By Denise Dunbar
When singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin released her fourth studio album, “A Few Small Repairs,” 20 years ago, she was a relatively unknown folk singer. The Grammy-winning hit “Sunny Came Home” changed that, turning the South Dakota native into a headliner who has toured with Sting and recorded with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss.
Colvin recently reissued a 20th anniversary version of “A Few Small Repairs,” which includes seven live songs in addition to the original 13. Times editor and co-publisher Denise Dunbar recently caught up with Colvin by phone while the singer was in Los Angeles in the early stages of her tour, which stops at the Birchmere for two shows later this month.
Colvin’s shows, set for Oct. 30 and 31, will feature a performance of “A Few Small Repairs” in its entirety, in addition to other songs from her repertoire.
DD: This tour is in support of the re-release of ‘A Few Small Repairs,’ which you
wrote following a divorce. Can you talk about where you are now relative to then?
SC: You know, here’s the myth: That it’s a divorce record. It’s really not. I think there’s two or three songs that give people that idea. One is certainly ‘Get Out of This House.’ That’s an angry song.
It was inspired by the fact that I had buyer’s remorse from buying [my] first house. And that’s the truth. I had a writing room all set up for myself. I assumed miracles would happen in there. I was across the street from a lake. I just thought, ‘Oh, this is perfection. I’m going to be brilliant.’ And that pressure just made me completely blocked. So I just kind of started where I was and said ‘Go jump in the lake. Go run up the hill. Get out of this house.’ I mean, that’s literally where it came from.
But then I had to fill in the blanks. What are you saying when you say ‘get out of this house’ to somebody? Because that was a really rude song. I would never actually say those things to anybody. And then, if I were brave, I guess it had something to do with my divorce, because it’s about the loneliness of things not working out and wondering ‘why’ and ‘what if.’ So that probably had something to do with it, but there’s a lot of story songs on it and some upbeat songs.
People love a divorce record and I get it. I love a divorce record too, but it’s really over-played.
DD: You’re playing the record in its entirety. How does that feel to perform some of these songs that you haven’t played in years?
SC: It’s so fun. I mean, some of them are kind of mainstays in my set, but some of them I haven’t played in a while. And I had to go back and listen to the record to make sure I was getting the parts right and the guitar playing right. It’s just been nothing but fun. I really love all of those songs. I had a great time making the record and it just hearkens back to a great time. I’m really proud of everything we did. It’s just really a pleasure.
How did you choose which seven live songs to add on the reissue?
I had to go through a lot of live material. I wanted to represent most of the songs on the record and then maybe throw in a couple from previous records. And just kind of mix it up by having some live band tracks and live solo tracks.
‘Sunny Came Home’ is by far your best-known song. Somewhere I read it
described as a murder-ballad. How would you describe it?
Well, I think I’d describe it as a murder-ballad (laughing). I mean, something pretty dire happens, you know? It was just a fun song to write. I based it on the painting that was on the cover of the record. I had the cover first before I wrote the song. I had the idea to write the song about that woman. And she obviously had set a huge fire. And so I just went with that. It was a fun song to write because I just got into descriptive details about what that looked like. And as far as what she was doing, I don’t know. I leave that to people’s imaginations. Which is, I think, great. I think it’s part of why people like the record.
You are such a good storyteller in your songs. Did that come naturally or did you develop that talent?
I would say it developed. I wrote much more personally on the first record. ‘Steady On’ was very internal. I had a lot to say. I think that can be typical of one’s early songs if you’re writing confessionally or personally. I had a lot of past to draw from … But then I would say I grew as a songwriter and it became more interesting to me to become more broad-minded and, if you will, [opaque]. Or remove myself and write about other characters and not so specific to my personal situation. So thank you for saying I’m a good storyteller. That really was something I developed.
What is your background? How did you get interested in singing and songwriting and playing the guitar?
I grew up in South Dakota until I was about 12 years old. My parents were big music fans – my father especially. He played the guitar and banjo. He was a Kingston Trio fanatic. I listened to all those records. So that was very influential. That was certainly folk music at its finest.
Because there were instruments lying around and because I was a music nut ever since I could remember, I just took to it. I always liked to sing. In church I was in the junior choir. As soon as I could get somewhere I could sing in front of people, I was in. When I was 10 years old I just wanted to play. My father had guitars and he tried to teach my brother, he bought one for my mother, and I kind of came up from behind and went, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try.’
And I just got completely enamored. And practiced like crazy and would hole up in my room and do nothing but play guitar. I loved the Beatles. I loved the Kingston Trio. I was into a lot of folk songs; I loved Pete Seeger. I learned the obvious ones, ‘This Land is Your Land’ and things like that. Then came the heyday of the singer-songwriter. Judy Collins. Joni Mitchell was a huge influence. James Taylor. Paul Simon. Jackson Browne. Linda Ronstadt. Bonnie Raitt.
It was the heyday of that kind of thing. It just launched me, learning those songs and listening to all of those people non-stop, filling myself up with that type of music. I was pretty lucky to have learned the guitar and then that dovetailed into that musical period.
Shawn Colvin will perform at the Birchmere Oct. 30 and 31 with special guests Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams.
If you go:
Location: The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Date: Oct. 30 and 31
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Ticket cost: $62.50
Information: www.thebirchmere.com, 703-549-7500