For many aspiring musicians plying their trade in bars and coffeehouses, learning cover songs is a necessity. But for singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, who’s been playing her own songs on stages around the world for the better part of three decades, paying tribute to those who have influenced her own writing is a genuine passion.
For the second time in her career, Colvin puts her stamp on a dozen tunes from writers like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Finn and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the acoustic Uncovered. The new LP, out now on Fantasy Records, arrives 21 years after the similarly-themed Cover Girl, which spotlighted her unique takes on songs by Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and the Police. Colvin, who will spend much of the next two months touring with the Eagles’ Don Henley, talks with Rolling Stone Country about the first songs that took her breath away, her ongoing battle with stage fright and the reason most of her covers come from male songwriters.
Why was now the right time for you to do another album of covers?
It was, in part, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Cover Girl. Actually, more like 21st — but who’s counting? I’ve amassed a bunch of covers since then and I love to do them. I get a lot of joy out of covering other people’s songs and, at my best, I think I bring something a little new to a lot of them. Also, right now I’m writing songs with Steve Earle for a record we’re recording in December. I just can’t write that much. I can’t write two records worth of material at the same time. Steve can. He can write 10 songs in one day but I can’t.
Have you always had a pretty good number of cover songs in your arsenal?
I was a cover artist for years. I didn’t start writing songs until I was in my mid-twenties. I wrote them with John Leventhal and they were pretty bad. I was in my late twenties when I wrote the first song with him that made any sense to me about what I was rooted in and what spoke for me as an artist. That was “Diamond in the Rough” [from her 1989 debut album, Steady On]. From then on, I had a template and began to write the stuff that ended up on my records. I’ve always got my ear out and I’m also just a fan of great songwriters. I always wanted to be a songwriter and it took a while.
What are some of your first memories of songs that impressed or influenced you?
I was about 14 or 15 and I was babysitting next-door to my house. One of my best friends, Jane, came over and she had the 45 of [James Taylor’s] “Fire and Rain.” I had not heard James ever. We just kind of sat there dumbfounded. You can say that about a lot of songs, but as far as being younger and going, “Who the hell is this?” “Fire and Rain” was a big deal. And I should also mention the first time I heard “We Belong Together” by Rickie Lee Jones, my mouth fell open. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
In terms of your own songwriting, are there any you look at now and think maybe they’re too personal?
Not really. I can think of a couple as I was trying on my persona as a songwriter, where I intentionally went too far, which is a great technique to find something or to get things out. I have a friend who’s a novelist and some days when he can’t figure out what to do, he just types out a string of curse words. There may be a couple of songs that I’ve recorded that I’ve thought maybe I was a little too explicit about the relationship. But not many.
The last song you cover on the new record is “When I Get It Right,” written by Larry Henley and Red Lane, both of whom both passed away fairly recently. Even though the song is closely associated with Tammy Wynette, it seems so deeply personal to you.
That’s why it’s last! [Laughs] It just sums up. . .there are so many love lost, lovesick songs that I write. I thought this was actually a positive spin on it, almost an attitude of pride and hope. I just love it.
You’ve done a lot of Neil Finn/Crowded House songs through the years, including “Private Universe” on this album. What is it about his songs that speak to you?
Yeah, there was a period where I just covered the hell out of Crowded House. They have a Beatlesque quality; Neil does, [too], in his songwriting. That kind of deep — yet pop — tunefulness. I just think Neil has a great voice and even though he’s not English, nonetheless, he’s a Kiwi and there’s something about that that leaks in and makes it different and makes his voice different. They’re just great pop musicians and he’s a great songwriter. I got to play with him once. I was in Auckland. . .I actually wrote a song with him once over email. It ended up as a bonus track on one of my records [“What I Get Paid For,” included on the European version of A Few Small Repairs].
One of the oldest songs on the album is “I Used to Be a King.” It’s interesting that Graham Nash’s original version had Jerry Garcia playing piano and pedal steel.
Did it? Well, I’ve wanted to cover that song for years. That’s one in the category of ones I was afraid to try, just because I loved the original version so much. I was asked to do a tribute to Crosby, Stills and Nash in Seattle a few years ago. They were there, and the powers-that-be said I could do a couple of songs. I said, “I can’t do a couple, because there’s three of them and I’ll leave one of them out!” So I did three songs, one by each of them, and I finally had the courage to do “I Used to Be a King.”
David Crosby is also represented, singing with you on a version of “Baker Street,” which certainly sounds a lot different from the original.
I can’t believe I know him. I can’t believe he’s a fan of mine. All three of those guys have been huge champions of mine. He was in Denton, Texas, doing something with Snarky Puppy. He came down to Austin with his son, Django, especially to hang out with me and maybe write some songs. I was in the middle of making the record in Austin and I just thought if I don’t ask him, I’m stupid. Of course, he agreed. I’m proud and, yes, very thrilled.
How much of an influence does Austin’s music scene have on you?
I lived in Austin in the mid-Seventies, when I moved there from Carbondale, Illinois. I would say that really had more of an influence on me than coming back in the mid-Nineties. I was in a country swing band [the Dixie Diesels] and it was a smaller town then. I was in my early twenties and I got out a lot and heard tons of great bands that are kind of legendary now in Austin lore: Omar and the Howlers, Marcia Ball, Willis Alan Ramsey, Butch Hancock, Uncle Walt’s Band [and] Asleep at the Wheel, of course. Armadillo World Headquarters was there and you could see absolutely everyone there, famous and local as well. Then, when I came back in the mid-Nineties, in pretty short order I had a baby. I like to say I’ve been a soccer mom since then. I travel and do my concerts but when I’m at home, it’s all about [my daughter] Callie. But I will say there’s a radio station, KGSR, that has since become a lot more mainstream, Triple-A, but when I was there in the mid-Nineties, it was a stunning radio station. I always felt like a big deal in Austin because they were so supportive of me.
Between this record’s “Hold On,” which was written by Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen, and “There’s a Rugged Road,” by Judee Sill from Cover Girl, that’s the extent of female songwriters on both albums. Why is that?
Whether it’s the easy way out or not, to cover a song that a guy sings, it’s pretty easy to make it a little bit different. [It’s] a different point of view; you sound different. “Baker Street” is an example. It wouldn’t have mattered who did it. I really reworked the song in terms of the mood. The way it came out, it wouldn’t have sounded like anybody, male or female, who had done the original version. But it is almost an easier go of things to cover guys. And it’s ballsy to cover Judee Sill, but not that many people know her. So I felt obligated, because she’s very important to me.
You’ll be on the road with Don Henley next month, and Steuart Smith, who co-produced Uncovered (with Stewart Lerman), will join you on tour. Why do you think you two work so well together?
Oh gosh, several reasons. Not the least of which is that he’s just a great musician, a great guitar player and a great producer. I just think he understands me and he kind of understands what the essence of me is — and that means not overproduction. We’re just great friends. We have that shorthand and similar sensibilities, that sick sense of humor.
Steuart is in the Eagles and in Don’s band and so is [pedal steel player] Milo Deering. They’re going to do double-duty. They’re playing with me in my opening set. It’s not going to be me by myself for a change [and] I’m very excited!
In the past you’ve said that songwriting terrifies you. Is that still the case?
Yeah. Some people find it easy. I can perform easily; I don’t mind getting up in front of people at all. I’ve always sung and felt confident about that and guitar playing isn’t a stretch, but songwriting is. We all have our challenges in what we do, and that’s mine.