Because of the pandemic, there was inevitably going to be a glut of asymmetrical anniversaries going down this year. Fifty-two-year anniversaries and 27-year anniversaries and 12-year anniversaries. In this backlog of anniversaries, I hope the 32-year anniversary of Shawn Colvin’s debut album Steady On isn’t overlooked. Colvin is one of the finest singer songwriters of her generation, and there’s an added degree of difficulty there: because singer-songwriters from her generation can actually sing and play. Which Colvin will be doing—just her and her guitar—in a special performance at the Parkway Theater on Sunday night. Colvin and I spent an hour on the phone talking about what lead up to the recording of her debut album, how she first fell in love with the guitar, and her big break in the music industry.
You were 32 when Steady On originally dropped, but most of these songs were written in New York when you were in your twenties. It’s funny to think about, but I started listening to you on this adult-contemporary station, Cities 97. I was a teenager, but for some reason I was into very grown-up singers like you and Nanci Griffith and Patty Griffin. And your songs were played on this adult contemporary station, but I don’t know, “adult contemporary” seems like a limiting kind of term. Because the things that you were singing about were mistakes you were making and situations a young person gets themselves involved in.
I suppose I could agree with you and say there’s a certain amount of romantic angst in those songs, and they are about growing up. I mean, I was in my mid-20s when I wrote a lot of those songs, so I was still figuring things out. I had gotten sober when I was 27 years old in 1983, and that was the impetus for some of those tunes—a revelatory and healing kind of thing. But all radio-format names aren’t limiting. We had a great AAA station here in Austin called KGSR, it still exists, I think, but it was AAA format and they played all kinds of stuff, rock stuff and not just folk or acoustic, they ran the gamut.
And Steady On won a Grammy in “contemporary folk.”
Were you listening to folk music back in the ’80s?
No, not really folk music. More like singer-songwriters. I consider Springsteen a singer-songwriter. And I got turned on to Richard Thompson, and Paul Brady, who’s an Irish singer-songwriter, they were very important to me.
Did you get a chance to see those guys when you were in New York?
I saw Richard Thompson at the Bottom Line, and eventually toured with him, and was part of his band and opened for him in ’91, so that was a big honor. If you’re talking about the ’80s, I loved some of the hits from that time: like “Africa” by Toto and “Allentown” by Billy Joel, “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye. So a lot of these things were soundtracks for me. loved Steely Dan. And Jane Siberry. Now, my influences when I was much younger are different.
What were they?
Well it started with my father and the Kingston Trio, so that’s certainly folk music. My father played the guitar and taught me to play the guitar. So I heard a lot of Pete Seger and the Kingston Trio, and eventually Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, of course, all those late ’60s, early ’70s singer-songwriters, Jackson Brown, Paul Simon, James Taylor, the list goes on and on.
So does playing the songs from Steady On dredge up any kind of angsty, romantic feelings? What kind of critical distance do you have on these songs now?
Well, I don’t think there’s any angst that comes up. There’s melancholy, and I’m certainly moved by the songs and reminded of what was going on to an extent when I wrote them, but mostly, what’s great is they hold up. They were crafted well in my opinion, so it’s a pleasure to play them.
A lot of these songs were written with John Leventhal. John arranged Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and he was co-writer on one of your biggest hits, “Sunny Came Home.” So when did you start working with him?
He was seminal in the making of Steady On. I met him 1981, and I was in the Buddy Miller Band, but Buddy moved away, so I took over the band and was minus a guitar player. So we would just sub out different people, and someone said we should get John Leventhal to come and play some gigs. So I met him and I loved his playing, and we became romantically involved. I came to find that he wrote a lot of music and was a great producer on a reel to reel tape, even back then, and he suggested that I write lyrics to some of his music. So that’s how it started. But it took a few years for me to realize that I needed to take the production demos that he was giving me and deconstruct them down to just one acoustic guitar if I was going to write properly and stay true to my roots. So things turned a corner maybe around ‘87, ’88, and a bunch of those songs were written with John, some not, but “Diamond In The Rough,” “Shotgun Down the Avalanche,” “Steady On,” those were all co-writes, and he produced the record as well.
So did you had to reverse engineer them to see how you related to them?
Yeah. That took a while. Because I’m a good copycat. I can sing country, I can sing rock, I can sing pop, I can sing folk, I can imitate a lot of people pretty well. So I was really good for cover bands, which is how you make a living when you’re scuffling around. And it took a long time to go, well, you learned to play the guitar when you were 10, all your heroes were singer-songwriters that played acoustic guitar, so maybe that’s your thing. And once I figured that out, then things moved ahead.
You are such an incredible guitar player.
One of your heroes is Joni Mitchell, but I think you’ve said that you figured out how to do that rhythmic strum that Joni does with her fingernails with a different part of your hand?
Yeah. I don’t even know how to describe it, that sort of meaty place where the bottom of your thumb goes into your wrist. I didn’t know she was using her fingernails and I didn’t have any fingernails anyway. One of the reasons I developed that percussive style of guitar playing was not only her influence, but I was playing a lot of solo gigs where you had to work to get people to listen. And I thought, if I at least try to imitate drums, maybe I’ll get more attention.
After this record, your production got a little more lush—more electronics, and strings. So have you come back to the guitar or has it always been your companion?
No, it’s always been my companion. I mean, it’s always been, like, if I can’t play these songs by myself, then it’s going to be an issue. Over time, I became looser about taking John’s arrangements and starting to write lyrics even before I really had them figured out. Not quite as militant about I won’t even try until I know exactly how to play this song. So as things developed I got a little looser about it, but it’s always been the litmus test for most of the songs, that I can cover them on guitar by myself.
When you released the Steady On acoustic version in 2019, did you feel like you’re covering your own songs?
No, I didn’t mean to say that word. No, in fact I was just doing them in their original form. When I wrote those songs with John and I would go to places like Passim in Boston and the Birch when you’re in D.C., and I went alone and this is the way I performed them. So that’s really what they are at their core
So when you started taking this album around, it was just you and a guitar?
It was just me.
But when you won the Grammy, did you get a band? Did the label give you some money for a band?
I don’t think I ever had a Steady On band.
And then Fat City was produced by Larry Klein. And I’m not sure I ever had a band with Fat City either, I played a lot of it solo. Wait, I had a trio with Larry Klein and Stewart Smith, and we toured for a while and did the Fat City record. But I don’t think I really had a band until A Few Small Repairs.
And on this tour, you’re by yourself again.
Yeah, that’s what the record is. And that’s what I do most of the time anyway. I just opened for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit for 10 concerts, and I opened by myself, so that’s the essence of what I do.
You grew up in Vermillion, South Dakota, and got your start in Carbondale, Illinois. And then you moved to the Bay Area. And then you moved to New York. It’s kinda always been just you and your guitar. Did you consider yourself brave back then?
Well, I grew up in Vermillion but I went to high school in Carbondale, Illinois. So I consider myself to have a small town background. So, when we moved to Illinois, for example, that was a much bigger town than Vermillion, and I went to a great big school, very weird, and took a bus for the first time. I wasn’t used to any of that. I was used to small neighborhoods, walking to school, small community. And then New York of course was really a contrast. So, yeah, I was in some scary situations. I mean, the Bay Area was big and I didn’t really know anybody. And in New York, I came knowing a few people, and yeah, it was kind of scary, but I was driven. That’s about the best I can say.
Were you driven by your fascination with the guitar? How much did you practice and work on it before you realized you were good?
Not too long. I mean, I think I really started getting good in high school, and I had a lot of friends that played the guitar and sang, and we would have get-togethers on the weekends and everybody would play, and I was as good or better than any of them. And then when I started working in Carbondale solo at the bars, I had a good following. I was kind a big deal in that town.
Who got you your first guitar?
I started on a four-string guitar, not a ukulele, an actual harmony guitar that had four strings. My dad had it and he taught me to play that first. And I got a Mel Bay guitar book and chord book and learned tons of cords. And then eventually, we got a six-string. Dad had one actually, and I just had to add the two strings on top and learned the chords that way. And, yeah, I mean, my fingers bled and it was pretty hard.
And then playing by yourself for it sounds like years, right?
Well, yeah, I had bands. I morphed into having bands in Illinois, it gave you more gigs to play. But they were mostly pop-rock bands. We’d do Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell songs, and oh, God, just tons of covers. So, yeah, I was in rock bands to make money when I was in Illinois. And then when I moved to New York, I joined Buddy Miller’s Band, and we were a country band.
How did you land the gig in Buddy Miller’s band?
I met him in Austin in ’76. I don’t know where he went after Austin, but he ended up in New York because it was the middle of what I call the urban cowboy scare, and everybody wanted to hear that kind of music, and he’s obviously brilliant. And he put together a band in New York and his now-wife, Julie Miller, was in the band, but she left–she didn’t like New York. So he called me in the Bay Area because he knew me and said, “would you come and join the band?”
And then you started playing out on your own, on nights you weren’t playing with his band?
Yeah. You had to get as many gigs as you could to try and make a living. So I would do solo gigs at a place called The Other End, which was part of the Bitter End. I would do Monday nights there—three one-hour sets from 10:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. I played at a great place called the Cottonwood Café at least once a week, that was a fun job. I was a waitress there, too. And then there was the speakeasy on MacDougal a little later on, that was a real listening room.
How quickly did a record deal happen?
Well, I got to New York in late ’80 and Steady On came out in late ’89, so you do the math.
So what’s the break though? Is it literally some industry guy coming and seeing you and saying, “Kid, you got the goods.”
Well, in my case, John and I finally got enough songs we felt were good enough to make a demo tape. That took a long time. Then in ’87, I took a job touring Europe for three months as a backup singer for Suzanne Vega.
Because you sang backup on “Luka.”
Correct. And her manager took an interest in me. So I agreed to be managed by Ron Fierstein, and he took the demo tape—actually, he was pushing another artist at Columbia Records. He was talking with an A&R guy at Columbia Records named Joe McEwen, and Joe said, “What else you got?” And he had this cassette of my demo tape, and that’s how I got signed.
And then you recorded Steady On. So what does it feel like, returning to the songs that gave you your start after 32 years?
I don’t think my musical aesthetics have changed too much. And I always said that if Steady On was the only record I ever made, I’d be happy. It was my dream come true to have written songs and made a record of them. And really, I was 32 years old, it took a long time, and I didn’t know what would happen after that, but I was just thrilled. So it’s a joy to pay tribute to this record.