Colvin finds happiness lies between happy and sad

October 21, 1994|By J. Doug Gill | J. Doug Gill,Special to The Sun

Sometimes you can tell a lot about an artist before you even hear a note of the music. Such is the case with contemporary folk artist Shawn Colvin.

"I think that the indefinable space between happy and sad is the most moving place for an artist to be," is how Colvin sums up her musical approach. "If there's anything I consistently strive for it's a melancholy limbo. That's my favorite state."

But it was her second favorite "state," Texas, that led the diminutive South Dakota native on her current career path. She moved to the musical hot bed to join the Dixie Diesels, a popular country swing band.

"Punk and disco were what was happening in the late '70s," she states. "People were beginning to panic about the quality of songwriting. Being in Texas was different. Everyone loved the local songwriters: Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Willis Ramsey. Seeing and hearing them was important, they made me realize that I didn't have to fall into the commercial traps of songwriting."

Her time in Texas also served to reinforce the folk music that had been introduced to her through her father's love for singer/songwriters such as Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. But it was travels to San Francisco and New York that cemented her penchant for poetic lyricism and added the diversity needed to rise above the cluttered folk singer crowd. In the Big Apple she hooked up with John Leventhal, a songwriter who would have a profound effect on her career.

After Colvin independently released a cassette from one of her live performances, which was played by scores of college radio stations, she became a regular on the East Coast club circuit. Soon after, Columbia Records signed her to a recording contract.

Those initial Columbia sessions resulted in her debut album, "Steady On," a collection of folk-based brilliance that would receive a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. The album was catapulted to commercial success by the song "Diamond In The Rough," co-composed by none other than John Leventhal.

"With both 'Steady On' and 'Fat City' (her second Columbia album), I felt that it was important to establish myself with records that made a statement about me as a writer," she emphasizes. "For the first part of my career I was solely a cover artist."

In Colvin's hands, being "solely a cover artist" didn't mean she lacked originality; it simply meant she was paying homage to those writers who have affected her emotionally.

Such was the thought process behind her latest Columbia release, "Cover Girl," a 12-song effort sprung from a life-long appreciation for the importance of the lyrical side of music composition.

"Because I am fond of so many songs," Colvin explains, "I've been keeping notes about making this album for years. Until now, it wouldn't have made any sense. At this point in my career, I think I can add something unique to these songs and still say something about who I am."

"Cover Girl" features six studio tracks and six songs that were recorded during two nights of solo performances at New York's Bottom Line club. Among the highlights are the familiar (Sting's "Every Little Thing (He) Does is Magic"), the relatively familiar (Tom Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night") and the downright obscure (Greg Brown's "One Cool Remove," which features guest vocals by local superstar Mary Chapin Carpenter). In each instance, Colvin offers inspired interpretations, each stamped with her indelible charm.

"When I was just getting started," Colvin remembers, "I knew tons of songs that I always tried to make my own. I guess that was the first step toward developing my style."

While she may have perfected that style -- that melancholy state between happy and sad -- one would be hard pressed to define any facet of Shawn Colvin's career as "in limbo."

Cover Colvin

To hear excerpts from Shawn Colvin's "Cover Girl," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6227 after you hear the greeting.

Shawn Colvin

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Wednesday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $15 to $25

Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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