Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin

The multiple Grammy winner talks about her new CD, “All Fall Down,” and her candid new memoir, Diamond in the Rough, and reveals what she uses as her healing factors during times of clinical depression.

Over the past two decades, Shawn Colvin has released eight CDs, won three Grammys, toured with legendary artists, appeared on numerous TV and radio shows and had her songs featured in major films. The singer, songwriter and self-taught guitarist is known for frank storytelling and continues that candor in her new CD, "All Fall Down," and in the memoir, Diamond in the Rough. Colvin began playing guitar at age 10 and made her first public appearance at 15. After trying to make it as a musician in Texas, she moved to NYC, where she discovered her voice as a songwriter and began her odyssey to stardom.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Shawn Colvin to this program. The three-time Grammy winner is out with a very personal and honest memoir about her life and career. It’s called, like one of her previous songs, “Diamond in the Rough.” She’s also out with a new CD, and from the new disc, here now some of the video for the title track, “All Fall Down.”


Tavis: Nice video. Good to have you on.

Shawn Colvin: It’s great to be here, thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. I want to jump right into this. What is it about Shawn Colvin that has her consistently writing about love and heartache? If they categorized records in music stores – well, there are no music stores anymore, but if they categorized records by theme, you’d be in the love and heartache category.

Colvin: What else is there?

Tavis: Fun, frolic.

Colvin: No, nobody writes –

Tavis: Social protest. I don’t know, it could be a thousand things.

Colvin: No, no singer-songwriters write about fun. That’s not – social protest, yes. Mine is personal protest, if you will, or personal whining, or personal angst. But that’s kind of who I learned from, is confessional, personal singer-songwriters. It’s cathartic to write about loss, pain. It inspires one, unless you’re hideously depressed, in which case you can’t do anything.

Tavis: I suspect that it could be or would be, for some, cathartic, but it also requires a lot of, to my mind, at least, a lot of courage, a lot of openness, a lot of transparency. How’d you get okay with that?

Colvin: I’ve always kind of been okay with that. I’ve never shied away from being open about my feelings. I really value honesty and openness. It sounds rather trite when I say it, but it’s just always – I don’t like phoniness, I don’t like artifice, I don’t like posing and pretense. So I endeavor to be as real as I know how to be.

Tavis: See, writing about love and heartache for your records is one thing, but when you write a book like this one, a memoir, “Diamond in the Rough,” and you go beyond love and heartache and you talk about alcoholism and depression and anorexia. That’s a lot of confessional.

Colvin: Well, it’s my story, and if there’s one thing – I was kind of dared to write this book. I wouldn’t have thought of it on my own. But somebody said, a manager of mine said, “You have a story to tell.” I’m like, “Well, maybe I do, but would anybody really like to read it?”

Then I thought, so what’s my intent here? I thought for the tough times that I’ve been through, the thing that has helped me the most through that stuff was other people being open about their own experiences. You have your family and friends who love you through it and hold your hand, but knowing that you’re not alone.

Tavis: So the source of the alcoholism, the depression, the anorexia – same source, or multiple factors that brought all this on?

Colvin: That’s the million-dollar question, it really is. I think it’s genetic, to some degree. I think it’s situational to some degree. I think if one has an additive nature, I’m not sure where that comes from. That could be genetic as well. But it’s just something I got, you know?

The depression is a lot of it, and I think that’s genetic, genetic and biological. So running from that takes a lot of forms.

Tavis: How do you not run from it but ward against it in the future?

Colvin: Oh, well, that takes some learning, and I was quite young when I started showing symptoms of it, and we didn’t know what to call it. It was early mid-’60s and lived in a small town, provincial, and nobody knew what was wrong.

So it took a while to get the proper kind of help, which was meds, and that’s how you ward – well, there are other ways. Medicine is very, very helpful.

Tavis: Is one way, yeah, yeah.

Colvin: Well, for some of us it’s the main way. For me it is, anyway. Sleep, exercise, reducing stress, therapy.

Tavis: Does love factor in there anywhere?

Colvin: Depends on how you look at it. Love, for me, when you talk about the romantic kind of love, kind of shoots me way up and then I go way down, so that’s my issue, my problem that doesn’t have anything to do with genetics. That’s –

Tavis: So it’s men, that’s the problem. We’re the problem in your life.

Colvin: Thank you. (Laughter)

Tavis: I get it. It’s me.

Colvin: Not you in particular.

Tavis: Yeah.

Colvin: But love, for example, for my child that’s pure and is selfless, that’s healing, yeah.

Tavis: So your child, though, you even talk in the book about the postpartum depression you had after having her, though. Even that brought about some depression and difficulty.

Colvin: Yeah. My chemistry is hinky.

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Colvin: Yeah. I figure everybody gets something. Physically, I’m healthy as a horse, always held up. But in the mental illness department, I got my share. It’s just what I got.

Tavis: I want to go back to this notion of courage again, because what you’ve just said now is very courageous, because there are people who wrestle with those kinds of issues who do not want anybody to know it.

Colvin: That’s right.

Tavis: They certainly would not come on a national television show and talk about it and own it and claim it and say, “I’ve got it under control and I’m working on it.” There are people who just don’t – Mike Wallace comes to mind. The late, great Mike Wallace came out about his condition when he was on “60 Minutes.”

Colvin: He did.

Tavis: But most people don’t do that, so it’s not just, again, cathartic. Where do you find the capacity to own that?

Colvin: Well again, the most healing thing that’s happened to me during those times is someone else’s willingness to really talk about it. In fact, Mike Wallace being interviewed for Kathy Cronkite’s book and numerous other people that you would not expect, not artistes, necessarily – strong men with intellectual careers.

That was so great to hear about that. I’m not crazy. We’re not crazy. We’re just sick. It’s just like cancer, and it could be treated.

Tavis: So what do we do about the – so the meds can help with the depression and the other issues that we’ve talked about, and sleep and rest and all that, but what do you do about this man problem? (Laughter) Other than write songs about it, what you doing about that one?

Colvin: I quit. (Laughter) I have quit.

Tavis: You just gave up on us, huh?

Colvin: I’m giving up. I’m giving up.

Tavis: Wow.

Colvin: I’m happy by myself. It’s working out just fine. I had my share of that too, and there have been great things that happened to me with men – great things. It was a lot of good material for the book.

Tavis: A lot of good – yeah, exactly. (Laughter) A lot of good stuff. Let me shift gears, because I don’t know where to go after that comment, so I’m going to move on.

Colvin: Maybe there’s nowhere to go.

Tavis: Yeah, so I’ll move on to something else.

Colvin: Okay.

Tavis: One of my favorite artists of all time, every time I see her – and she’s been on this program before and performed for me, and I was just giddy the day her crew pulled up on the lot. I love Bonnie Raitt.

Colvin: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: I love Bonnie Raitt. I love all her music, but every time I see her I just walk up to her and start singing, “Nick of Time.” I’m not even a woman, but I just love the song, never mind the storyline. It’s just a great song.

So I love Bonnie, and one of the things I love about her, not unlike you, that she found, shall we say, commercial success or critical acclaim, she found that at – I don’t want to say –

Colvin: Forty-something.

Tavis: Chronologically gifted, she was, when she got that kind of acclaim.

Colvin: (Laughs) Chronologically gifted.

Tavis: The same could be said of you – that it didn’t come for you when you were a baby, like you are on the cover of this book.

Colvin: No.

Tavis: So what do you make of that, that it came when it came?

Colvin: Well, it is what it is, but I feel lucky about it, to tell you the truth. For one thing, I got a chance to really cut my teeth on down and dirty, struggling hard work in this business. Nothing came to me on a silver platter. I also got a chance to slowly build an audience. From the time my first record came out, I promoted the heck out of that thing and went to a million radio stations, a million small clubs in every town they could take me to.

You keep doing that, and radio being what it was then, you build a slow but grassroots, loyal following, so that by the time I had a hit song, well, I was more mature, I knew more about the business. I was able to handle it with some levity, because it’s not who you are.

It’s a great thing, it was great fun, and anybody that I lost, fan-wise, after that song had diminished in popularity, I still had my loyal fan base there, and I’m still working. So not everybody is that’s had some commercial success like that. Sometimes they just fade away or don’t know what else to do, but I’m lucky.

Tavis: Yeah. I wonder, because you said it and made me wonder, how an artist breaks in today like you did back then, because you’re right, you’ve said the key phrase – “radio being what it was then.”

You could get out and go to studio after studio after studio. You had to really work it to get to where you are. But those outlets don’t exist like they used to, so unless you luck up on “American Idol” or “The Voice” or something like that – I mean, obviously the Internet allows you to put your stuff out there, but what do you say to young artists now who don’t even have those kinds of outlets because it ain’t like it used to be, where you can just go out and work your hustle until it finally clicks for you?

Colvin: I think there are some of the same outlets. I don’t think – I think the means to an end has really changed. In other words, how do you get it – to work in clubs and do that kind of gorilla-style – it’s like the Beatles went to Hamburg, Germany, and played eight hours a night and got really good. I think that’s invaluable.

But as to how you get the music out there anymore, it’s so disposable. I still believe in the album art form and the conceptuality of that, and the depth of listening to however many, 11, 12 songs by one artist in a row. That just doesn’t happen as much anymore – rarely.

Tavis: Fair to say that the first group you were a huge fan of was the Beatles?

Colvin: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I was very young. Yeah, I lived in this really small town, Vermillion, South Dakota, and we went to church, and I knew church music.

My brother liked classical music so I heard that, so I wasn’t in on Elvis or even Dylan, and then we had Ed Sullivan, and we watched Ed Sullivan, and there they were.

I was just flabbergasted, because it was unlike anything – my father had Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger records; my mother had soundtracks from musicals. Great music, lots of great music influenced me, but this was another matter. And they were cute. (Laughter)

Tavis: But they were men.

Colvin: I didn’t care then. (Laughter) They were okay. They were okay. But they were, as we all know, in retrospect, not that anyone – well, no, that’s not true. Not everybody got it. Old people didn’t get it.

Tavis: Oh, of course, of course.

Colvin: Just like I don’t get my daughter’s music, and I feel like an old fogey. But the Beatles, in hindsight, were geniuses.

Tavis: So hearing all those disparate sounds, it’s all good stuff – and Quincy Jones told me that there’s only two kinds of music: Good music and bad music. So you were hearing a bunch of good stuff, but you’re hearing classical from your brother, you’re hearing your mother, where your mother likes to hear the musicals.

Your dad, you mentioned, is playing Kingston Trio and Seeger and you’re loving the Beatles. Hearing all of that stuff in your head, in your hear, how did you end up on this particular musical track?

Colvin: It was a long road, and it should have not been such a long road. I should have known it. I played guitar when I was 10; my dad taught me, acoustic guitar. Then in the late ’60s or so all these singer-songwriters started to come into popularity – Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, and I’ll forget somebody. Laura Nero was really important to me.

Judy Collins, Bonnie. That was it for me. That was it. That spoke to all my feelings and to what I wanted to do with the guitar. I loved to play it, and it was like the gates of heaven opened up and I had all this stuff to emulate. That was good stuff too, as we know, in retrospect, again.

It was really good stuff too. Then I just went off track and did – not that I don’t like country music, but I was in bands, I was in a lot of bands. Rock and roll, country music, bluegrass music, pop music, tried to be a Celine Dion pop singer, and it just didn’t work. I didn’t feel comfortable with it.

I took a year off at some point, after I got sober, actually, because I was told, “Your identity is not necessarily – that’s not who you are, the music. You’re another entity. The music is what you choose. It’s what you do.” I thought, well, I’m going to choose not to do it, then, and see who I am.

About a year later I thought, but wait, I’m good at music. What if I never really try to find out who I am musically? That was a very quick trajectory from there for me to zero in about the fact that I’m a good solo performer, just like my idols. I’m good at being a confessional, open, honest writer. I turned a corner.

Tavis: You just said something that just blew me away and it got my attention, in part because it sounds, to my ear, at least, unorthodox. It also sounds counterintuitive. But I think I get it, but I want you to give me some more on this, for me and for those who are watching.

Tell me more about how stepping away from it allows you to discover who you really are. That’s counterintuitive and it’s unorthodox, but I heard your point. “I’m going to step away from this for a year and figure out who I really am.” How do you step away from it and come into it?

Colvin: Well, I didn’t put a time on it. It happened to be a year, but I was dead serious – maybe this isn’t what I do. I put it down to choice. I didn’t ever feel that I had the choice to do anything but be a musician, and it hemmed me – it did me a disservice at some point.

It was my identity, entirely my identity, and I found out the hard way at one point in my life, when I had these calluses on my vocal cords and I couldn’t sing. I fell apart. That’s when I became anorexic.

But later on, and this is the mid-’80s, when I got sober, things opened up and I got enlightened about what we’re really about. Honesty, how we behave to others, spiritual stuff, taking things a moment at a time, being accountable. Everything was a choice. I can choose to make this day lousy or I can choose to do some things about it.

I can choose to drink, I can choose not to drink, but it’s my choice. So realizing I really wasn’t that happy doing the gigs I was doing, I just wasn’t sure what the heck I was doing. It didn’t feel right. I felt like I was faking it.

I just said, “You can make a choice here. You’re not bound and tied to this idea of being an artist, a musician,” and I took a day job and hung out with my friends, and I was happy.

Tavis: Eventually, to your point, it starts to click, and you look up years later and you’ve won a few Grammys and you’re selling records and you’re beloved around the country and around the world.

So how does it feel when you’re this little girl growing up in South Dakota, listening to this stuff and watching it on television, and you end up on stage playing alongside Dylan, playing alongside my man James Taylor? How does it feel when you’re actually at that – how do you describe that?

Colvin: There is nothing better.

Tavis: Yeah.

Colvin: There is nothing better.

Tavis: Yeah.

Colvin: To love those people like I did – and you always dream of getting to tell your idols, “Oh, man,” you know? (Laughter) “When I heard ‘Fire and Rain,’ it changed my life.” If you don’t know them, they’re liable to say, “Thank you, that means a lot to me,” and it does for most of us. It means a lot to us. But you’re not going to make a big impression, or they’re not going to know you.

Tavis: And they’ve heard it a few times.

Colvin: They’ve heard it a time or two. (Laughter) So to get to spend a little time with them, where you’re not bowing, you’re not kissing the hem of their garment, and to get to be a little bit real, and then yeah, to get to play music with them, who would have thought? Dream come true. Doesn’t get any better.

Tavis: We’ve been talking about the book; tell me about the new project, “All Fall Down.”

Colvin: Well, that’s what I do.

Tavis: Yeah.

Colvin: Yeah. I started working on that record – see, I still call them records.

Tavis: Mm-hmm. I knew what you meant. (Laughter)

Colvin: Yeah, I know. After I finished the book, because I just didn’t have the capacity to both at the same time, so that came afterwards, and there’s kind of some nostalgia in this disc.

Tavis: And some good folk on there – Alison Krause, Emmylou Harris.

Colvin: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, I made the record in Nashville, and a lot of these people live there, and my producer, Buddy Miller, he has this revolving door policy. He’s got a home studio, and it’s like, “Emmy, do you want to, can you come down?” and she’s there in her curlers. (Laughter) So it was great. It was great.

Tavis: You’ve got some good stuff on here, and I love the cover of both the book and the CD, so put the book up first, Jonathan.

Colvin: Thank you.

Tavis: So I can brag about this book again. It’s called “Diamond in the Rough,” a memoir by Shawn Colvin, so that’s the book. Then the new record –

Colvin: (Laughter) Album.

Tavis: Yeah, from Ms. Colvin is called “All Fall Down.” There’s some good stuff on here as well, including some collaborations with the artists I just mentioned a moment ago. So thank God for the revolving door at Buddy’s place in Tennessee. Shawn, good to have you on the program, and congratulations on all your success. I’m delighted to have you here.

Colvin: I so appreciate you having me, it was a pleasure.

Tavis: I loved it. That’s our show for tonight.

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Last modified: August 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm