A Real Mother

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky