On her new album Uncovered, acclaimed singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin shines with sublime sensitivity, casting new light on an exquisitely curated collection of songs from some of the most admired writers in popular music history. Uncovered's twelve tunes include songs by Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, Robbie Robertson and Graham Nash to name a few, but in their selection and delivery, they are pure Shawn Colvin. As Shawn says: "Unless a song moves you, it doesn't matter what you do with it."
Born in Vermilion, South Dakota and raised in part in Illinois and Ontario, Shawn Colvin was already a well-traveled and seasoned performer by the time she won her first Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album with her debut Steady On in 1989. In the decades since, Colvin has released a string of superlative albums and established an enduring reputation as one of America’s great live performers. Her lasting appeal is due in part to her willingness to lay herself bare coupled with a dry wit; intrigued parties would do well to investigate Colvin's superb memoir Diamond In The Rough (William Morrow Publishing, 2013).
"I learned to play guitar when I was ten," Shawn explains. "I learned fast and could copy anybody. My favorite artists were songwriters: James Taylor, Carole King, and Paul Simon among them. I was so in awe of the fact that these were actually songs that someone had written. I was terrified like, how could I ever live up to that? I had writer's block before I was a writer."
In time, Colvin refashioned that block into a notable self-penned body of work. Colvin compositions include Billboard chart lodgers "Round of Blues" and "I Don't Know Why" (both from 1992's Fat City), “Whole New You” (2001) and “Nothin’ On Me” (1997) as well as 1997's pop hit "Sunny Came Home" (co-written with John Leventhal), which earned her two of Grammy’s biggest awards, Record Of The Year and Song of the Year.
"I met John Leventhal when I first moved to New York around 1980," Shawn explains. "He invited me into the process of writing. I began to write lyrics and they were terrible. But I had this epiphany that I was a solo artist with stuff to say. Maybe it's all been said before, but at least it'll be me saying it. And I realized I could write my own songs. So, this album, it's another homage to my past, if you will." An homage to songs you wish you'd written? "Sure," Shawn says with an easy laugh, "I wish I'd written all of them."
Call it wish fulfillment through personal interpretation. Uncovered's gems include Colvin’s sepia-tinged interpretation of Tom Waits’ ballad “Hold On” (co-written by Waits with his wife Kathleen Brenan), which she describes as “dear and lonesome.” Colvin will feature that song in performance on her upcoming tour, as well as her cover of the Graham Nash composition "I Used to Be a King", the latter in part a nod to Colvin’s deep admiration of (and friendship with) the members of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Devotees of Colvin's work will immediately recognize that this isn't her first full album of cover songs. In 1994, she released Cover Girl, a 12-song trip through some of the compositions that informed her own artistic DNA. "I worshipped Bonnie Raitt, and because she sang other peoples' songs, that legitimized the act of covering someone else's songs. I mean, even the Beatles started as a cover band. It's an important step in learning. I eventually began to cover songs that were a bit less predictable: The Police, Talking Heads, songs that showed up on Cover Girl."
The difference in 2015 is that Colvin is now a fully seasoned writer and interpreter. "The songs on Cover Girl were actually staples of my live act at the time," Shawn explains. "This wasn't the case with Uncovered. Some of these songs I knew how to play, others I learned for the purpose of recording this album. Until you learn a song, you don't know if you can bring anything to it. I get the idea in my head to learn a song because I love it. Then I go through a time when I'm afraid to learn it because I don't want to screw it up. In the end I wind up finding out fairly quickly if it's going to work for me."
One song that worked right off the bat is album-opener "Tougher Than The Rest." The Springsteen composition first appeared on Bruce's 1987 album Tunnel Of Love, replete with gated drums and a synthesizer sheen (the production style of that time). Colvin's unvarnished recording gets to the emotional core of the song, where a shopworn roughneck reveals the sensitivity beneath his bluster. Coming from a woman, the change in perspective is radical but equally authentic.
"The version on the album is actually my demo recording," Shawn says. "We went into a studio called Bismeaux in Austin, and we were teaching Glenn Fukunaga the bass player the songs. I'd been doing 'Tougher Than The Rest' solo so I knew it real well. We ran it down and recorded it quickly and it came out right, so we decided to use it. It's a macho song but look beneath it and he's saying I can go the distance baby, and that does not mean being a bully!"
Colvin's process of adaptation reveals true treasures in new light. Take Uncovered's moody walk down "Baker Street." A huge hit for Gerry Rafferty upon its release in 1978 (and a radio staple ever since), the song is indelibly linked to Rafferty's dulcet delivery of a city-dweller's hard luck story, as well as the song's swinging, blaring saxophone. "I always wanted to do 'Baker Street'," Shawn says. She turns the tempo down to a low smolder, while soaring harmony singing from David Crosby adds a redemptive touch.
"Crosby happened to be in Austin," Colvin says of the city she makes home, "so we got together for dinner with his son Django, and I said to David, 'You're here, sing on something!' I thought those b-sections in 'Baker Street' would be gorgeous." Crosby's contribution proved Colvin correct. About the original's other most notable element, Colvin says with a smile: "We went as far as possible in the other direction from a saxophone with pedal steel."
In 1993, the Australian band Crowded House released their fourth studio album Together Alone, featuring a Neil Finn relationship riddle called "Private Universe." At that time, Colvin herself was gaining plaudits for her solo career and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a huge Crowded House fan. "You know how sometimes people say 'You wrote the soundtrack to my life back then'? Well, Crowded House did that for me. I remember when their album Woodface came out, it was so great. So when Together Alone came out I thought, maybe I shouldn't go there, it can't be as good as Woodface. But I liked it even better! Neil Finn is a songwriter with a whole lot of depth."
One of Colvin's key songwriting crushes is Robbie Robertson, and her cover here of The Band's classic "Acadian Driftwood" pares the original's lush and layered ensemble performance into something more minimal, albeit beautifully abetted by Mike Meadows' brushed snare drum and the plaintive mandola of Milo Deering.
"There never was a band with singers like The Band," Colvin says in admiration. "One reason I love 'Acadian Driftwood' is Robbie Robertson's vernacular, lines like 'pull up your stakes children, and come on down.' I'm sure he picked some of it up from [the Band's Arkansas-born drummer] Levon Helm." Though Colvin deems the original's vocal parts to be "intimidating," she embraces the legacies of Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, and again, makes the song her own.
The topic of singing turns attention to Uncovered’s masterful version of Stevie Wonder's "Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away" with Colvin singing in a seldom-heard lower part of her vocal register, followed by slow-burn version of "Gimme A Little Sign," first popularized in the Sixties by soul singer Brenton Wood, enriched here by the harmonies of guest Marc Cohn.
Uncovered closes with "Til I Get It Right," the Red Lane-Larry Henley composition taken to the top of the country charts by Tammy Wynette in 1973. It is this last song, a statement of controlled passion and resilience that is presented more faithfully to the original recording than any of Uncovered's other numbers. It also encapsulates the intent of the album as a whole.
"The title Uncovered has a few meanings," Shawn explains. "It means uncovering as in an excavation, and uncovered in the sense of vulnerability. This album was made very spontaneously, we didn't over-think or overdub it. One of my friends said to me, 'You sound so exposed on this record!' and I think that's the thematic key, vulnerability."