“I was looking at Rolling Stone the other day,” Shawn Colvin says, her voice growing annoyed, “and I look at the charts and I had this momentary sensation, like, ‘Where am I?’
“It doesn’t make sense to me: I’m doing quality stuff, but there’s no way I’m gonna be on that chart. There’s no way I’m gonna get to do an iPod ad.”
Welcome to the ageist world of pop, where an artist over 50 is more likely to be struck by lightning than to score a No. 1 single.
It’s true that Colvin landed a Top 10 hit, “Sunny Came Home,” at the ripe old age of 41. But that was nine years ago – an eon in the music biz. Now at 50, she’s struggling to find an audience for her new CD, “These Four Walls.”
It’s a fine album from the “Rubber Soul” school of chiming folk-rock. In typical Colvin fashion, the lyrics deal with death, divorce and other grim realities of life: “It won’t take long for what’s red-hot and blond to be ashes on the ground,” she sings in “I’m Gone.”
The song’s not about her, but about “all the disposable hit-makers out there right now—how it’s all about the look, not the content,” she says. “I sound like a bitter old lady talking.”
She laughs, as she does throughout a phone interview from Austin, Texas, where she’s a single mom raising her 8-year-old daughter, Caledonia. Becoming a parent gave her a new perspective on her own troubled childhood, which she sings about in “Tuff Kid.”
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“In the ‘50s, there was still this idea that every kid should act a certain way, and I just didn’t fit the mold,” says the singer, who grew up in small towns in South Dakota and Illinois before moving to New York City and Austin.
“What I know that my parents didn’t know is you don’t mess with a child’s inherent personality. You teach them boundaries and manners and respect. But you don’t have any business figuring out what kids should and shouldn’t do.”
The lyrics in “Tuff Kid” don’t paint a pretty picture of Colvin’s upbringing. And her parents weren’t exactly thrilled to hear a song that brings up old wounds and the specter of physical violence.
“I feel bad about it, but it’s nothing we haven’t talked about,” she says. “All of this has been resolved and forgiven, and I certainly have more sympathy for them now that I’m a parent. But the basis of who I am is someone who got misunderstood, who was rebellious. It’s a pretty common story.”
Common or not, Colvin’s story is a complicated one, including a bout with anorexia, alcoholism, clinical depression and two divorces. She got sober in 1983, six years before she released her debut album, “Steady On.”
But she continues to battle depression. In 2004, she went on a speaking tour sponsored by the pharmaceutical firm that makes Wellbutrin.
“The reason I agreed to do it is I wasn’t asked to gun for the medicine. The message I was paid to put out there was that it was a treatable illness, and to direct people to any number of Web sites I wanted to,” she says.
“I know that a lot of these medicines are overprescribed. But it saved my life. It really did. It’s a terrible illness, and it’s just not that hard to treat if people get help.”
She says she’s OK now, both mentally and physically; when she’s not busy touring or being a mom, she trains and competes in triathlons.
But she admits her career has been rocky since “Sunny Came Home,” her mandolin-fired tale of a woman who literally burns down the house. “Sunny” won Grammys for song and record of the year and pushed sales of “A Few Small Repairs” past the million mark.
However, it also “set up expectations in the record company that I’d be some kind of hit-maker, which there was no way I was gonna be,” she says. “I was pregnant and already on to another phase in my life.”
Still, she tried to live up to expectations with “Whole New You” (2001), which she made with her longtime producer and songwriting partner John Leventhal. During the recording, Leventhal also had just become a parent with his wife, singer Rosanne Cash.
“John and I wanted it both ways. We wanted to be middle-aged and starting families, but we also wanted to be popular and do something that would be played on the radio—and that was a mistake,” she says.
“The pressure just blunted us. It was not a fun experience. I don’t think we did our best work, although I think we did some good stuff on that album.”
“Whole New You” didn’t sell nearly as well as her previous CD, and after that, Colvin split from Columbia, who she’d been with since 1989.
Today, she holds no grudges. But she does admit being a folk artist on a huge pop label was fraught with “strangeness.” Like the time the company spent a fortune making a three-minute video for “I Don’t Know Why”—then casually tossed it in the trash.
“It was a great video by this French director with beautiful images of things that were not necessarily beautiful. But the president of the record company couldn’t get around one shot—a bald guy with an orange—so they threw the whole thing out and did another video that was safe and boring. It was all just insane.”
She’s since signed with Nonesuch, a small company with an impressive roster of acts ranging from Wilco to Joni Mitchell to the Kronos Quartet. While the label doesn’t have the clout to get her CD on the chart at Rolling Stone, it does allow Colvin to make whatever music she wants.
“The great thing about Nonesuch is if I wanted to put out a record of polkas, they’d be like ‘All right,’ ” she says with a laugh.
“So I have to look at the bright side: All in all, I’ve still got it pretty good.”
// Notes from the Road
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