In a world that often encourages the denial of struggles and diminishes talented and powerful women, three-time Grammy winner Shawn Colvin’s poetic, insightful and intimate songs serve as an act of resistance and persistence. She delves deeply into rough waters through her well-crafted songs, elegant voice and superb musicianship.
She is celebrating the 33rd anniversary of her debut album Steady On by performing it in its entirety, plus other material, with only her voice and her acoustic guitar on her current tour. Tour stops will include City Winery in New York, April 26; The Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, April 28; The Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa., April 29; and The Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College in Toms River, April 30.
The solo acoustic versions of her songs on Steady On 30th Anniversary Edition (2019) sound as fresh and evocative as they did on the original release. She is one of those rare artists who do not need the adornment of a large production; the album displays the brilliance of her talents with no distractions.
The songs from Steady On, she says, continue to captivate her. “I feel the same,” she said. “I feel like it was a dream come true. I feel like I did a good job. I feel like I wrote songs that were personal, but crafted well and accessible to other people.”
She appreciates that people find their own emotional stories in her songs. “There are songs that are well done enough that I still like playing them,” she said. “I still want to play them. I’m proud of them. I can feel things from back when I wrote them.”
Born in South Dakota, Colvin picked up the guitar at the age of 10, when her family lived in Carbondale, Ill., and largely taught herself how to play. Inspired by her collaboration with producer, guitarist and co-writer John Leventhal, she found her songwriting voice and became a worldwide success through the songs she wrote for Steady On.
She helped shape the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York in the 1980s, and 12 albums and one lauded memoir later, continues to create and connect. She is beloved by her fans, who, like me, have her songs encoded in their DNA and have been supported by her wise, weary and hopeful observations. She tells timeless tales of love, loss, struggle, defeat and overcoming addiction and depression.
Colvin originally planned to perform Steady On as part of a 30th anniversary tour, but the shows were postponed because of the pandemic.
The pandemic “was terrifying at first because nobody wanted to die,” she said. “We all had that in common. And then, of course, there was no work to be had for entertainers like me, so that was terrifying.
“I got used to being at home, which was kind of a nice thing to not be on the road all the time. I got things done. My health got better. I ate better and exercised more and then I started trying to be creative.”
She has been writing songs and working on projects that are difficult to do on the road, she said. “That’s the point where it’s really tiring and I don’t have a lot of creative energy, so there were upsides to it,” she said. “I tried to make the best of it.”
She contracted COVID in November 2020. She attended an outdoor Thanksgiving gathering and was given pumpkin pie to take home. When she ate it, she realized she could not taste it.
“My first thought was, ‘This is lousy pumpkin pie,’ ” she said. “It’s supposed to be spicy. It was pure texture. And then it dawned on me, so I went to the refrigerator and started smelling everything I could. I couldn’t smell anything and then I knew.”
She confirmed her suspicions at a testing site in Austin, Texas, where she lives. “I spent 10 days sleeping,” she said. “It really wasn’t too bad. I had brain fog for 10 days and I just slept, but I never had fever or a cough or blood oxygen problems.
“It was like one long dream. And then on the third, fourth and fifth day, it can turn on you, so I was getting anxious around then, wondering if it was going to take a turn for the worse. But nothing happened and I got better.”
Colvin’s music has given voice to people’s concerns about a range of issues, including mental health and surviving flawed relationships. I wondered if the social issues and divisions evident during the pandemic found a place in her new songs.
“No, those things didn’t creep in,” she said. “I’m a personally political person. I write about feelings, human situations. I write stories about people.
“I certainly was aware of those things and have feelings about them … I did start one song about Trump and it was cloaked enough … not that I’m scared, but I like songs to reach people in different ways … so I do them in broad strokes, and I was moved to write something about that.”
We talked about women in the music industry and the challenge of raising kids and having a career.
“It’s been an issue,” Colvin said. “When (her daughter Caledonia) was younger, we could take her on the road. That was a challenge, too, in its own way, but I didn’t have to be away from her. But then my then-husband, her father, and I decided that he could be the at-home dad and that she should start school. And that’s something I rather regret because I was gone more and more, really, and I missed a lot of stuff and it didn’t occur to me to homeschool her.
“I was just out on the road with Jason Isbell for 10 shows and his kid (Mercy) is on the road. That little kid is adorable and she’s on the road and is being homeschooled and Amanda (Shires) is sometimes out with the band — Jason’s wife, Mercy’s mother. But sometimes she leaves and Jason’s got the daughter and I just love that. You just don’t see that a lot. You really don’t in my business, at least I haven’t noticed it a lot. There’s far more guy musicians that have a woman at home.”
I suggested that most men, including musicians, do not have to compromise their day-to-day work due to child rearing.
“Exactly,” she said. “If you are the breadwinner, I can see the point. I thought it was very elegant the way Jason and his wife were going about this.
“I was of the mind that role reversal is fine. It wasn’t fine … for a while I did tour less, but in retrospect not enough, but we had started the process and she was making friends in school and there was a whole life in Austin for her, and it would have been an upheaval for me to say, ‘Well, you’re not doing that anymore. You’re coming out with me.’ And so that’s the way it progressed.”
It’s hard for parents to accept imperfect choices, I suggested, but we all do the best we can, given life’s curveballs.
“Yeah, we did,” she said. “And somehow with the mistakes our parents made, we turned out okay. Sort of.”
She took a deep breath and continued: “There’s always the chance to heal it. So, for what I missed out on and for what she didn’t get from me, there’s been a reckoning. She got older and I helped her find her life and her passion.
“I kind of became a single parent … I didn’t see her enough — there’s no question. I saw her enough to notice things that she needed. I had an eye on her in a way that I don’t think that he did.”
The male-dominated music industry of the ’80s created other hurdles for women, too. Colvin described several situations that demonstrated the inequities and disrespect some women felt and the inequitable treatment that arose for her “even when I had a hit in the ’90s (‘Sunny Came Home’).
“The radio stations didn’t know how to deal with all the hits that were coming from women and they didn’t want to play women back-to-back,” she said. “You could play as many men back-to-back as you wanted, but women … ‘Oh, that’s kind of weird.’ It’s absurd.”
She gave another example of the disrespect women faced: She was invited to sing on a TV show in New York when she was 25 years old or so. “The then-president of Columbia Records saw it,” she said. “He also managed a very successful duo at the time and he reached out to me and said, ‘Why don’t you come out to the office one night and I’ll bring so and so, one of the members of the duo.’ I’m not naming names. And I went up there, but I knew what was going on … what was going on was somebody wanted to get in my pants … it was what they call it in the movie business … a casting couch. I mean, nothing happened, but I’m sure there was a quid pro quo idea going on. Maybe I could get a record deal if I … you know. And I fled. That wasn’t gonna happen. It was so creepy. But then in the end, the irony, of course, is that that record company signed me, legitimately, a few years later.”
She also remembered that she used to play regularly at the Greenwich Village nightclub The Other End and “this one famous songwriter who was kind of a blowhard would come out a lot and he said, ‘I want to manage you.’ And next time he comes in, he brings in a piece of paper and he wants me to sign it and it gave him an enormous percentage of my income in perpetuity. And I said, ‘Well, of course, I am going to have to have a lawyer look at this,’ and he got pissed and stomped out of there and I don’t think I ever saw him again. He was a performer, but his success was in songs that were covered and made it into hits. He was not respectful.”
I asked Colvin who helped her over the years, and the first person she mentioned was Jackson Browne. “He came out came singing my praises, that’s pretty great. He made it known that he was a fan. So did David Crosby.
“My friend Bruce Hornsby really helped me. I wormed my way back at a Deadhead tribute concert because I knew that the manager’s other client, Suzanne Vega, was playing at it. I brought my demo tape and I went up to (Hornsby) and I said, ‘Here’s my demo tape,’ and everybody knows no one listens to a demo tape … it’s just like you might as well be throwing it into the river. My phone number and my address were on it and he called me the next day and he said, ‘This is great,’ and he played on my record. And then on his next record, he had me sing on it. We just talked the other day — I don’t think there’s that much of an age difference — he’s like a good big brother to me.”
I asked her about her connection to some of the other Greenwich Village artists, including Vega, and her experience singing on Vega’s hit song, “Luka.”
“Suzanne’s whole rise out of our songwriter group in Greenwich Village was a huge deal,” she said. “That was one of us. She rocketed up. It happened and it was good for me in that it kind of lit a fire under me. I was like, ‘I got to get busy and be a better artist. I got to get busy and write songs.’ I was too scared to write songs.
“Suzanne’s manager took an interest in me. So I sang on ‘Luka’ and then I went on tour as a backup singer for three months. When I got back, he said, ‘I’d like to manage you.’ Ron Fierstein was his name.”
Colvin recounts signing an agreement that “was not fair to me.” Her lawyer told her so, but she said, ” ‘Just do it.’ I was desperate. I wanted a break. I was 30 years old … In short order, (Fierstein) went to Columbia Records to an A&R man, Joe McEwen, ostensibly to play him another group that he wanted him to sign. Joe said, ‘Well, what else do you have?,’ and he happened to have my tatty, old homemade demo tape in his pocket and he played it for Joe and I got signed to Columbia Records.”
I asked her about how she overcame her fear of songwriting and developed her own style.
“That’s the mystifying thing to me, because it’s the last thing I was able to get good at and it was the last thing I had the courage to do,” she said. “I learned to play quickly. I was always a good singer. I liked being in front of an audience. I could imitate people well. I was a good harmony singer. I had musical talent, for sure.
“And I stayed at that guitar. I learned it. I was rabid about it. I jotted down some things when I was teenager and they weren’t very good, but I had a good time doing it. I felt dramatic and poetic, but they don’t really hold up now. I started making my living doing four-hour stints in bars — sometimes by myself, sometimes with a trio, sometimes with a band.
“You cover things. That’s what people want to hear. And that’s what I did and I was really good at it. I could sing just about anything. I adore covering songs.”
She has released two remarkable albums of unique covers, Cover Girl (1994) and Uncovered (2015), paying tribute to a variety of artists including Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, The Police, Bruce Springsteen and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“I love music,” she said. “I love songwriters and singers and guitar players and classical music and soul music. It’s magic, it’s healing. It’s my thing, it’s my shit. I was a good student and I knew what made a good song. … So I learned them, and I think I learned from the best.
“Initially, I learned folk songs by The Kingston Trio. My father taught me how to play the guitar. And that morphed into Judy Collins stuff … the late ’60s/early ’70s James Taylor and Joni Mitchell was the be-all and end-all.”
Mitchell is a poet, I suggested. “She is, most definitely,” Colvin said. “She’s just way up there. Paul Simon, one of the greats. Dylan, one of the greats. I mean, I could go on and on. Eventually, John Hiatt. I got demos by John Hiatt. He wasn’t a recording artist then. Yeah, and The Beatles.”
Was Neil Young on her list? “Yeah, had to do ‘Helpless,’ had to do ‘Tell Me Why,’ had to do ‘Needle and the Damage Done.’ Graham Nash, David Crosby, Neil Young, Stephen Stills. All of them.”
Colvin said both her parents had musical leanings. “My Dad had a hobby playing banjo and guitar and, in his heart, he was a musician,” she said. “But we’re from a small town in South Dakota. Nobody did that.”
Her mother studied singing, was an English major and wanted to write poetry, “but it was 1954 and she dropped out of school and married my father when she was 20 years old and had a baby about a year later,” Colvin said.
She said she has some insight into the origins of her songwriting skills. “I do have snips and bits of things that I wrote in the late ’70s and early ’80s that I never played for anybody. They weren’t finished and one of them, for example, is a song called ‘Ricochet in Time’ (which was released on Steady On). I wrote some of it when I was still drinking and living in the Bay Area and working in a stained-glass store and I just wrote it down. I wrote down the first verse and I didn’t think anything of it because, ‘I must suck.’ Everybody I emulated was so terrific.
“So those kinds of things would happen. I wrote a song called ‘I Don’t Know Why’ (released on Fat City in 1992) entirely in my head, all in one piece, in the late 1980s when I moved to New York. I was still drinking. I was lonely. I was taking the D train to The Bronx because I was living at the bass player’s place at that time. I had to live with all the band members until I could finally find an apartment. And I wrote the entire song — melody, guitar parts, lyrics in my head. And I don’t think I played it for anybody for, literally, years. So, to me that wasn’t a song. You could say something was there; it took years for me to have the courage to tap into it.
“It took getting sober. It took finding, eventually, an emptiness in going out and doing nothing but cover songs and wondering if I should do music at all. It took being clear about who I was and, if I was an artist, who that really was.”
For a while she didn’t do gigs because she became “disenchanted,” she said.
“The epiphany,” she said, “was, ‘You are good at doing music, but probably what you do best is play and sing by yourself. I mean, not everybody’s good at that, but you are and look at how that ties in with your best heroes and look at what they did. They played acoustic guitars and sang and wrote personal songs.’
“So the next time my collaborator John Leventhal gave me a piece of music to write words to — that had been going on for a while and we had tried writing pop music — he gave me a pre-produced piece of music with drums and bass and guitar. And I said, ‘The only way this is gonna work is if I take your piece of music and deconstruct it down to an acoustic guitar and make it mine.’ And I sang some words that were literally like automatic writing. I didn’t think about it. I just let some words come out of my mouth.”
Those words became her stunning song “Diamond in the Rough,” from Steady On.
“Once I had that under my belt, I guess you could say that was my launching pad,” she said. “I knew it was a good song.”
Did that prove to her that all she really needed to write was herself?
“It was a game changer,” she said, adding that “within that discovery that all I really needed was me in terms of being able to entertain people, I realized, ‘Why should I be reticent?’ The thinking was, to me, ‘It’s been said. It’s all been written.’ ”
She realized that her voice was unique. “Nobody can say anything about me. Only I can say it in my language, in my experience.
“You want to write about a breakup? That’s never been done before,” she said sarcastically. “Of course it has, but not with my words. Not about my breakups. It’s in me. And I just woke up to the fact that I had to write my way. I felt connected to it and I hit a stride.”
With this confidence, her fears no longer prevented her authentic voice from rising. “I found the words and that began to excite me,” she said.
Colvin said her success happened when it did, in part, because she got sober. “I got sober at age 27 and nothing could have happened if I kept drinking,” she said. “I’d still be playing in bars and playing covers.”
Regarding her writing process, she doesn’t need a particular setting or mood to compose her songs.
“Every which way,” she said. “I’ll take it any way I can get it. It has changed since I got older. I think there’s an urgency when you first start writing stuff — you think it’s good before it’s good and there’s an urgency to what’s going on in your life in your 20s and 30s. Romantically, career-wise — everything is a discovery.”
She said the drama of her own life compelled her to write in those early days, but then fiction entered the repertoire. “It wasn’t until ‘Sunny Came Home’ that I wrote something fictional,” she said. “I was stumped with the lyrics. I couldn’t come up with anything.”
This melancholy song, from Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs album, introduces us to a woman named Sunny who burns down her home, prompted by someone who has aggrieved her. The story — based on a painting by Colvin’s friend, Julie Speed, that served as the album’s cover art — is a dramatic metaphor for every abused woman who seeks revenge. The painting shows a woman with a lit match and a huge fire in the background. Colvin stared at it and came up with the story.
“It was fun because this woman went down and burned down a house,” she said, adding, “Yeah, I got to take my own feelings of vengeance and give some shitty guy his comeuppance, but it was way out of proportion to anything I would ever do.”
Sunny came home to her favorite room
Sunny sat down in the kitchen
She opened a book and a box of tools
Sunny came home with a mission
She says, ‘Days go by, I’m hypnotized
I’m walking on a wire
I close my eyes and fly out of my mind, into the fire.’
The song reached No. 7 on the Billboard magazine’s singles chart and won the Grammy for Record of Year, with Colvin and Leventhal winning in the Grammys’ Song of the Year category for their songwriting.
Looking back on her 30s and the success of her albums made in that decade, Colvin said, “I had the time of my life during my 30s. I was making it as a recording artist, I was writing, I was working with my heroes, I was just happy as a clam. I was in my element. I felt I was doing good work. I was proud of everything I did.”
Albums she has released since then include Al Fall Down (2012), produced by Colvin’s friend Buddy Miller and featuring musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Jakob Dylan and Alison Krauss. Its release coincided with her William Morrow/HarperCollins memoir, “Diamond in the Rough.” In 2016, she and Steve Earle released a compelling album, Colvin & Earle, combining their artistic strengths beautifully.
She remembers where she was when she wrote the title track from Steady On, a hopeful song about moving forward that was also, she says, in part about her songwriting.
“I was at the beach in North Carolina,” she said, “and I was looking out at the ocean and I thought of, ‘China gets broken and it will never be the same/Boats on the ocean (find their way back again).’ ”
The first line is such a powerful metaphor that I felt compelled to ask her if she healed from those moments in life when china got broken.
“Mostly, but not altogether,” she replied, adding “there are family issues that linger. That’s tough. That’s the deepest stuff. Your family of origin, in my opinion … mostly my mom. I don’t think there’s anybody that escapes it.”
She said she wrote “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now” (from her album 2001 album Whole New You) “right before my kid was born. The sentiment was, ‘Let’s just get that (apology) out of the way.’ ”
She wrote in that song, “For all the by-and-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.”
The title phrase of “Diamond in the Rough” describes the people I admire the most — unpolished and extraordinary. I asked her if she was the young diamond in the song.
“Yes, as I think a lot of kids are,” she said. “I think a lot of the essence of kids gets buried.”
The authority figures referenced in the song, she said, were “both my parents and teachers and a time in society where corporal punishment was the way to handle a kid and school was very cookie-cutter.”
There was — and, to some extent, still is — a culture of conformity and punishment in dealing with children and young adults. She said those instincts “bury the kid,” adding that one good book on the subject is the parenting bible, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self.”
Her lyrics hit me hard every time, like it’s the first time I listened. She sings in “Diamond in the Rough”:
As a little girl I came down to the water with a little stone in my hand
It would shimmer and sing and we knew everything as a little girl I came down
In a little while I got steeped in authority
Heaven only knows what went wrong
There is nothing so cruel than to bury that jewel
When it was mine all along and I’m gonna find it
Her 2012 memoir helped several artists that I have interviewed process a range of troubling issues. I’ve heard from fans, too, that her book has helped people heal.
I shared that with her and she responded, “That’s good because that’s the only reason I could find to write it — if I could help somebody. I never have minded being brutally honest. That’s not an issue. I’m sure there’s things I didn’t say, but I don’t have a problem being honest about mental health, addiction, even my own mistakes … in romances — and I thought, ‘I’m not an icon — this isn’t gonna be Jane Fonda — so what’s the purpose here?’ I did it on a dare. My manager said, ‘You’ve got a story to tell. You should write a memoir.’ I said, ‘That’s terrible idea.’ ”
She said her inspiration, in writing it, was the late Spalding Gray. “What Spalding Gray did is, he revealed everything. Some of it was not attractive. And he infused it with such and humanity and humor, you just loved him. You just rooted for him. I thought, ‘If I can embrace my own way of speaking and have some levity about it all, then I would do it.’ ”
I asked if she updated the book, what would she add?
“More about parenthood. She (her daughter) wasn’t very old when I wrote that book … a lot more about that,” she said, adding “a lot more about aging … the creative process with aging, raising an adolescent to teenager to supposed adult as a single parent and the trajectory of being a darling, and then a hit artist and then a respected artist … I have my place but it didn’t extend to forever stardom.”
Aging impacts star power, especially for women, she said. “There are exceptions — there’s Emmylou (Harris), Joni (Mitchell), Bonnie (Raitt).”
Colvin has collaborated with so many talented artists. Like-minded souls tend to find each other. Is there anyone she would like to collaborate with that she hasn’t already worked with?
“That’s a hard question,” she said. “I’m sure there’s so many people.”
After some time to think about it, she gave me her list: “I would like to write with certain people — Phoebe Bridgers, Jimmy Webb, Jane Siberry, Ethan Gruska.”
Thirty-three years after Steady On, Colvin’s painfully honest songs remain relevant. For those of us who believe that music has the power to heal, they are salve to the heart.
She has shepherded us through youthful heartbreak and is still there to help us contemplate the long-lost paradise of Sugar Mountain and our eligibility for AARP membership — with her songs, the strum of her guitar, and her unforgettable voice.
For more on Colvin, visit facebook.com/ShawnColvin.
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