Singers commiserate through collaboration
Harmony, in musical terms, most commonly implies the confluence of separate voices to create a single, rich and melodious voice, á là boy bands, choral groups, Simon and Garfunkel or their contemporary progeny, The Milk Carton Kids. Sometimes, however, the blending of singular voices retains a rugged beauty in dissonance that, when artfully executed, conveys a palpable sense of tension.
Such is the case with the musical partnership between Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, who recently released an album together simply titled Colvin & Earle. Earle is a veteran singer/songwriter whose multigenerational appeal rests on his industry-outlaw reputation, ability to effortlessly cross musical boundaries while keeping his feet firmly planted in roots music, and occasional onscreen forays. Colvin is a fellow long-timer whose career kicked off with the 1989 album Steady On, recipient of a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
“We’ve got a sort of natural, cross-harmony thing like what the Louvins or Everlys do,” Earle said during a recent a telephone interview from the duo’s tour bus. “But we don’t tend to polish it or sit and work on it much, because we kinda don’t have to. We don’t really sit down and work it out, we just sing together.”
Much of Earle and Colvin’s independent work is informed by the same au naturel aesthetic: “This record was recorded live, which is the way I make records,” he said. “I might have [let some work be overproduced] in the ’80s, I think everybody did … but I mainly pay attention to the songs.”
As to how the partnership came about, Earle noted that he and Colvin have been friends for many years, going back to the mid-’90s, when Colvin recorded his song “Someday” for her album Cover Girl. Both artists also share checkered histories that include addiction (Earle to heroin, Colvin to alcohol) and a total of nine failed marriages between the pair, lending an authentic air of heartache and world-weariness to their work, together and apart.
“She recorded ‘Someday’ at a pretty dark time for me, when I wasn’t making albums,” Earle said. “And then I didn’t die, and I started running into her again. She suggested a few years ago we tour together, and it was the kind of thing where she’d play a few songs on her own, I’d do some on my own, then we’d do a few together. But I thought there was something really cool about the way we sing together, and as a writer, I wanted to write songs for that.”
Earle is no stranger to collaboration, having worked with artists ranging from Irish/punk progenitors The Pogues to pop songstress Sheryl Crow and underground noisemakers The Supersuckers. In a role that perhaps best sums up his rootsy yet genre-neutral ethos, he played banjo on Patti Smith’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“You get to hang out with friends and people you have a lot of things in common with,” Earle said of his penchant for partnering with other artists. It also allows him to pay forward the experience and influence he’s amassed as a rugged individualist-cum-elder-statesman of the music industry, as late luminaries like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark did for him in his younger days.
“I think I certainly got a leg up from some older people when I was coming up,” Earle said. “As far as being older myself, that’s what happens when you don’t die, so I’m all for it.”