Fixed Up

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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."

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Hobart Rowland