From the driving beat of her new All Fall Down title track to the understated offering of the final “On My Own,” Grammy award-winning artist Shawn Colvin has uncovered, polished and delivered another wellspring of personal and poetic gems for her fans.
For her eighth studio album, Shawn enlisted her good friend and musical ally Buddy Miller to produce the 11 tracks, and his good vibes and magic dust are sprinkled all over the Nashville sessions. With friends like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Jakob Dylan dropping by to lend their voices, and ace musicians Viktor Krauss, Brian Blade, John Deaderick, Stuart Duncan and Bill Frisell tossing in their considerable talent, the entire all-star disc has the friendly, intimate and welcoming feel of a neighborhood porch. Which makes perfect sense, since that’s exactly where the magic happened—right there at Buddy’s house.
For eight of the tracks, Colvin co-wrote with Jakob Dylan (“Seven Times the Charm”), Patty Griffin (“Change Is On the Way”), Kenny White (“Fall of Rome”), Bill Frisell (“Anne of the Thousand Days”), and Viktor Krauss (“I Don’t Know You”), as well as with long-time collaborator John Leventhal (“All Fall Down,” “Knowing What I Know Now,” and “The Neon Light of the Saints” for HBO series Treme). But every song’s foundation is built on Colvin’s trademark rhythm and poetry, and topped off with that fearless honesty that has resonated with her fans for over 20 years.
Known as well for her interpretation of others’ songs, Colvin tips her hat to Rod McDonald with the stunning “American Jerusalem,” backed by the angelic voice of Emmylou Harris who also sings on “Up On That Hill” by Irish newcomer Mick Flannery. The late B.W. Stevenson’s “On My Own” is the perfect closer, topped off by subtle acoustic sounds and sent flying with the ethereal voice of the great Julie Miller. “I’ve known that one for years,” says Colvin, “and with the Three Girls and Their Buddy tour [with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller] I started to do it live. The timing was such that it coincided with a recent breakup, so I loved playing it because it was so cathartic. When we were coming up with songs for the album, Buddy suggested I try that one. Then we got his wife, Julie, to put the harmony on it. Her voice is … I don’t even know how to describe it except as otherworldly.”
To be released in tandem with All Fall Down on June 5 is Diamond In the Rough, a memoir penned by Colvin, detailing her life’s highs and lows as well as behind-the-scenes stories of her creative process. In her typical “never-say-no” fashion, she took on the project more or less as a dare. “I can’t believe I did it,” she laughs. “I really didn’t know what I was doing; I didn’t want to write a book. But somebody talked me into writing two chapters. Then I was approached about writing a book by a publisher, so I thought ‘Well, I guess I will then.’”
After a whirlwind trip to Washington D.C. for a performance on Prairie Home Companion, Shawn made it back to her Austin home to enjoy what was left of the Memorial Day weekend with her family and 13-year-old daughter. On Sunday evening, a little over a week before the release date, she kindly settled in and took some time to chat about the making of All Fall Down and tackling the monumental task of writing of a memoir.
Congrats on the birthing of these two projects! Quite an accomplishment …
Thank you so much. It feels really good.
Tell me how you and Buddy Miller decided to work on this project together.
Well, Buddy and I have been friends for 30 years and I reconnected with him when “Three Girls and Their Buddy” starting playing shows. I knew he’d started producing people—he’d produced some of my friends—and I admire him so much and feel so comfortable with him that I asked him if he’d be interested in producing my new album. He said he was, so we decided to give it a go.
How was the Nashville vibe?
It was great. I mean, Buddy’s so well loved and we recorded in his home studio. So that was the vibe (laughs), being at Buddy’s house. But it’s an embarrassment of riches in Nashville—he’d call in this one and that one and Alison and Emmylou and Stuart Duncan and then Viktor Krauss showed up … and I could go on.
There’s something about this album that feels, I don’t know … easy, or more fun—for lack of a better word—than some of your previous. Do you know what I’m talking about?
I think it’s less fussy. I mean, it’s kind of a live vibe—we cut the tracks live pretty much. And a lot of my vocals are live. So I just think it’s looser, and maybe that reads as more fun. And yes, some of my records are very careful. And there can be merit in that. But this approach was more “Let’s just go for it and not be precious.”
This is the first time you’ve really done a lot of co-writing—in the past John Leventhal was pretty much your lone partner in that arena. Is this something you’re doing more of?
Yeah, I did more co-writes this time, but I didn’t do them in a dissimilar way than I usually do with John. I’m not so good at being in the same room with somebody and knocking out a song. It’s just not what I’m able to do. So in all of these situations we would put two ideas together—Bill Frisell gave me some music, Viktor gave me some music, Patty gave me a title and a little music, I gave Jakob a title and some music—and then everyone went to their separate corners.
So it wasn’t the Nashville way of writing where you sit in a room together.
God, no. I can’t do it. I’ve tried and I just clam up.
Tell me about “Seven Times the Charm” that you wrote with John Leventhal and Jakob Dylan. It has such a great rhythm of words, which is very much a trademark of yours.
That was some music by John, and I came up with the “Seven Times the Charm” line—it just kept coming to me when I was messing around with the song. I kind of had the chorus to an extent—I had “once down the aisle,” but I didn’t know what it meant … (laughs) well, I mean, I guess I know, but I wasn’t consciously basing it on personal experience.
I was kind of stuck, and I’d met Jakob a couple of times and he was a real sweetheart. I had asked him if he might want to write sometime, and he said, “Yes!” So I called him on it. I got hold of him and said, “Are you up for it?” And he said, “Yes I am.” So I sent him two pieces of music and that’s the one he chose. He wrote it and then I edited it down and kind of did the chorus.
The song you co-wrote with Bill Frisell, “Anne of the Thousand Days,” is such a great interplay between beautiful and understated music and really stream-of-consciousness, conversational lyrics that are pretty painfully honest.
Mary Chapin Carpenter said, “It’s like you can’t look away” when she heard it, because the dialog was kind of painful to listen to (laughs).
Bill Frisell gave me the music—it’s off of a record of his [“Good Dog, Happy Man” from the album of the same title]. He gave me three or four pieces of music that he’d already written and that’s the one I liked. And I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I’d play it in the car and felt I had to come up with something really moving since it was so beautiful. And then I was kind of sequestered trying to write this record last summer, and I just started writing about this relationship I’d been in and I was just talking. And then I happened upon that little Henry the VIII line [Off with her head/Off with her head/She had to go] which just delights me (laughs), I was thinking of the movie Anne of the Thousand Days with Geneviève Bujold and Richard Burton, and how poor Anne Boleyn got her head chopped off. I loved that movie, so I just kind of went with it.
Your cover choices, as always, are terrific. Was Rod McDonald’s “American Jerusalem” one you used to perform in the early days of your career?
Yeah … forever ago. In the early 80s before I started writing I’d perform it in Greenwich Village at the Cottonwood Café. I think that song’s more reminiscent of the New York that I—for want of a better phrase—grew up in, in my 20s. It was a little bleaker. So that’s kind of a little snapshot of New York when I first got there and didn’t know anybody and I was getting used to living in this … jungle. I’m so glad I finally recorded it.
How did you tackle the writing of your memoir? Is that writing process anything like the songwriting process?
It was completely different. Songwriting … well, first of all, you have parameters. And they hold you in. That’s how it feels to me. Maybe you’ve got a title, maybe you’ve got a couple of lines, you’re going to have verses and the choruses, and you’re going to rhyme most likely. You’re going to have a rhythm and a melody that’ll help dictate which words you choose. And you’re probably going to go to that weird place where you’re not sure what you’re gonna say, and then something comes up. So songwriting’s kind of intuitive and a little poetic and this thing you make up is three or four minutes long.
With a book there are just no boundaries, you know? Except the story itself, which is me so I can’t be objective about. So I had to go back to my school days and make outlines, and I made tapes of myself talking to my friends and then had the tapes transcribed … it was just a massive jigsaw puzzle.
Did you enjoy the process of writing it?
Sometimes. You know, I’m sure there are people who really love writing. And there are certainly people who are more diligent about it than I am. But by and large I’d say writing is just a difficult process. It makes you kind of nuts. And again, I was writing about myself, and it wasn’t in some oblique or metaphorical form like a song. It’s literal and chronological and prose. So yeah … I liked it sometimes. (Laughs)
After all these years and experiences, is making music and writing songs something you still enjoy as much as you did?
I enjoy music and being in music as much or more than I ever have. I’m more conscious now of the good fortune I’ve had, and that I can still have an audience. I really appreciate, now, the fact that people are paying to have me entertain them. As far as songwriting goes, it’s still hard. It’s always been hard. But I guess I don’t agonize as much as I used to. And the same thing is true with making records. If you write it and it feels right, and then you sing it for people and it still feels right, then it is right.
—By Lydia Hutchinson
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