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Shawn Colvin interview

The singer-songwriter reflects on her breakout album A Few Small Repairs.

Shawn Colvin
Credit: Alexandra Valenti

Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin released her debut album Steady On in 1989 and worked hard to build up a loyal fanbase for her music.

In 1996 she released her fourth album A Few Small Repairs, which saw her achieve incredible success with the album spawning number one single Sunny Came Home and being certified Platinum. She also picked up two Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for Sunny Came Home.

This year Colvin is marking the 20th anniversary of the album by reissuing it with an array of live bonus tracks.

I caught up with Shawn to talk about her memories from writing and recording the album, discuss the huge success of Sunny Came Home and to find out what it was like to be part of the Lilith Fair movement in the 90s.

Did you think when you released A Few Small Repairs that you would still be talking about it all these years later and it would still be so popular?

Not at all. We felt it was a really, really fine piece of work but it was my fourth record. I had a very loyal fan base, and still do, and had won a Grammy for my first record but it wasn’t like we had been catapulted into the stratosphere or anything. It was my fourth record and we thought we’d enjoy the same following that we’d garnered since 1989 with Steady On, so no I had no idea.

Sunny Came Home was the lead single from the record and it was a number one hit for you. When you wrote and recorded it, did you have any suspicion that it could go on to be as a big a hit as it was?

No I didn’t. In fact when I went out to do shows to promote the record, I was just doing my regular gigs which I do solo. I would play that song and it would go over OK (laughs). It wasn’t like I had an idea that ‘woah this is different’ or that it was getting a different response.

When you were recording the album, was there a particular song you felt could be a big hit?

I don’t recall very clearly but we did put Sunny Came Home as the first track so we must have thought that was really strong. It’s not as though we expect a hit at all.

For the 20th anniversary edition of the album you’ve included a few bonus tracks and live versions. There must have been a wealth of material from around that time, how did you come upon these live versions?

Sony Legacy had saved them. They had archived them back from 1996. The songs (from A Few Small Repairs) started to make some headway. in ’97 so they had a lot of archives of old photos, video clips, live performances and just tons of stuff.

Shawn Colvin

Credit: Cynthia Levine

Was it hard for you to sift through and find the right things to include?

It was time consuming. I really wanted to find the best things that I could and there were different versions of the same song. I combed rhrough all them and picked my favourites. I don’t know that it was hard but it took some time for sure.

You’re touring the album in its entirety in the U.S. Are there any plans to take the tour outside of the U.S. and bring it to the UK?

No specific plans but we would sure like to do that in the New Year. I’m hoping that this goes well and that there’s interest.

What’s your relationship been like with your UK fans over the years?

I don’t know that I have a huge fan base in the UK but the people that come and support me when I’m there are more than enthusiastic. They just really are fans and I always feel really welcome and appreciated.

I often get told that U.S. artists find UK audiences very reserved. Has that been your experience?

No, not at all! I’ve found the audiences to be enthusiastic and very giving.

Where did the cover for A Few Small Repairs come from?

Oh that’s a good story actually. There’s an artist who used to be here in Austin, she’s moved to West Texas now. Her name is Julie Speed and I became aware of her when I came to Austin in ’93 or ’94. I visited a gallery that had her work and I just loved it. I asked to meet her, and I did, and we became friends. I just adore her work and have since bought some of it that hangs proudly in my den.

I’d always had a picture of myself on the cover and I thought it would be fun to do something else. I really, really wanted to use one of her paintings. I chose that one and that particular painting is called Setting the World on Fire. She had another painting called A Few Small Repairs and I asked her if I could take that name and put it on the painting I liked because I thought it was very funny that this woman was in the foreground with a lit match, and then there was this massive fire behind her. I just found that ironic and very funny and she agreed to let me call it A Few Small Repairs but I didn’t know that would be the title of the record.

The strange thing about the story is that the painting came before Sunny Came Home. I had already picked the painting. Sunny Came Home was the last song to be finished lyrically and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Since the cover had been chosen I thought to myself ‘why don’t you write about the woman in the painting?’ and that’s what I did. I wrote a few small repairs into the song and that all seemed to fit together very nicely, to make it the title of the record. That’s the story!

Shawn Colvin

Credit: Cynthia Levine

When you went into the studio to write and record A Few Small Repairs, did you have a concept or a theme that you wanted to capture?

There was no attempt at a concept or theme. The thing that really defines this record for me, thinking back on it, is how much fun it was to write and make. That isn’t always the case. Some of them are much more belaboured than others. I did my first record Steady On with John Leventhal as my producer and co-writer and I did my next two records, one with Larry Klein and one with Stuart-Smith. I didn’t work John for a few years then we decided to pair up again for another record. We both had our feet under us a little better having had more experience with writing and recording with other people and we felt a sense of freedom. We were on fire creatively and there was a sense of ease and kind of like anything goes, because we hadn’t had a hit and there was no sound or genre we had to be responsible to. That’s what marks it for me.

When Sunny Came Home became such a huge hit and the album went platinum, did you feel pressure when it came to following it up with another record?

Yes I did. I had a baby in 1998 so that was kind of a full time job for a while. Then I had pressure on me to make a new record. It was very difficult writing, it was difficult juggling my time and figuring out time management between raising an infant and doing some writing and recording. The pressure I felt to please the record company and follow up with something that would compare with A Few Small Repairs was very difficult. Doing it quickly was part of the expectation.

It amazes me how the music industry sometimes doesn’t understand creativity and wants to rush on to the next thing all the time. That must have been frustrating for you…

There was a popularity at that time in ’97 with Lilith Fair and there was a trend going on with female singer-songwriters. They wanted to ride that out as quickly as possible, which you can’t blame them for, but by the time I did finish that follow up record, which was A Whole New You. They said there really was very little they could do with kind it and the moment had passed. That was very disappointing.

Lilith Fair was such a movement in the late 90s. What was it like to be part of something like that?

It was wonderful. There was obviously a hole in the marketplace. It was great to have an all-female representation of the music of the time and even iconic musicians from earlier years like Joan Baez and and so on. It was as though we had our day. Prior to that it was a big deal because you didn’t hear two women in a row on radio. It just wasn’t done. It was a really big deal when all these women started having hits and there were enough of them where they had to play us back-to-back. It was a new thing, which is kind of sick, but it kind of goes to show you what people were hungry for.

What do you have coming up next. Are you working on new material or planning to take some time off?

I’m planning new material right now. I’m working on a few other projects that I won’t talk about yet. I’ll most likely be making another record with John in the near future so we’re working on songs for that. I just made a record which is a follow up to a holidays/lullaby record that was released in ’98. I just made a follow up to that with only lullabies and I think it’ll be out at the end of October.

The 20th Anniversary Edition of Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs is released 15th September 2017 through Sony Music.

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