The Musical Middle Class

Shawn Colvin May Live in Austin, But She Resides in...

"If the next level comes to me then it'll come to me, but I'm not going to go to it. That may be one of my downfalls actually, because I don't have the ambition to be a huge, huge artist. There's an ambivalence there that can't help me."

Shawn Colvin is in the musical middle class. While her sales figures hover around levels worthy of ordinary adjectives like "respectable" and "promising," she doesn't make money from selling albums. It's from touring, playing an estimated 200 dates a year, that she stays solvent. "I buy opportunities with records," says Colvin. "I get satisfaction out of making more music and recording it. I think I satisfy fans by doing that, but the nuts and bolts of how I pay the rent is by going out on the road."

In that situation, the pressures come from both above and below. With the entertainment-consuming public becoming increasingly fickle and even more forgetful as popular music proliferates at alarmingly exponential rates, an artist is never completely safe from sliding into oblivion, and -- without financial coffers filled by a multi-platinum seller -- a rather poor oblivion at that. Even more pertinent, though, can be the unsolicited and perhaps unrealistic expectations of others --those on the business end of the music who stand to profit as much as if not more than an artist by having a hit record.

"There's a sense of limbo, and that you're going to have to go one direction or the other," Colvin concedes. "The nature of the business is for people to talk as though you're going to go up to the next level every time you put something out. So there's an essence of disappointment or failure if you don't. And every record I have put out has done better than the last. But the nature of the rhetoric in the music business is that you're gonna go for something much, much, much bigger than that. So, there's always the feeling of waiting to do that, and if you don't then something has gone terribly wrong."

Traces of the unwanted pressure may be manifest in Colvin's fidgety gestures; sitting in her living room, she regularly moves from floor to couch and back, ad infinitum, continually running her fingers through her hair, manipulating it back and looping the short sides around her ears. These are more likely the habits that reflect a plain childlike restlessness, but Colvin does have some immediate concerns. Chief among them is a tour, which kicks off here, in what is now her hometown.

Colvin's taking up residence in Austin may seem like a random talent windfall for the city, but her move here in 1994 was actually a return to the area. Around 1976, in an effort to evade the responsibility of having to book her own shows and be her own manager, and to get out of Carbondale, Illinois, where she had been living at the time, Colvin joined a band called the Dixie Diesels, which was relocating to Austin. The band gigged locally and around the rest of the Southwest for a couple of years before splitting up. Colvin left Austin and, via San Francisco, eventually ended up in New York.

In New York there were two major events that affected Colvin's success as a musician, one of which was her eventual, albeit temporary, failure as a songwriter. Colvin's progression from imitating her folk and pop idols (Joni Mitchell's name comes up a couple of times) to arriving at something that she could identify as her own had stopped. The things she was coming up with at the time were just "senseless pop dealies that were musically sophisticated but lyrically terrible." It wasn't just the inability to move past emulating others that stymied Colvin; it was her loss of faith that it would ever happen. "It was fulfilling to try and write songs, but it wasn't really working for me. The irony is that what it took for me was that I had to quit.

"In 1986, or something like that, I had this epiphany where I said, `You're really kind of demanding more of this than it can give you. And isn't that kind of tragic because music is so sacred? You don't know what you're doing here. You don't really believe in what you're singing and you don't really care. And you don't really know what it is you'd like to do, so you can't say, "Get up off of your butt and go do that." So, isn't this kind of disrespectful to your whole love of the deal? You know, if you're not meant to be in it to this extent, then maybe you're just going to have to leave it.'

"And it was the thing to do. My identity had been wrapped up in it to such an extent that this could be a good adventure. I stood to learn something, and I certainly didn't stand to lose anything because I could go back. So there was kind of a calm and a peace that came with that because I was just doing a regular job and going out with my regular friends. It was a relief. And within about a year, I began to miss it and I didn't quite know what I wanted to do, but the feeling of having nothing to lose was very helpful to me.

"Then, some songs started to get written and that was the breakthrough for some stuff. Before I was trying to be smarter, clever, whatever. It was one of the most frustrating things. It's terrible when you just don't have an intuitive sense if you're going to the right place or not."

The other component to come out of her years in New York was Colvin's meeting and working with John Leventhal. The two co-wrote material and, with Leventhal also functioning as producer, created Colvin's debut, Steady On, an album that won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1990. Their partnership extended beyond the professional sphere, though, as the two had a personal relationship as well. Out of a desire to succeed that approached necessity, Colvin recognizes that she and Leventhal succeeded musically in spite of spill-over tensions rather than because of them.

"We had a romantic relationship and there was so much tension in it for the early years of my knowing him that I think the thing that probably kept us together was what we could achieve musically. Hand-in-hand with that was the need for what we had to achieve musically. I don't think we'd be as motivated now, because we both have a lot of other options. But back then we had something to prove and I think we both felt it. We needed one another for what we wanted to do."

Despite the accolades they accumulated, and even though Leventhal has a couple of songwriting and production credits on Steady On's follow-up, Fat City, the two had effectively ended their relationship before most of the work on the second album was done. For A Few Small Repairs, her third studio recording of new material (it's actually her fourth album for Columbia, since 1994's Cover Girl is just what its title implies, all covers), Colvin and Leventhal -- who went on to work wonders for Mary Chapin Carpenter and is now married to Rosanne Cash -- began writing together again. But it was just that -- writing -- as Colvin had someone else in mind for producing.

"My idea was that it was great that we could write together again," says Colvin, "but I just wasn't going to go there. I just wasn't going to pursue the producer thing. I just thought, `Let well enough alone.'" She made some demos with a different producer, but the record company didn't much care for what was turned in. She and Leventhal had also recorded some demos of songs they had written, and both of them were fairly enamored with how they turned out. You can see where this is going. "John is very hands-on. You write a song with John, and the ideas start creeping in. He's a producer." So, comfortable with the notions that they didn't hate each other and that if he didn't want to produce again, that would be fine, Colvin asked Leventhal to do just that.

The result: an impeccably produced record, but, in contrast to the pair's first offering, one that came together with relative ease. "It was really the easiest, the most enjoyable time I've ever had making a record. And I guess I kept thinking, `Is this all there is to it?' But, on the other hand, I didn't do a lot of second-guessing. It did surprise me, but when it sounded good, and he thought it sounded good and I thought it sounded good, my attitude was, `We're home.' If he had a problem with it that meant something to me, and vice versa; but it was a pretty easy formula. We were both pleased."

Columbia was pleased as well. The reality of the music business is that to work an album, to promote it and generate publicity and ultimately sales, especially as the label envisions an artist going for something "much, much, much bigger," an album needs singles. In the past, Colvin and Columbia had spat over singles. For Fat City the label wanted to push "I Don't Know Why," with the idea of making Colvin, as she describes it, into "a folk-esque Mariah Carey." She eventually capitulated -- save for nixing a flugelhorn solo -- and let the label have its way with the song, although ultimately it never took off. (Colvin: "In a sick way I was glad.") There was a similar clash with Cover Girl, the result of which was taking one of her live staples, "Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic," and glossing it up with orchestration for the album.

For Repairs, Colvin and Leventhal just sidestepped the whole issue of singles by making a record that was radio-compatible. "We weren't out to make an avant-garde record. We weren't out to break the rules anywhere. We weren't out to protest anything. If anything, we wanted to fit in. And we felt that there was a way to do that that did not compromise what we do. And I think it worked. I mean I think it's as hit-oriented a record as any I've ever made and I love every one of the songs."

As do at least a few folks over at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the people who hand out Grammys. A Few Small Repairs garnered Colvin two more nominations this year, Best Female Vocal Performance for "Get Out of This House" ("I don't get it. That to me isn't a big pop performance, not even that good a pop performance."), and Best Pop Album (without even a hint of it's-a-thrill-just-to-be-nominated pseudo-humility, Colvin admits she wants to win that latter category).

Her neighbors may not get Grammy nominations like she does, but just like anybody else in the middle class, Colvin works. Only instead of getting up and going to a job at 8am everyday, she hits the road; and touring isn't structured Monday through Friday, week after week. It's a difference that Colvin doesn't gloss over anymore as she notes that "for my own sanity, after this record, regardless what happens with it, the shift and focus is going to have to change. I'm going to have to create a situation that's less unsettling so that I can actually feel like I have some choice, besides reacting to a record's release and then having to make money."

If you can't stand the clichés, get out of the kitsch-en, or out of sports broadcasting, or out of whatever. Right? There are certain duties inherent in navigating any career path. That's obvious. At some level you're an employee of the record company. You make an album for them so that they can sell them and make money. Touring to promote the product is part of the deal. But there's another element to it that has nothing to do with uninteresting complaints; talking about the desire just to have a schedule that's fixed enough to know when she can plan to take a "white-water rafting trip" or other "stuff that you'd think you'd like to do in your life" indicates that Colvin very obviously longs for the structured everydayness of her neighbors.

"I think everybody envies someone else's life. I'm in touch with the things that I get out of my life that suit me. I think too much routine would be bad for me. I like the adventure of leaving and having a new project to work on every couple of three years. It suits me; and the price you pay is things are not consistent. I don't want to change jobs. I think it's just a matter of taking control and making the job work for you... but at this point I think I should be getting more back for what's taking place."

That may depend on the landed elite of the record company and whether or not they'll allow contentment as a luxury for the ever-shrinking musical middle class. Says Colvin, "You know it's not a bad place to be if you can hang on to it, and if they'll let you hang on to it."

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