Shawn Colvin: Home From a Mission
Shawn Colvin has dedicated her life to music. But she’s no longer prepared to sacrifice her happiness for a song.
Shawn Colvin mastered her instrument while no one was listening.
(“Get Out of This House,” 1996)
Go jump in a lake
Go right up the hill
Get out of this house
Shawn Colvin: I worked hard on my guitar playing, mostly because I played so many bars where people didn’t listen. I thought, what’s an element I can add to this guitar and vocal thing that might get their attention?
I spent 29 years trying to save my soul
It’s been 11 more down in the whole
Fighting to be heard caused Colvin to strain her vocal chords so badly at age 24, that she was forced to take a break from playing music altogether, which in turn, led her to confront her seething addiction to alcohol.
Colvin: They were a product of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and realizing that I had a story to tell. You know, when you’re mired in addiction and you know, fog, some people write great stuff. Who am I to say? But not me.
AJC: Did you ever write songs drunk?
Colvin: I moved to San Francisco. I moved to The Bay Area and I was drunk all the time. This was for a very short period of time. I guess I was about 18, 19 years old, maybe. And I did start a song called “Ricochet in Time”, which is about putting in a punch card. I mean, I had a straight job. And if you listen to that one, it’s, you know, it’s not exactly bright and cheering, and then I finished it later, after I’d been in recovery. So, I had the seeds of wanting to express something and so I did write a little something when I was in my cups, as they say, but not much.
Shawn Colvin won her first Grammy in 1991, but her greatest commercial triumph would come seven years and two albums later, with A Few Small Repairs and its smash-hit single, “Sunny Came Home.”
(“Sunny Came Home”1996)
Sunny came home to her favorite room
Sunny sat down in the kitchen
And she opened a book and a box of tools
Sunny came home with a mission
She says days go by
I’m walking on a wire
And I close my eyes and fly out of my mind
Into the fire
But with the birth of her daughter, Caledonia, in 1998, writing a follow-up proved difficult. Motherhood, she says, was overwhelming.
Colvin: I didn’t know how to write about it. It was all-consuming. That was all that was in my life but I felt like I should be writing this, like, lovely lullaby-esque poetry and I was a terrified, doubtful, tired person.
AJC: The song, “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now,” a preemptive apology to her daughter for future mistakes, evoked a darker tone of the resulting album, 2001’s A Whole New You.
(“I’ll Say I Am Sorry Now,” 2001)
For all that I am by
And hard as we try
The bough breaks and the cradle falls
For everything I do
That will tear at you
Let me say I’m sorry now
AJC: Does it ever feel like pressure, the fact that you were so, always so open in your songs about who you were and how you saw the world?
Colvin: No, it doesn’t feel like pressure at all. I’ve just always been a person who didn’t hide. I mean, I suppose there are things but I felt there was, in our house, sort of, we were the typical 50’s family and I always felt that there was too much pressure on keeping up appearances and I just wanted flat out honesty and you know, let it all hang out. I hate small talk, you know. It’s like let’s get to the heart of what’s going on. And I found in my life that what I’ve read and heard from people that’s brutally honest has helped me the most through my own challenges and struggles. It’s a gift to people.
In 2012, Shawn Colvin published a memoir, Diamond In The Rough, which candidly recanted her experiences with addiction, depression, failed relationships and an imperfect upbringing. The process of writing it, she says, was healing but the healing is never finished.
AJC: Do you ever get over your family, do you think?
AJC: No mental therapy, no mental recovery, no amount of anything is ever going to get you passed what happened early on.
Colvin: I don’t think so. I think what you do, you mature out of it. You, I don’t think you totally get over it. I have a situation in my life right now that has to do with a member of my family and I thought I was over this issue and I’m clearly not. Something triggered the discomfort and the wound, if you will. But we don’t have, again, it’s the drama. And you know, regarding my remaining parent especially, my mother, get over it. Get over it. Life’s too short. You know, I know her limitations. I know what we don’t get along about. I know what we do get along about, and it’s time to just get along, you know? And that doesn’t mean that I don’t have feelings that are complicated, but you deal with them. You don’t have to express every feeling anymore or react.
Shawn Colvin still minds her daily life for material, but finds that lately, she has much less patience for the explosive emotions that fueled much of her earlier work.
Colvin: I think the drama falls away in your old age and a lot of the earlier songs were kind of fueled by some personal dramas, you know?
AJC: Well, you need some more personal drama.
Colvin: I don’t want any more personal drama. So, I’ve taken to writing about characters that I’ve seen in movies on television and books, personally. Not a lot but that’s where I find that I’m going.
These days, Colvin’s relationship with music continues to evolve and despite a discography full of her own great songs, she’s never shied away from covering other people’s.
(“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” 1994)
Purple clover, Queen Anne’s lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
I don’t remember what I was thinking of
You might be spoiling me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
More than 40 years into her career in music, Shawn Colvin still knows what it is to be a fan.
Colvin: We all have soundtracks to our lives and there’s a line in one of my songs people love called, it says, “If there were no music, “I would not get through.” That’s what music has meant. It’s been a healing force to me from all the music I loved and still loved and listen to–– to learning how to play and sing, having my guitar at the foot of the bed of my whole adolescence and well, up ’til now and what it has done for my lack of peace of mind, my depressions, my anxiety, my insecurities. So, if I’m the soundtrack to somebody’s life, what does that mean? You know, what have I done for them? If I’ve done anything close to what was done for me, you know, in terms of the soundtracks of my life, what better compliment can you get?
(“The Nut Tree,” 2018)
Had a little nut tree
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear
The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me
And all was because of my
Little nut tree
I skipped over water
I skipped over sea
And all the birds in the air
Could not catch me