Band Notes: Shawn Colvin

Before her two shows at the Birchmere this week, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter talks about touring, her new album, and writing her first book.

By: Tanya Pai

Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin might still be best known for “Sunny Came Home,” the folk-rock smash that got near-constant airplay when it was released in 1997. But Colvin, 56, now has three Grammys and eight albums under her belt, including her latest, All Fall Down, which came out in June of this year. Also last month she released her first book, a memoir titled Diamond in the Rough, which explores her struggles with clinical depression, alcoholism, and rough breakups and chronicles her time in the music industry. We caught up with Colvin by phone ahead of her Birchmere shows this Thursday and Friday to talk about playing with James Taylor, pretending to be a Beatle, and the best and worst parts about life on the road.

Where are you at the moment?

I’m at home in Austin, Texas.

How long have you lived there?

I lived here for two years in the mid-’70s, and I’ve been here about 15 years now. I’m raising my daughter here; she’s 14 now. I’m from South Dakota originally, and I lived in Illinois during high school and in New York for 15 years.

Does your daughter come on tour with you?

She used to, but she doesn’t want to anymore. She wants to be with her friends.

What’s your favorite part about being on the road?

I think if anybody feels good about their job, it feels good to do the job. It’s fulfilling doing your work; you feel like you’re pulling your weight, and with any luck you’re inspired and enjoying it. My favorite part is playing, obviously. It’s probably my least favorite part that’s more interesting.

Which part is that?

Hmm . . . Bad food, airport food, if you’re hungry and can’t get anything else. Sleep deprivation from time to time, when things go wrong with flight schedules.

You just released your first studio album in six years, All Fall Down. What’s different between your last record and this one?

This one has more of a rootsy, country feel, but it’s essentially the same vibe. My songs resemble my musicianship, the way I sing and play and write. There’s some fiddle on this, pedal steel guitar—all stuff I love, by the way.

How about in terms of the songwriting?

The interesting thing is I wrote with a lot of new people. I had two band members, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss, and I wrote something with them. Then I did songs with Patty Griffin and Jakob Dylan.

Do you find it easier to write collaboratively, or more difficult?

It’s easier as long as they’ll let me do what I’m comfortable with. I’m not good at sitting in a room and banging out a song with someone. I like to be alone with the song—whether it’s because I’m shy or because I can think better, it’s a necessary part of the process to take it away. And these people were fine with that.

Is there a particular environment you need to be able to write, or a particular room in your house you always go to?

It’s funny—since I’ve had my daughter it’s harder to write at home, even though I have a place to write here and I have used it. I like to be just away, in a hotel or a studio somewhere or someplace that feels removed or like a work spot. Home just has changed, time management has changed with having a daughter, so I find I have to be more diligent about setting time aside, usually in chunks, not every day.

Any dream collaborations you haven’t done yet?

Hmm. I never thought about that. Jeez, why can’t I think of anybody? I’ve been really lucky I’ve gotten to play with a lot of people—not write with everyone, but perform. I’ve gotten to sing “You Can Close Your Eyes” as a duet with James Taylor onstage. That would have been my dream come true when I was 15 years old, and it still was when I finally got to do it.

Speaking of your teenage years, you started performing when you were very young. When did you first know you wanted to get into music?

I kind of knew it all along. I was just musically inclined, I always listened to music. When I heard the Beatles I got terrifically obsessed and pretended I was a Beatle—not a Beatle’s girlfriend. I learned to play the guitar fairly young, maybe ten years old, and I just never quit. I was playing for my parents’ parties when I was 12 years old.

Was there ever a point at which you thought about giving up performing or felt you were doing the wrong thing?

Well, I always knew it was the right thing for me, but with my upbringing, nobody did that. I tried to think of something to fall back on—I’d imagine things like being a teacher, but nothing ever sparked me. Actually in my mid-twenties I wondered if I was doing the right thing; I had just been doing it for so long, and I was getting tired of trying to find a genre that suited me even though it was right in front of me: the singer-songwriters I’d grown up listening to and being inspired by and even worshiping. I was always really afraid of writing. I kind of had to stop and see the forest for the trees and say, “Okay, you’re gonna have to try to write.” I had to realize how I wanted to write.

And now you’re a published author [Colvin’s memoir, Diamond in the Rough, was released June 5, 2012]. How did writing your book compare to writing songs?

It wasn’t similar at all. Instead of a couple of open pages where you have to rhyme and fit in a rhythm and marry it to a melody and a mood, with a book there’s no reins almost. If you’re writing about yourself, you have the parameters of your experience, but you’re not going to capture all of that. You have to make decisions of what’s important, voice, and chronology. I started at the middle and worked my way out. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this,” so I just started a chapter somewhere as an experiment.

The book contains quite a bit of humor, but the tone of your songs is more contemplative. What do you think that difference stems from?

Fans of mine who have seen me perform know that between songs I can be kind of funny. I’m not a dour person [laughs], but what I channel into music is more somber. And I think here and there I write some tongue-in-cheek fun stuff. So I think of myself as a humorous person, and I thought there was no way a book like mine would work if I didn’t use or reveal or channel that part of myself. Honestly I don’t know if I could have left it out. The book is the way I talk.

You cover some very difficult subjects, including your struggles with alcoholism and depression. Was it tough to find the humor in recounting those stories?

It was difficult to find the humor in a couple of things. The most recent things are hardest to find humor in; they’re fresh, and if they were difficult you haven’t gotten perspective yet. So a certain breakup I had, my last bout of depression—it was harder to find humor in those.

If people only take away one thing, one message, from your story, what would you want it to be?

I think humor, as you mentioned. I want people to laugh, I want people who are struggling with similar challenges or different challenges than I’ve had, even, to feel some kinship and some hope. I know that listening to people and reading accounts of someone’s struggle from their point of view, from their mouth—not about depression from someone who’s done research on it, but about addiction and depression from people who’ve been through it—has been probably the most helpful thing I’ve had for those difficulties. It just makes you feel—one feels less alone, and that’s really important because when you’re really on the floor you feel like the worst person in the world and like you’re never going to get better.

Do you think writing, whether it’s songs or stories, helps you process all those feelings?

Within reason. The distinction I like to make is that people think artists somehow need to be tortured to write, or paint, or act, and to an extent I think there is perhaps a sensitivity among artists that allows them to feel things deeply or need to express things that are hard to manage without expressing them. But if you’re clinically depressed, you’re not writing, you’re not painting, you’re not making a movie, you’re not functioning. I feel like it’s important for people to know, at least from my point of view—and I think this holds true for most people who suffer from depression—at its worst, when you’re really clinically ill, you’re unable to be creative. There’s a difference between being melancholy or sensitive or any of these things we attribute to an artist, and being ill.

On a totally different topic, what are you listening to or reading in your spare time?

I’ve been listening to my friend Mary Chapin Carpenter’s latest, Ashes and Roses. I’ve ben listening to a guy named Mick Flannery; I recorded a song of his on his new record. As for reading . . . [laughs]

I met Captain Sullenberger when I did the Tavis Smiley show, so I went out and got Miracle on the Hudson and just finished that. Next I want to re-read Huckleberry Finn, because I want my daughter to read it.

You’ve won a few Grammys and now you have your book. What’s the next goal? Is there a dream you’re still waiting to achieve?

I’d like to act, but all actors want to be musicians and all musicians want to be actors. I’m not real serious about that, but it would be fun if I could actually do it. I respect people who do it professionally and have tons of experience, like I have tons of experience with songwriting.

But you actually voiced a character on The Simpsons several years ago, right?

I did, I was on two episodes, and I was on The Larry Sanders Show twice. I got to play myself, so I’d say that wasn’t a big stretch.

Do you get stage fright?

I get songwriting fright, but stage fright, not really, I get stage fright when people I know are in the audience: friends, family, musicians I admire. That makes me nuts.

How do you manage it?

There’s nothing you can do about it; you just gotta go on. Sometimes it works in your favor, if your energy is right and you can channel the right way. And sometimes it’s disastrous.

When was it disastrous for you?

I’d say one of the last times I played in NYC. It was four nights at City Winery. A lot of my friends were in the audience, and I made a lot of mistakes. I forgot some lyrics, I forgot some guitar parts—things I’ve played a million times. I would forget a chord, crazy stuff that has not happened since. That’s the last time it was a disaster. And it kind of builds on itself, because once you’ve made one mistake you’re more nervous, and that leads to another. But what can you do?

So for people who have never seen you perform before, what should they expect from your show?

I’ll be playing alone, which is something I feel really comfortable with. It’s a very intimate show, actually. I tell stories and talk, I’ll be playing some new songs, I’ll probably be playing a cover or two that no one will have heard me do. I love the Birchmere; it’s a great place to see a show. I’ve never not had a great time there, and I always look forward to coming back.

Shawn Colvin performs at the Birchmere Thursday, July 19, and Friday, July 20, at 7:30 PM. Tickets ($49.50) are available through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit the Birchmere’s website.