As she slid inconspicuously onto the stage at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last September, Shawn Colvin seemed determined not to draw too much attention to herself. This was, after all, a baby step in the scheme of things, a modest clearing of the throat after two years of relative silence from the should-be new-folk diva. This token "remember me?" gesture was coming on the eve of the release of A Few Small Repairs, Colvin's first collection of original material since 1992 and, by most standards, her finest disc to date. A few months later, she would be on the road with a full band and, with any luck, filling small halls across the country.
But first, Colvin had to get through this night.
Dressed in a black sleeveless-blouse-and-pants combo, her striking features enhanced with only a dusting of makeup, the singer looked far different from the glamour girl seen in her publicity stills. Her dense, light-brown hair was longer than normal, softening the impact of her high, pronounced cheekbones. Swallowed by the elaborate clutter of hardware owned by the evening's headliner, Jackson Browne, Colvin greeted the audience with a terse hello, donned her acoustic guitar and sped through a brief set of mostly new material, highlighted by a delicately compelling version of Repairs's life-out-of-a-suitcase song, "Wichita Skyline." Her stance behind the mike was unusually stiff for a woman who's been performing solo since she was 17. And while the rest of her body relaxed somewhat as her set wore on, the pinched expression on her face eased only slightly.
By all indications, this was an off night for Colvin. Still, two reliable constants remained: Colvin's airborne ache of a voice, emotionally bruised and technically flawless, and her music, a rich, tight weave of sophisticated pop hooks and roots-reverent populism cloaked in sobering self-evaluation. So far, those most fundamental of singer/songwriter ingredients have served Colvin well, even when she's in no mood to entertain with gusto. They won her a Grammy in 1990, not to mention a bounty of employment opportunities since. When she hasn't been busy with her own career, Colvin has lent vocals to projects by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzanne Vega and Lyle Lovett (who returned the favor on Repairs's "The Facts About Jimmy"). She's contributed songs to assorted benefit compilations and movie soundtracks, even composing the score to an HBO film, Edie and Pen. Quite simply, Colvin is respected, well-liked and in demand.
What she isn't, at least not yet, is a commercial force. Not one of Colvin's releases has gone gold -- not her remarkably self-assured 1989 debut, Steady On (a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Folk Recording), not the brashly commercial Fat City, not even 1994's ill-advised interpretive misstep, Cover Girl.
True, A Few Small Repairs looks to be headed in that direction. Its sales are fast nearing Fat City's 372,000 mark, thanks in large part to the disc's delicious new single, "Sunny Came Home," which tells the story of a troubled spouse who sets her house ablaze, candy-coating its bitterness with the most heavenly melody Colvin has ever blown through her angelic pipes. Still, Repairs, which many saw as Colvin's breakthrough, debuted at a disappointing number 39 on the Billboard charts last October, and has since sunk to 113.
The fate of A Few Small Repairs is the primary topic of discussion backstage at Cynthia Woods Mitchell following Colvin's performance. Jackson Browne's own life-out-of-a-suitcase tune, "Running on Empty," leaks through the walls of her sparsely furnished dressing room as Colvin curls up at one end of a couch, cigarettes and a cold beer close at hand. The last few years have been a particularly tough period for Colvin, a fighting-fit 40-year-old known for her remarkable resilience. There have been professional setbacks, a marriage, a divorce, a reunion with an old soul mate and, ultimately, a rejuvenation of sorts.
At the moment, though, Colvin looks less than rejuvenated. Frankly, she looks depleted. The South Dakota native has never slept well on the road (or anywhere else, for that matter), and the circles under her saucerish hazel eyes speak to a possible bout of insomnia. But she skirts the inquiry about sleep disorders and promptly gets down to business.
"Is that thing on?" Colvin asks, waving a callused pair of fingers at a tape recorder lying on an end table. With those words, any question about who's in charge is answered: Colvin is out to make the next 25 minutes as painless as possible. Almost immediately, talk turns to the dreary emotional themes that saddle Repairs's most compelling songs and how the gloom is largely remedied by some of the most luminous pop hooks Colvin has ever recorded.
"We [Colvin and producer/songwriting partner John Leventhal] didn't set out with a mood in mind or anything. We just kept working on the songs that interested us the most, and I guess they turned out to be the moodier ones," Colvin says. "Then, of course, we tried to balance it out a little. I think I'm like everybody else in that I feel there's just too much music out there to listen to. It's kind of overwhelming, and I think it's important to grab people at the beginning of a record."
The tunes that make up the first two-thirds of A Few Small Repairs are indeed gripping, from the unbridled candor of "Get Out of This House," the CD's lone out-and-out rocker, to the quirky yet pristine harmonic-and-horn-driven elegance of "You and the Mona Lisa," to the wistful surge of wanting that propels "Wichita Skyline" into the realm of the classic. It's likely a few events contributed to Colvin's re-establishing herself as a singer/songwriter of formidable depth and skill -- if, that is, her status as such was ever in doubt. For one, she's matured more in the last few years than many artists do in a decade. Marriage and divorce have a way of forcing the most reluctant adults to grow up fast, and Colvin experienced both in a relatively short time span. She met her now ex-husband, Simon Tassano, while on the road with Richard Thompson; he was Thompson's tour manager. They wed in 1993 and divorced after a tumultuous brief period together. It's a part of her life Colvin prefers not to get into.
Given that, it would be tempting to see the more cathartic material on Repairs as a product of its creator's post-breakup soul searching, what with seemingly dead giveaways such as "Get Out of This House," "I Want It Back" and "Suicide Alley." Careful, though, what you read into her latest batch of lyrics. Colvin contends that Repairs is her least autobiographical effort to date, representing the first time she's felt comfortable crawling into the skin of truly fictional characters. Still, Colvin can't flat-out deny the personal baggage that accompanies a line such as, "It's a house of your making, it's a house of ill will / Get out of this house."
"Yeah, that one is pretty obvious," she admits. "But you just can't fully subscribe to the fact that you need a bunch of turmoil in your life to write -- it's just not so."
Perhaps not. But if it is true that turmoil helps spawn art, then Colvin has had no shortage of inspiration. She's no stranger to hard knocks, and she's drawn from her history of gut-testing experiences perhaps more than she'd care to admit. Colvin left home -- which was, at the time, Carbondale, Illinois -- in her late teens and never looked back, taking up with a tradition-minded outfit called the Dixie Diesels. When not touring Texas and the Southern states, the band was based in Austin, a place Colvin warmed to and a place where, following two decades of moving around, she resettled in. As of now, she's still there.
In the early '80s, though, Colvin had divorced herself from Texas and found her way to New York City. Living in a rat-infested apartment a few doors down from the headquarters of a chapter of the Hell's Angels, the singer struggled to find her place in Greenwich Village's folk scene. She found work a few nights a week belting out acoustic renditions of Roly Salley's "Killing the Blues," Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and other songs at venues such as the Cottonwood Cafe and the Other End, a sister club to the legendary Bitter End. She also sang in various bands around town, staving off welfare with day jobs and the pittance she made performing.
By 1988, Colvin's life had begun to stabilize as her creative and romantic relationship with songwriter/multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal intensified. She inked a deal with Columbia, and the couple worked on her extraordinary debut, Steady On, as a team. But eventually the chemistry between the two soured, and in 1991 Colvin struck out for Los Angeles. "We just couldn't stand each other after Steady On," recalls Colvin. "We must have broken up at least five times during the making of that album."
Still, the liner notes to Steady On's slick successor, Fat City, indicate that Colvin's former companion was never completely out of the picture: Three of its 11 songs were co-written by Leventhal, who also had a hand in its production. And Colvin admits that she had a hunch the two of them would wind up together again -- professionally, anyway.
"We had kind of lost contact for a while, and then something happened where we just kind of bumped into each other," she says. "I think it was me who said that I still wanted to write with him. And he said he was just waiting for me to ask."
Personal problems notwithstanding, Colvin had something to prove with A Few Small Repairs. Her previous release, Cover Girl, in which she lived up to the title by covering songs of other performers and writers, had most critics and many fans perplexed. Some wondered why, after two strong original outings, Colvin would bother with a move so often associated with a late-career holding pattern. Had her well gone dry so soon? Others assumed the idea was cooked up by her label in an attempt to generate a hit. Either way, the whole thing felt contrived.
In her own defense, Colvin claims that neither writer's block nor pressure from the powers-that-be had anything to do with her decision to go the cover route, and that, in reality, the origins of Cover Girl were quite innocent.
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"When I got signed to the label, I wasn't a writer, really. I'd spent I don't how many hours playing in clubs to people who weren't really listening, and some of the covers I did were pretty interesting. I felt really attached to them. I just felt like I needed to do it," Colvin says. "After slaving over those first two albums, it sounded like a good idea, and the record company supported it. They even tried to shield me from what people actually thought of it."
Really now. Colvin hardly seems like the sort who'd need shielding from anything. Still, even as A Few Small Repairs sees her coming into her own both as an artist and a woman of boundless experience, Colvin is worried. For a brief moment, she even lets down her guard, and her pinched expression from when she was on the Cynthia Woods Mitchell stage suddenly returns.
"I just hope people haven't forgotten about me," she says. "I just hope it's not too late."
Shawn Colvin performs Friday, April 25, at the Bud World Party on the Houston International Festival's City Hall Stage. Also performing are Kacy Crowley, Trish Murphy and Charlie and Will Sexton. Show begins at 5 p.m. Tickets are $10, which includes Saturday or Sunday admission to the International Festival. For info, call (800) 541-2099.