Songwriting Business

Shawn Colvin: Born To Be Telling Her Story

by Lydia Hutchinson

Shawn Colvin's right hand hits the strings on her Martin D-28 with a precise aim and rhythmic force that seems to cause every sinewy muscle in her forearm to vibrate in sympathy. With her head thrown back, eyes closed, and right foot tirelessly tapping out perfect time, the rhythm and mood of the moment seem to have taken over. Then she leans forward, leaves the melody behind, and carries the listener away with her on a vocal journey of unexpected highs and lows. Always personal and never predictable, Shawn has just welcomed you inside her world.

Growing up in Carbondale, Illinois, Shawn formed her first band at age twenty. After that, her musical journey took her to Austin, Texas in the late 1970s as the lead singer for The Dixie Diesels, and eventually on to San Francisco where she gigged regularly at a small Berkeley club called LaVal's Subterranean. Then in 1980 she made the move to New York, met multi-instrumentalist/producer/writer John Leventhal and was in a pop band with him until 1983 when she decided to go solo again. It was during that time that Colvin began to find her own style of writing. She won a 1991 Grammy in the Contemporary Folk Category for her debut release, "Steady On," and on the strength of her 1992 album, "Fat City," she has been garnering rave reviews, sold-out concerts, and an even broader following.

Shawn's solo performances have been described by fans and fellow musicians as the quintessential study in dynamics. Armed with a voice filled with colors and shades, Colvin takes the listener on a free-wheeling ride in and around a melody while she hammers, slides, bends and pulls on the guitar. That symbiotic relationship between her vocals and her instrument—the blending together of two elements going in different directions—is what makes a Shawn Colvin concert worthy of experiencing over and over again.

In addition to her compelling performances, Colvin's lyrics are also worthy of spending time with. Much like reading the intimate, self-analytical poems of Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath—their rhythmic words invite you to share in a diary of private thoughts and personal visions. Colorful descriptions and metaphors of joy, despair, dreams, and the past let the listener become part of the experience, and put her writing in a class of its own.

For all this, Shawn seems to have absolutely no idea that her unique style has become so widely emulated by the new wave of songwriters and acoustic performers. Nor does she seem to realize that there are hundreds of "Shawn Wanna-Be's" that hit the open-mic stages each night, especially in the New England area where she built her musical reputation. To her, her music seems to be more of a feeling than an art to be studied or imitated. It's just a natural outpouring of emotions, rhythms and melodies.

Did you always want to write, or were you more comfortable playing other people's music?

No, I think I always wanted to write. I wrote a lot when I was a teenager and was learning the guitar. And I've always been a good chameleon—I can really cop another person's vocal thing. I learned a lot of people's guitar styles—obviously, cause that's a good way to learn. But I wasn't endowed with the kind of creative gift in my opinion. And the music that I wrote then wasn't really good, it was derivative. Maybe some good melodies here and there. But I did write. I mean as soon as I picked up the instrument I wrote ten or twenty songs during the first year I was beginning to play. Then I just put up the writing. I don't know why, but I did.

When did you pick it up again?

I didn't really write again until I moved to California in 1979 and was in a quandary about what to do with my life. I was playing music, but to pass the time I would write snippets of things, they never came to anything, I never finished anything. Then I moved to New York in 1981 and met John Leventhal who had a band that was doing really sophisticated Steely Dan-esque kind of pop music. I loved the way they sounded and I began to write with him. He gave me music and I started to write the lyrics. And again I would be loathe to play any of those songs for anyone. They were not very genuine. But the relationship with him kept me at it because where I would falter he would push and vice versa.

When did you start writing on your own?

There was a breakthrough after four or five years of this where he gave me a track of music and instead of just writing the words over his production, I took his production and transposed it to the guitar. I dropped my E strings to D, a la Richard Thompson who is my second wave influence—Joni Mitchell being my first—and made this song into kind of a droney folk groove and I wrote "Diamond in the Rough."

Did that open the door to your own writing style?

Yeah. That seemed like something I could really stick with. It was the first song of that style. And from that came everything else that's on my first album. From that door opening and that stumbling upon my voice, if you will, came a system, a security, a net, that I could fall into and go and do something that I really did think was unique to me. And it definitely had to do with being confessional and personal.

Do you feel somewhat exposed by the personal nature of your songs?

They are personal. I sometimes feel as though I should apologize for that, but I'm too quick to negate myself as a songwriter...that's part of what's taken so long (laughs). I'd like to push myself and challenge myself beyond it, but it's been enormously gratifying for me to write this stuff and my motto is stick with what you know. I didn't have it in me to paint fictional pictures. I think that when you do that you're going with things that have to do with you anyway. But I didn't have the skill to make an interesting story, and I don't know that I do now. But what I did have was a strong feeling of where I came from and where I was at. And it had been a struggle. Part of me wanted to document that. I also just needed to express it, and I had really gone through some things and come out the other side. I was just moved to shed light on that.

Are you comfortable singing those songs to such a large audience?

I think the thing that has made it possible for me to write personal songs and sing them year after year is the sensibility for good writing. In that just opening your veins all over the paper is not necessarily going to be interesting. I wanted to speak to people. I was interested in being good and in moving people, not just "I'm going to say what I want to say." So there's a poetic aspect to them. Some songs I would just go way overboard on the emotion and then I'd have to rein it back in to make it accessible. You have to watch for a twist that you can put in or a way that you can make the point in a more unexpected way. So it's not hard for me to play the songs. There's an artistic content to them that satisfied me to the point that...they're nice pieces. You don't have to know they're about me, you know. I wanted people to be able to sing them themselves.

Is there any song that is uncomfortable for you to sing?

There's only one song that I still feel funny about playing. I feel like it's maybe taking it a little too far, and that's "Monopoly." I did wrote it in ten minutes and said exactly what I wanted to say. I don't do it every night. I've had it on the set list for the past two months, but there's a lot of times where I'd just turn around and say "skip it," you know, because it just makes me feel vulnerable. That's the only one I have trouble with.

Do you feel good about it as a song?

Well, it was an experiment and yes I do. I think you've got to be brave in this business or in anything where you become somewhat public because you're not allowed to really experiment or fail in public. Well, let's put it this way—not gracefully. No one supports it. And it's art. I mean who's to say that the thing that this person did is not getting them to the next absolutely brilliant place. It's a process.

I love the "Hearts of Darkness" documentary on Francis Ford Coppola's making Apocalypse Now. He talks about his dismay and despair about what a disaster he felt he was creating. And it was so comforting because it was a wonderful movie that was embraced, won many awards, and made a lot of money. But in the midst of it he was sure that he was doing the worst thing he had ever done in his life. Every artist can relate to that.

So "Monopoly," I don't know. If anybody came and accused me of taking advantage of my position and opportunity to put anything I want on an album, I'd have to give 'em an ear, but I'm not sorry I wrote it. It said exactly what I wanted to say. And I liked turning it on itself and saying that I really didn't want to write this song. That's the basis of it. It's really how you feel when you can't get somebody off your mind and you wish they were off your mind. You feel like you've just been kind of screwed around by the powers that be. Plus I know every songwriter has felt, when they've written a song about a relationship that's broken up and people console them by saying "At least you got a song out of it," you just feel like going "Oh, shut up" (laughs). That's not why you fall in love.

Are there specific places that tend to inspire your writing?

I have found that airplanes—or any form of transportation where I am not the driver—have been a good time for things to come out or for problems to be solved. Like if there's a section to a song that I can't seem to finish, I've had solutions come up when my mind's been suspended.

Do you write daily?

No. I've never written daily unless I've been under complete pressure to do so. I'm a very reluctant writer (laughs). I keep vowing to change that, but I don't and I'm in such admiration of people who do. I ran into Lucinda Williams—and I think her stuff is just fabulous—and asked her if she writes all the time, and she said "No, I write when I have to and I do it under pressure, and I think it's going to be a disaster," and I just said "Praise the Lord," you know (laughs). Finally somebody who does it the way I do. When I write it's more like a spurt of writing and put it away. Or a spurt of writing, put it away and get it out the next day, and if I'm totally dry on it I'll put it back away again because I don't want to force it.

Were you under more pressure, deadline wise, during the making of Fat City?

Yes! I was pressed for time and I had a lot of songs one-half and three-quarters finished—not just one but a lot—and I was forced to become disciplined. It was really a great experience because I was terrified and had kind of made peace with the fact that I was just going to do bad work. And I found that I can set times and go into a room and it still can happen.

Do you keep some kind of journal?

I do keep a journal and a songwriting notebook. I'll get a verse, a rhyme or a title I'll just try to keep notes of things because 90% of the time I'll end up using things that I just jotted down absent mindedly.

Do you use rhythm a lot to get an idea for a song?

Yeah. If you get a groove going and you kind of say nonsense over the groove then some words come out that you couldn't have predicted. Some you keep, some you don't. "Cry Like An Angel" was written like that. I would go down to this pond in North Carolina every day just bopping along to the rhythm of the song and I would do it over and over in my head. I had tons of words and most were thrown out, like I had the word mortician in that song (laughs).

So it's a matter of just flooding the rhythm with more lyrics than you could ever use and then weeding them out and making a story out of it. Because when you just start free-associating like that over some rhythm you end up not realling talking about nonsense, but talking about yourself. It's wierd, it's cool, it's scary, you know. This stuff comes out and you go "I haven't thought about that in years," but it's you. So it's kind of a cool way to write. You end up having a perspective maybe that's not so forced. There's room for things to creep in that you couldn't have thought of.

Have you had much success with co-writing since developing such a definitive style?

"Set The Prairie On Fire," which I wrote with Elly Brown (a New Yorker who used to be in a band called Grace Pool) is the exception to the rule—with the rule being that I have yet to have a successful outcome of sitting in a room with someone and trying to write a song. The way that I generally co-write is that someone else writes the music or part of the music. Like on "Round of Blues" I wrote the whole song but Larry Klein said that it needed a bridge. So he wrote the bridge and I wrote the words to it. But Elly and I really shared every part of the song equally. She wrote some of the words, I wrote some of the words, she wrote some of the music, I wrote some of the music.

When you finish a song, are they really finished or do you go back and pick at them?

They're pretty much finished. I have a short attention span and even when I'm not completely satisfied with a line here and a line there I generally leave it as it is. I've got a dilemma, though, because I wrote "The Story" and it makes mention of not having any children and not being married. And I'm getting married. So once I get married the question is...well it's probably so silly to even ponder it. I should probably just sing it like it's written. But I did think maybe I should go back and kind of update it for what's going on now and keep the same spirit. It's kind of a challenge because I'm getting married and the people who love the depressing confessional kind of stuff go "don't get too happy," you know (laughs). I mean there's still a lot of conflict in life even if you get married, it doesn't solve your own damn problems. And that song's very angry, so to hang on to my identity in that song and be married could be interesting.

Tell me about "The Story."

That song was sensitive because it was very directly about my parents. I kind of chose to write as if I were speaking to my sister in the song. I wanted to attempt to write about...well, you can't say the words "dysfunctional family" any more without it sounding like a buzz word, but that'll pass. It's a valid term and it applies to me. It's tragic when families are like mine, I believe, unhealthy and dishonest within their structure and everybody takes on these roles to try and make the whole thing balance out. It's destructive to everybody. No matter what role you're playing. No matter if you're kind of in the heroic and the do-gooder role—which I was not (laughs). And I really wanted to try to put that into a song. It was a challenge because that was a real tempting one to just moan and spew. It was one where I had a lot of harsh lines that I had to just kind of put down and then pull back.

How does your family feel about the song?

My brothers, I don't know how they feel. My sister likes it. My father likes it. My mother's mad at me. I sent a copy of this song to my sister before I put it on the record, and asked her what she thought. She said, "This is fair. It's artistic, it's fair, it's good." And I had other people say, "Look at writers through time and the things they've written about and what people have exposed." And I'm proud of the song. I think it's really good.

I remember the first time I played "The Story." I was at The Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass and people got it. Women have come up to me who have a connection with their mother through this song—you know, the "cast iron dress" bit. What I've found is that there are women who went through that housewife 50s thing who can feel an element of sympathy from that song. That everybody was trapped into that role thing. And my parents were certainly part of it. My father can look back on that and have some perspective, but my mother can't. We just don't talk about it (laughs).

What is the background of "Kill The Messenger"?

It's about Jane Siberry from Toronto. I went to see a concert of hers at The Bottom Line and it was one of the best shows that I've ever seen. She's a great woman and performer—a bit of a Peter Pan and a bit of a seductress and has the great ability to combine whimsy and compassion. She's quirky but accessible. And her show was theatrical in a very accessible, warm, wonderful way. I walked out of that show going, "Well, I should just hang it up." And that's really great for an artist to feel (laughs), it really is—it pushes you.

On her record called "The Walking" she thanked her songs for being there. You know, for just always being there. And "Kill The Messenger" is kind of about writer's block, and it's a sibling of "The Story." It's about feeling pulled down and used by people. It's just somewhat of a bitter song. And somewhat of a plaintive song about wanting to feel the wonderful feelings of clarity and forgiveness when you're at the best of your human nature instead of your worst, you know. Your worst being full of envy or hatred or greed or self pity. And I used her much like I did my sister in "The Story" to just sort of be a character to appeal to and in this case one that could sort of understand my plight and maybe harness the muse more easily than I.

What was the writing of "Poloroids" like?

It probably took a year, but it was the way I described before. I mean, I got the first verse on the way to therapy—see this transportation thing really helps! But I was on this bus and it just came, "Please no more therapy/Mother take care of me/piece me together with needle and thread," and I just went "whaaa, thank you!" It had a cadence to it that was really infectious, kind of sing-songy and I just spent a lot of time getting involved in the rhythm of it and jotting down anything that came into my mind. And a lot of it was trash and a lot of it was funny, and a lot of it was applicable.

Did you really dream the last verse?

Yeah I did. I had this dream where this couple wasn't walking a plank off of a ship, but they were walking a plank over a huge excavated hole in the ground. And they were totally in love, it was the sweetest damn feeling, you know. And he walked out first and she took a poloroid, then she walked out and he took a poloroid as she held up this flash card type of thing that said "Valentine." The good will between these people must have been something that I was striving for because I had had relationships with a lot of ill-will, (laughs) which just seems so wrong, but it was in my life.

What about "I Don't Know Why"?

I wrote it when I first moved to New York. I was on a subway and I wrote the whole song in my head. I felt very lonely and horrible at the time. I had this idea of what I would say to a baby and I'm sure it was more of an attempt just to console myself. The idea to make up something to comfort a child is probably what eased my depression at the time. I just wrote the whole thing really fast in my head, music and words, and didn't even play it for months.

Then a friend of mine came to town and asked me if I'd written anything and I played that song. But because I didn't write—because I was kind of invested in the identity of not seeing myself as a writer—I just didn't consider it a real song (laughs). I just thought "everybody makes up rhymes, everybody writes little poems, this is just a simple little thing that I wrote and there's no need to call attention to it."

What has that song done for your career?

I owe a lot to that song. It was like a gift. I hate to be cosmic about it, but that's the truth. I mean it dropped into my lap. Around 1985, when Fast Folk Musical Magazine asked me to do something for them—and that organization is for songwriters—that was the song I had. In Boston there's a lot of college radio, and they got ahold of that album and started playing my song. And I got a following in Boston based on "I Don't Know Why." So instead of playing bars for the money, I was lured to make this trip to Boston every three months to a club called Passim where people came to hear me play, and hear that song. And every time I'd go back to Passim I felt that that was an audience that wanted to hear what I was writing so I always tried to have another song finished by the time I'd go back there. I guess it was even more important than "Diamond In The Rough" because I was made to feel welcome in the songwriter's field through the people in Boston that listened to those radio stations.

Do you feel like you can write for other people?

No I don't. I pitched something recently only because I was asked if I had anything, and I had something that I thought really would fit. It's something that I'd like to work on because it's an alternative source of income. And it's a valid thing to look into. But up till now it's just all been so personal that I don't think of it in terms of other people singing them.

Do you think you'll start writing about other people's situations?

I have a desire but as yet it hasn't translated into anything palpable. I mean, when I pick up a pencil or pen or whatever, it's still attitudinal—it's emotion driven. And it might come from some other situation but it's never a story that I have to tell of somebody else. So I have the desire, but it hasn't ever really come to fruition. Maybe it will.

How did you develop your very distinct vocal style, and the way you blend it so perfectly with whatever you happen to be doing on the guitar?

I don't know that I have a distinct style. I truly don't have any perspective on that and when I hear myself singing back it's still difficult. I have a vague idea of what you're talking about and it would be easiest to point out the two main influences that I've had which are Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson. Both are very strong guitarists and melodicists and singers and do intricate and interesting work as performers who accompany themselves. And I have a strong identification with that. I kind of consider myself as a singer first and foremost, but something that really helped me come into my own is that there's not a separation between me singing and me playing the guitar. The two together were something where one fed off the other. I worked hard at developing a guitar style that felt good and also would work to entertain people over a long period of time all by myself. Something interesting and strong.

What about the way you tend to leave the melody and take a song in different directions?

That's just something you have to feel. As a matter of fact, one of the dumber things my manager said was "Stick to the melody, I know you're really great at improvising, but stick to the melody until the people get a handle on it," (laughs). But I can't. And I'm glad it still works, and it's just something that I feel.

How did you get put into the folk category?

The folk tag gets a little annoying. That came out of New York right around the time of Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, the neo-folk, new folk whatever they started to call it. You had an acoustic guitar and that's what you were. I listen to alternative radio stations and hear a lot of folk rock. The new Soul Asylum single, REM stuff, Toad the Wet Sprocket—it's great folk rock. But they're all in their twenties so they're called alternative and I'm in my thirties so I'm called folk (laughs). Sometimes it seems that way. But I don't wave a flag for any type of music and I don't feel compelled to put to rest any ideas. Maybe I will some day.

What kind of goals do you have or new things you'd like to try?

There's tons left to do. I want to be a producer. There are not many prominent women producers. You know, there's your top ten list of producers and they're all men. People don't just pick up the phone to call this woman or that woman to produce a new album, at least not in my experience. And the men who are good at what they do are very good, but it's just silly that there's not more women. I produced a record for my friend Lucy Kaplanski that should be out on Rounder this year and I had a blast. I knew my subject, I knew her stuff, her voice, and I knew our budget. It was quick and it was simple, but that's what I needed—something that was not going to totally overwhelm me. And it was wonderful. I loved it.

Do you have much control over the marketing of yourself?

I have some control over it, but you have to choose your battles. My records haven't sold millions, so as far as where I make my demands I've sort of bent toward the musical side of things. I can put my foot down real hard there. When it comes to marketing it wears me out. It's a lot of energy that I have not wanted to waste, especially on this last record. I'm not 100% comfortable with it. It's a little too safe. I don't know how to get around that. You go get your picture taken and you go through ten million rolls of film. I don't find it deplorable, by any means, but it's just a little too polished as far as I'm concerned.

Have you had much success with your videos?

I find videos extremely annoying. I've done four, but getting them played is a problem. VH-1 & MTV are like radio stations. The rules change a lot, and there are just more videos than can be played. So they sort of tend to be like radio stations where MTV is sort of an alternative/hard rock radio station and VH-1 a sort of adult contemporary/soft rock/oldies station. And they're really pretty much locked into that. Whereas when Steady On came out VH-1 was really open and they played me, and they played Bela Fleck's "Sinister Minister," and they played the Subdudes. But they really reeled it in.

What advice would you give to a struggling songwriter?

I don't know anything to say but be true to yourself and believe in what you do and stick to it. Because if you're like me, you wouldn't want to bend yourself around so much to please someone, then get somewhere with it and then have to live with it. So if it's good for your soul and it's making you happy, stick with it. Just don't give up. I've never seen someone fail or miss out who wasn't kind of pushing ahead with the best of intentions and with the belief in themselves. If you've got a goal, a dream that really suits you and you put it into motion, it generally takes you to somewhere. You've got to kind of be willing to see where it takes you, and just enjoy the ride.

Reprinted with permission from Performing Songwriter magazine.











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