Shawn Colvin’s Survival Story
The Austin-based singer-songwriter talks about her new autobiography, Diamond in the Rough, and her sixth studio album.
Last Tuesday, with the release of the memoir, Diamond in the Rough, Shawn Colvin, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter based in Austin, officially added “author” to her biography. In an ambitious bit of old media, cross-promotional synergy, Colvin’s publisher, William Morrow/Harper Collins, has doubled down and timed the book’s release to coincide with her first new studio album in six years.
“It’s a double opportunity to fail,” Colvin said. “I’m not supposed to say that. But it’s scary.”
Commercial concerns aside, Colvin insisted that she is more hopeful—and far less internally conflicted—about her career than ever. But fear is the primary antagonist of Diamond in the Rough, a book she characterizes as “a stick with it, keep pushing through, survival story.” What’s there to survive? Anorexia. Clinical depression. Addiction. Motherhood. Career crisis. And men. Lots of men. (“I hope it’s comical for readers to keep track of them,” she said. “That was my intention.”)
“I’d like to think I’ve overcome,” Colvin said. “I was not a person that was supposed to survive New York City, that was ever going to write my own songs, or have children. I was going to have my bar gigs, make my $50 a night and self-medicate. And it turned out a lot better than that.”
Colvin said she was careful not to let Diamond evolve into either a self-help book or a name-calling laundry list of ways she thinks she has been wronged. Instead, like many of Colvin’s greatest hits, the book is candid about her heartaches, but also comically self-deprecating: she balances the serious admission that she needs medication to combat her depression with a funny anecdote about the time she peed herself on national television while dancing with ‘N Sync during a late-’90s Disney Christmas special.
She says chronicling her alcohol and depression came easy. The hard part was convincing herself to add another memoir to an already crowded market of confessional autobiographies.
“Who’s going to care?” Colvin said. “I’m not Obama. And my drinking career is a joke compared to Keith Richards’. I had to get over that a little bit and just believe there were parts in there that are universal. When I encountered people in my life that were honest about the tough stuff—alcoholism or depression—it helped me enormously. I started to look at the book as something that might help people instead of just what’s been interesting about my life.”
Diamond makes clear that Colvin’s mid-’90s commercial successes did not make reconciling a turbulent personal life with her music career any easier. In 1996, she released her fourth—and, to date, only Platinum-selling-album—A Few Small Repairs. The album featured “Sunny Came Home,” and won Grammy Awards in 1997 for both Record and Song Of The Year. Despite the commercial success, offstage Colvin was juggling a new marriage and the birth of her daughter. She released a rushed album of Christmas songs and lullabies, but no true follow-up studio album for nearly five years.
“When you know part of the industry thinks of you as a one-hit-wonder, that’s painful,” Colvin said. “For a long time, I felt like I failed myself, my career and my record company. I took a break. And that’s not what you do after a huge record and a No. 1 hit. I was 42 years old and motherhood was something I wanted. I paid a price. And then it was kind of a perfect storm—my mood problems, the post-partum depression, and the pressure of following up a huge record.”
Colvin’s latest record, All Fall Down, is her second studio release on Nonesuch Records, the eclectic Warner Music offshoot with a roster that includes Wilco, Emmylou Harris and the Black Keys. Harris, who led Colvin to the label in 2000, made a cameo appearance on All Fall Down, a set produced by Buddy Miller, the Nashville guitar player and producer who has toured with Colvin, Harris and Patty Griffin under the banner of Three Girls And Their Buddy. The album is noticeably louder and more guitar-based then some of Colvin’s recent work, perhaps because she so quickly endorsed Miller’s proposal to cut the bulk of the record live and unrehearsed. She liked the idea, she said, because she was more confident than ever about the quality of the songs she was bringing to the sessions.
“With my songs, the question is always, ‘Can you pull it off live, alone on just an acoustic guitar?’ That’s the litmus test,” Colvin said. “If I can, then it’s a song I ought to record. If I can’t it’s probably not good enough.”
Not coincidentally, Colvin will spend much of her year playing solo performances in both the large theaters she’s toured for years, and at bookstores, where she will promote the memoir.
“I don’t have expectations anymore,” Colvin said. “I have hopes. I’m 56 years old and I’ve seen a lot of people have big records. And not everybody is around anymore. In my own way, I am.”