Shawn Colvin

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You may remember Shawn Colvin as the folksy singer-songwriter who had a few hits through the ’90s, like “Sonny Came Home” and “I Don’t Know Why.” On her latest album, All Fall DownColvin shows she’s still got it. The lyricist told American Songwriter about creating the record with musicians like Jakob Dylan and Alison Krauss, releasing her memoir, and that weird Wu-Tang interruption at the 1998 Grammys.

Tell us a little bit about your new record.

My new record is called All Fall Down, and I made it in Nashville with my old friend Buddy Miller. I co-wrote it with some interesting people: Jakob Dylan, Patty Griffin, Victor Krauss, and Bill Frisell. And I had some really great Nashville folks on it: Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan, John Deaderick; and then my band when the record was ready: Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, and Viktor Krauss on bass. It was a different cast of characters and in a different location.

Was the plan all along to co-write and have guests on it?

I didn’t have much of a plan, to tell you the truth. Songs had to be written, so I just thought well why not spread the net wide? It takes a little courage to get a hold of people like Patty or Jakob and be like, “Do you want to write with me?” And then I just knew I wanted Buddy so I left the rest up to him. Who the band would be and even who the guests would be. I would think of people and then I wouldn’t always be 100% so I left it up to him. It was very cool. I just trusted him and he’d say, “Well I think Alison Krauss would be great on this,” and I’m crazy about her. He just called these people up and they lived down the street and they’d come over and sing a song.

Was the co-writing in person?

A little bit. Patty and I sat down and started our song in person, but I took what we did and would turn it around a little more. Jacob and I communicated over email. Although, coincidently, Jacob happened to be in Nashville at the same time I was. He was cutting a record and we got him to come over to Buddy’s to sing a harmony. It was to a different song but he’s on the record, so that was cool. Viktor, the bass player in the band, and Bill Frisell gave me some music. I wrote the melody and lyrics from the satellite location. So, not too much in person.

You’ve known Buddy Miller for a long time. What was he like to work with as a producer on this record?

He was just like I expected him to be: there is nobody nicer. He has this elegant trick to be able to communicate exactly what he wants and steer someone away from what he doesn’t want in this mellow and sweet way. You would never know if he ever felt irritation, frustration, exhaustion you would never know in a million years. He’s just steady and solid and kind.

Is there a song on the album that you are particularly proud of?

I’m proud of the title song called “All Fall Down.” It’s a little bit of a departure. John and I will write kind of a rocking sound every once and a while but not too often. That one was a lot of fun. And the song I wrote with Patty, I really like how that one turned out as a song. It’s not all that different from something I would’ve written but I wouldn’t print it if I wrote it all.

Is there a particular lyric that you are proud of on this record?

OK, how about this one: “I’m sorry I broke into your email but I had to know.” It’s from “Anne Of A Thousand Days.”

You also wrote your memoir Diamond in the Rough recently. What was that process like? 

All in all it took three or maybe four years, off and on. I didn’t exactly keep track of the time. I would go sequester myself somewhere or another and get a bunch of writing done and then have a break and go back to my regular job and then take another period of time to go at.

Were there times when you had to buckle down and spend days on it?

Absolutely. It was difficult, and fun, and a point of pride. I don’t know how good of a book it is, but I enjoy it. People say, “What did you learn about yourself from writing a book?” Well everything I’ve written in the book I already knew, but I learned I could write a book.

Did you address the Wu-Tang Clan interruption at the Grammys from ’98?

Oh yeah, how can you leave that story out?

Do you still have beef with the Wu-Tang Clan?

No, Ol’ Dirty Bastard apologized to me the next day; I think he sent me flowers. He’s dead now so… you got to let it go.

Who came up with the iconic mandolin riff that starts out “Sonny Came Home?”

John Leventhal. He was the producer for that record, and the co-writer for that song. Well we’re longtime writing partners and our co-writing almost always works the same way, which is he has some music already written and I create melody and lyrics to it. Every now and then I’ll get a set of lyrics without music or I’ll write a bridge or something in a piece of music he’s already got but generally he gives me music, I finish it out. That’s what happened with “Sonny Came Home,” he had a whole piece of music and no words and no melody and I came up with that.

What’s a song of yours that has really touched people?

Ah, it seems like a song I wrote called “I Don’t Know Why” really touched people. Its one of those songs that people play at their weddings sometimes or you know have playing when they’re having their babies, and sing to their children.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

Willis Alan Ramsey. Willis was a Texas boy. He only made one record, in the early ’70s, and everyone was listening to it when I moved to Austin, Texas in ’75. It was and remains one of my all-time favorite records. Its folk/blues/country and I covered one of his songs on my cover record and its called “Satin Sheet.” And, this will make people laugh, Captain and Tennille actually had a hit with a song he wrote called “Muskrat Love.” His version of that song really is not syrupy. I just love every song on that record. It’s amazing.

Your 2011 cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is really great. What led you to cover that song?

Well most the songs I end up covering happen because I’m hearing something in a lyric that isn’t necessarily as easy to hear in the produced version of the song that might be in the version that I would do with just guitar and I notice it and think “what would that be like?” When I heard “Crazy,” the first verse caught my ear immediately. I’m going what are you talking about? He’s really talking about feeling crazy, ’cause I’ve felt crazy in my own life, believe me. When he said, “It wasn’t because I didn’t know enough, I just knew too much.” I totally got that. Then I looked further into the song and it was just killer. So I just thought it worked really well as a solo piece.

How has Joni Mitchell influenced you? 

Probably the major influence of my life, besides maybe the Beatles, Who I listened to starting at eight years old and fell in love with. Joni and Laura Nyro, but especially Joni, was a major turning point for me. Her being a woman had a lot to do with it but I knew this was someone as outstanding as anybody out there and better. I don’t know what to say I just knew it. I got it. I’ve remained devoted and in awe of her ever since. I learned everything I could of Joni Mitchell’s. I copied her so completely that at some point I had to stop. I would play bars all the time and 30% of what I played was Joni Mitchell. She put out a songbook for her For The Roses record. When that record came out it was the first time she actually listed her tunings, so she gave each string and what the tuning was for the song and it was like the Holy Grail. I mean you could finally play a song like “Electricity” and it sounded like her and then, that was it. I mean there were whole worlds opened, but I’ll never be able to write as many songs or tunings as she did. At least I got a foot in the door.

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