AUSTIN, Texas — Singer Shawn Colvin is a child of the prairie, born in South Dakota. But the emotional topography of her life is jagged and rocky and rough. Beyond the Grammy Awards, beyond the acclaim: Her story is a mountain range of pain.
Colvin lays it all out in a new memoir, “Diamond in the Rough” — a book not so much about transcending personal suffering as explaining its diverse manifestations over the course of decades. Her demons: Depression. Anorexia. Alcoholism. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Hypochondria. Esteem issues. As recently as 2008, Colvin’s feelings of despair were so severe that she considered suicide and checked herself into a psychiatric facility in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
“I got a big dose of stuff. I did. And for generations,” Colvin says softly at home, in Austin, the picture of composure as she reflects upon the range of afflictions addressed in her memoir, released last week in tandem with “All Fall Down,” a superb new CD. “But I have no other story to tell.”
Colvin’s memoir feels a lot like her songs — naked, vulnerable, dappled with restlessness and longing — as it intertwines twin storylines of music and sorrow. As she’s proved on her albums, Colvin is very good with words that reflect the scariest interior sensations: “I’m riding shotgun down the avalanche.” Yet outside the realm of rhythm and meter, “Diamond in the Rough” is often shocking in its directness.
“Who doesn’t have a bit of pyromania in them?” she writes in the prologue, the first sentence of the book. “There’s something thrilling about making fire — it’s primal, right?” Colvin confesses she’s been “setting fires” throughout her life — literally, since childhood, often in the context of failed love — and all have backfired. Colvin references her most famous song, “Sunny Came Home,” which details arson as an act of personal desperation.
“Sunny is me,” she writes in the memoir.
Conscientiously, Colvin spent a lot of time second-guessing herself during the writing, fearing the such revelation might be received as “too maudlin.” No need to worry. “Diamond in the Rough” is more likely to leave readers shaken or empathetic for its uninhibited, unresolved account of a gifted artist who seems never to have known inner peace.
Colvin hopes her memoir will comfort others who suffer from depression. Yet some readers will be more concerned whether the author can save herself. Colvin never says it explicitly in the book — but it’s hard to imagine she’d be here, at all, if it weren’t for music.
Shawn Colvin’s story of sorrow and estrangement began in childhood. She had a hard time in school. She abhorred school. Colvin was so shaken by her experience at Lincoln Junior High School in Carbondale, Ill. — “it felt like a cold, vast prison, and I was a new inmate” — that she’d walk out of class in the middle of the day ... and hide.
She didn’t do it for thrills. Colvin was genuinely terrified.
For a time, Colvin spent entire days hiding in a Santa Claus cottage stored behind a shopping mall. She’d wear layers of clothing to keep warm in the winter cold, resembling “nothing so much as a twelve-year-old homeless girl.” Later, she took to hiding beneath a pop-up camper trailer behind her parents’ house.
“It was cold and dark and tiny, and it was better than going to school,” Colvin writes in the memoir. “Anything was better than going to school. I heard footsteps in the crunchy snow as my dad came out to look for me. He even tried the door on the camper, but I had locked it, and he didn’t pursue that idea.
“I stayed and stayed. I stayed so long that I peed on myself. I was afraid to get out, because I knew I’d have been made to go to school. A war had begun, and neither my parents nor I had figured on my being so formidable an opponent.”
Colvin’s grim depiction of her childhood legitimizes the gritty, unglamorous perspective of the entire memoir. She is no folk princess, and this is not a fairy tale. Colvin portrays herself coarsely, throughout. First as a girl who liked to fart and burp and gross out her friends — and later as a young artist who watched “Silence of the Lambs” five times and found humor in the PBS documentary “The Donner Party.”
At times, “Diamond in the Rough” reads like a sea captain’s account of battling a furious tempest — recorded meticulously, in real time. Colvin’s so involved in the struggle that she can’t see beyond the storm.
Anorexia, which almost killed Colvin in 1978 when her weight dropped to 86 pounds, is covered in roughly three pages. She offers sobering glimpses into her medicine cabinet through the years, with bottles marked Elavil, Prozac, Cymbalta, Abilify and Concerta to fend off depression. She praises the healing power of Alcoholics Anonymous, berates past therapists, breaks into an ex-boyfriend’s e-mail account in a rage, jumps out of cars during fights with her lovers.
Sometimes, Colvin comes across as a tortured artist in her memoir. Other times, just tortured. Yet smart enough to convey a sense of what’s happening to her in the midst of depression.
“The nature of phobia and panic disorder is to intrude constantly and especially during times of pleasure, like the proverbial devil on the shoulder,” she writes. “But instead of enticing us to behave badly our devils told us we couldn’t have fun or be happy, that something could or would go horribly wrong if we tried. These demons lived in our heads every minute; they were our dirty secrets.”
Colvin was a friend of the late Spalding Gray, whose monologues “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Monster in a Box” were manic, literate masterpieces of confessional stage art. She thought about him while writing her memoir.
“I wanted to emulate Spalding Gray to some extent,” she says, sitting in her living room, a high-ceiling space ablaze with color and light. It’s a stimulating place, painted in two tones of blue. Art, everywhere. An Eiffel Tower sculpted out of white scrap metal. A table shrine occupied by winged figures, one playing a guitar.
“I wanted to use (Gray) a little bit as a standard or a touchstone — because he tells everything! And shamelessly! And he’s funny when he does it. I wanted that template of naked honesty, with a sense of humor about it all. I thought if there’s no humor in this book, it’s not going to fly.”
Spalding Gray could write. And so can Shawn Colvin. She writes especially strong paragraphs — a form that employs roughly as many words as a song. This snippet recounts her days on the road with the Dixie Diesels, an Austin band, in the late 1970s — perhaps the happiest ‘graph in the book:
“We stayed in rank hotels and on people’s floors and paid ourselves twenty-five dollars a night. The rest was for gas, van maintenance, hotels, and travel expenses. We drank too much beer and ate too many burgers and pieces of pie in greasy truck stops. I miss it all. Once when we were in Evergreen, I stopped in a store and bought a pair of Levi’s 501s, the good kind, when they were still shrink-to-fit and felt like cardboard until you washed them. I remember that day and the smell of pine and warm morning sun and the satisfied feeling of being carefree in the mountains and on the road and getting a new pair of jeans. I still have the jeans and have put them in a trunk for my daughter.”
Speaking of Austin: Colvin visited the city for the first time in the mid-1970s and has lived here steadily since 1994. Her first impression of Austin, circa 1975? “You know how some places just feel good, something about the smell of the air and the nature of the light? Austin is like that.” But as the song “Get Out of This House” attests, Austin hasn’t always been a happy home.
What did Colvin love so much about “old” Austin? Willis Alan Ramsey. Butch Hancock. Guy Clark. Uncle Walt’s Band. And, yeah: The giant nachos at the Armadillo World Headquarters. “You could see the songwriters here were central to the culture and that always was going to be. It wasn’t a fleeting trend,” Colvin says outside the pages of her book. “You don’t have that in a lot of places: troubadours, of a place, that will always exist. It gave me the perspective that my tendencies, and my genre, was timeless. “
Colvin talks so warmly about life and music that it’s hard to believe the person who struggles through “Diamond in the Rough” is the same confident woman in the blue living room. There are so many beautiful things to talk about: The new album, produced by Buddy Miller, the most harmonically complex record she’s ever done, with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell dabbing the canvas with lovely, melancholy hues. Colvin recently guested on David Simon’s TV series “Treme” and co-wrote “The Neon Light of the Saints,” for its closing credits.
All that aside: Colvin, the divorced mother of a 13-year-old daughter, is 56 now — meaning she’s been battling depression and sorrow for more than four decades now. The tentative, open-ended conclusion of her memoir begs the question: “Are you OK?”
“I’m really OK,” she says, with a kind of casual, over-dinner laugh. “There’s more resolution now than there was when I finished the book. I’d come out (of depression) and was feeling better. But I still had what I’d call ‘sinking.’ Not a hideous descent into a black hole. But just what I would call ‘a sinking.’ You know, several times a day, when things are overwhelming. It’s a paralysis, a bit of paralysis, and dread.
“But I’ve found a great doctor, a psycho-pharmacologist who’s smart and has a heart. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky. She’s fixed it. I mean: I’m good. I’m kind of bullet-proof.”
Colvin’s memoir sends red-light messages: Boyfriends have failed her. Therapists have failed her. Medications have failed her. But my, in the toughest times, she always found refuge in music. In childhood, she was touched, deeply, by the Beatles, by a Thom McAn shoe jingle, by Elton John’s “Friends,” by Joni Mitchell, by the visceral satisfaction of holding an album cover in her hands and drawing deeply from the liner notes.
Music has never failed her. In Colvin’s youth, it was a place of grounding. As a young artist, it provided her identity and solace. Today, it is a vessel of sharing, of meaning. On stage, or within song, Colvin is completely at home. In no small way, it saved her life.
“I agree with you. And it was a gift given to me straight out of the chute,” says Colvin, rubbing the tips of her fingers, a little nervous. “Music spoke to me. I guess it did more than speak to me. It saved me. I think I wrote about it in the book: My guitar took residence at the foot of my bed. I mean, it truly healed me.
“I’m glad I was good at it. It could have been pretty devastating if I hadn’t been good at it. But it called me. I was meant to do it. I don’t know what else I’d do, quite honestly, if I didn’t do this.”
Colvin closes her new album delicately, with the B.W. Stevenson ballad “On My Own.” It’s a plaintive tune, a farewell, clean and spare as the night sky, about being cast away from love: “I’m gonna be on my own/It’s a long way home/ And I feel like a baby boy just bein’ born.”
Yet Colvin imbues the song with a quiet strength, of knowing and experience and resolve — singing lines about fallibility and disappointment to the night, to the past, to herself. She’s alone, but not alone, walking hand in hand with song.