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Diamond in the Rough

Shawn Colvin's sad songs say so much

By Abby Johnston, Fri., Oct. 5, 2012

Diamond in the Rough

No light show, no smoke, and no mirrors. No opening act. Shawn Colvin takes the One World Theatre stage this mid-September Friday night the same way she began her career: nonchalantly and with a bit of doe-eyed wonder. Tonight, she's glad to be home.

Colvin put down roots here in 1993, a brief couple of years before her career never looked back in the wake of a pyromaniac named "Sunny." Her performance at the One World Theatre, two sets, constitutes something of a rare local appearance for the Austin single mother. She takes her place at the head of the packed early house with gracious charm. Her voice rings sure and clear, settling into every corner of the boutique room, working through a kaleidoscopic set list that spans her career, from the first song she wrote to material off All Fall Down, her new album.

After an hour-long set, Colvin launches her four-song encore with a surprise. In stark contrast to the bass-laden original, she begins her haunting rendition of Gnarls Barkley's ubiquitous hit strumming her acoustic guitar.

"I remember when ... I remember when I lost my mind."

Sunny Came Home

Much like her heroine in "Sunny Came Home," a song that won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1998, Colvin's dealt with her share of demons. As a child, her family left her native South Dakota, routed briefly through Canada, then landed in Carbondale, Ill., where her middle school years were plagued with anxiety and depression.

Eventually, she found a place among fellow aspiring musicians, and in high school began performing songs by her idols: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and her first love – the Beatles. Aside from short poems, Colvin had never written her own songs, remaining under the spell of John Lennon. Still, her imagination ran farther afield than Carbondale, to the rich fantasy of becoming a professional musician. Doodling LP covers and dreaming of a prodigious rise to fame temporarily quelled her depression.

Despite the solace she found in music, her alcoholism began while attending Southern Illinois University, a tenure cut short by romantic notions of Austin's music scene in the Seventies, which led her to form Western swing band the Dixie Diesels. On a brief performing hiatus due to vocal strain, Colvin followed a beau to San Francisco to live for a year in drug-addled company. Coaxed by guitarist Buddy Miller, whom she met during her Dixie Diesel days, Colvin moved to New York. Her alcoholism survived the relocation.

Although performing consistently and strengthening her vocal and guitar abilities, Colvin's drinking sequestered her career into imitation and support, rather than the leading role to which she aspired. Alcohol acted as a tether to reality, the cure for her neuroses, but it stunted her career.

In 1980, bassist and songwriter John Leventhal joined the Buddy Miller Band. He and Colvin fell into a rocky romance founded by their love of roots rocker Ry Cooder. While the romance fizzled fast, their musical partnership was a slow burn and the spark for Colvin's solo career. She calls Leventhal's critique of her first song a huge step in the breakdown of her insecurities, the insecurities suppressed by alcohol and just-passing-through liaisons.

Shortly after beginning "Diamond in the Rough," which would appear on her 1989 debut Steady On, and which titles her memoir this summer (see "Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir," June 15), Colvin enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous. She was 27.

Sunny Stayed Home

Midday light fills the living room of Shawn Colvin's central Austin home, bouncing off dark blue walls and spilling past a bright pink enclave framing a small dining room table. The open floor plan allows the light to illuminate a glowing yellow kitchen in a home filled with color and prints and travellers' treasures. Seated on the corner sectional of a wrap-around couch, she pulls her bare feet up under her sundress.

Three Grammy awards, eight albums, and an autobiography later, Colvin has fully realized goals she set for herself on the Midwestern plains. Yet as she picks at the fraying embroidery of a plush throw pillow, she confesses that, at 56, she feels she's a one-hit wonder. Her daughter Callie, a freshman at Austin High School, recently found "Sunny Came Home" on a list of oldies' hits.

"Certain days are gone, but I don't mind," shrugs the singer. "I still work. I don't feel 56. I can still sing and play and write."

Despite her rambling years, the self-professed commitment-phobe has firmly planted herself in Austin, though not without initial hesitation. Buying a home and settling into motherhood was a far cry from her past life.

"Everyone has buyer's remorse when you buy a house. It comes with the territory. But they said that at the signing, I went white," says Colvin. "I've always missed New York, but in these last 18 years, I've never had the urge to leave here.

"Something about Austin got to me. I like trees. I like Barton Creek. It has as much to do with the way the light comes in. The way it falls here fits with me."

When not touring, Colvin spends her days as "chauffeur and a short-order cook" for Callie. She's been sober 29 years. She doesn't go out much, making her dating life much less spicy than it used to be.

"Commitment is all or nothing," admits mom. "I want a lot of control, I have a lot of control in my career, and I'm generally in relationships I can control, but then I get bored.

"Listen, it's not pretty. [But] I'm a good person, and I'm still friends with my boyfriends and ex-husbands. Not all is lost."

In her memoir, Colvin writes freely about depression and therapy, while All Fall Down (see "Texas Platters," June 29) addresses adult issues frankly in song. Clearly, Colvin's comfortably nested in the heart of Texas. She laughs often and quickly makes a stranger feel comfortable in her most intimate space.

Even then, however, behind the sound structure she's built for herself, there's a living link to her dark past through music.

Crazy

Shawn Colvin begins wrapping up her second show of the night at the One World Theatre – a second packed house with two standing ovations before she's even begun the encore. Local guitarist David Garza, acting accompaniment for both sets, jokes, "Such a happy lady, but all of her songs are sad."

Colvin smiles, "Sad songs are the bread and butter of my career."

She returns to the stage alone for the encore, picking up a guitar and for the second time that night, picking slowly into Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Her voice stays firm through her favorite lines:

"It wasn't because I didn't know enough/ I just knew too much/ Does that make me crazy?"

That's a question Shawn Colvin has asked herself many times.

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