Shawn Colvin: Graceful melodies, unsentimental observations

Published: Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5TICKET

People who know Shawn Colvin only from her 1997 hit "Sunny Came Home" are missing out.

The song is well-crafted, but very much of its time – which was the 1990s, when folk and country women burned down the house ("Sunny," Martina McBride's "Independence Day") or took other means of revenge (the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl").

As a career representation, "Sunny" misleads. Colvin's songs are unlike anyone else's, and rarely veer into the dramatic. Their power lies in graceful melodies teamed with unsentimental observations, delivered in a quiet, enveloping alto (the range of which Colvin taps judiciously) that will be on display when she plays Sacramento City College on Sunday night.

For example, Colvin lowers her voice slightly late in the waltzlike "Seven Times the Charm," a standout song from her 2012 album "All Fall Down." That subtle shift imbues a world of hurt as the song reaches its climax with the lyrics "And I never once saw you smile, as I pulled you into my arms/You had none of the kindness and all of the harm/And seven times the charm."

Colvin's narrators sometimes are wronged women, but her most incisive lyrics face inward, speaking to her own restlessness and self- defeating tendencies.

In "Matter of Minutes," from Colvin's 2001 album "Whole New You," a woman imagines fleeing a loving but challenging relationship ("I could pack myself up in a matter of minutes") instead of staying and fighting for it.

In song, Colvin is as much a ramblin' man as her male folk-rock contemporaries, if also more searching.

Colvin, 57, did the boozing and pile-in-a-van touring as a member of bands in her 20s before settling into sobriety and a solo career. She gained steam in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and took off with the Grammy-winning "Steady On," her 1989 debut album.

"Steady On" and its 1992 follow-up "Fat City" built a fan base that has outlasted Colvin's brush with mass success. Many fans who will attend her show at City College will see Colvin for a third, fifth or 10th time. She inspires such loyalty through her witty between-song storytelling as well as through her songcraft.

Colvin channeled her insight and self-deprecating humor into her 2012 memoir "Diamond in the Rough." In it, she recounts her life and career, from a small-town South Dakota childhood through the birth of her now-teenage daughter, two divorces and a nearly lifelong battle with clinical depression.

Colvin's prose is as assured as her lyrics, and she further distinguishes herself by chronicling the songwriting process in fascinating detail, making the book a must-read for aspiring musicians as well as Colvin fans.

The Bee recently caught up with Colvin in her Austin home to talk about her music and memoir.

You often are praised for your melodies and singing. But your guitar-playing is also noteworthy. It's so percussive. Did that develop from having to fill a room with just voice and guitar?

Well, I picked it up from Joni Mitchell, mostly. She kept the rhythm in a nice way that had percussive elements to it. She was just everything to me, so that started me out.

Buddy Miller, a bandmate from early in your career, produced your album "All Fall Down," and you are touring this year with Mary Chapin Carpenter. How important have the allegiances you made early in your career proved to be later?

Oh, incredibly important. Lasting friendships are dear. Lasting friendships with colleagues are perhaps even more rare. Collaborations with colleagues whose music you love is probably one of the most pleasurable things about my career.

Your songs reflect your life experiences. Did writing a memoir feel like an extension of that?

Yeah, it did. It was a very different form of writing, but it was similar in terms of sharing my experience. It is just much more literal, instead of poetic or abstract.

What made you want to write a book?

Not much (laughs). I didn't think it was a good idea. I didn't think I could. I kind of did it on a dare, wrote a couple of chapters at someone's suggestion. I thought "I can handle that." Then it got interesting to me, and someone said they wanted to publish it.

In the book, you discuss how, in order to instill confidence in yourself as a young songwriter, you decided that even though there is nothing new under the sun topic-wise, you could bring something new by filtering things through your experience. Do you still feel that way?

Yeah. (But) I don't wrestle with it as much. I guess I just accept it as fact that that it is OK for me to say from my point of view what I want to say, (to write) from my emotional wellspring.

In the book, you discuss your struggles with addictions and with clinical depression. The depression re-emerged a few years back. Are you OK now?

(Laughs). Yes.

I mean, you clearly are OK at this moment, but in general?

Somebody else asked me that question (recently). A man, and he was very somber about it. The answer is yes, I am perfectly fine, I feel great.

Does that have to do with finding the right medication?

Yeah. A few years ago, or maybe four years ago, there was a perfect storm of bad circumstances and chemistry. Now it is kind of a perfect alchemy of things going smoothly, being in a good place in my work, being in a good place in my life and having medications that really work.

Your book is better written than a lot of celebrity memoirs. Do you have previous writing experience?

Thank you, and no, I don't. And I had a ghostwriter, and I threw that away. It didn't sound like me.

So I wrote it myself, and I thought it was important to have a voice. So I tried to write like I would speak. And I had an idea the chapters needed to flow, and that the beginnings of chapters should be interesting. (laughs).

I really liked how you describe the songwriting process in the book. So many musicians either lack the words to articulate the process or they don't want to because it would spoil the magic.

Some people are precious about it, and I really respect that. But to me, I can remember just about every moment of getting a song written because it is such a miracle to me.

Do you still regard writing a song as a miracle?

I do still think it's a miracle. It's maybe not a struggle every time, or every song, but it is scary. It is scary to have to start a song.


What: An acoustic evening with the singer-songwriter; Valerie Orth opens

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Sacramento City College Performing Arts Center, 3835 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento

Cost: $36.50 advance, $40 at the door

Information: (877) 987-6487,

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