When Shawn Colvin broke on the national level with her Grammy Award-winning debut record Steady On in 1989, she’d already been a staple of the New York folk scene, but soon audiences across North America were connected with Colvin’s heartfelt, mature and poised songwriting, especially with songs like “Cry Like An Angel,” “Another Long One,” “Shotgun Down The Avalanche,” and the title track “Steady On.” She was a voice that sounded natural in one’s home, but also struck a chord because she was a female voice that exhibited strength in the folk idiom that few, save Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry and the Indigo Girls, possessed. For a debut, it announced Colvin as a heavy hitter from the very beginning, and over the last 20+ years, she’s shown that while she may not be as prolific as some of her contemporaries, her songs continue to shine with the vigor and depth that she demonstrated with Steady On.
Last week, Colvin released her seventh studio album, All Fall Down, produced by the legendary Buddy Miller. Colvin’s known Miller since the mid-1970s, and most recently has toured extensively with him as part of Three Girls and Their Buddy, also featuring Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. All Fall Down is a bit of a departure for Colvin, both in terms of aural production and the album’s narrative trajectory, including three covers and dipping back into some of the earliest points of her catalog to round out the tracklist. Even though the record ostensibly spans her entire career, it’s a fresh new sound, and Colvin’s voice has never sounded more graceful and full. Gone are the thinner sounds that one could hear when she’d go into mid-to-upper register on the earlier albums, and in their place is a robust richness that indicates that Colvin is ready to take on this next part of her career and artistic journey.
Glide Magazine’s editor Peter Zimmerman spoke to Shawn back in January, during her three-night residency at Yoshi’s jazz club, which many will know as being the venue in which she recorded her 2009’s Grammy-nominated Live album. Colvin returns each year to this intimate venue in San Francisco, and with the addition of new material from All Fall Down, and on the second night a surprise visit by Jane Siberry, the shows are always immensely special. After her soundcheck, we sat down and discussed a lot about the new album, what it’s been like working with Buddy Miller, the process of writing her new memoir Diamond In The Rough, the future of Three Girls and Their Buddy and why she still loves Whole New You, among other things.
It’s been six years since the last record, what have you been doing to keep busy? Are you writing? You know, some people write constantly and some people like to let things seep in.
No, I don’t write constantly—I keep notes. I’ve been working, traveling and I have a 13 year-old daughter, who, six years ago, was not thirteen. I wrote a book, also, titled Diamond In The Rough after one of my songs… and I think that about covers it.
When did you start writing the book?
About three years ago, I think.
Had that been discussed for awhile? Was that something that you had wanted to do? Did you seek that project out?
No, neither really. I hadn’t thought about it. Someone mentioned it—I think it was my manager who said. “Well, you know, someone might be interested”—meaning a publisher—“in that story,” meaning my story. And I said, “I wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s a terrible idea.” Then he suggested, that I make the chapters song titles, and I thought “well, you know, I might be able to do something with that. I’ll make an outline.” So, I did. I made an outline and wrote a couple of chapters and we shopped it around—I had an agent. And I got a deal. After it was picked up, you know, they give you the advancement and then you’re screwed. You gotta write it. (laughs)
Have you read Patti Smith’s Just Kids?
Oh, yes. That’s my benchmark. I’ll never reach it.
It’s just her and Robert [Mapplethorpe[. It’s not even the tip of her career– she barely discusses her music in it whatsoever.
That’s lovely though. That’s a true memoir, you know, to just take a point in time. It’s beautiful.
So, other than your memoir, you’re releasing a brand new album as well. I see that it was produced by Buddy Miller, which is a bit of a switch, since you’ve mostly worked with John Leventhal. So, why change that formula? Why the move to Buddy?
That’s a good question. I’m trying to go back to when I made that decision. Well, I’ve been working with Buddy more over the last few years, even though I’ve known Buddy since 1976.
He’s the reason you moved to New York, right, a few decades ago?
Exactly. He is the reason that I moved to New York. But I knew him in Austin previously when we both lived there. Then I moved to California and he moved to New York and he needed a singer at some point, so he called me up. I needed a reason to get out of San Francisco—I didn’t know what I was doing there. I wasn’t making any headway, really. I was having a good time, but the offer to go to New York to sing with Buddy seemed like a good job, and I really love making music with him. So, I went.
We’ve had this group together the last three or four years, called Three Girls and Their Buddy, which is Patty [Griffin], Emmylou [Harris], me and Buddy. And, I don’t know, I just remembered how much I loved Buddy’s playing and I knew he was doing a lot of production and I was loving the things he was doing. And, he’s a friend of mine. So, I thought that it’s not sacrilege to shake things up, you know? I thought it would be fun.
Is John [Leventhal] on the album at all? Did you do some writing with him?
I did some writing with him, yeah.
You’ve been playing two new songs fairly frequently: “Seven Times the Charm,” which you co-wrote with Jakob Dylan, and “Change Is On The Way,” which you did with Patty Griffin. Is this record focused on joint songwriting?
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s focused on it. I nearly always co-write, just usually with John [Leventhal]. So, there are a couple of things that I co-wrote with John, I wrote with Patty, I co-wrote one with Bill Frisell. Yeah, he had a piece of music and I really loved it, so I put words to it. And then “Seven Times the Charm” was me and John and Jakob Dylan actually– he helped me write the lyrics. There’s one called “The Neon Light of The Saints,” which is me and John, as well as the single “All Fall Down.” Oh, and a really old one that I used to do with John back in the 1980’s, called “Knowing What I Know Now.” And I think that might be it for original tunes. I’ve got a couple of covers on there too.
Tell me about them.
Sure. There’s an old song that I love and I started to do it again with Three Girls and Their Buddy which is by B.W. Stevenson and it’s called “On My Own.” And then Buddy turned me on to a guy named Mick Flannery, so I do one of his songs called “Up On That Hill.” Then there’s this old song called “American Jerusalem” that I used to do when I was working at the Speakeasy and other folk places around New York, by a songwriter named Rob McDonald.
It sounds like some stuff that had been in your catalogue for a while has come back.
Yeah, I thought I’d reach back.
Is that because of the memoir? Has it been a whole retrospective look back across your work?
No, it was kind of thematic really. There’s kind of a loss theme to the record to some extent—not all together, but some. So, I went with some things that kind of represented that. And, I don’t think it was the memoir that made me reach back—I kind of had an idea to do a record where I would do a bunch of songs that I learned back in those folk days, by a bunch of writers. So, this is kind of the tip of the iceberg and maybe I’ll do that.
I found this bootleg online from 1975 that you’d done in Carbondale, Illinois, and there’s this great version of “Cactus Tree” by Joni Mitchell.
But there’s some really, really interesting folk arrangements on that.
Is it solo?
No, it’s listed as being by the Shawn Colvin Band.
No, no. It’s really good. So, I could see that whole “reaching back into what influenced me as a folk singer” being a good project.
Yeah, and those were way before the time I was thinking of, even. 1975 was just me at the very beginning doing a lot of Joni Mitchell, copying a lot of people.
Actually, speaking of Joni Mitchell, and this is a little bit tangential, but she did a retrospective where she did one record called Hits and one record called Misses, which I thought was really interesting because songs like “A Case of You,” which many see as one of her best, made it onto the Misses. That album had some of her favorites that she wished had caught on, and, not to sound conceited, but are there songs of yours that you wish had peeked through a little bit more? Songs that you connected to that through the years that maybe didn’t have the impact you’d either hoped or expected?
Well, probably. The thing with me is that I only really had one big song peek through, so that was a lot of fun, but was nothing that I got particularly used to. Some are my favorites, but I don’t know if they’re other people’s favorites—a little more obscure that I like. Let’s see if I can think of one…
Well, Whole New You as an album didn’t do too well, you know, and it was a weird record. And there were some really good things on it, there’s one called “Matter of Minutes” that I always thought was really good… “Bonefields,” which was a real studio experiment… and there’s a few like that—“One Small Year”—that I thought were aurally interesting. You know, piano and whatnot—I didn’t do that a lot. And “Another Plane Went Down” I thought was really interesting. It was kind of all over the map. I’d just had that baby and I was pulling about seventeen different directions.
It seemed like These Four Walls was kind of a return to what felt more comfortable, but was also your strength of writing really great melodies with good harmonies.
Yeah, I got back to normal on that one.
There’s a song that didn’t make that record called “Wild Country” which I think is really fascinating.
Oh, I forgot about that one. Yeah, I really like that one.
You have a bunch of songs that kind of float around from soundtracks and B-tracks and things like that. Would you ever consider doing a collection of those semi-forgotten tracks?
I thought about it once when I was still on Columbia about doing a record called B-sides. I don’t know why we never did it. There’s a song that was a b-side for Whole New You called “Fall of Rome,” which I just put on this new album. It was another one where I reached back, but you know, it never really got a shot. It was on European release or something like that so it didn’t really get heard. So, it’s a different production on it and a new version of it.
I want to reach back to the very beginning, when you first were playing in New York as part of that folk movement. You were in a duo with Lucy Kaplansky, is that right?
But she chose to go back to school and you got signed by Columbia. I know you went on tour as part of Suzanne Vega’s band in the late 1980s, as well, but the choice to sign with major labels created some rifts in the community. Did it have any effect on you and your relationships with your friends and colleagues?
Well, some relationships cratered. But I got really busy and I wasn’t really writing that many songs when I was doing the Speakeasy, so it happened that when I was doing the Speakeasy and stuff, I was doing Fast Folk. And they had a songwriters’ group, but I didn’t go because I wasn’t up to that challenge. I mean, they had to write a new song every week and play it for everybody and it was critiqued. I didn’t even consider going. And then I came up with all these songs and got a deal pretty fast, so that might have rubbed some people the wrong way, I don’t know. Nobody ever said anything like that. People talk bad and you never know about it.
That time– the whole Fast Folk community– seemed to foster a lot of creativity just in general, because it had people actually playing out in public, not just in their apartments. But now you have Three Girls and Their Buddy, and a real other type of community that you’ve fostered over the last decade that seems to sustain you creatively now. It’s just a big arch, I’m interested about how you see it, from a historical point of view.
Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it. There was more of a communal feeling when we were all there at that time, struggling and egging each other on, and almost competing, which I think is great. And, I’d always worked with John Leventhal, from almost the time that I moved to New York. But I was kind of trying to figure things out, and we had always worked together, but there was a time when things shifted and I got who I was and I began to write differently with him. So, there was a communal thing of people and then John and I really got concentrated into this way of writing. So, that was kind of singular for awhile. Then I had a lot of bands. There was Stuart Smith, I did a record with him and Larry Klein, we had a trio and that was really great. So, it’s kind of gone back and forth with that kind of thing.
Will there ever be a Three Girls and Their Buddy record?
We were going to make one, and it’s not out of the question. But Buddy and Patty left for like a year for Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. First there was Patty’s album Downtown Church, which Buddy produced, then there was Robert Plant. Emmylou always has a project going on. I was probably the most available (laughs). We had a time slated, it might have been about a year ago, and it just wasn’t to be. We couldn’t get everybody together. It was a wonder that we got everybody together to do that run of shows that we did for a couple of years. So, yes, it’s definitely on the table and everybody wants to do it.
It’s been quite a while since you’ve had a new album out, so adding some of the new stuff to your sets must be a welcome change for you. But, even so, and even though you have audiences that know you really well and come back year after year for your shows regardless, do you ever get nervous playing new stuff?
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. I’ve never had stage fright too badly, though. I’ve gone through a couple episodes at certain times in my life where I just wasn’t that confident. Since I started making records, I’ve had a couple of glitchy times, but for the most part, I’m cool. But as I get older, it’s almost… I had a bit of bravado before, and now it really connects with me that these people have paid. They’ve bought a ticket, and it’s my responsibility to do an hour-and-a-half of good music. And that responsibility kind of gets to me in a way that it didn’t used to.
Other than those two new songs, what have you been doing in your sets that’s been new, or new-ish, for audiences?
You’ve reminded me about “Fall of Rome,” which I really should check out again. I did this cover a long time ago, but I’ve been doing Robert Earl Keen’s “Not a Drop of Rain” again, which I love. And then there’s Tom Waits’ “Hold On,” which not everybody knows, but I did a lot on the Three Girls and Their Buddy tour.
I love that one.
Yeah, I love it too. You don’t want to go too far with the new stuff, though, unless you know you’ve got some barn-burners. You’ve got to be careful, and most of the new songs and new covers aren’t exactly upbeat.
I saw you recently play at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, and during the encore set someone yelled out a request for “Orion In The Sky,” which I know you don’t play hardly at all. Do obscure requests like that throw you off? I mean, you went for it, and seemed to enjoy the shoutout, but does it ever throw you?
No, It doesn’t throw me off. I mean, he shouted it out during the encore section, so anything goes at that point, as far as I’m concerned. During an encore you can kind of relax. There are so many songs that I should really work up again, you know. I kind of have my standard stuff and I try to throw some new ones in and I do some covers. But you just reminded me, like “Cry Like An Angel,” why don’t I do that one anymore? You’ve got to mix it up.
Shawn Colvin’s new album, All Fall Down, is now available via Nonesuch Records. For more information, visit Colvin’s official website, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.