Fixed Up

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."