Shawn Colvin: more than just a one-note folkie

June 15, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

By now, Shawn Colvin ought to be used to being compared to Joni Mitchell. Reviewers have done it repeatedly, pointing out how songs like "Round of Blues," from her current album, "Fat City," echo Mitchell's sharp-etched imagery and idiosyncratic melodic lines. Colvin's liner notes for the album even underscored the point, thanking Mitchell with the words "me wimp, you master."

Still, she seems genuinely pleased when another similarity is pointed out -- that both are considered folk singers when neither really play much in the way of folk music.

"Yeah, I know," she laughs over the phone from a tour stop in Nashville. "But try telling people that! It's the bane of my existence -- and hers too, I think."

Granted, the folk thing hasn't been entirely to Colvin's disadvantage. She did win a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category for her debut album, "Steady On," and her fondness for acoustic guitar narratives won her a lot of fans when she hit the road with Richard Thompson -- another quasi-folkie -- a few years back.

Nonetheless, Colvin doesn't much cotton to being pigeonholed. Nor should she, when "Fat City" is full of songs that rock as convincingly as "Tennessee" or "Object of My Affection." So it's easy to understand her ire at being stuck with what she calls "the stereotype of the long hair and the flowered dress."

Even worse is the way some writers will use that folkie image as a point of contrast when writing about women on the alternative end of the spectrum, like P. J. Harvey and Liz Phair. And that sort of thing really gets Colvin's hackles up.

"I call that the beauty pageant mentality," she says. "It doesn't matter what style of music you're talking about -- there can only be one winner, only one who's the coolest. So let's scratch each other's eyes out.

"It's extremely annoying."

Colvin speaks from experience. "I put Suzanne Vega on my first record, because we know one another, and because I'd toured with her as her backup singer. So I thought having her on the xTC record would show it's not a competitive thing, and that we're pals.

"But it didn't do that. I got asked nothing but Suzanne Vega questions: 'Did you copy her? Was it her that made you want to do what you do?' It didn't really make much of a difference to anybody."

Still, that wasn't quite as bizarre as what she wound up hearing about her relationship with Mary-Chapin Carpenter.

"We've done gigs together and we record together, so the big rumor, of course, was that Chapin and I are gay," she laughs. "Right. I mean, you can have the Traveling Wilburys palling around, but if you buddy up as women . . ."

So the two decided to have some fun with the rumor. "We got a big kick out it, so we tried to play it up," she says. "We played in Telluride the following June, and blew kisses to one another. We made a joke out of it."

That's water under the bridge, though.

These days, Colvin finds herself facing a different sort of romantic predicament: She's getting married, and some of her fans are worried that the impending union means she'll stop writing sad-and-lonely love songs.

"There have actually been people who have gone so far as to say, 'Don't get too happy' and stuff like that," she says. "And that needs to be challenged.

"I've really appreciated, I've got to say, Springsteen's work. I remember buying 'The River' and thinking, 'Is he ever going to grow up in the relationship sense of the term?' But he's done some great work, dealing with the struggle for commitment and all that."

As for her own music, says Colvin, "I figure there's plenty of material left to write. I mean, this hasn't solved my life. It's opened up a lot of questions, I'll tell you. But I am happy about it."

Besides, getting married ought to offer at least a little respite from the road, right?

"Ha, that's what you think" she laughs. "Well, for about a week. Somebody's got to go out and make the money, you know."

SHAWN COLVIN

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Pier Six, 731 Eastern Ave.

Tickets: $20 and $15 reserved, $10 lawn

Call: (410) 625-1400

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