Shawn Colvin may be best known for “Sunny Came Home”, but you can’t call her a one-hit wonder. In her career she has won three Grammy Awards (one of which was for her debut album Steady On) and released 12 albums. By phone she discussed the 30th anniversary acoustic version of Steady On, her inspiration to write, and the artists that influenced her in her early days of performing.
Americana Highways: What was the impetus for the 30th anniversary acoustic edition of Steady On?
Shawn Colvin: It seemed like it deserved a celebratory moment of sorts. It was kind of inspired by Rodney Crowell’s Acoustic Classics. I thought that would be a cool idea to all the songs with just me and a guitar. That’s the way I’ve performed them for the largest part of the last 30 years. It’s the way they were composed mostly. I thought it might be a format people would enjoy.
AH: How do you think Steady On holds up after 30 years?
SC: Really well. I felt great about it then. It was a long time coming. I was 32 years old when I made it, which is ancient these days. I’ve been making my living as a musician since I was 19, give or take a moment here or there. I always held out to become a songwriter because I wasn’t for a long time. I kind of knew it when I found my voice for that – my voice in writing. I was pretty confident going into that record. I didn’t think anything would happen with it, but I was proud of everything. It hasn’t changed for me. The songs are satisfying to sing and play. They don’t feel out of date to me when I play them.
AH: What do you think would have been the case if you had been say 22, not 32, when you won the Grammy?
SC: I would have been a disaster.
AH: So you were more ready for it then?
SC: Oh yeah. I was a mess at 22 years old. My hat’s off to anybody that’s ready. Certainly a lot of my heroes were. Some people just spring out of the wild writing songs, but not me. I could sing, play, and cover songs well. But I didn’t want to be a recording artist that way.
AH: What was the biggest challenge for you after winning a Grammy?
SC: Nothing. I felt like with Steady On, this was my dream come true. If I never do another thing, my dream came true. I’m happy. When I went on to write more songs and make a second record, I was beyond thrilled. I was like, “This is icing on the cake.” If there was a challenge at all, it was just to keep writing songs and thinking they were passable or good. Perhaps aside from the music aspect, promoting the record was not something I was used to. That was challenging. That was quite a crazy time. It was a good thing, but it was foreign to me.
AH: What do you find inspires you to write?
SC: These days I’ll take what I can get. In the old days, it was a lot of self-discovery and telling my story from my upbringing. I had a lot of stories to tell. There were a lot of relationship songs. There’s a cliche that you have your whole life to write your first record and then not as long to write the rest of them. These days it’s more coming in the side door, I’ll say. It comes from outside my own experience more than it used to. Maybe I’m borrowing a story. For example there’s a song on These Four Walls called “That Don’t Worry Me Now.” That came from a Martin Luther King PBS special and I wasn’t planning on it. It just kind of came in the side door – that phrase, “That don’t worry me now” came from that show. It’s wordplay a lot of times with words that I like or phrases that I seem to sing well. Just by singing nonsense over the melody and chord changes. Certainly my own experience as well. I’d say that a good portion of the drama in my life that inspired me in the past – I’m too old for it. It’s not there anymore.
AH: You first performed at age 15 at Southern Illinois University. What was on your set list back then?
SC: Oh God! It would have been a combination of really old folk songs like “All My Trials” and Phil Ochs “I Ain’t a-Marchin’ Anymore”. People I discovered right around that time: Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. My Joni Mitchell renditions weren’t great because I hadn’t learned her tunings yet. Laura Nyro, I played a couple songs by her like “He’s a Runner”. That’s an example of a few.
AH: It’s just interesting to know what you were listening to and performing back then.
SC: I was listening to a lot of Judy Collins when I was younger. A lot of Simon and Garfunkel. I remember doing “April Come she Will” and “I Am a Rock”. I remember at 14 my friend Jane bringing over a 45 of “Fire and Rain”. That was a major explosion. This older girl who was maybe 15 or 16 told me to listen to Joni Mitchell. Those were major discoveries. I also did an Elton John song called “Come Down in Time”. I was an early fan of his as well.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
SC: I’ve thought about that many times. The scary thing is, I don’t know. I don’t really have a skill set beyond it. I honestly don’t know. I’ve tried to think of things that I love as much, and I can’t think of any. I’ve tried to think of things I might be good at. I feel like teaching something is an avenue I could go down. It has a performance aspect to it. I’ve taught songwriting a few times over the last five or six years. I had something to offer, but teaching is hard. It’s exhausting. It’s a good question. I don’t know. Hopefully this will continue to work out.
The 30th anniversary acoustic version of Steady On will be available on September 13. You can pre-order the album here. https://shawncolvin.com
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