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Back to Sing More Than Lullabies

Shawn Colvin returns with a new album after a break in her career to have a baby.

March 24, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — "Who's that whimpering child out there?" Shawn Colvin asked early in her show this week at the Bottom Line. "Who'd dare bring a child to a show like this?"

If you didn't know that the deadpan Colvin was referring to her own daughter in the audience, you'd think the singer-songwriter was a bit cranky.

But then, it's hard to imagine that anyone in the packed club wasn't in on the joke.

There's something so understated about Colvin's music and manner that it's easy for her to go by unnoticed in the fast-paced, flamboyant world of pop music, and that may be why she was 32 before she got a major-label record deal and 42 when she landed a gold album (500,000 units shipped).

But once you do fall under the spell of the wistful charm and quiet depth of her songs, Colvin connects in a way that makes you as curious about the details of her life as the thoughts in her songs.

And the big news there was the birth of her first child 2 1/2 years ago, an event that put her career on hold as she was just coming off the biggest album of her late-blooming career. That 1996 collection, "A Few Small Repairs," shipped more than 1 million copies, thanks in large part to the success of "Sunny Came Home," the mysterious tale of a woman's vengeance that won Grammys for record and song of the year.

Since the baby's birth, her fans have been wondering about the effect on Colvin's music and career. Would she still be driven to record and tour? Would she be in such a blissful state that her music would become one-dimensional?

The answer arrives Tuesday when Columbia Records releases "Whole New You," a collection of 11 songs she wrote with her long-time collaborator and producer, John Leventhal. It's another typically tasteful collection, filled with solid craft and gentle but penetrating observations.

Though the tunes reflect on such matters as relationships and death, several touch on the big event. The title tune, in fact, is one of the sweetest odes to a newborn since Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."

Colvin, who plays Wednesday and Thursday at the Roxy in West Hollywood, saved "Whole New You" until the closing minutes of her two-hour set at the Bottom Line.

"Shake your head when it's all too good to be true," she sang, capturing in a single line both the happiness she wishes for her child and the joy that child has meant to her life.

The song was all the more touching because Colvin had brought her daughter, Caledonia, on stage earlier in the set to sing a few words from "Over the Rainbow."

Sitting in a midtown hotel room the next day, Colvin, 45, reflected on that moment--not about whether it was good for the show but whether it was good for her daughter.

"I don't know if it's good for Cal," she said of being in the spotlight. "It's something she likes to do. But you wonder about all that attention--just saying a couple of words and having everyone applaud. It's something I've got to think about. In some ways, I feel this whole thing about pop motherhood is uncharted territory.

"So few women talk or write about what it's like, what it does to their creativity and their drive. Yet it's this utterly transforming experience, and there was no way it couldn't enter into my writing once I started again."

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Colvin is as engaging and down-to-earth in an interview as on stage, apologizing at the start for smoking a cigarette and quickly pointing out that she never smokes in her house or when her daughter is around.

Music has been part of Colvin's life since childhood. The South Dakota native taught herself to play guitar when she was 10 and starred in a production of "The King and I" in high school. She attended Southern Illinois University but dropped out to be a musician. Over the next few years, she moved from Austin to San Francisco to New York, changing musical styles (folk to rock to Western swing) as quickly as she changed her address.

It was in New York, opening at the Bottom Line and other clubs in the mid-'80s, that she began to focus on songwriting and developing her folk-based pop style.

"It took a long time to find myself as a musician," said Colvin, wearing jeans and a wrinkled white shirt rather than some stylish pop attire for the early afternoon interview. "I'm a good musical chameleon and a good copycat. I had fun doing other people's songs and playing in all these various styles.

"I didn't have the confidence to try and find my own musical identity until I stopped drinking around 1983. I suffered from this biochemical depression and anxiety disorder, and I thought drinking made me feel better about myself. But it wasn't until I stopped drinking that I started to believe I might really have something to say."

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It was around that time that she teamed up with Leventhal, who writes the music for Colvin's lyrics.

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