Shawn Colvin

Shawn Colvin
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The first song Shawn Colvin completed for These Four Walls, her Nonesuch debut, was the wistful “Summer Dress,” which opens with Colvin singing over the austere strum of a lone acoustic guitar, then builds into a lilting folk-rock arrangement. Colvin maintains a delicate balance between confidence and vulnerability as she describes a dream-like venture out to “face a wilderness.” Like much of this deeply felt album, “Summer Dress” is about looking ahead, moving on, performed from the vantage point of someone who’s had a chance to glance back somewhat ruefully at where she’s been. “Summer Dress” could be a veiled recounting of the picaresque route Colvin herself took to hard-earned solo stardom, from her South Dakota birthplace to the Southern Illinois college town where she was raised, to the bars and clubs of Boston and New York City, where she first attracted a following. Then again, it might be an artfully composed fiction about escaping a small town or running after love, a postcard from a youthful time when freedom seemed like a mere bus ticket or car ride away. Whatever its origins, the emotional and musical pull of “Summer Dress”—along with the rest of These Four Walls - is powerful. Somehow we’ve all been there, too. “I don’t go into writing a song thinking I’m going to speak for anyone other than myself,” Colvin once told the Los Angeles Times. “[But] I do try to impart some wisdom without that touchy-feely kind of thing. People have told me how much they can relate to what’s happening in these songs, so I think some experiences are shared ones.” These Four Walls is very much an album of shared experiences, common epiphanies. Colvin is one of those rare performers, like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, or her youthful idol Joni Mitchell, who has been able to grow up alongside her audience and mature into her role as singer and songwriter. Although she was rewarded with a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy for her 1989 debut disc, Steady On, Colvin didn’t reach a broad mainstream audience until eight years later, when her story of a housewife’s fiery revenge, “Sunny Came Home,” became an unlikely top ten pop single fifteen months after the album it was taken from, A Few Small Repairs, was released. “I’m lucky,” Colvin admits, “in that I built my career really slowly, started small, very intimately. I just toured a lot—the whole grassroots thing. I didn’t have a hit until I was well into my recording career.” Even then, she didn’t succumb to the star-making machinery that demands formulaic attempts at repeating an award-winning success. After garnering both Song of the Year and Record of the Year Grammys in 1998 for “Sunny Came Home,” Colvin put her recording life briefly on hold to start a family. What she temporarily lost in marketplace visibility, she gained in life lessons both bitter and sweet, gathering up insights and emotions that have found their way into her latest songs. These Four Walls, her first album of new, original material since 2001’s A Whole New You, is perhaps her most assured and compelling work to date. Although she still holds out the possibility for change, renewal, reinvention and, of course, romance on tracks like the upbeat opener “Fill Me Up” or the easy-going “Let It Slide,” she faces the realities of getting older on the gently heart-tugging title track and the late-night/last-dance melancholy of “That Don’t Worry Me Now.” Colvin regards this as a significant new aspect of her repertoire: “I feel like I’ve been writing the fighting-to-get-out songs since the beginning, but I don’t think I could have written a song like ‘These Four Walls’ ten years ago.” As a storyteller, Colvin remains both clear-eyed and warm-hearted, leavening even her toughest tales with a little tenderness and a lot of empathy. Similarly, her musical arrangements are both succinct and seductive, understated enough to allow Colvin’s lyrics to sink in. Colvin and her longtime studio cohort —producer, multi-instrumentalist, and co-writer John Leventhal—aren’t afraid of pop hooks, either, but the ones they’ve fashioned here never sound contrived. A sing-along chorus or plaintive refrain come up as naturally as a bend in the road; they’re just part of the journey. Colvin and Leventhal have an intense history as collaborators, reaching back to Colvin’s earliest days as a scuffling performer in New York City. As she explains, “It was a turning point in my life to meet this person and start writing with him. John and I met in 1981. We were really drawn to each other’s musical sensibilities. We hooked up romantically pretty quickly and that was always fairly volatile. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but it was just one of those relationships. We made our way to the first record [Steady On], then everything kind of blew up. I did the next record [Fat City] with Larry Klein, the one after that [Cover Girl] with Steuart Smith. I didn’t think we would work together again, and I guess he didn’t either, but with A Few Small Repairs there was enough water under the bridge to see what we could do. Ever since then, we’re just like old friends, old colleagues, it gets smoother and smoother. It’s a blessing—it’s 2006 and 25 years later and I still know this person and work with him. What we have still works in an artistic sense. It’s great. I’m thankful for it.” “The minute I heard Shawn sing,” Leventhal himself once told the Washington Post, “I felt this simpatico thing, apart from the obvious thing that she had an incredible voice. There’s a little bit of a mystery to it but whatever that mystery thing is, it spoke from the heart and I got that right away.” Colvin, now based in Austin, and Leventhal, still a New Yorker, co-wrote all but one of the eleven original songs on These Four Walls. Colvin alone penned “I’m Gone.” As she explains, “Some people sit in a room and bang out songs, but we’ve got a different system. The way it generally works, and this time was no different, Jon inundates me with musical tracks. Last March I just went into a studio that I love in Austin and I took all the tracks with me, took my notebooks in, all my little ideas, and just got going. For hours on end I would try not to think and just listen to the tracks and sing into a microphone anything that came of my mouth. That’s what seems to work best. “I’m sure it’s true of a lot of writers,” Colvin continues. “You get a little bit of inspiration, a little bit of a melody, a little snippet of words—sometimes they make sense, sometimes they don’t. The less I think about it, the better off I am. With ‘I’m Gone,’ I wrote that bluesy chord progression, I had a little melody and I thought I knew what I was going to say, but it just wasn’t working. Then one night I got out of my own way—and that’s when I was able to finish it.” Some driving, country-rock riffs Leventhal sent her inspired the first line of “Tuff Kid” and “it all fell into place, I was trying to be simple and direct. I was kind of thinking of Steve Earle when I was writing that, trying to tell a simple redneck story.” “The Bird,” full of jangly, late-60s-style guitar rock, evolved out of some notes Colvin had scribbled one morning: “I had dreamt about this person I’d known and it was really like time had rewound and I had another chance. When I woke up, I had this sweet nostalgic feeling and I just wrote down a bunch of stuff.” The result of her intuitive labor is the gutsiest vocal performances on These Four Walls and a candid, emotionally charged set of lyrics, well-placed F-word included. Colvin shuttled between New York City and Austin to complete the record. Along the way she and Leventhal recruited some friends to join in: singers Marc Cohn and Patty Griffin both lend their harmonies to “Cinnamon Road,” which recalls Neil Young’s classic “Heart of Gold” in Leventhal’s deft arranging of this vocal trio. Teddy Thompson, a young singer-songwriter with a preternaturally mature voice, was recruited at the last minute to duet with Colvin on the chorus to “Let It Slide.” It was the final tune to be finished, one that turned out to be perhaps the most ingratiating and good-naturedly sexy on an album filled with more cautionary, romantically ambivalent tales. While still finding her voice back in Carbondale, Illinois, Colvin performed straight-up rock. Later, during an earlier stint living in Austin, she did western swing. Moving east, she backed up acts like Buddy Miller and Suzanne Vega and sang in off-Broadway shows, including Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, which featured an on-stage bluegrass band. (Her theater background helped when she took on small acting roles in such television shows as The Larry Sanders Show and Suddenly Susan—and even voiced a character on The Simpsons.) Colvin gained a reputation as a solo artist with an instinctive ear for great cover tunes, a skill she showcased on her 1994 Grammy-nominated Cover Girl, which featured an inspired take on David Byrne’s “Naïve Melody (This Must Be The Place),” and on the 1997 Holiday Songs and Lullabies, which New York Times critic Peter Watrous praised as “the soundtrack to go with” for the Christmas season. On These Four Walls, she does an affecting version of kindred spirit Paul Westerberg’s “Even Here We Are,” a lo-fi gem hidden on his first solo outing, 14 Songs, about the beauty to be found in the darkest, loneliest places. She concludes the album with an intimate, one-take rendition of the Bee-Gee’s “Words.” This classic pop ballad might as well have been composed especially for Colvin since it serves as an eloquent description of the lyrical gifts she displays on These Four Walls: “It’s only words/But words are all I have/ To take your heart away....” “I’m very proud of this record,” Colvin decides. “You put your head down and do the work and, when all is said and done, you see what you’ve come up with. I remember when I finally had a CD with twelve of these tracks, when I could just listen to them all together, and I realized, this is better than I thought it could be. I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s great to feel like I’m doing my best work now.” -- Michael Hill Shawn Colvin was born in Vermillion, SD, on January 10, 1956. By age ten, she found a passion for music, teaching herself guitar. After moving to London, Ontario and then Carbondale, Illinois, Colvin formed the Shawn Colvin Band, a hard rock outfit, whose high-energy demands soon strained her voice. She moved to Austin, Texas and joined the Western swing band the Dixie Diesels, singing with the band until nodes forced a temporary retirement at age 24. In 1983, she moved to New York, where she found a home in the city's singer/songwriter scene, and built a following in New York and Boston through constant gigs. Through the '80s she worked her way up the folk circuit, also appearing in off-Broadway shows such as Pump Boys and Dinettes, Diamond Studs and Lie of the Mind. Her work appeared in Fast Folk magazine, and she got her first break in 1987 singing backup on Suzanne Vega's hit "Luka." By 1988, she found a songwriting partner in John Leventhal, Colvin providing the lyrics to his melodies. A live tape sold at gigs (Live '88) attracted the attention of Columbia Records, who signed her the same year in the wake of success from like-minded performers Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and the Indigo Girls. Steady On, released in 1989, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. Colvin's 1992 follow-up, the more pop-oriented Fat City, earned her two more nominations -- Best Contemporary Folk Recording and Best Female Pop Vocal for the single "I Don't Know Why" -- as well as considerable critical praise and a growing crossover audience. "I Don't Know Why" became a big adult contemporary hit. Cover Girl, an album of cover songs, met with mixed reviews and modest sales in 1994, but she again earned a nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. In late 1996, Colvin released A Few Small Repairs. In addition to her normal recording activities, Colvin has dueted with Tony Bennett for the film It Could Happen to You and made a cameo appearance in the film Grace of My Heart, singing one song for the soundtrack. A Few Small Repairs slowly became a hit over the course of 1997, thanks to strong word of mouth and the single "Sunny Came Home." In 1998, "Sunny Came Home" won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Holiday Songs and Lullabies followed that autumn. During the new millennium, Colvin contributed vocals to songs by Béla Fleck, Edwin McCain, James Taylor, and Shawn Mullins. She also collaborated with Sting on "One Day She'll Love Me," the theme song for Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. She returned to solo form for 2001's Whole New You, and in 2004 summarized the first fifteen years of her recording career with the compilation Polaroids: A Greatest Hits Collection. A companion home video was also issued.
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11/11/2008 - Shawn Colvin: Wild Child, Now 52, Finds Fun In Her Music - Read More
08/06/2007 - Colvin scales walls in life, music - Read More
05/06/2007 - Shawn Colvin's return to town worth the wait - Read More
01/18/2007 - Multi-faceted Colvin continues to shine - Read More
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Average Rating : 5              Total Reviews: 1

Shawn Colvin  08/20/2003            
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