Shawn Colvin's slow rise Music: The singer describes her career as a bit-by-bit buildup as she gradually mastered the business of recording.

March 22, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Shawn Colvin admits that her current album, "A Few Small Repairs," is all about the Big D. It's just that the "D" she has in mind doesn't stand for what some listeners think.

Because she wrote the songs in the wake of a divorce, critics and fans assumed that "A Few Small Repairs" was a break-up album -- a reasonable assumption, given such song titles as "Get Out of This House," "I Want It Back" and "84,000 Different Delusions." But, says Colvin, things aren't quite so simple.

"I never felt like the record was [about divorce]," says the 42-year old singer. "I thought it was a document of disillusionment. Certainly, getting a divorce is a very disillusioning experience. But along with that, I was disillusioned with the music business. I was disillusioned with my career. And my peers. And celebrity -- the state of what it took to be popular. That, to me, is what the record's about."

For Colvin to have been disillusioned about her prospects for stardom seems slightly ironic now. Not only has "A Few Small Repairs" become the best-selling album of her career, having sold over 700,000 copies, but last month, the single "Sunny Came Home" wound up winning two Grammy awards, for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

Surely, that sort of thing makes her feel a little less disillusioned, doesn't it?

"It helps!" says Colvin, laughing merrily.

"Everything about my career has been a slow buildup," says the singer, who is currently in the midst of a solo tour (she plays the Senator Theatre Wednesday). "There has not really been down. There has just hasn't been any major ascension. It's just been a little bit by a little bit."

Colvin has been in the music business for a long time. She started playing in bands in Carbondale, Ill., at age 17. By 24, she had moved to New York, where she began working as a singer/songwriter. She wrote songs, sang backup with the likes of Richard Thompson and Suzanne Vega (that's her doing the harmonies on "Luka"), and eventually got herself a manager. In 1988, she signed with Columbia Records, and a year later, released her first solo album, "Steady On."

It seemed like a great start. "Steady On" may not have been a best seller -- it peaked at 111 on the Billboard albums chart -- but it got great reviews, and even earned her a Grammy, for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.

Out of her element

The only problem was, making the album had been hell for the singer.

Onstage in a club or at a theater, Colvin was in her element and totally confident. "But when I went in to make my first record, I was completely lost," she says. "I was scared to death. There was a lot of doubt on my part, because I didn't have the experience."

"The first record we made was very difficult to make," agrees John Leventhal. He had been writing songs with Colvin for several years by the time he was hired to produce "Steady On," and initially hoped that their shared perspective and experience would make the recording process fairly painless.

It wasn't.

"It was the first record for both of us, for me as a producer and for her as an artist," he explains. "So there was a lot of angst, and a lot of second-guessing, and a lot of anxiety about, 'Is it any good?' "

The recording studio has made more than a few musicians uneasy. There is no audience vibe to play off, no fans in front to cheer encouragement. Instead, you're faced with darkness, solitude and the merciless accuracy of recording tape. It's enough to make anyone self-conscious.

Colvin hated it. "There was a lot of looking very, very closely at every little detail of the music," she says. "I found that oppressive. I lost perspective, and didn't want to hear the music after it was done. I was tired of it. And it was a lot of pressure."

She didn't really begin to enjoy recording until 1994, when she made her third album, "Cover Girl." The idea behind the album was simple enough -- Colvin would cut a dozen "covers," or songs that had been originally recorded by other artists -- and the execution was a breeze. "I knew the songs, and half of it was going to be live," she says. "It was kind of a no-brainer."

Well, almost. Colvin had forgotten one tiny detail: The album needed a designated hit. "I was still finding out that when you release a record, the record company wants a single. Duhhhh!" She chuckles self-deprecatingly. "That was not apparent to me by that point." So she went back into the studio, and cut a slick, radio-ready remake of the Police hit, "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," changing the "She" to "He."

"Every Little Thing" didn't get Colvin onto the charts, but she had fun. "What that record really did for me was, it left me craving a fun time in the studio," she says.

Learning the lessons

It also taught her an important lesson. So when she teamed up again with Leventhal for "A Few Small Repairs" -- they'd kept writing together, but he hadn't produced her since "Steady On" -- she knew that there had to be some singles potential in her songs.

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