Music

"Play the songs you love": An Interview With Shawn Colvin

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Deidre Schoo / Courtesy of Baby Robot Media

Shawn Colvin prepares an acoustic edition of her 1989 debut album, and discusses her transformation from impossibly eclectic singer to focused and formidable singer-songwriter.

Steady On (30th Anniversary Acoustic Edition)
Shawn Colvin

SLCRecordings

13 September 2019

First released in 1989, Shawn Colvin's album, Steady On,was an auspicious debut, the arrival of a new voice in American singer-songwriter circles. Continuing a tradition forged by the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne, the album contained songs such as "Shotgun Down the Avalanche", "Diamond in the Rough", and "Something to Believe In", songs that demonstrated Colvin's ability to reveal fully-formed characters whose struggles and triumphs were both familiar and intriguing.

Largely co-written with John Leventhal, who co-produced with Steve Addabbo, Steady On featured guest appearances from Bruce Hornsby, Suzanne Vega and boasted a band featuring session stalwarts such as T-Bone Wolk, Rick Marotta, and Michael Blair. The record received a 1991 Grammy nod, claiming the Best Contemporary Folk Album prize.

To celebrate three decades since Steady On's release, Colvin decided to perform an entirely acoustic rendition of the album, recording at Austin's Arlyn Studios with head engineer Jacob Sciba (Steve Earle, Dierks Bentley, Willie Nelson). The result is an intimate portrait of songs that have not only stood the test of time but somehow improved with age. With just Colvin, her voice and her guitar, one can hear the true majesty of the material and witness the full range of her formidable creative powers.

Her continued presence on the American music scene remains strong, having amassed a body of work that includes the 1996 divorce concept album, A Few Small Repairs, 2006's These Four Walls, and 2012's Buddy Miller-produced All Fall Down. With a body of song detailing the ups and downs of family life and providing further portraits of finding resolve amid adversity, Colvin has proven herself a true treasure in American music.

Her new recording of Steady On arrives 13 September.

Colvin spoke with PopMatters from her home in Austin about finding her creative voice and becoming a peer of those she once considered heroes and heroines.

What was it like to have the chance to make your first record?

It was beyond my wildest dreams. It was something that I had wanted to do since I was a little kid. I even drew my first album cover when I was about 14 years old. It was highly dramatic. Two eyes with a tear running down them or something! [Laughs.] But I wanted to be a professional musician who made records. I was 32 when I made Steady On. I had made my living as a musician since I was about 18 or 19.

But I didn't write songs. But my heroes were songwriters. I started to write in the '80s with John Levanthal, but we were writing pop songs. It just wasn't right for me, and I knew it. But at least I was getting started. Then, I figured it out.

How so?

I figured out what kind of artist I was, what my genre was. It was just right there in front of me. I hit on that voice and started writing the songs that ended up on Steady On. I'm glad I held out until I could make the record I'd always dreamed of making.

Were you someone that there had been buzz about?

I was a mainstay in the New York City club circuit. I think there was one week where I had five different gigs doing five different genres. Soozie Tyrell had a country band I was in. I did folk gigs at the Bitter End and the Cottonwood Café. But I don't recall anyone saying, "We need to get you a record deal."

There was somebody who wanted to manage me, and they came to one of my gigs with a contract already printed out. They wanted me to sign this contract where they got at least 25 percent of anything I ever did. Thank God I had the wherewithal to say, "Somebody else needs to look at this first." The person got mad at me, which was fine.

At some point you ended up as a backup singer for Suzanne Vega.

I'd already started writing some of the songs that would end up on Steady On.I went to Europe with her for about two months, and her managers became interested in me. I had a four-song demo tape, and one of my managers was at Columbia Records talking to an A&R guy named Joe McEwen about another artist. Joe said, "What else have you got?" My manager had my tape and played it for Joe. That's how I got signed.

You couldn't plan for that.

The best advice I could give to anyone is, "Do what you love. Play the songs you love. Don't compromise. Play live." I think it tends to work out.

How did the relationship you had with John Leventhal evolve at that time?

It deepened. We stayed at it for years. John would give me pieces of music, and they'd be pretty thoroughly produced. They were mostly in the pop vein. I quit playing music for about a year in there. I didn't understand who I was. I was mystified and a little disgruntled. After a year, I said, "Your heroes are James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne." I thought, "You've got to tell your stories and play it on an acoustic guitar." John gave me a piece of music that was pretty thoroughly produced, and I thought, "This is the turning point. I've got to take this piece of music and see how it can work." That was "Diamond in the Rough".

I took what he had and deconstructed it into a dropped-D tuning. I reinvented it into an acoustic piece. I wrote the first couple of lines quickly and thought, "Is this any good?" I called him and said, "What do you think?" He said, "You've got something. Keep going." If he had said something else, I don't know how it would have turned out.

Right.

It went from there. Then John gave me what became "Shotgun Down the Avalanche". I had a few others I'd started a long time before and finished them.

Was the idea of presenting this music all-acoustic at 30 years so that people would hear the songs as you first heard them? Because listening to the material, I feel like I'm sitting in the room with you.

Yes. That had a lot to do with it. That was the litmus test, "Can I pull this off by myself?" For the most part, I've made my living as a solo acoustic performer. I've done these songs a lot over the years. It felt appropriate to make a version of the record that presented them that way. I didn't record the guitar and voice separately. I did four or five live takes and figured it out from there. It's not rocket science! [Laughs.]

You mentioned Jackson Browne earlier, and I know he's a fan of yours. What was that like to go from being inspired by his music to learning that he appreciated what you do?

Beyond anything I could have imagined. I just wanted to make a good record. Bonnie Raitt called me while I was at a radio station in Los Angeles after the record was released. I was waiting to go on-air, and someone said, "Shawn, Bonnie Raitt's on Line One." I went, "Whoa! Are you kidding me?" You can meet these people and tell them how much they mean to you and how much they've influenced you, but when they turn around and like what you do? I don't know what's better than that.

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