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A Real Mother

Steadier on: Shawn Colvin's Whole New You is the happiest album of her career. Just don't tell her that.
Cynthia Levine

Shawn Colvin does not give interviews; she holds conversations. She does not speak in the familiar language of the songwriter who insists on hiding behind her lyrics; she does not respond to pointed queries by telling you the song speaks for itself, so she doesn't have to. Such, perhaps, is the responsibility--or, just as likely, the burden--of the confessional singer-songwriter who came from the factory without the self-editing software that keeps most performers at arena's length from fans and journalists who come bearing intimate questions. When your life is an open lyric sheet, full of personal revelations and deep-felt emotions about choices made and, so often, regretted, you simply can't help but reveal and relate. Over the course of a career, you can't help but become a distant friend to the audience that buys your albums, attends your shows, reads your interviews in which you tell all...and then more. Yours is not the audience looking to be entertained; yours is the crowd that wants to be enlightened.

It's a risky thing to take on such a role--that of confessor and confidant, performer and pal. Lean too far forward, and you risk becoming that lonely soul at the bar at last call, spilling your beer and soul all over the place while asking the nearest customer to clean up your mess. Withhold too much, and you risk being labeled a coward who needs so much but gives so little. Few artists have ever been able to walk that middle ground without sinking beneath that solipsistic quicksand. There's Bob Dylan, yes, and Joni Mitchell, of course, and Paul Simon and maybe even Neil Young and, if you're feeling at all generous, James Taylor; among the new kids, one might even count Aimee Mann. But the list is a short one: Those are performers who, over the course of a career, make you care about them, because they hurt until it gives. They let us in on their secrets, never hiding behind cute and clever; they let us share their anguish, never pretending it belongs to someone else. That's why, in the end, it's never about how much you love the music, but about how much you love the person making it.

So it's little surprise, then, that no matter how much Shawn Colvin would like to steer clear of so much of the Mommy Talk that's been so closely tied to the release of her new album Whole New You, she raises it first and often. After all, the birth of her daughter Caledonia Jean-Marie in July 1998 is among the very things that informed and inspired so many of the album's songs, among them the closing "I'll Say I'm Sorry Now," in which she apologizes to her daughter in advance for all the mistakes she'll no doubt make along the way. "I'm gonna let you down/I know that now," Colvin sings, while longtime collaborator John Leventhal does his best Randy Newman behind the piano. "Make you cry, I know I will/Why should you believe I would never leave?" It's a lullaby sung by a mother to her daughter, and you can't help but feel as though you're listening in on something meant to be kept between them.

"When your persona onstage really has a lot to do with your persona offstage, and your persona on record is your persona in life, it's close to the bone," Colvin says. "It's kind of a sensitive issue. You feel vulnerable, and I suppose you don't want to disappoint people in terms of who you are, and that was especially difficult on this record, because I had a lot of mixed emotions about being a parent. I think that's natural, but all anybody ever said to me when I would ask them about becoming a parent was, 'Best thing that ever happened to me.' Ya know? Nobody would go, 'It's great, but it's hard, it's challenging.' At least, that's not what I remembered hearing.

"It's kind of a weird juxtaposition, because you want to be a brave person who takes chances in revealing what's going on, which is sometimes not so attractive, but you don't want to be an asshole. It's a fine line, and we're all assholes, so it's a fine line, and you kinda can't worry about it, ya know?"

It's easy to think of Colvin's body of work--four albums of originals, beginning with 1988's Steady On; two albums of covers, including 1998's Holiday Songs & Lullabies; and one live album recorded in 1988 and released in '95--as chapters of the same novel. Steady On begins the tale or, more accurately, "The Story": That song told you all you needed to know about her at the time, revealing that she was born to parents who had her when they were 21 ("our father he married our mother too young"), raised in a tumultuous household she couldn't wait to escape ("she simmered so soft with her weapons of tin"), and determined not to follow in her parents' clumsy footsteps. She sang of not wanting to have children, of not wanting to be married, of keeping herself out of harm's way: "Sometimes I feel so reckless and wild/Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/I have nobody's life, I am nobody's wife/And I seem to be nobody's daughter."

 

Her second album, 1992's Fat City, felt even more weighed down by pain; she begged out of therapy, sang of antidepressants. Not even the song "Object of My Affection," about the man who'd become her husband, could lighten the mood. By the time of 1996's A Few Small Repairs, she was literally quite ready to burn down the house as her marriage was falling apart: "Sunny Came Home" poured the gasoline on Triple-A radio, and songs such as "Get Out of This House" and "I Want it Back" and "If I Were Brave" lit the match. "I'm not gonna cry/And I'm waving goodbye/And I know this time/You got nothin' on me," she sang at album's close; you could all but see the farewell-and-fuck-off smile of a woman at the end of the beginning.

Since then, Colvin's been feted at the Grammys ("Sunny Came Home" was awarded for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1997) and remarried (to Austin artist-photographer Mario Erwin); and, of course, she became a mom. That, in part, is why it took five years between albums: There was the tiniest bit of self-made pressure to follow A Few Small Repairs with an album that would be equally successful, in terms of art and commerce, and then there were the distractions of everyday life. But when an artist so intertwines her art with her life, it can take an eternity to figure out just what the hell it all means, and Colvin struggled to find the words to describe the last five years. As she recounts in the song "One Small Year," "it's been an eternity/it's taken all of me to get here."

"The success of the last record in a way did make it harder, because you'd like to repeat that," Colvin admits. "But the nature of the way we work is to try not to care about any of that, because that's not what we do. We love good music and pop hooks and all that stuff, and we can and do do that, but it's never worked for us to care, ya know? We did this time, so we had to try to forget about caring, because that's not where our best work comes from. But it is hard. A Few Small Repairs was kind of the easiest one, because of the subject matter--I did get a divorce and stuff like that--and I kinda hit my stride writing about failed love and relationships. It was not daunting anymore. But then settling down, becoming a parent and everything and being married again, that was daunting, and there was no way not to write about it, because that's what I do."

Perhaps, she's asked, it's just harder to write about being happy than it is about being miserable. She pauses for a second, then begins laughing.

"I think it probably is, but that wasn't the problem this time," she says. "These are very challenging things for me: to commit, settle down and have a child. 'Happy' would not be the first word I would use. I mean, it's exactly what it should have been at the time I was ready for it, but we all hit places in our lives where we're thrown, and this really threw me. Yet there was a profound amount of love and affection going on, so it was an odd combo. I wasn't just someone who was being rejected or rejecting someone else. It was as far away from that as could be. Coming from the typical '50s thermonuclear family, I rebelled against the idea of family for years and years and years. I thought mine was suffocating and phony, and to have grown up and now be the parent and be the family, I was like, 'Oh, no.' I was stuck right in it, and I wanted to run away, because I was like, 'No, no, families are no good. It's a drag.' And there I was with a family."

Early on, Colvin was the victim, of sorts, of that brand of childish arrogance that allows the young to believe they have all the answers; her earliest songs were like hour-long TV dramas that come with tidy conclusions, if not quite happy endings. The songs on Whole New You are more open-ended, snapshots that are slightly out of focus and open to interpretation: Is the unnerving "Another Plane Went Down" about a horrific wreck ("I wanna see if the crash was sabotage/I wanna know if everyone is dead") or a relationship that's ended in betrayal ("Meanwhile back on earth I told you to fuck off and go away")? Perhaps the answer is clear enough, but Colvin's moved beyond filling in the blanks for you.

 

"That's a very conscious thing I feel has happened to me," she says. "It's been a relief, and I think if you don't have to come up with a tidy ending, you don't have to protect everybody. It's leaving yourself open to perhaps not being liked as well, but it's such a relief not to have those things resolved, because things don't resolve. It's a fairy tale. When I was younger, [Leventhal and I] were trying to write the Great American Pop Song, so I would write lyrics that had nothing to do with my life necessarily. They were just silly love songs, and they weren't bad, but they weren't very good either. I really grew up loving people like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and Dylan and James Taylor, so I finally went, 'You dope, you love that personal stuff, so you're gonna have to write about yourself.' That kinda broke the ice.

"When you do that, you give up being safe, but for me, I no longer wanted to be safe. That was boring, and I didn't feel I was contributing anything, and I wasn't really inspiring myself either. So it kinda took what it took, and at that point, the liberation really makes up for the risk, because if you're satisfied with it, and it says what you wanted to say, and you've expressed yourself well, part of you does not care what people think. Of course you'll always care, but if you've been true, then you've done your job, and you know it. Then, you can let go."


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