Shawn Colvin coming to The Ark in support of new album, memoir
Adam Bird | Grand Rapids Press file photo
Writing the book was a time-intensive experience—when I interviewed Colvin in 2008 for The Ann Arbor News, she had already begun working on it. And it certainly must have been an emotional one as well: She writes about her battles with anorexia, alcoholism, depression and panic attacks, plus her rocky romantic relationships and painful break-ups (including two divorces).
But Colvin, who comes to The Ark on Wednesday, often leavens the ache of such harrowing experiences with darkly funny quips about her travails and impulses.
Having some distance from those battles certainly must have helped—she got sober in the ‘80s, with the help of the Alcoholics Anonymous program; and she also got treatment for her depression, anxiety and anorexia.
The book, which also details the real-life stories behind many of her songs, garnered great reviews.
Meanwhile, writing and recording the songs on “All Fall Down” reunited her with many of her old musical pals—it was produced by Buddy Miller, an old friend who she has toured with as Three Girls and Their Buddy, along with Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. And Miller has become one of the go-to producers on the avant-roots-music scene over the last several years.The disc was recorded at Miller’s home studio in Nashville, and features an array of acclaimed guest artists like Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Jakob Dylan, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Viktor Krauss (Alison’s brother), drummer Brian Blade, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and singer-songwriter Julie Miller (Buddy’s wife).
Most of the songs on the album are quite personal for Colvin, who has described the disc as “an album about loss but also about redemption and resolution.” Indeed, many of the songs are tinged with darkness as the singer finds her way through some difficult times. But, throughout, Colvin employs her signature sharp wit.
“Anne of The Thousand Days” depicts a controlling lover as Henry VIII. “The Neon Life of The Saints” explores New Orleans’ gritty and beleaguered Lower Ninth Ward, and was written specifically for the HBO drama “Treme.” Meanwhile, “Fall of Rome” commences with the cautionary line, “The city is crumbling/like Rome or Pompeii.”
Colvin co-wrote eight of the 11 tracks, joining forces with Dylan on “Seven Times the Charm,” Griffin on “Change Is On the Way,” Kenny White on “Fall of Rome,” Frisell on “Anne of The Thousand Days,” Viktor Krauss on “I Don’t Know You” - and with her longtime collaborator John Leventhal on “All Fall Down,” “Knowing What I Know Now,” and “The Neon Light of the Saints.”
Most of the songs move to the signature, supple, rhythmic pulse that has long characterized Colvin’s music. And, as always, she uses her expressive vocals—which are alternately fragile and endearing or assertive and filled with resolve—to drive home the emotions in the lyrics.
And augmenting Colvin’s percussive acoustic-guitar strum are Buddy Miller’s unique electric-guitar inventions, which add new colors and textures that always tug at the ear.
What is also notable about “All Fall Down” is that, musically, it sounds more spontaneous, and more loose, than most of Colvin’s previous efforts.
“I think it’s less fussy,” Colvin told Performing Songwriter magazine earlier this year. “I mean, it’s kind of a live vibe—we cut the tracks live pretty much. And a lot of my vocals are live. So I just think it’s looser .Some of my records are very careful. And there can be merit in that. But this approach was more ‘Let’s just go for it and not be precious.’”
But just because she was in Nashville, that doesn’t mean she adopted the standard Music Row approach to songwriting—two writers in a room bouncing ideas off of one another and crafting the song together. Instead, she stuck with the method that has always yielded the best results for her: separation and sequestration.
“I didn’t do them in a dissimilar way than I usually do with John (Leventhal),” she continued. “I’m not so good at being in the same room with somebody and knocking out a song. It’s just not what I’m able to do. So in all of these situations we would put two ideas together—Bill Frisell gave me some music, Viktor gave me some music, Patty gave me a title and a little music, I gave Jakob a title and some music—and then everyone went to their separate corners.”
As for delving so deeply into her issues and struggles in her book - and then getting such strong reviews: “It’s scary to write a book that’s personally revealing, so to get some positive feedback is very rewarding,” she recently told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
In the book, she also mused about how she’s been able to have such a long career, in light of the issues and illnesses she had to overcome.
“I think you can ask anyone else with a chronic illness and find that, between treatment that’s successful and other coping mechanisms, you do carry on for the most part,” she said. “There are periods you’re not able to do your best, but it’s like battling any other chronic disease.
“It’s really just a question of dealing with your illness and doing your job. Yeah, I’m on stage and I suppose that has its pressures. But it’s what I’m familiar with and able to do, even when not feeling my best.”
Kevin Ransom can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.