MUSIC • Shawn Colvin
She used to write dark songs that nobody listened to. Those days are over.
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THE FIRST TIME Shawn Colvin moved to Austin, she was the singer in someone else’s band, a group of Asleep at the Wheel wannabes called the Dixie Diesels. She was dating the fiddle player, and she wasn’t writing her own material. It was 1976, and she roamed the streets and clubs like the rest of the city’s Ur-slackers, sad and drinking too much and wondering what to do with her life. The second time she moved to Austin, eighteen years later, she had spent time in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, developed into an engaging performer, released two albums of gloomy, original songs, won a Grammy award for best contemporary folk record with Steady On, and quit drinking. She had made herself into an artist, a popular one, touring so much it almost didn’t matter where she lived. “What my life had come down to was needing an airport,” she says now, “but I always dreamed of coming back here.”
Then the South Dakota native did something the slacker faithful in Austin almost never do: She became a phenomenal success. Colvin’s most recent album, A Few Small Repairs—with its bright but melancholy pop songs of identity and falling apart, regret and loss, finding yourself in a bad situation and getting the hell out—won Grammys in two major categories: song of the year, for “Sunny Came Home,” and record of the year. In March A Few Small Repairs was certified platinum, meaning it had sold a million copies. All of a sudden Colvin isn’t just an artist, she is one of the lucky few who can do whatever she wants. “It has allowed me to breathe easier in a lot of respects,” she says. And not just with her career. “It’s a good time to take some time off and start a family. I couldn’t have waited any longer.” In July the 41-year-old and her husband, Mario Erwin, had their first child, a girl named Caledonia.
Colvin’s success has helped her deal with any lingering doubts she may have had about her calling. “Maybe I have a little more confidence in my songwriting now,” she admits. “I was very much a novice with my first record [1989’s Steady On]. I was thirty-two, and those were my first serious songs. I spent a lot of time writing bad songs. My last record, I feel like I arrived at a place, like I got somewhere that I wanted to go.” At the moment, she is writing songs for her next album, due next year, with longtime writing partner John Leventhal. “No themes, no intentions,” she explains, “though I’m sure being a mother will creep in there.”
Actually, Colvin has for years been a mother figure to many younger female singer-songwriters, and her influence can be heard in the songs of present and former Austin artists such as Kris McKay, Kacy Crowley, and newcomer Ana Egge. She recently toured with Egge and was impressed by her songs and her youthful determination. “She’s really talented,” Colvin gushes. “At twenty-one, I didn’t know what I was doing.”