She’s not a prolific songwriter, but when she does write them, Shawn Colvin can tear even the toughest heart asunder.
And I might add that she’s an exceptional guitarist and has a gorgeous, stirring singing voice.
Since 1989, singer-songwriter and South Dakota native Shawn Colvin has released nine studio albums, beginning with the legendary “Steady On.” On September 25 her latest one drops. It’s called “Uncovered” and it contains a dozen exquisitely chosen covers.
Check out this super fabulous promo video she put out about “Uncovered.” I’ve since listened to the record about nine times through and my socks have been completely knocked off. From Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest” to Tammy Wynette’s “‘Til I Get It Right,” Colvin has made a record that gets better with every listen.
But let’s start at the beginning with “Cry Like An Angel” from “Steady On.” Colvin co-wrote this one with longtime collaborator John Leventhal.
She followed up “Steady On” in 1992 with “Fat City,” an album that is on my short list of all-time favorites. By anyone. Every single song is spectacular.
Take a listen to “I Don’t Know Why.” I consider this a personal theme song and the line “But if there were no music, then I would not get through” is something I’ve thought about getting tattoeed on my forearm. I still might.
Fast forward to about ten days ago when a press release arrived announcing the forthcoming “Uncovered” record. I had seen posts on Colvin’s Facebook Page about the album and the countdown to September 25 at this point was very much underway.
I replied to Colvin’s publicist with a four word question that led me on a 225 mile road trip:
“Is she doing interviews?”
Yes was the response, followed by an invitation to her show in Rockport, MA at the glorious Shalin Liu Performance Center on Sunday, Sept. 13.
So I took that drive, arrived early for a stroll around charming Rockport and then it was time. I was led by Colvin’s longtime friend and road manager, Carolyn, down to the green room. And there sat Shawn Colvin, ready to chat.
But before I share the interview let me first mention that an hour before our chat, I bought a copy of her memoir “Diamond in the Rough.” (also the name of one of the “Steady On” tracks). I started it before our conversation then sat for three hours the next night and finished it. It was an outstanding, honest and sometimes even comical read that not only tells her musical story but also her personal one, one that includes addiction and depression.
Our conversation went like this:
What does your song selection process look like for “Uncovered?” Yeah, there’s great songs, but they have to also be songs that you know you can do something with? How does that work?
First of all, I’m just a big fan. And I have the luck to be able to, if I like a song, be able to learn it pretty easily. I’ve got a good ear. That doesn’t mean it always works. But I learn a lot of songs, I’m just inspired to do that. A lot of it comes from my early years on the circuit when I didn’t write. I was in bands and also by myself and all I did was cover other people’s tunes so I’ve amassed quite a few.
Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty) is one example. (from “Uncovered)
I had never done “Baker Street” before. That was one that I just thought somebody should do this and I figured it out and we recorded it. But there are others, “Tougher Than The Rest,” I’ve been doing live. “American Tune” I’ve known for years and years.
How about the Stevie Wonder song, “Heaven is Ten Zillion Light Years Away?”
I tried to do that many , many years ago and I chickened out. But I always thought it was a great idea cause I love the song and you just probably wouldn’t expect me to cover a Stevie Wonder song.
What do you mean when you say you chickened out?
It was too sacred to me and too out of my genre. I thought “It won’t do anything for anyone.” If they don’t offer something a little different or new to the listener than what’s the point? I’ve been in wedding bands and you just imitate but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. So with the Stevie Wonder song, I was concerned as to whether I was really giving it anything new?
What was the turning point?
I just love the song and I thought “let’s go for it.”
And Lodi,(Creedence Clearwater Revival) like your own song “Tennesee,” that’s a place name that just works so well in song? Is that what drew you to it?
It just doesn’t seem like I’ve heard a lot of folk musicians cover Creedence. The songs are just so good and basic and down to earth and this just reminds me of the days when I used to go and play for peanuts in crappy little towns. And there’s a line at the end about wanting a dollar for every time I had to play while people sat there drunk. I thought “Yes!” “I relate!”
Who is playing pedal steel and lap steel on several of the “Uncovered” songs?
He’s a Dallas guy named Milo Deering. He’s amazing.
What is your songwriting process?
There is no typical way. I really love co-writing. I’m a reluctant writer and have a block fairly often and it’s hard for me to get going. I write with John Leventhal a lot or have in the past and the division of labor in that is essentially that he did music and I did lyrics and melodies. Sometimes it was different. Sometimes I’d written lyrics and we came up with the music together. So that was kind of how that worked. I’d hear the music and I’d just start hearing words. Lately I’ve been co-writing with Steve Earle because we’re going to make a record together in December. And that’s an entirely different animal. It seems that we come up with some musical ideas first, either he does or I do. I kind of bring out the softer side of him and he kind of brings out the rocker in me and it’s a good blend. We really do sit in a room and write a song together.
I have one foot in the past in that I still love to go to the record store and buy albums but my other foot is in the here and now and I’m using Spotify…yet I use it with guilt. Where are you with this stuff?
It’s just not been a struggle for me. I buy the music. Even if I buy in on iTunes. I’ll listen to the radio and I’ve fallen prey to buying one song at a time which is a breakdown in my old school notion of how these things are supposed to be listened to and perceived. But I’m not even tempted to go on Spotify.
I read parts of your memoir “Diamond in the Rough” (2012) right before coming in here and there’s been a lot going on for you. Do you hear from people? Do they reach out with their stories?
That was such a gift that you were willing and able to be so open. Right now we’re in the midst of Suicide Prevention Week and it’s so important for people to talk about this stuff.
That’s the reason I did it. I didn’t expect there to be a huge number of people that were gonna run out and buy the Shawn Colvin memoir. But for those who did, or who were going to, I felt that the best thing I had in my story that I had to offer was the struggles that I’ve gone through because I’ve come out the other end. I know that for me, the most comfort I got while I was going through depression and addiction was hearing from other people who had been through it. Yeah, you can listen to a doctor or a therapist but the people who had been down that road and come out the other side brought me hope and comfort and courage in a way that nobody else could. So that’s what I’d hoped to do.
With our allotted time used up, I thanked Shawn for her time, snagged an autograph on my book and the “Fat City” CD cover and then headed to my seat for the solo-acoustic performance. I’ve seen Colvin many times through the years and she’s consistently charming and musically riveting. This show was no exception. She started with Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (it’s on “Uncovered) and ended with her scintillating take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” with originals like “Richochet in Time” and a personal favorite, “Polaroids” also in the mix. When the show ended I overheard a brief conversation in the ladies room that sums up the show better than I can.
Friend Number One to Friend Number Two: ” Wow, that was really awesome!”
Friend Number Two to Friend Number One: “Yeah, it really was!”
And I might add…
Two days later I found myself on the phone interviewing Patty Griffin, who also releases an album on Sept. 25. Hers is called “Servant of Love” and Shawn Colvin sings backing vocals on three tracks. The two are longtime friends, collaborators and Austin residents and I asked Griffin to talk about Colvin. Here’s what she said:
“I am a huge fan. I think her voice has influenced a huge generation of female singers. I don’t think people actually credit her with that. On top of that, she’s lovely, she’s hilarious and just fun to be with. She really is just one of the best singers out there and has been for a long time.”
Colvin hits the road on October 3 with Don Henley. Then she’ll be in the studio recording a record with Steve Earle in December. I’m officially predicting the two will tour next summer and will grace the state of Maine with their presence. Until then I’ll keep my fingers crossed and my headphones on.