Shawn Colvin has created one memorable song after another over three decades, had a mega-hit album, and won a pair of Grammy Awards. But writing hasn’t gotten any easier.
“It’s still hard,” she says by phone on a rare off day. “It always will be for me. I’ve had moments of easy, but that’s not normally the case.”
The difference these days is she’s developed ways to get beyond that initial reluctance. ‘I trust myself more,” she adds. “I have go-to techniques and tricks that help me find what I think is the heart of the song. It’s not quite as mystifying though for me it’s still mystifying, believe me.”
The release of her latest, 2012’s “All Fall Down,” coincided with the publication of her frank memoir, “Diamond in the Rough.”
Colvin, who appears in a rare up-close performance at The Naro Expanded Cinema on April 10 headlining the Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival to benefit Tidewater Arts Outreach, says the only thing writing a book taught her was that she could write a book. But the process did influence the songs on “All Fall Down,” cut with longtime buddy Buddy Miller as producer.
“The way the book informed the record was simply that it made me somewhat nostalgic,” she says. “I picked some older songs because I was reminded of them.”
She reached back to “On My Own,” a country-inflected B.W. Stevenson song she first covered living in Austin in the 1970s. She plucked a 1980s song written with Kenny White, “Fall of Rome. “ She reached into the archives of songs with her longtime collaborator, John Leventhal, for “Knowing What I Know Now.” Leventhal also collaborated on the title track. Colvin called in Jakob Dylan to co-write “Seven Times the Charm.” Patty Griffin lent a hand with “Change Is On the Way.” She asked the guys in the band Miller assembled if they had any music which needed lyrics, resulting in collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Viktor Krauss.
The album brought her full circle in a way, back to her early days in Texas, where she met Miller, and then the 1980s in the East Village, playing with Miller and Leventhal, who has been a constant in Colvin’s creative life.
She was born in South Dakota, but spent her youth in London, Ontario, and then Carbondale, Illinois. She met Miller in Austin where she played in a swing band called the Dixie Diesels. In 1980, he asked her to join his band in New York. Miller left that band and the guy who filled in on guitar was John Leventhal.
Over the next decade, Colvin became a part of the folk revival in Greenwich Village that included Suzanne Vega, Lucinda Williams, John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky and Greg Trooper.
In those days, Colvin performed covers. She’d written as a teen, but then stopped.
Finally, after years of playing with Leventhal, he gave her a track of music and, instead of just adding words, Colvin transposed it to the guitar suitable for solo performance, decided to dig deep into her personal experiences and wrote “Diamond in the Rough,” one of the stellar cuts off her fine debut disc.
“That was the perfect storm of realization. I had something to say,” she explains. “I felt I understood what it was I wanted to say. Before, I was trying to write decent pop songs and then I realized that I really needed to go more personally, that’s what I really raised myself on.”
Asked if there was ever a time she thought she would not be able to write, Colvin laughs and says, “Oh, most of the time”
But she considers all those years singing covers to be the necessary apprenticeship to becoming a songwriter. “It took everything up to that, to get me there,” she says. “I was a longtime student. I think I learned from great songwriters by playing and playing and playing other people’s songs.”
She learned well enough to have a long ride at Columbia Records releasing “Steady On,” “Fat City,” “Cover Girl,” “A Few Small Repairs,” and “A Whole New You.”
“A Few Small Repairs” with the breakout, “Sunny Came Home” made her a star and went platinum. The album won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
She moved to Nonesuch Records for her last two albums, leaving behind the major label. “I’n just glad I can continue to make records,” she says.
For “All Fall Down” she called Miller. They’d stayed in touch over the years as Miller moved to California and then to Nashville, where he has settled in as the band leader and producer of all things Americana. She played with him in Three Girls and Their Buddy, a touring collaboration with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Colvin and Miller. So why did it take so long to get into the studio on the main floor of his Nashville house? “It kind of mystifies me why it hadn’t happened before,” Colvin says. Buddy is one of the tremendous players and producers out there and I love him so I said, let’s go.”
The album features some muscular guitar work, notably on the irresistible title track. Much of it was cut live and unrehearsed. That worked because she felt confident about the songs they were recording. Indeed, the album ranks with her strongest work. “With my songs, the question is always, ‘Can you pull it off live, alone on just an acoustic guitar?”
That’s the litmus test,” Colvin says. “If I can, then it’s a song I ought to record. If I can’t, it’s probably not good enough.”
For the Naro show, she will be playing solo acoustic, something she has been doing lately. She was on tour with Mary Chapin Carpenter last fall and will be on tour with Steve Earle this spring.
“It’s an immensely popular way to tour,” she says. “People love it and I can see why. It’s an intimate setting, very genuine. We’re talking to one another. It just works. I love it. I love being a backup musician and having someone to talk to and play off.”
April 10 at The Naro Expanded Cinema
For tickets, go to http://www.tidewaterartsoutreach.org/sea-level-singer-songwriter-festival/