She was a major pop star for about 15 minutes back in 1997. Before and since, she’s been one of the leading lights of “Americana” music and perhaps the most important singer/songwriter – male or female – of the last 20 years. She’s a big favorite of ours at Popdose; you can read some of our many thoughts about her here, here, and here — and those links don’t even include the brilliant Idiot’s Guide that was lost in the Jefitoblog Disaster of 2007.
Last week Popdose horned in on Colvin’s downtime at home in Austin, TX, following the July 3 conclusion of the high-profile Three Girls and Their Buddy tour – on which she matched songs and wits with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller. Starting this week, Colvin is hitting the road on her own throughout the summer and fall. After opening a couple shows for Jackson Browne this weekend in New England, she’ll be headlining smaller venues armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar and her catalog of folk-pop gems. She’ll no doubt perform some of the songs that appear on her new Live album, which she considers her first proper in-concert recording.
What made this the right time for a live album?
No other reason than the fact that I haven’t really done one. There were some live cuts on [1994’s Cover Girl] record, but for someone who’s been playing live for so long, and doing it solo in a way that audiences have always seemed to appreciate, it seemed like, why not now?
Well, there was the Live ’88 CD.
Oh. I’d kind of forgotten about that…
Sounds like you don’t consider it a major part of your catalog.
(laughs) ’Spose not, huh?
I never heard much about the circumstances of that release [which was an expanded version of the Live Tape she sold at gigs before signing with Columbia in 1988]. Were you involved much at all? Do you have any rights to the material, or receive any royalties from it?
Well, I have rights to the material … My recollection is that it was a release on a small label [Plump Records] that belonged to my manager at the time. It was sort of a favor to him.
I was at one of the gigs at the Bottom Line [in New York] where you recorded the live tracks that appeared on Cover Girl.
You were there? Huh! Well, those were solo performances, but they got added onto. I had an A&R guy at the time who was also a musician – and that’s a bad combination. He said he wanted to “semi-produce” some of those live tracks, so it didn’t turn out to be purely what I had envisioned. I mean, the studio tracks on that record were what I wanted them to be, but some of the live stuff didn’t come out the way I would have liked it to.
So now you’ve got a live CD that really represents your shows, and you’re going to be touring behind it for the rest of the year. How have you adjusted to raising your daughter [11-year-old Caledonia] while continuing to tour?
(long pause) Ugh. It’s hard! When she was a baby it wasn’t a big deal, I could just bring her along. But once she was in school … I really don’t like to be away during the school year. I don’t think it would be that difficult if I weren’t a single parent, but I am. She’s just known from an early age that when I work, it means I leave.
Now that the Three Girls tour is over, what’s your post-mortem on it?
Oh, I’m really sad it’s over. It was a great event, a lot of fun every night. The camaraderie was fantastic. Everybody agrees that it was one of most fun things we’ve ever done. I hope it continues into the future, in some way.
How did you feel the songwriter-circle format went over in bigger venues? It’s a long way from the Bottom Line or the Bluebird [Cafe in Nashville] to a place like the Greek Theatre here in L.A.
Yeah, but I never think of [a mid-size outdoor amphitheatre] like the Greek as being so enormous that the intimacy is lost. I know what you’re saying — these were bigger venues than usual for a show like this – but I don’t think we played any venues where we couldn’t achieve the atmosphere we were going for.
Did you worry that audiences in some of the cities you played weren’t going to be as familiar with the format? That they might be expecting each of you to play a solo set instead, and to play your hits?
I have to tell you, we weren’t really thinking about that going in. Since then, as I’ve done some interviews, I’ve begun to get the idea that just because those of us who write songs for a living are familiar with the [songwriter-circle] setup – I mean, I’ve done it a million times — that doesn’t mean that everybody’s familiar with it. But it’s nice to think that we were able to bring that format to places where audiences maybe hadn’t seen it before. Hopefully, if anybody came expecting to see a Shawn Colvin show and a Patty Griffin show and the rest, they came away thinking it was a nice surprise.
How did you choose the material for those shows? Was there a lot of coordination among the four of you?
What we did was, we got together once for a daylong rehearsal, and while we were there we made sure to work up three to five songs that we could all join in on. We made sure we had a starting song [which turned out to be Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him”] and an ending song [usually Griffin’s “Mary”].
Apart from that, it was understood that as we went through the rotation, it was every man for himself. If one of us wanted to play something that the others could play on, fine. If not, that was fine, too. We used sound checks as a rehearsal time – someone would bring in a song and give us parts to sing or play on. The more gigs we did, the more songs we added to the repertoire. It took a little while to build up enough songs where the shows began to seem like more of a group effort, but we worked it out.
Because Patty and Buddy have been working together on a gospel album, it seemed like that music came to dominate the shows. Was that your impression?
The funny thing is, it’s not just that Patty was making that record. Emmylou does a lot of fairly religious tunes, and Buddy’s done some gospel records. I don’t personally write much that fits in there, but I’ve got some cover songs like the Judee Sill song I do [“There’s a Rugged Road”]. Sometimes you just kinda have to go with the flow.
I get that. But I couldn’t help but notice one rotation where Buddy, Emmylou and Patty all did gospel songs, then you pulled out your cover of [Gnarls Barkley’s] “Crazy.”
(laughs) Yeah, I had to end that. Had to nip it in the bud. I just felt like, “OK, I can’t top any of that, so I’d better change directions.”
But that’s part of the artistry of the whole thing, you know? You’ve got to follow somebody — and sometimes a mood gets created with what’s come before, and when your turn comes you’re either gonna enhance it or change it. And you’ve got to make that decision every three songs.
It’s a little nerve-wracking, actually. I never knew what Patty was gonna do! I’d think I was going to do one of my uptempo songs, but then Patty would play one of her badass songs, and I’d figure, well, I can’t follow that, so I’d bring it down instead. And then there were times when I’d get so caught up in what she was singing that I’d forget to think about what I was gonna do next, and I’d get myself in trouble for a minute.
But that’s a process I really like. It definitely keeps you on your toes.
It seemed to me that Buddy was the biggest beneficiary of the tour. He certainly came in the least well-known of the four of you, and he made a huge impression. He made out like a bandit – except for that [February] heart attack, of course…
Yeah, there was that! I agree with you, though, and that was one of the best things about the tour. I’ve worked with him so many times, and I hope he comes away from this tour with a lot of new fans. He’s such a great performer, and on top of that he’s a great guy to have onstage with you. It was nice to have the Buddy Spackle at those shows.
The “Buddy Spackle”?
Yeah. Any rough edges you have in your guitar playing, or any holes in your performance that need to be filled in, you know it’s gonna get smoothed over by the Buddy touch.
How did his heart attack affect the three of you “Girls,” apart from his physical absence when he had to miss a series of shows?
It was very upsetting, of course, and disturbing. It was like “and then there were three…” Luckily, it was clear pretty quickly that he was going to be OK, and that he’d come back to the tour eventually. But in the meantime there was a course of action that was gonna be taken, and we’d have to continue. The show must go on, you know? It was strange going forward without him, but we pulled it together. We felt good about what we were doing, and there was a beauty in what we were trying to pull off, so that helped us get through it.
Going back to “Crazy” for a minute … I heard you play it at the House of Blues here in L.A. when you were touring behind These Four Walls, and it was a nice surprise. But it was a real surprise when you actually released it as a one-off single. That’s kind of an unusual move these days.
Well, but it’s so easy to do now, isn’t it? On that tour I had Buddy playing with me, and Deborah Dobkin on percussion, and we were doing this little rawhide version of “Crazy” just because we thought it was a fantastic song and it would be fun to put our spin on it. And nowadays all you have to do is slap it on a computer and release it! There was no real reason to do it, just an idea. It’s a fun song to play, and it works well when I’m playing solo.
Are there any songs in your catalog that you find too personal or too painful to play anymore? A Popdose colleague of mine was wondering specifically about songs like “If I Were Brave” or “Monopoly,” that seem to come from a very specific, very emotional place. Have there been times when you look back on a song and feel like, “Maybe I overshared a bit on that one”?
I don’t think there’s anything where I feel like I overshared… I’m fine with “If I Were Brave,” but I don’t have a piano [onstage] and I’ve never bothered to try to get it right on guitar, so I don’t play it. “Monopoly” is a problem. It was so of the moment, and so specific, and it doesn’t really speak to me anymore. I don’t know if I crafted a timeless song with that one. It definitely represents something I was going through at that time, and I was really into it then, but I don’t feel connected to it now.
That’s OK, though. You can’t love all of them.