In 1965, Shawn Colvin was a young piano student in Vermillion, South, Dakota, when she was given Lullabies and Night Songs, a book of songs for children, including many traditional tunes, arranged for piano by Alex Wilder and distinctively illustrated by Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of classic, award-winning books including Where the Wild Things Are. Alongside holiday songs, including "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Silent Night," and the more contemporary "Christmas Time Is Here," from TV's perennial favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Colvin applied her gentle folk-infused vocal touch to songs from the Wilder-Sendak book, including "All the Pretty Li'l Horses," "All Through the Night," and "Close Your Eyes," the familiar "Brahms Lullaby" melody with lyrics by Lullabies and Night Songs editor William Engvick.
Fast-forward to 1998 as Colvin, having won a pair of Grammys for the biting breakup tune "Sunny Came Home" and its accompanying LP A Few Small Repairs, was also expecting her first child, who would be born that July. With the holidays on the horizon, Colvin's label suggested she record a Christmas album. Unsure of how to distinguish the project from the countless holiday discs already on the market, the expectant mother was inspired by the memory of Lullabies and Night Songs, incorporating several lullabies into the Christmas album she would record just before her daughter was born.
Two decades later, as her daughter prepares to exit her teen years, Colvin revisits the Wilder-Sendak collaboration for The Starlighter, a 14-song collection that, this time, includes only material from the nearly 50-song tome, rendered with a supremely delicate touch. With most songs set to simple piano arrangements, save for a few in which the singer-songwriter accompanies herself on guitar, the LP's title track is accompanied by a dazzling music video crafted by Jordan Stone and Martin Hughes in Victorian pantomime-inspired animation, while at the same time echoing the spirit of the original Sendak illustrations. Stone, from Austin, and Hughes, of
"They wanted this animated companion piece," Colvin tells Rolling Stone Country. "And I had nowhere… I had nothing. I watch The Simpsons. [Laughs] They sent me some examples of work that had been done for other children's projects. I picked this team based on a video they had done for the Bob Schneider project. It was like made materials, cardboard and paper, layered and evocative. They just explained the concept; that it would be like a stage with multiple backdrops, like these are puppets. They just went further than I ever would have imagined, like little mice behind the scenes doing things, and the frog riding the bicycle catching the fly. Stuff that if you don't see it on a larger screen or a computer or something, you don't catch a lot of it."
The clip also features Colvin in animated form, but unlike singer Rachel Jordan, the modern character she voiced on an episode of the aforementioned Simpsons, this version of Colvin strums an acoustic guitar while dressed in a gray Victorian gown. She notes that in the run-up to the album's release, there will be a handful of additional music videos created to accompany the tracks, including one that will feature her grown-up daughter.
"I realized if I just had a picture of somebody, then they could be a character in the video," Colvin explains. "So, I got a picture of my daughter, who is 19 now, and we're putting her in the song called 'The Nut Tree,' because it refers to the King of Spain's daughter who comes to visit the little girl and wants her pear from her nut tree. So, my daughter's going to be the King of Spain's daughter."
Other songs on the upcoming LP include such recognizable ones as "The Cuckoo (Is a Pretty Bird)" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," and more obscure selections such as "Bobby Shaftoe," a character whom Colvin describes as a "metrosexual narcissist." Of the woman in that tune, she says, "She's longing for him and he combs his hair… he's so pretty and it's like, he's gonna break your heart. He’s primping, always primping." Colvin also notes that while the album's producer, keyboard player Doug Petty, also had the Sendak book as a child, while combing through it to select songs for this sequel, they happened upon one neither of them knew well but were drawn to immediately, "The Journey." It's an intensely gorgeous tune which in many ways mirrors Colvin's own deeply moving work.
"It's a little complicated, lyrically," she says. "It's this story about fighting sleep… so much to do, but the sleeper must go. What a great way to put that. 'A sleeper smiles with a sigh, the journey is long, but the sleeper must go, so many lands to see.' Is the journey all the places they want to see or is the journey the dream, the sleeping?"
The Starlighter will be available for purchase or streaming exclusively on Amazon Music February 23rd. Here's the full track listing:
"Raisins and Almonds"
"Go Tell Aunt Rhody"
"Minnie and Winnie"
"Sleep Baby Sleep"
"Many Million Years Ago"
"The Nut Tree"
"Hush Little Baby"