Whole new her

Singer Shawn Colvin talks about how personal changes affected her latest album

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Shawn Colvin
Laxson Auditorium, CSUC
Sat., Feb. 15

For much of her career, Shawn Colvin tried to write songs for each album that she felt could be radio singles. That changed when Colvin and her songwriting/ production collaborator John Leventhal began work on her 1996 CD, A Few Small Repairs.

“There’s certainly something to be said about not being under pressure,” said Colvin, who appears at Laxson Auditorium on Saturday, February 15. “We kind of played the game of addressing the issue of having a single on the other records, the previous three records. It just never went anywhere. That wasn’t particularly bothersome because that was not my goal. It has never been my goal. But I understand it’s important to address it. So when we got to A Few Small Repairs, we sort of had given up the [idea] that that was an issue we even had to think about.

“We just kind of felt totally creative and free and that we could just make a record that, we just didn’t care. For me, and for John Leventhal, I guess, that was a nice place to be.”

Ironically, with A Few Small Repairs, Colvin got the breakthrough hit that had eluded her on her earlier albums, Steady On (1989), Fat City (1992) and Cover Girl (1994). The song “Sunny Came Home” turned her into a major star, pushing sales of A Few Small Repairs past platinum and earning her a Grammy Award for song of the year. (She previously won a Grammy for best contemporary folk recording with Steady On.)

One might think that, having discovered an ideal comfort zone, Colvin and Leventhal would have had little trouble finding the feeling again when work began on Colvin’s latest CD, Whole New You.

But instead of breezing through the writing and recording sessions, most every aspect of the project was a struggle.

Songs did not come together quickly, as Colvin in particular grappled with her lyrics. Basic tracks, which had been recorded in lightning-fast speed on A Few Small Repairs, didn’t flow naturally. Colvin—who possesses one of music’s prettiest and seemingly most natural voices—even had difficulties getting vocal takes that combined the technical quality and emotion one had come to expect from her past records.

Two factors played major roles in turning Whole New You into a labored endeavor. One was the heightened expectations that come with having a hit album. But an even bigger factor was the changes that had occurred for Colvin and Leventhal in their lives.

Since the release of A Few Small Repairs, Colvin had married photographer and graphic artist Mario Erwin and in July 1998 gave birth to her first child, daughter Caledonia. Leventhal, who had dated Colvin at the time of Steady On and following their breakup didn’t renew his songwriting/production partnership with her until A Few Small Repairs, had also become a first-time father.

For two songwriter/musicians who had been used to devoting all of their time and concentration to making records, this change of lifestyle presented an eye-opening challenge.

“It wasn’t just us anymore in our own little world, with the No. 1 priority being the record,” Colvin said. “We had time management issues and priorities at home other than before. It was just a new way of working that made us both feel like we were on new ground. It wasn’t as comfortable.

“I was not going to leave home for weeks and weeks,” Colvin said. “I wasn’t going to spend day after day not being with her [Caledonia]. So I brought her with me, and she was a part of my day every day.”

In terms of the actual songs, motherhood presented another set of challenges for Colvin. On past records, she had become known for her ability to capture the romantic and personal struggles facing 30-something women as they went through relationships and searched for their places in the world.

But now Colvin’s life had evolved dramatically, into a place where she had a child who demanded her time, her attention and her nurturing, and she had a husband who shared in the decisions that shaped their lives.

As songs like “Matter of Minutes,” “One Small Year” and “Bound to You” suggest, there have been times for Colvin when motherhood and marriage have been trying and the idea of escaping back to her previous single life has seemed quite appealing. That notion is clearly presented on “Matter of Minutes,” where Colvin sings, “If there’s one thing certain it’s there ain’t nothing for sure/And I want to run but I can’t do that anymore.”

Colvin, though, hesitated strongly about whether she should convey such doubts and fears in her songs.

“It did cause me some problems; it did, because I’ve been pretty comfortable writing about my parents and love affairs that I’ve had,” Colvin said. “I’ve always kind of said I’m going to tell my truth the way I see it and try to craft good songs. But it’s a little dodgier when you write something about being a parent that maybe reflects that you’re anxious or you’ve lost yourself, something negative. And you know that your child is going to be able to listen to that at some point. So that was the struggle.

“In the end I got through it, and I decided I shouldn’t be afraid to say, sort of negative feelings that I had—fears or whatever—about becoming a parent. But yeah, that caused me some discomfort. I didn’t quite know how to deal with it.”

In the end, Colvin, as on her other albums, chose to be unflinchingly honest. And the complex emotions that inhabit songs like “One Small Year” and “Bound to You” give the Whole New You CD an intimacy and depth that is rare in music today.

Musically Colvin and Leventhal provide an appealing backdrop to the sometimes thorny feelings of the lyrics. Whole New You is roughly divided into two types of songs, as upbeat, poppy material like “Whole New You,” “Anywhere You Go” and “Bound to You” alternates with more understated folk-flavored tunes like “A Matter of Minutes,” “Another Plane Went Down” and “Nothing Like You.”

All in all, “Whole New You” doesn’t sound like a CD that was difficult to make. And Colvin believes she and Leventhal rose to the challenge of following up on the success and quality of A Few Small Repairs.

“You don’t want to put out the same record,” Colvin said. “You don’t want to follow formula. You want to grow. But you want to keep the success you had, if possible. So it’s a dilemma. And I think in the end you kind of have to let go of what you’re trying to hang on to with the past record because that’s just not artistically sound. You’ve got to keep going.

“So I feel two things about this record," she said. "I feel that we did grow. I feel like we did some new stuff and we have some interesting stuff and we broke a couple of rules for us. I think we were creative. I think we did some things that surprised us, and that’s what you look for when you’re working."