eliza berkon is a features writer and jazz musician based in washington d.c. 

Shawn Colvin on songwriting, depression and her secret to a great cover song

From humble beginnings in 1960s South Dakota, Shawn Colvin has become an indefatigable and fearless singer-songwriter with 10 studio albums under her belt. After studying her craft in the music halls of Austin, Texas, and New York City, she released her debut album, Steady On, in 1989. That initial work won Best Contemporary Folk Album at the 1991 Grammys, but it was “Sunny Came Home” off of 1996’s A Few Small Repairs that brought her mainstream recognition (and two more Grammys).

Colvin’s past is rife with challenges—including two divorces, drug addiction, alcoholism, anorexia and depression—much of it becoming fodder for her honest and self-deprecating 2012 memoir, Diamond in the RoughYet her struggles are also what make her music original and unapologetic, with lyrics that resonate and a voice that artfully weaves between strength and fragility.

Colvin spoke with us in advance of her Oct. 30-31 performances at The Birchmere, shows celebrating the 20th anniversary edition of A Few Small Repairs.

How did you get your sea legs as a songwriter?

It was quite a journey. Essentially, I did write some songs when I was younger; I’d worked on songs a little bit in the late 70s but I didn’t really consider them to be anything of note. And I did pick some of them up later and finished them after I got my legs under me as a songwriter. But it really had to do with John Leventhal who had music but not lyrics and invited me to write some lyrics to his music. And at the time we were working on pretty straight-ahead pop songs. I don’t think I did such a great job, but I was learning. And then it took a few years before I thought, “Well, I’m really a singer and I’m supposed to be writing kind of personally.” By that time a lot had happened in my life, and I was in a good place. And I was able to reflect and just find my voice. So “Diamond in the Rough” kind of launched me into where I was. [I] felt like I’d found myself.

How surprised were you to win a Grammy for your first album?

Very surprised; it was a thrill. It was probably the biggest accomplishment of my life to just have made that record. I dreamed of recording, you know making records when I was younger, but I honestly was never confident that I would make a record of original material. I just felt like if I never did another record again, this one would have been enough. Steady On would have been enough. So it was really icing on the cake to win a Grammy.

“Stranded” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I actually remember listening to it in college on a Greyhound bus looking out the window, getting teary-eyed, thinking about a breakup. To me, it was about the happiness you had in a great relationship, now lost. But tell me the real story.

Oh no that’s the real story. It was just about the disintegration and the alienation that happens when you’re just growing apart from someone and how painful that is.

Of all your songs, why do you think “Sunny Came Home” was the one that became a mainstream hit?

That’s a good question. If I understood what became mainstream hits, I’d probably have more of them. It was a combination of things I think. The time was right for that type of song in terms of radio and what would be played, and what people were responding to. But the song itself, it’s a mystery story, you know? And I think it piqued people’s curiosity. It’s tuneful, and I think qualifies as a tuneful hit song. But it’s in a minor key and it’s got a good chorus. And I just think people were intrigued.

And you’ve said before that Sunny was you?

Well I said that in my book. I think to an extent, no matter who you’re writing about, it’s infused with, it’s informed by your own experience. But the inspiration for the song was the woman on the cover of record, the painting of the woman—which I had chosen before I even wrote “Sunny Came Home,” so it was kind of the cart before the horse. So I’m in there because I don’t think it’s possible to not be, but on second thought I’ve never [laughs] set something on fire to any great length.

On this show, you’re playing A Few Small Repairs in its entirety in album order, to the exclusion of all other albums?

Well except for after we’re done with that one. Then we do some other stuff.

I know you’ve dealt with depression.  How were you able to keep going out on stage when it must have been quite challenging to feel depressed or anxious at the time?

Yeah that sucks. You kind of do what you have to do, but it was torturous sometimes, and I think as a professional you try to pull it off. There was one instance I was on the Cayamo Cruise several years back. I know I didn’t do a very good job. It was a very, very, very bad time, and I don’t even remember doing those shows. And so I’ve always felt bad about that. So there were really bad moments. And thankfully I’ve just been kind of bullet-proof for years and years now. But the writing is just nonexistent. Once I had distance, I could write about it. But not at that time.

What do you see as the path to destigmatizing mental health issues in this country?

Well it’s talking about it publicly and that’s changing; especially men, I think, have a rough time talking about it. [Bruce] Springsteen really let it out in his book, and I just found that that’s the way to destigmatize it, especially if you have any notoriety.

I saw you open for Don Henley a few years back at Constitution Hall and it made me realize you’d do a great job with “Desperado”? What would be on your list of songs to cover if you did a third cover album?

I probably wouldn’t do “Desperado” because Linda [Ronstadt] did the definitive, a great song to sing. But my sort of litmus test is can I do the cover song and skew it just enough off its original version to maybe bring something new to it—not make it better. On my last cover record, I did “Baker Street,” and there’s no way to [record it] like it was, but it’s such a great song. So I feel like I try to uncover songs that you may have heard and not listened to the lyrics as much, like the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy,” which has great lyrics. And it’s such a catchy, awesome tune in its original form that I don’t think people probably hear the lyrics as well as when somebody like me kind of does it stripped down.

What’s your advice for the burgeoning singer-songwriter?

My advice is write what you love, don’t get caught up in trends. Influence is fine, but trust what you’re loving and what’s moving you. Don’t try to be clever, just go with your gut. And play live a lot. Playing a song for an audience really is the litmus test for me as to whether it’s going to resonate, or whether I think it’s finished or good. It’s really, for me— it’s an important part of the writing process. And I just think you get good when you go out and play a lot. It can be scary for some people but I think it’s super important to get confident and get really good.

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