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A ‘Diamond in the Rough’: Singer-Songwriter Shawn Colvin on Music and Memoir

June 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Singer-songwriter and performer Shawn Colvin traces her early days, musical career and struggles with depression in her new memoir, "Diamond in the Rough," and looks to the future with her first album in six years. Colvin discusses both with Jeffrey Brown.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a singer-songwriter looks back on her life and moves forward with new music.

Jeffrey Brown has that. 

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: “Diamond in the Rough,” that’s the name of a 1989 hit song from Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin’s first album, “Steady On.” And now it’s the name of a new memoir she’s just released.

It tells the story of a small-town girl from the wide-open prairies whose passion for music took her on the road and into the recording studio, making her way from church choirs to Texas honkytonks and the folk music circuit around the country.

You describe — you’re a girl in South Dakota. You’re listening to the Beatles.

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SHAWN COLVIN, musician: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Music was there early on, but did you imagine a life in music?

SHAWN COLVIN: Yes. I did, most definitely.

I listened to church music before I listened to anyone else, and sang in the church choir, the junior choir, played guitar when I was 10, was in all the musicals in school, sang in clubs by the time I was 17 or 18 years old. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book also deals head on with personal struggles, depression, anorexia, alcohol, and, yes, relationships.

SHAWN COLVIN: I got them all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, for you, this is all material for songs.

And your songs are — at least to my ears, it sounds pretty autobiographical.

SHAWN COLVIN: Yes, pretty much so. They are, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they a way of working things out? Or where do they come from?

SHAWN COLVIN: Well, it’s hard to say.

Sometimes, they come from somewhere you’re not sure. Some words will come to you out of the blue or while you’re kind of messing around with a bit of music. And then you just never know.

And then sometimes, yes, you’re hurting and you want to write about what’s going on. But the last thing I will say is that, if you’re really, really, really hurting, as in terribly depressed, you’re not creating.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not?

SHAWN COLVIN: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s impossible?

SHAWN COLVIN: It’s impossible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So, did music become a way to find your way or a way out of the world you were in? What did it become?

SHAWN COLVIN: Music was everything.

In fact, in my early 20s, I didn’t sing for a year because I had some voice trouble.  And without singing, I really spiraled downwards. I didn’t know who I was. Music was my gift. So I had to learn some lessons about who the heck I was without it. And then I was kind of free.

JEFFREY BROWN: Like any career, it kind of goes up and down. You have got to make it last, right?

SHAWN COLVIN: Well, you hope so. I have had a very high up. And I have not had a very low low.

But I have built a loyal following over many, many years.  And those people still come out and pay to see me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that loyal following began to build when she won her first Grammy for her debut album. Colvin would also score Grammy Awards in 1998 for album and song of the year for her breakout recording “Sunny Came Home.”

She’s just released her ninth record.

You have been doing this long enough to see huge changes in this industry. Right?

SHAWN COLVIN:  Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And there’s a point where you write, “In many ways, I don’t feel as if I’m in the music business anymore.  What I do is kind of archaic.”

What does that mean?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAWN COLVIN:  I still look at projects as albums. They have a sequence.

If I could have them be side A and side B, I would. I look at them as a piece. So I don’t look at it as an individual song that a person could download or know me for this one song and ignore the rest of the record. I mean, there’s really kind of no point in making C.D.s, in my opinion, if we’re just going song by song.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s not the way of the world right now, is it?

SHAWN COLVIN: No. No, it’s not.

But there are still people who want to go at it like I do and want to buy the C.D. and look at the cover art and read the lyrics and see who played on it and play it in their car from start to finish.

JEFFREY BROWN: I remember you write here at one point about finishing an album and then the label saying we can’t really do anything with this.

SHAWN COLVIN:  That was bitter. Yes. That was painful.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you deal with it? How do you deal with it now?

SHAWN COLVIN: I went to another record company.

(LAUGHING)

JEFFREY BROWN: Shawn Colvin’s new album, her first in six years, is titled “All Fall Down.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shawn Colvin sings two songs from her new C.D. on our Art Beat page online.