a shotgun, yeehaw!’ But things worked out…”
As work wrapped up on the album, promo photo shoots were scheduled. And the subtle suggestions that Hoffman go from a healthy-weight woman to a stick figure began.
“My manager was the first person to say something about this,” Hoffman says. “When I was still in New York and I looked [like I do now], he said, ‘So if you want to sell records you should go to the gym and lose weight.’
“It was supposed to be the year of the woman but Fiona Apple was clearly anorexic and Alanis Morissette was constantly talking about it,” Hoffman says. “And you would read these articles about them and unlike an article about a man, they would describe this person…physically. ‘Pleasantly curvy, wearing this or wearing that, looking at me in a seductive way as she talks.’
“New Year’s Eve in the studio, I remember this skinny woman being there and me feeling so shitty about myself,” Hoffman says. “And being in LA, in this place where this is who gets invited to parties and this is who you have to explain your worth to and why the hell are you here. That’s how it felt to me. I was like, I’m gonna lose my chance if I’m not thinner. I’m gonna miss this opportunity.”
She made a goal to lose five pounds.
“That was it,” Hoffman says. “That first diet. Instead of losing five pounds, I lost 40.”
Hoffman came home from touring in France in the winter of 1997.
“I was horrible skinny,” she says. “One hundred and three pounds and my grandfather, with the pillow, asked if I was sick. And I thought if Mr. You-Can-Never-Be-Too-Thin Guy thinks I’m dying of cancer or something, this is bad.”
It was during this time that Hoffman came to grips with the death of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. He was the son of the legendary Tim Buckley, who also died young at 28.
They first met when Hoffman was 16.
“Dave [Matthews] was playing a solo show at The Birchmere,” Hoffman says. “I caught a ride up with somebody from [my dad’s] office and when I went in Jeff was opening up for Dave—it was his tour for his EP, this was before his album came out. I went backstage and I was looking for people that I knew but he was the only person there, so I said to him, ‘Are you always that depressing?’
“He seemed offended and then we went back into his dressing room and smoked pot and talked about music and then we stayed in touch and I would visit him in New York and he would invite me to his shows when he came south.
“We would talk on the phone,” Hoffman says. “He was sleeping with a lot of people at the time, so that was confusing because he would say that he loved me and things like that. That was very confusing. I did love him and I loved having him in my life. He died a little while before my album Megiddo came out.
“I remember just before my eating disorder took hold he took my phone call at 2 in the morning. I was drunk, I was freaking out. I was like, ‘If I don’t look right in these pictures nobody’s going to listen to my record.’ He was trying to talk me down off of that ledge and talk me out of believing that was true and telling me that I just had to be myself and that I was beautiful and just go do that photo shoot and be yourself and let who you are shine through.”
Buckley drowned accidentally on May 29, 1997, while swimming in the Mississippi River in the wake of a passing tugboat. He was 30 years old.
“When he died I felt like between my record coming and my obsession kicking in about food I couldn’t process it until that winter [when] I came back to Virginia and [was] trying to get back to eating normally again. I remember finally really crying about it.”
“…Being in LA, in this place where this is who gets invited to parties and this is who you have to explain your worth to and why the hell are you here. That’s how it felt to me. I was like, I’m gonna lose my chance if I’m not thinner. I’m gonna miss this opportunity.”
As Megiddo launched, a change in management at Virgin Records took place. Hoffman says that the projects of the old guard were cast aside as new executives came in with their own favorites.
“She had an AR [artist and repertory] guy and executives at Virgin that were behind her and then as the album was released, that changed,” says Ross Hoffman. “She needed to get out of there. I knew a lawyer who had represented me…the result of that was phenomenal because he took advantage of the disorganization at Virgin. She walked [away with] her masters and owing them no money. It’s a very rare situation.”
Virgin failed to follow through with promotion of the album, despite positive reviews from publications such as Spin magazine. Hoffman was written up as a singer-songwriter, though she remains uncomfortable with that label.
“I think that if my first record came out under a band name I wouldn’t have been called a singer-songwriter,” she says. “…People think of me as a singer-songwriter because I have a Jewish girl name.”
Hoffman went home and attempted to recover from her self-starvation.
“So I go home with my mom and my sister and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m going to eat.’ But I didn’t know how to eat normally. My mom would be like, ‘Oh you’re driving to Richmond, I’m going to make you some cookies.’ I would eat all the cookies. Then I would hate myself and the only way to deal with having eaten all the cookies was to not eat anything or only eat 1,000 calories for a few days.”
The cycle had begun. Over a period of 17 years, Hoffman would put together music, play shows around the world, release albums and then retreat from the spotlight as her diet turned into her job.
“One of my tricks was to be vegan,” Hoffman says. “Being vegan in France is ridiculous. Most of the time I was in France I didn’t really get to enjoy it. Certainly in this period after my album came out, at this point in my eating disorder I was at my worst. At my most, only-eating-salad-with-no-dressing when I was in France.”
According to an eight-year study of 496 adolescent American girls, published by The Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2010, 12 percent developed some type of eating disorder. Peak onset tended to be between the ages of 17 and 20. A large majority of girls monitored in the study recovered within a year, but relapses haunted some of them. Different studies show varying rates of long-term recovery, but most agree that many women can recover from their disorders to live healthy lives.
Like many women with eating disorders, Hoffman says she suffered from a combination of problems at different times: anorexia, binge eating and orthorexia, which the National Eating Disorders Association defines as “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.”
Her father noticed the problem but didn’t understand it at first.
“Well, we’re talking about a guy who was born in 1947,” Ross says of himself. “I don’t think I heard the word or the phrase ‘eating disorder’ until after Lauren was born. Some time in the ’80s I heard about it. I was utterly clueless on a personal, experiential level. …My introduction to the concept was a sort of groping in the dark as it engulfed my daughter.”
Opportunities passed her by because of the eating disorder. Adam Schlesinger, of the band Fountains of Wayne, was starting a new indie-pop label and wanted her to come on board after she left Virgin.
“We went into a diner by the studio and what was more important to me was figuring out what vegan low-calorie soup I could order to eat,” Hoffman says. “I was starving. My brain was full of food porn…and exercising and weighing myself and reading about diet and exercise. My brain was so full of all that stuff that there wasn’t room to take up an opportunity like that.”
Dieting—or starving—typically meant locking down her life and withdrawing from other people to avoid difficult questions or social situations where food might be offered. During 2001 and 2002, she found a compromise by pausing her music career to study dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The part I’ve never told anybody is that I was thinking [dancing] was a way also to feed the beast of the eating disorder because I would by nature be exercising all day long and engaged with people doing stuff that wasn’t about food,” Hoffman says. “It was kind of appealing because my not-eating times would be very isolating. But also on an artistic level I wanted it to inform my music. Music was so tied up with these expectations. …The talk [in the music business] was so much about the business side of stuff. I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to be around people who didn’t expect fame and fortune because dancers don’t.”
This was why her third album, which came out in 2006, was titled Choreography.
Hoffman’s best friend, Gwenn Barringer, met her well after the big launch with Virgin. In fact, it took a while before Barringer even realized Hoffman was a musician. A parade of fad diets were Barringer’s clue that something was wrong.
“That was definitely the tip-off,” Barringer says. “She was also…honest about having struggled with an eating disorder in the past. But I think what was the most difficult part for me was when she was going through these things like, ‘Oh I’m vegan. I’m paleo. I’m this or I’m that.’ She wasn’t identifying [that] at the time as being a part of the eating disorder, but I could so clearly see that it was. It was just an eating disorder couched as a health thing.”
“I had some health problems that I would use as excuses to become interested in diets,” Hoffman says. “I’m not doing paleo because I want to lose weight, I’m doing it because I want boundless energy like they promised me in the paleo book or because of sleeping disorders. …I kept looking to diets to solve all of those problems. Control, out of control. Shit.”
Becoming pregnant in 2008 helped begin a process of seeing her body differently in a way that may have led to Hoffman finally kicking her eating disorder.
“Being pregnant was amazing!” Hoffman, now 39, says. “Because I didn’t expect the same things from my body. It was a completely different perspective. I saw my body as the home for, the food for, a baby. I was a pregnant woman. I wasn’t trying to compete with skinny women on TV. And I was able to connect way more of that feeling, what are you hungry for? What makes you feel good and what makes you feel bad?”
About a year after giving birth to her daughter, Hoffman started to slip back into her old habits.
“I talked to her dad about it a fairly decent amount,” Barringer says. “Ross and I had conversations about it. We had several late-night conversations about like what do you do? Especially when it wasn’t this super restrictive calorie thing…like being vegan when you know that the heart about it isn’t about that.
“I didn’t know how to eat normally,” Hoffman says. “I didn’t know how to stop obsessing about these things in my mind. Eventually I would give in and find some new fast or diet online. I’ve done the Master Cleanse when you just drink lemon juice and cayenne pepper and maple syrup drinks for like 10 days and at the same time take laxatives. It’s totally horrible. I have done every single diet there is to do.”
In the end, the cure wasn’t the result of an intervention or a program or another fad diet. Hoffman just had enough.
She had recently put together her current band, The Secret Storm, with an all-star cast of Charlottesville musicians, including Ethan Lipscomb on keyboard (also the frontman of Just Sex), guitarist Tony Lechmanski of gothic rock band Bella Morte and Catherine Monnes on cello and violin. Oddly enough, Jeff Diehm, best known as the lead singer of The Last Dance, agreed to exchange a microphone for an electric bass. As they prepared for their second show at the Jefferson Theater in August 2014, she started on her old familiar path of food restriction.
Lauren Hoffman & The Secret Storm with Harli Saxon & Juniper
7pm March 18
The Ante Room
“I tried some stupid starvation fasting diet because I was nervous about the show and I wanted to look skinny at the show,” Hoffman says. “So I did that. And right after that show I was like, I am fucking done. Just done. I am done with any of that shit. I’m not doing any of these things to myself anymore. None of this is sustainable. None of these are answers. If I gain weight then I do but I’m gonna dress myself nicely, I’m gonna treat myself well. I’m gonna have the lifestyle that I want to have and whatever my body is as a result of that is what it will be. …Sort of a European style and epicurean but it’s not the focus of your life. When you eat, you eat well. But when you don’t, you don’t think about it.”
It has been three years since Hoffman decided she was done. Today, she has settled on a happy, healthy moderation for her body and her music career (see sidebar on Hoffman’s eight rules for staying healthy). She and her band have just launched their new album, The Family Ghost. And they have also found that a relentless touring schedule and courting from industry players isn’t necessarily what it takes to find an audience.
Hoffman’s rules: Eat to live
1. I stopped weighing myself. I haven’t weighed myself in three years. I don’t even let the doctor weigh me.
2. I stopped reading any diet-related books, cookbooks, blogs or articles.
3. I got rid of my “aspirational” clothes, anything that only fit me after a good long starve.
4. I decided I would accept whatever my body looked like once I was living and eating the way I wanted, and I focused on that; on living and eating in a way that felt right and sustainable for me.
5. I started going to my doctor to address my energy and health problems, instead of believing diets that claimed to give me boundless energy and fix my IBS and sleep problems. I got better skin products instead of believing that a diet would cure my acne.
6. I didn’t try to change the voice in my head from “I’m so fat” and “I hate my body” to things like “My body is beautiful,” because that’s still a judgment. Instead I told myself simply “This is my body.” I stopped judging my body from the outside and started feeling it from the inside.
7. I stopped having any judgment about foods being good or bad. All food is allowed, nothing is off-limits, not for health reasons or for weight reasons.
8. But I do have some eating habits that work best for me: I eat high-fat, whole food and a good amount of animal protein. I find that I feel best when I eat smaller portions of richer foods, instead of big portions of low-fat, unsatisfying foods. (I have gelato or ice cream instead of fat-free frozen yogurt. I use a ton of butter and olive and coconut oil when I cook. Full-fat dairy, prosciutto, chicken with the skin, eggs, bread, pasta, pizza, sausage and bacon are always in my house.)
Hoffman was “just chilling at home and [hadn’t] done anything to promote my music, when I started getting these fat checks. And I figured out that ‘Broken,’ a song off [my] 2006 record, had been favored by the algorithm of Pandora. So it still gets played all the time on Pandora. A few of my songs do…and that really inspired me in this way. When you do the work and put your heart into it and do everything in your power to put stuff out there, it has a life of its own.”
“Her catalog is deep and rich and varied,” Ross Hoffman says. “I consider her a success in a way that I don’t think that she does. …She was dealt this four-aces-hand of talent. I was there all the way. She wrote something that was better than average when she was 3. And at 12 she was writing full songs that she was paying attention to. She got dealt a lot of talent.”
The Secret Storm plays shows about once a month, usually in front of packed houses. The Pandora checks keep coming, and the band is filming a new music video for the single “Friend for the Apocalypse.” Another album is already planned.
“At some point she slowly moved to the center of her being and said, ‘Fuck this,’” says Ross. “It was very apparent that she abandoned the idea of looking for cures and decided that she was ultimately in charge. That was very nice to see. I’m not speaking of cures, but I know she’s out the other side of it, and that is really good.”