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Colvin talks of life, music

`When you're clinically depressed, you're not writing,' says the singer, back with a new album.

October 13, 2006|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK — There are a few things Shawn Colvin fans can expect every time she comes forth with new music.

One is smart, literate folk-pop of the type she's been making since her 1989 debut. Another is an intriguing cover song or two, in this case a take on the Bee Gees' "Words."

Colvin is nearly a decade removed from a career peak, when her dark tale "Sunny Came Home" became an unlikely hit and won Grammy Awards for song and record of the year. She's taken some time off to raise her daughter, now 8, and is back with a new collection, "These Four Walls."

Colvin, 50, took some time to talk about her music and her efforts to fight depression, which recently took her on a drug company-sponsored speaking tour.

Question: Until you started writing "Summer Dress," you hadn't written a song in three years. Was this an intentional exile?

Answer: I didn't say to myself, "I'm not going to write for three years," but I was pretty burnt out for a lot of reasons and I needed to wait until I felt fresh.

Q: What led to you feeling burnt out?

A: The record I had just done [2001's "Whole New You"]. I liked some of it. Some of it I didn't like, but that was no one's fault but mine. I felt like I'd done it under pressure and I'd forced it -- again, no one's fault but mine -- but then it wasn't promoted, it didn't do well. It was just painful and unpleasant.

Q: Was it a better experience this time?

A: Oh, 180 [degrees]. I got a new record company, I changed managers. It was just time to shake things up. I sat tight until I felt better.

Q: You've known and worked with [producer] John Leventhal for 25 years now, even having a relationship at one time. Why does your partnership work?

A: If it didn't have any mystery, I guess it wouldn't be as good. It's not super-easy to explain. I think at the heart of it, since the very beginning when we first met each other, the way he writes and plays just kills me and the way I sing and write has a similar effect on him and that's not easy to find. We inspire each other, and that's why it works.

Q: So where do you keep your Grammy Awards?

A: I have a room at home [in Austin, Texas] that has my guitars and pianos, a music room. It has all my CDs and gold records.

Q: Ten years removed, how do you look back on that experience? Did winning the Grammys give you more confidence as a writer?

A: It's a pleasant memory. It was nice to be acknowledged as a writer in that way. It was thrilling. But it doesn't give you a hall pass to writing more good songs. What did Dylan always say? What is the favorite song you wrote? The next one. There's no point in resting on your laurels.

Q: By going on a speaking tour to talk to people about your experiences with depression, do you feel that made a real difference for people?

A: There are people that came up to me and said that it did. It sounds like a cliche, but if it helps one person, it's a good thing.

Q: Is it a myth that depression or melancholy fuels the best art?

A: That was part of what I talked about. It's an age-old question. The more we understand -- Tom Cruise notwithstanding -- about biological depression, there's a line to be crossed where you're not going to be creating anything. You're lucky to keep your head above water. I think there's temperament and personality and I think there's biology. When you're clinically depressed, you're not writing songs.

Q: A lot of songwriters, such as Dylan and Rosanne Cash, have been writing about getting older and the life experiences to go with it. How has getting older affected you as a writer?

A: As the premier singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s come of middle age, it's kind of a phenomenon we haven't seen before. Do you agree? It's very exciting. A songwriter is going to write about these things. It's not so much what you want to say, to me the issue is, how much do you want to say it? How tired are you? How much time are you spending being a parent? How much do you want to ruminate on this stuff? And if you choose to, what's the tone of it? To me, these are the questions.

Q: Your daughter is now 8. Would you like her to go into music?

A: It's funny you should mention that, because I was thinking about Teddy Thompson, who's on this record. And Rufus and Martha Wainwright, who I've been listening to. She doesn't really show a predilection for doing that at the moment. But I think about these kids and how they were raised with it and obviously had a natural talent. I really, honestly don't care. As it was for me, as it probably is for the kids I'm talking about, nobody could say anything to tell me not to do it. It's what I had to do.

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