by Patricia Grandjean
Dec 7, 2012
09:22 AMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Shawn Colvin
These days, singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, 56, is a road warrior. She’s been “hitting it pretty hard since May” in support of her latest CD, All Fall Down, her first studio recording in six years. Though Superstorm Sandy curtailed a four-night run of shows at Manhattan’s City Winery—she made it home to Austin, Texas the day before the storm hit—she had that fourth Winery show rescheduled (in February) faster than you can say “power outage.” Meanwhile, Colvin will play StageOne at the Fairfield Theatre Company Dec. 14; for more info, call (203) 259-1036 or visit fairfieldtheatre.org.
Over more than three decades, Colvin has evolved into a confident live performer, singer and guitarist, highly respected by her peers and as a multi-Grammy Award winner for her 1989 debut album, Steady On, and her 1997 hit single, "Sunny Came Home." Not bad for an artist who took more than a decade to, as she says, "find her voice."
I understand you're a Sandy refugee.
I just got out of New York Sunday night; I was supposed to be there till Monday morning. They were shutting down public transportation. I had four gigs at the City Winery, Sunday being the last one, and they just said, "It's not worth it." So I scrambled, and I actually made it out.
So, I gather you're in the middle of touring to support the new album, All Fall Down.
Things started up pretty heavily in May; I put a book out as well [Diamond in the Rough]. I've been hitting it pretty hard, y'know? It's been a busy year. I toured the UK with Mary Chapin Carpenter, and will be touring Australia in March —I haven't been there in a long time; I'm really looking forward to that.
Fall Down seems a departure, of sorts, for you.
I recorded it in Nashville, and used a different producer than I normally do—Buddy Miller, an old friend of mine and a brilliant guy. I don't have a whole lot of perspective on how it sounds. I'm thinking it might be a little rougher around the edges, and I collaborated with a lot of different people, writing-wise, on this one. So it comes in a different flavor. I fiddle on a couple of songs, so that might add a country kind of feel. And I had Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus sing on it. That's the nature of recording in Nashville: Everybody's just around the corner. It's crazy. And Buddy knows everybody, and everybody loves him, including me. So it's really a matter of, "Hey, can you drop by?" Because he records in his home.
That must've added a different aura to the record.
His home studio is awesome, it's very cozy. You don't feel like the clock is ticking. He knows the equipment so well, and that's his turf. You're not going into this sterile atmosphere. The atmosphere is funky, there are musical instruments everywhere; he's got it all sussed out. You're recording in a room that's got furniture in it. [laughs] It gives the recording a different ambience. They put up a little wall of foam where I was, but that was about it. Engineers and producers can be very precious about that stuff, but you don't need to be. There's some pretty classy guys playing on it, that was really fun. And it's a very "live" record.
As a songwriter, do you consciously strive for new ways to express yourself? 'Cause this is your first studio album in six years.
I think new things evolve as I evolve as a person. I just try to get 'em done, to tell the truth. I'm a very comfortable performer, singer, guitar player. I'm comfortable in the studio and recording. But writing is the hardest thing I do.
Why is that the case?
On a certain level, it just is. I don't know many people to whom it all comes easily. We all have our weak spots. For me, I suppose it's a lack of confidence. It took me a long time to find a voice as a writer, and it still seems like a bit of a miracle. I have classic writers block just about every time I sit down to do it, it's like, "You've got to be kidding me." After I put out my first record I thought, "If this is the only record I ever do, still, I did it. I wrote a song." So every one of them after that is a blessing.
Then is songwriting a dreaded obligation, or are you driven to do it?
Almost always, it's both. It's such a payoff after you've written them. It's like you're in a triathlon thinking, "Oh, God, I've gotta train." But the end result is truly worth it.
Your guitar playing has a certain percussive quality to it. How did you develop that style?
It's a combination of things; pretty simple, though. Joni Mitchell was a huge influence on me, and she has a very percussive style of playing. I endeavored to learn that, but I do it in my own way—I wasn't able to manage exactly what she does. Technically, I probably do it differently, though I've watched her play many times. Other people whose guitar playing really fascinated me were Richard Thompson and Paul Simon. So I learned from the people I considered really great guitar players.
Then, I had the challenge of playing in a lot of really divey clubs, where you certainly couldn't depend on the fact that people would listen. And I thought, "Well, I have two things going here; I have a voice and I have a guitar. And if I can up the ante on the guitar playing a little bit, and make it stand out a little more than it does when other people are doing folk music, then maybe I have a little leg up in holding attention." Still, everyone has gigs that just don't work and it's hard to know why. If the sound is good onstage, it's kind of bearable. But if the sound is bad onstage, then you're just screwed. You have no fun whatsoever.
In Diamond in the Rough, your memoir, you talk about Greg Brown. I interviewed him a year ago, and we were discussing him and his wife, Iris DeMent, as songwriters. And I was asking if they ever collaborated and he said, "Well, y'know, we're not exactly compatible . . . My songs are leaky old rowboats and hers are tight little ships."
Isn't that sweet?
So I just wondered, with that metaphor in mind, how would you characterize your songs?
[Laughs] Oh, God, that's a very good question! I'd say I'm a decent sailboat with a good crew. How's that?
Did you collaborate on Diamond with another writer, or go it alone?
Initially, I did collaborate with another writer and it was a miserable experience; it just didn't work. It was no fault of that writer particularly—she was good at what she did. It just didn't work for me; didn't sound right. So at the 11th hour, I had to abandon that plan and just dig in. I knew my subject matter. But again, it was the task of finding a voice, only without any parameters to hold you in. Talk about the blank page. So, it took some doing and it was a challenging, scary experience.
What would you say was the toughest challenge?
Oddly enough, I think that people imagine that the downs of my life were most difficult to write about. Not true. The most healing thing I've ever received when it comes to struggling has been other people being honest about what they've gone through. Not experts telling you what they think you should do, although you also need those, but people who have actually walked the walk. So, the most difficult thing about writing was just attacking it. Just telling myself "You can do this," and building confidence. I leaned on a lot of people. I don't normally play versions of my songs for people till they're done, but as far as the book goes, I was reading chapters—or partial chapters—as soon as they were finished. Just to good friends, to try to keep my confidence up.
You also say in your book that "a song is not really a song" until you try it out on an audience.
The audience serves as a bullshit detector. For me, you're really laying it out there when you play in front of an audience. You can think you're doing something really clever while you're in your room, and be kind of pleased with it, and then find out in front of an audience that there are just some phrases that don't work or an idea that's embarrassing, or you're not communicating what you want to communicate. By the same token, you can find that a song that doesn't seem to be working really goes over. So, I really get a good insight about a song.
For example, there's this song "Polaroid" that's on my second record—it's very wordy. It's circular writing, there's no chorus, just the same thing over and over again. I debuted it at this club in Cambridge, Mass., that I'd played many times. And I cringed, expecting bad karma, but they "got it." The song really worked, and I'd been proud of it, but that made me even prouder.
Do you ever wish you had a chance to rewrite a song?
I've had the "If If I could just do that again I'd do it differently" reflex many times. But you can't be at your best every second, can you. If you're going to evolve, you kind of have to go through some experimentation.
You performed at the PEN Awards this year.
I did! It was the first time they've honored lyricists. It was very cool—I think one of the most outstanding things similar to that that I've witnessed was Stephen Sondheim being on the Actors Studio. It makes little sense, but . . . it makes a ton of sense, to honor the songwriter as a serious literary figure. They honored Leonard Cohen—who I was there to represent— and Chuck Berry, who was represented by Elvis Costello. They're fantastically different artists. I played a song from Leonard's newest record; I thought he would appreciate that. There are so many great ones, but the guy is 80 years old and he's quintessentially, amazingly and perfectly still Leonard, and I enjoyed that record a lot, so I picked a song called "Come Healing."
Paul Simon and Keith Richards were both there. It was extremely intimidating. I got to be in the same room as these people, and get a couple of pats on the back from them. I got one from Keith as I was sitting in front of him in the audience, a little pat on the shoulder. At one point, I was watching a video playback of my performance, and noticed that he had made a comment . . . I'd finished my song, put my guitar on the stand and was going over to give Leonard a kiss. Apparently, I'd stepped on the guitar and it fell to the ground with a crash. I could hear Keith say, "Ahh, it's only rock 'n' roll."
Why do you think you grew up to be a musician, a songwriter?
Because my heroes were songwriters. I'm a musician at the core. Even really early on, when I heard the Beatles—as much as I'm not in a Beatles-type band or make Top 10 music—the songwriting was off the charts, and obviously was more than just pop music. And how old was I then, 10? Then Dylan emerged, and the singer-songwriters: James [Taylor], Jackson [Browne], Joni, Simon & Garfunkel—more people than I can possibly mention. I was just in the thick of it as an adolescent. These were my heroes. So I could play, and I could sing—but I really wanted to be a writer. It just took me many years to feel like I had something I wanted to say. I didn't come out of the chute being poetic, being a writer—it just didn't happen. It took a long time to develop, and then it was like this simple corner that I turned.Front Row Q&A: Shawn Colvin