I was on a New York City subway when I had a chance encounter with Shawn Colvin. Her debut record, Steady On (1989), was a staple on my playlist, and I was enamored with Colvin’s vocal prowess and appreciated her lyrical poignancy. I thanked her for making fantastic music; she was gracious and humble. Neither of us knew it when our paths crossed that day in 1990, but Colvin was at the beginning of what would become a long, lauded career. Steady On ended up winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album that year, and her next three records, Fat City (1992), Cover Girl (1994), and A Few Small Repairs (1996) were also critically acclaimed.
In honor of its 20th anniversary, Colvin has been touring the country playing A Few Small Repairs in its entirety. Sony remastered and reissued the record, adding bonus tracks that include live performances. It’s also available in vinyl for the first time. I recently chatted over the phone with Colvin, ahead of her tour stop at the Lobero on Sunday, October 8, about making A Few Small Repairs.
Why did you decide to tour for A Few Small Repairs’ 20th anniversary and not for your debut album, Steady On, which was also critically acclaimed? It didn’t occur to me. I’ve always had an idea that I’d like to do one of my records in concert from start to finish. And I just didn’t make it happen [for Steady On] …. And when I realized that this year was the 20th anniversary [of Repairs], I just thought, this is it; this is the time to go out and do a record from start to finish …. And then Sony decided to reissue it, so that’s been a real bonus.
Does playing those songs again trigger any memories, or is it just nostalgic? It’s just nostalgia. We had such a good time making that record that when I listen to it, I just marvel at how relaxed we were. And we felt a real sense of freedom about how we produced it and how we wrote it. I felt a real sense of freedom lyrically. I was relaxed in a new way. I had more confidence. So it’s really just fun to go back.
It’s interesting to hear that it was a relaxed, fun project because the lyrics are heady. I think to write songs, sometimes you’re in the moment of the emotion, but also sometimes you have distance and that can lend perspective. … I think as we get older, we move away from drama a little bit. And I’d begun to learn to write more story-oriented songs and to base my lyrics on not only the story or the emotion, but also what sounded good. Words that sounded good together, and things that came out sort of automatically. Like “You and the Mona Lisa,” that wasn’t a title that I ever thought of before we started messing around with it in the studio. I just started singing nonsense lyrics, and I sang, “Nothing in between you and the Mona Lisa” … and I’m like, “Well, that’ll do.” And then I had to figure out what it was about. But it seems like the lyrics always tell you, even if you come in the side door.
I can see what you’re saying about Repairs being more storytelling oriented, while Steady On is a little more fragmented or about moments or emotions. I think when you can write an evocative song that … If it’s too close to the bone, maybe people cannot insert their own stories, and I think it’s really great for people to be invited in to make of it what they will. “Sunny” is a good example because people wonder what the heck happened. What did she do and why? That song’s pretty mysterious. And it was a lot of fun to write it.
Someone could extrapolate from “Sunny”’s lyrics and see it as a feminist anthem. Did it ever get that kind of press? I don’t know if it became an anthem, but it’s funny you would bring that up because, maybe it was a year ago, I think the Huffington Post wanted to talk to me about that, about the sort-of feminist overtones in “Sunny Came Home.” And I get it. She stood up for something …. There was no intention for it to make a statement … but I guess it did to some people.
So when you revisited [Repairs], was there a song that you came back to that then became your favorite? Well, it’s really hard to pick a favorite, but there are ones that I perform more often than others, so I feel more familiar with them. But one that I don’t play much is “Suicide Alley,” just because I don’t think I played guitar on that song on the record. And I’ve never really understood how to play the guitar [on it] … And so, in listening to that one, I was really pleasantly surprised and impressed. Not that I thought it was inferior ever in any way; I just had forgotten about it. And I love that song.
One of my favorite ones is “Wichita Skyline” — the mood and flow of that song. It is really captivating to me. I really love that, too; thank you very much; and that’s another example of having a distance …. That really low baritone guitar solo is a total tip of the hat to “Wichita Lineman.” And also, I love the record Nashville Skyline by Dylan. So I just combined them, and I thought, “This’ll never fly. I’m gonna have to change it; it’s too derivative.” But it just sounded so good …. I drew from my Midwestern birthplace, because I was born in South Dakota. So I get that kind of wide-open-spaces thing. But I also just got out a map at one point and was like, “Well, let’s pick here, let’s pick there.”… It wasn’t so much, “Oh, what are my childhood memories, and what was the essence of what I felt?” I just knew that I wanted to get out of this small town. And that there were wide-open spaces to throw your dreams at, and that’s what I drew on.
Speaking of the music aspect of your songs, “Trouble” is so driving; it’s just kind of unrelenting in a soft but effective way. How did that song come about? We wanted to write a song that was like a Crowded House song called “Private Universe,” because I used to play that in concert. And [producer] John Leventhal said, “We need to write a song that’s akin to that, musically.” So we wrote that music …. “I go to the trouble” was a line I had written maybe months or years before. And I always like that idea. Not like, I go to the trouble to do this and to do that, but I go to the trouble in my life. So we borrowed that and went from there.
Speaking of covers, you have some wonderful cover albums with great reinterpretations of familiar songs. I was just listening to your version of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” which sounds like a whole new song the way you do it. What prompted you to do two cover albums? I didn’t really become a songwriter worth my salt, in my opinion, until I was in my mid- to late 20s. And I’d been being paid to play music. I started playing guitar at age 10, so I learned every James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel [song], plus all my father’s old folk records. I started making a living playing music, but I didn’t write. … You can’t become a clone. So I started to get more creative with covers …. [After recording Steady On and Fat City] I just thought, “You know, I want to pay tribute to the songs that got me here.” So I made Cover Girl. I’ve just always been a fan. I like to take songs and cover them and hopefully do something a little different with them instead of just copy the original, and “Baker Street” was a good choice. I love that song, and I have to love the song, or there’s no point. … I thought it might be good, kind of stripped down. I always say, leave it to me to take a perfectly good pop song and make it into a dirge. [Laughs]
It doesn’t sound like a pop song when you sing it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a dirge. But it is quite different from the original. Yeah, it’s kind of the sadness of it comes out, or the longing of it comes out.
But what’s nice about your version is that the lyrics take a backseat to the melody, which is so compelling. When you sing it, the familiar melody is still there, but then also, the lyrics take center stage? And that’s kind of what I try to do. That’s what comes up when I say I had to get creative [about covers] is hearing songs [whose] lyrics [I felt] were underplayed because of the production …. I did a cover of a Talking Heads song called “Naive Melody.” And it’s a real chipper little boppy song. And the lyrics are amazingly gorgeous and beautiful, so that’s another one that I just stripped way down and made it so the lyrics were really prominent.
Shawn Colvin plays Sunday, October 8, 7 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.org.