For Shawn Colvin, re-recording Steady On, her debut album, for a 30th anniversary acoustic edition, has meant more than polishing up the songs in her deft fingerpicking style. “Since it’s come out, and I’ve done the record solo acoustic a few times top to bottom, and people have come out with their memories, I’m really thrown back to that time,” she says. “And I’m quite nostalgic, because talk about pivotal, (it’s when) I learned how to be a songwriter.”
Listen To The String With Shawn Colvin Here
Mid-summer, two months before the Sept. 13 release of the re-imagined album, Colvin put out a video for the new take on “Ricochet In Time” that features period VHS-vibe footage of her 1989 radio tour as Steady On as rolled out to the public. As she sings “You just pick a day and I’m in a new destination,” we see the office park arrivals, the highway signs, the guitar tuning, the on-mic chats, the board room performances and the record store sets for indifferent shoppers. It was a blur of promotion in motion.
“It’s a song about travel, and that’s all that year was,” Colvin says in the new episode of The String. “That was the job. I remember saying to my manager at the time ‘You know by the time the show comes around, I’m pretty well toast. I’m worried.’ He goes ‘The show’s the least important part of the day.’ And I’m like, ‘What did I sign up for here? That’s what I do!’ But in retrospect I see his point.”
So even for an artist who published a thorough, confessional memoir in 2013, Colvin has found potency in re-visiting the late 80s and the confluence of events and people that changed her life – from a bar singer injuring her vocal chords with smoke and volume to her current incarnation as one of the most respected songwriters in America.
Her father’s folk record collection got her engaged in music, and she started her first bands in college in southern Illinois. She tried the scenes in Austin, TX (where she met Buddy Miller) and Berkeley, CA before accepting an invitation from Miller to move to New York, to sing in his band. Critically, she says, that’s where she quit drinking and began the work that would shift her focus from bars to listening rooms.
“I didn’t want to make a record until I was a songwriter, and I struggled with that for years. Who am I? What kind of songs do I want to write?” she said. “And John Leventhal and I in the mid 80s had been writing pop songs. And he has a wonderful production sensibility, so he would give me tracks and I would try to write clever pop lyrics to them. But I knew it wasn’t really me, and I don’t think I was that good at it.”
There came a “defining moment” she says when she recognized she was an acoustic artist, a storyteller. And just as she became determined to tell her own truth and show that vulnerability essential to the folk singer’s job description, Leventhal gave her a new track. Instead of writing over the top of it, she got inside it. “I thought if I don’t deconstruct this down to just me and the guitar, I’m wasting my shot here. And I did. And the lyrics started to come out very differently than before. And that was ‘Diamond In The Rough.’ I knew I had found the right voice and the right approach.”
She sacrificed income to play sets at the folk rooms in the northeast. She got herself on a tour with Suzanne Vega, who along with Tracy Chapman was the rare female singer songwriter of the 1980s getting played on radio and selling records. Vega’s manager became a fan and pitched Colvin’s demo to Columbia Records, launching a string of five albums for the venerable label, among them A Few Small Repairs of 1996, which netted Colvin her radio hit “Sunny Came Home” and her second and third Grammy Awards.
In the conversation published above, Colvin talks about being a top artist at Lilith Fair, working with Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale in New York and re-visiting the Steady On album three decades later.
Colvin plays a duo show with Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Ryman Auditorium on Nov. 13.