Shawn Colvin: "Diamond in the Rough"

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:54
Thanks for joining. I'm Diane Rehm. In the late '90s, the song "Sunny Came Home" made the top ten charts. It also won two Grammy awards for singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin. In a new memoir, Colvin opens up about her drinking and depression and how she's arrived at a place of emotional peace.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:21
She has a new album out this week, "All Fall Down." Her memoir is titled "Diamond in the Rough." Shawn Colvin joins me in the studio. We'll welcome your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, it's good to have you here.

MS. SHAWN COLVIN

11:07:51
Thank you so much, it's good to be here.

REHM

11:07:54
I wish people could see you. You have on this gorgeous jacket that's filled with rhinestones and red beads. Where did that come from?

COLVIN

11:08:08
Oh, it came from a store yesterday when I felt the terrible urge to go and get something new because I've been working hard. It's a problem that I have.

REHM

11:08:18
What do you mean, it's a problem?

COLVIN

11:08:20
Well, when I work hard, I feel very entitled and I decide, well, I need something new to wear, even though, believe me, I do not need anything new to wear. And also I rationalize, see, I didn't really bring a jacket on this trip thinking it was summer and a lot of the places I'm visiting, the stations and stuff that I'm going into...

REHM

11:08:41
It's cold.

COLVIN

11:08:42
...it's really cold.

REHM

11:08:44
Absolutely.

COLVIN

11:08:46
So I had to have it.

REHM

11:08:46
I'm glad you bought it for yourself.

COLVIN

11:08:49
Thank you.

REHM

11:08:49
I want our listeners to hear a clip of your big breakout song "Sunny Came Home" because in 1998, it won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

REHM

11:10:32
Tell me about this song because you've written that Sunny is you.

COLVIN

11:10:39
I did say that, didn't I? Well, you know, I don't see how you write a song, I don't see how one writes a song without involving at least their emotions, even if they're writing about another character. I mean, what novelist doesn't include their own experience and cast themselves somewhere in that book.

COLVIN

11:11:01
You know, somewhere from their experiences, their points of view and they give them to another character, but there they are, I think. And this was a fun song to write because although I would not burn the house down, you know, it was fun to be kind of bad, to be kind of a bad Sunny.

REHM

11:12:19
I find myself wanting to dance.

COLVIN

11:12:23
That's awesome.

REHM

11:12:24
And you, I mean, you're here sitting across from me. You describe yourself in the first pages of this book as having a desire to be an arsonist, really?

COLVIN

11:12:44
No, I don't think I have a desire, I think I've actually been an arsonist. And I think I describe the times that I have, hopefully in the humorous way that I overview them, but, you know, I've set a few fires.

REHM

11:12:59
You have, and you started out setting this fire in a field and then running to tell your father about it and saying it happened by accident, you had nothing to do with it and he knew full well.

COLVIN

11:13:19
He did. We lived in South Dakota and there was a lot of grass to burn and I just couldn't help myself, finally, at the age of 11 or so. Yes, he knew full well that I had set the fire because he'd set some fires too when he was a kid. It's like a rite of passage and he didn't bust me. He came out and put out the fire and I had learned my lesson. It was scary so I didn't do it again.

REHM

11:13:41
You never set another fire?

COLVIN

11:13:46
Well, not in a place where it could thrive like that. The other fires I have set have been more contained.

REHM

11:13:53
Such as?

COLVIN

11:13:54
Well, the next fire I set, they've had to do with men because men can make you do insane things, as you may know. I don't know. And I had some mementos from a couple of different relationships that ended poorly and I had the desire to, you know, I felt somewhat vengeful and very disappointed and had the desire to burn the mementos, you know, and I did. I did. I burned them.

REHM

11:14:29
Within a contained space?

COLVIN

11:14:32
Well, one time I burned them in a little cookie tin and there weren't that many, a short relationship, not too much to burn, a couple of pictures, a check that I'd written to him, a cashed check, because I'd written him a check to come and visit me. It was silly. But in that particular case, I had set the tin, like a cookie tin, down on the floor and I had a synthetic rug, started the fire and it began to bubble up the floor under, you know. That one didn't work out so well.

COLVIN

11:15:00
And the next time that I burned stuff up, that had to do with, you know, that were relics from my doomed relationship, was not that long ago, a few years ago and I had a lot more stuff this time. I had cards. I had letters. I had locks of hair. I had pictures and I went to my -- I had a fireplace, so lucky me.

REHM

11:15:31
Now does that work for you? Does burning the possessions help you get rid of the bad memories?

COLVIN

11:15:42
I don't know if it helps me get rid of the bad memories, but there's something cathartic about it. And I really don't want the stuff around, you know, it's time. That's a pivotal moment when you say, I can't stand to see this stuff anymore. I literally can't stand to have this stuff around anymore. So I guess it's pivotal in its own way, you know. I don't know if it burns up all the bad memories, but it's cathartic.

REHM

11:16:07
Tell me about your career. Some people think when you have a big hit that, you know, you're an overnight sensation.

COLVIN

11:16:22
Right.

REHM

11:16:22
You got your first guitar when you were ten. You wanted to be in music from then on?

COLVIN

11:16:32
I did, I did, and I remained in music from then on. It's my thing. It was my calling, as they say. So no, it wasn't overnight. I was, hmm, 39, 40 years old when "Sunny Came Home" became a big hit so plenty of dues paid.

REHM

11:16:55
Why do you think it took so long?

COLVIN

11:16:58
I don't know. Everything took a long time with my career. I wasn't comfortable writing songs, even though all my heroes were songwriters. I could sing, very comfortable singing, very comfortable playing the guitar, very comfortable getting in front of people, no problem with that, but songwriting, terrified, terrified.

COLVIN

11:17:18
I wanted to be a songwriter, but just terrified to do it, thought I didn't have what it took so I didn't try. So I didn't really know how to push myself to a place where I might have had a career because I couldn't envision it without being the whole package, without being the singer, the guitar player and the songwriter. I just couldn't sign off on that.

COLVIN

11:17:46
Something was missing and I was unmotivated to do without the writer part. I didn't want to go after the career in a big way. So I kept working on the songwriting and then I finally figured it out. I figured out my voice, my talent, things I wanted to say and, you know, I figured it out.

REHM

11:18:17
And here you are, Shawn Colvin. Her new book is titled "Diamond in the Rough." She also has a brand new album out this week, "All Fall Down." Do join us, 800-433-8850.

REHM

11:20:05
Shawn Colvin is with me. She's got a brand new book out. It's titled "Diamond In the Rough," as well as a new album out this week, "All Fall Down." We have a specific request from Richard in Hollywood, Fla., he says "'Even Here We Are' is one of my all time favorite songs of any singer songwriter. I find it beautiful and deeply moving." Will you play it for us?

COLVIN

11:20:43
Absolutely. Let's just make sure I'm in tune really quickly.

REHM

11:20:52
That's a beautiful guitar.

COLVIN

11:20:53
Thank you. This is the Shawn Colvin model Martin guitar. Now that is a dream come true.

REHM

11:20:58
That's a dream come true.

COLVIN

11:21:01
It is.

REHM

11:23:57
Beautiful.

COLVIN

11:23:58
Thank you.

REHM

11:23:58
Just beautiful. Is there a special story behind that song?

COLVIN

11:24:06
Well, only in that it's ironic and I'll tell you now, I did not write that song. It's written by a man from Minnesota named Paul Westerberg, but one thing that I'm known for, in part, is doing a lot of cover songs and doing them generally differently than the original group or artist and making them mine, as it were. And that's one of them. I put that on a record called "These Four Walls."

REHM

11:24:38
Why did you choose it?

COLVIN

11:24:41
Well, you know, for a long time, when I didn't write and I would perform places, all I had was covering other people's songs. And I just wait for them to kind of grab me. Something, you know, just like anybody, you know, when you hear a song, you're like, I've gotta hear it again.

REHM

11:24:58
Yes.

COLVIN

11:24:58
Well, I've gotta hear it again. So you fall in love with the song and sometimes it works to cover it. And, you know, there are times when I haven't done such a good job, but I really enjoy finding songs and covering them.

REHM

11:25:13
You write in the book "Diamond In the Rough" that growing up in rural South Dakota really allowed you to dream big dreams. What do you mean by that and how did your family play into those dreams?

COLVIN

11:25:37
Well, there was so very little to do and we didn't have -- we had one phone in the house. Kids didn't talk on the phone constantly. We had to go outside, you know, or stay inside and read or play the guitar. We weren't on Facebook, we weren't on Tumblr or Skyping or engaging in this kind of virtual social life that -- I have a 13-year-old daughter so I see it in action. And, you know, you get a little inspiration, a little tweak of inspiration and longing and ambition and dreams.

COLVIN

11:26:25
And I guess one of the first inspirations like that for me was The Beatles. And so my favorite thing to do was to put on these boots that resembled Beatles boots and a jacket of my mother's that was kind of a leather pea coat that resembled a jacket of The Beatles and I would just go walk in the countryside and fantasize that I was a Beatle or a Beatles' girlfriend. And that's what captured my fancy and underneath it all was a desire to be a great musician.

REHM

11:27:04
Was there anything in this last couple of years that made you feel, I want to be a writer, I want to write "Diamond In the Rough?"

COLVIN

11:27:19
No, not at all.

REHM

11:27:20
That's what I thought.

COLVIN

11:27:22
How did you think that? Why did you think so?

REHM

11:27:25
Because I think that your sense of yourself is someone who plays, sings, adores music and perhaps thinks less about, well, I want to write a book to go along with it.

COLVIN

11:27:46
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, writing a song is one thing, trying to tell your story in a book is another. And it's intimidating and one wonders, well, who wants to read it? I mean, if you're Obama, you know people are gonna want to read it, you know, but me, you know, not particularly iconic, I guess I would say. But I talk to a lot of people. Someone suggested that I try it. They felt I had a story to tell and I still was too daunted to even consider it and then I was encouraged to write a couple chapters and...

REHM

11:28:25
That's the way they hook you.

COLVIN

11:28:27
They hooked me in. That's exactly right.

REHM

11:28:30
But you named the book after a song that you did back in what, 19...

COLVIN

11:28:39
'89.

REHM

11:28:41
Let's hear it.

REHM

11:30:58
You chose that title for your book, tell me why.

COLVIN

11:31:04
A number of reasons, not the least of which I thought it looked great with the picture.

REHM

11:31:09
The picture of a little tiny girl with pigtails.

COLVIN

11:31:13
Yes, I'd say I was about -- it's me. I'd say I was about four, five and I'm playing in the mud.

REHM

11:31:21
In the mud.

COLVIN

11:31:21
In the mud. So I thought that was kind of cute.

REHM

11:31:24
Up to your knees in mud.

COLVIN

11:31:27
Very happy in the mud. "Diamond in the Rough" was the first really significant song I wrote where I thought, I figured this out. I figured this out. I've melded the things that I was inspired by. I found my, you know, best talents and I've been able to do it. I've been able to channel it into some words and music that I stand behind a hundred percent. I'm really proud. It was that song.

REHM

11:32:10
And after you put it on paper, did you look at it and sing it and say, I've got it?

COLVIN

11:32:24
No. There was a little litmus test I had to perform before that. I had written a verse and I had a writing partner who actually wrote some of the music to that and we had written a lot of pretty bad pop songs. You know, it wasn't my thing. I wasn't getting anywhere with that, but, you know, at least I got my toe in the water with that stuff. So I took this song that he gave me, it didn't have a melody or words to it, and it was really kind of a pop song, you know, kind of went along in this jumpy way. And I was like, I am a solo acoustic guitar player, you know.

COLVIN

11:33:03
I figured that out. That's what I do. That's what I'm good at, that's what I grew up on, what I cut my teeth on, all these great singer songwriters of the '70s and the '60s. And I was like, if I can't take this piece of music and make it work with me on a guitar all by myself, then it's not the right piece of music. So I did. I covered it, you know, in my own way, instead of just singing over his track. I got out the guitar and copied the way I needed to copy it and changed it up a little bit rhythmically.

COLVIN

11:33:35
And, of course, there was a different sound because his was full of electric guitars and drums and I just had this acoustic guitar. And then, I wrote some words and they just kind of came out of my mouth. And I thought, oh, my God, you know, is this really any good? Is this, 'cause as a little girl, I came up with this, it's kind of twee, you know. So I called John, who, you know, was my -- I don't know, I turned to him to validate, you know, what was good. And he said, well, I think you have something, keep going. And that was kind of the star of approval that I needed to finish the song.

REHM

11:34:18
Shawn Colvin, her new book is titled "Diamond in the Rough." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I was startled to learn that, at one point, you went through anorexia. You got down to 86 pounds. It's a miracle you're alive considering that and then you ballooned up 60 pounds in three months.

COLVIN

11:34:59
Yeah, I was hungry.

REHM

11:35:01
And you were 22 years old. You said you looked like a giant whale.

COLVIN

11:35:11
I did, I did. I was very tiny and then I was very big and nothing fit me. And I certainly felt better, honestly, than I had when I wouldn't eat at all. But I made up for lost time, you know.

REHM

11:35:29
How do you think that anorexia -- or why do you think that anorexia began? You're so thin now. I cannot imagine you at 86 pounds.

COLVIN

11:35:43
Yeah, it was devastating and hard to watch. And I feel bad for my folks, you know, to have to see that. I don't know what I would do if that went on with my daughter. I'd be heartbroken beyond all telling. The way it started for me -- and I was not a teenager. I was a little bit older than that, obviously, which is not the norm really. I think mostly it starts with teenagers, but I had -- I was kind of a momma's girl and afraid to leave home.

COLVIN

11:36:17
I finally did leave home when I was about 20, 21 and with a boyfriend and a band, moved to Austin, Texas. And I was terrified to do it, but I adjusted and enjoyed it. Then I began to have trouble with my voice so I had nodes on my vocal cords and I couldn't sing. Now, for somebody who has based their identity entirely on the ability to sing, on one's voice, it sent me into quite a spin and a spiral down and I had to quit the band...

REHM

11:37:00
And come home.

COLVIN

11:37:01
Well, eventually, but I got a job at a clothing store and my boyfriend was continuing to go out on tour. So I was alone in this house, for all intents and purposes, and I had to feed myself alone, which I'm still not so good at doing, to tell you the truth. And I took up running because I was bored. And that was the perfect storm, you know.

REHM

11:37:23
Shawn Colvin. Her new book is titled "Diamond in the Rough." She has a brand new album out as well. When we come back, your calls, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

REHM

11:40:04
Many callers and emails for Shawn Colvin, her brand new book is titled, "Diamond in the Rough." Let's go first to Olney, Md. Good morning, Lori, you're on the air.

LORI

11:40:21
Good morning, Diane. When I heard Shawn Colvin was on your show, I wanted to call in and share just a brief story with her. Back in about 1995 or '96, I went to a wedding in the mountains of North Carolina and the bride's brother was married to Jackson Brown's sister. And for whatever reason, Jackson Brown was at that wedding. And I had always been madly in love with Jackson Brown and his music.

COLVIN

11:40:52
Me too.

LORI

11:40:54
And so I decided there was nobody else in the world I would have wanted to meet, you know, more than Jackson Brown. So I went up to him and I asked him to dance with me.

COLVIN

11:41:04
Nice one.

LORI

11:41:07
So after he took a picture with the bride, he danced with me. And while I was dancing, I was telling him how, you know, there was nobody else I would rather have met. And what he said back to me was for him that would be either Bonnie Raitt or Shawn Colvin.

COLVIN

11:41:27
He's been -- yeah. Isn't that great?

LORI

11:41:29
Yeah.

COLVIN

11:41:29
I mean those are -- that's the pinch me stuff.

LORI

11:41:32
Yeah.

COLVIN

11:41:33
You know.

REHM

11:41:33
Really.

LORI

11:41:34
That was a very meaningful moment for me and it's, obviously, all these years later, stuck with me.

REHM

11:41:40
Lori, thanks for sharing that.

COLVIN

11:41:42
Thank you.

REHM

11:41:43
What a lovely story.

COLVIN

11:41:44
Oh, yeah, I can hardly even speak. I love Jackson Brown. I love his song writing. I adore him and he thinks I'm good, you know. You know, he thinks I'm good.

REHM

11:41:57
We've had a number of requests for "Shotgun Down the Avalanche." Would you play it for us?

COLVIN

11:42:05
Absolutely. I may not be in the best voice, as you've noticed already.

REHM

11:42:10
You sound terrific.

REHM

11:45:47
Shawn Colvin performing live here in the studio. Her new book is titled "Diamond in the Rough." She also has a new album out this week called "All Fall Down." And let's go to Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Amy, you're on the air.

AMY

11:46:13
Hi, Diane, how are you?

REHM

11:46:14
I'm great. How are you?

AMY

11:46:17
I'm tickled pink over this experience of talking to you and Shawn Colvin.

REHM

11:46:22
Good.

AMY

11:46:24
I can't believe it. Anyhow, I do have an all-time favorite. For years, "Orion" has been literally my all-time favorite. And I'm very curious as to what does that song mean to you? Where were you at at the time that you wrote it? Just its background, please. It's touched me in a way that I think it just speaks to me on such a deep level. And I just want to know how it speaks to you, Shawn.

COLVIN

11:46:54
Well, I would love to know, actually, how it speaks to you. I'll tell you how it came about real quickly. My first husband was an Englishman, but he had family in Australia, a son, among others. And so his heart was there a great deal. And we would go and visit every Christmas. And one of the things he and his son would say to each other is, well, we can both see Orion in the sky no matter where we are.

COLVIN

11:47:26
And I loved it down there. I was really enchanted by Australia. And it came to mind that, you know, maybe it's the one safe place we can go, maybe kind of escape down there, you know, underneath everything. That was my fantasy. And so I took the character of Orion and kind of wove in some mystical stuff about, you know, healing and the state of the world.

REHM

11:47:58
What were you feeling the need to run away from at the time?

COLVIN

11:48:05
Not so much run away as -- I mean, I wasn't running away from anything. I was quite happy. But I was really enchanted by the country. And it seemed to hearken back to an America that existed, you know, 40 years prior. And that was -- it was a comfort. And it just seemed like they were removed and I was probably projecting something onto them. Sure, they have their problems, but it just felt to me like it was a fresh start.

REHM

11:48:42
And yet in your words, "Shotgun Down the Avalanche," you say, sometimes you make me lose my will to live.

COLVIN

11:48:53
Oh, yeah.

REHM

11:48:54
What was going on then?

COLVIN

11:48:57
Oh, that was a romance that brought me many songs. I'm very grateful for that.

REHM

11:49:04
And yet it must have been a pretty unhappy situation.

COLVIN

11:49:09
From time to time it was and it's really all down to me. I was in my early 20s and I just have some problems really, kind of in the intimacy department and to move slowly and get to know someone well and be friendly. And I kind of, you know, buy the China on the second date, if you know what I mean -- the wedding China.

COLVIN

11:49:32
And I just was sucked into this thing and gave it my all and more than my all, gave myself up. And, hence, the line, you know, I just kind of feel like I would give over my own life to you.

REHM

11:49:51
And finally it came to an end because...

COLVIN

11:49:54
Yes, it did.

REHM

11:49:54
...you said we are over the edge.

COLVIN

11:49:59
Well, there was the metaphor for me, yeah. We were -- and I felt like a passenger, like, I'm just -- we're going down. And I don't want to, but here we go.

REHM

11:50:13
There's another song here, "Polaroids," from "Fat City." Tell me about that.

COLVIN

11:50:23
I'm very, very proud of that song. I wrote that song by myself and that's a big accomplishment for me to write a song alone. I've written several. And I like this song a great deal. It's just another chronicle of -- it was almost a photo journal of a trip to Europe that I took, first time I ever went. A love affair that I had there, coming back to New York and working on music. And, you know, kind of lamenting the dishonesty and hurt between all of us sometimes, whether it be a business relationship, a personal relationship. And then I dreamt a dream that ended the song. I dreamt it and it was the perfect ending for the song.

REHM

11:51:28
Will you play it for me?

COLVIN

11:51:29
Oh, sure, sure. I will definitely play it for you. It's kind of a long one. Are you ready?

REHM

11:51:41
That's okay.

COLVIN

11:51:42
Okay.

REHM

11:56:11
Shawn Colvin performing for us here in the studio, "Polaroids." She has a brand new book out. It's titled "Diamond in the Rough," as well as a new album out this week called "All Fall Down." Shawn Colvin, what a pleasure to talk with you.

COLVIN

11:56:37
Thank you, same here.

REHM

11:56:39
I hope you're well.

COLVIN

11:56:40
I'm very well, thank you.

REHM

11:56:41
I'm so glad. Thanks for being here.

COLVIN

11:56:44
You're welcome, thank you.

REHM

11:56:45
And thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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