Motherhood, Morbidity Inspire Whole New Shawn Colvin

On first album since 1996, singer/songwriter explores different themes, but 'honest, melodic' sound stays steady.

Whole New You, Shawn Colvin's first album since 1996's A Few Small Repairs, takes on some topics that are new territory for her, including motherhood and her move to Austin, Texas. But one big topic is left unexplored on the new album: There is no song about Ol' Dirty Bastard.

"I decided to leave that one off," she said wryly on Wednesday of the 1998 Grammy Awards incident that found the Wu-Tang Clan's loose cannon bum-rushing the stage as she accepted the Song of the Year Award for "Sunny Came Home." "[That incident is] better left alone."

Regardless, the lush Whole New You, which was released on March 27, is probably most impacted by her relationship with her 2-year-old daughter. The opening, gentle "Matter of Minutes" and the apologetic lullaby "I'll Say I'm Sorry Now" are where her parenthood is manifested most clearly.

Of the latter tune, in which a parent apologizes to her child in advance for shortcomings, Colvin said, "Parents should say they're sorry more often than they do, so let it begin with me."

Other inspirations for songs on the record are altogether more morbid. "Another Plane Went Down," for instance, was conceived when Colvin was watching a news broadcast about the aftermath of a plane crash. "Everyone has a fascination with [plane crashes]. To me, the song is a metaphor about the things we fear and that are out of our control. It was written very quickly and in a stream-of-consciousness way."

"Roger Wilco," which uses military imagery to express the need to escape, was written in a similar metaphoric style with longtime collaborator/producer John Leventhal and Edie Brickell of New Bohemians fame, although Colvin said she's never met Brickell.

"John played guitar on her last record. While he was in the studio, they collaborated on that song, which was a small idea that they didn't take very far: It was John playing the guitar, and she sung [the phrase] 'roger wilco.'

"It was one of the things he played for me [at the beginning of sessions for Whole New You], and I just took the cue and free-associated. Then, using military imagery, I developed this character that was trying to get out of something." Austin music mainstay Charlie Sexton sings harmony on the song; James Taylor does the same on "Bonefields."

Colvin recorded basic tracks in Manhattan, then did overdubs back in Austin. "Most of the musicians lived in New York," she said. "When I started my career, I lived in New York, and that's where my roots are, as far as the people I work with."

Colvin said she and Leventhal "homed in on sounds for songs that we liked the best, and then, instead of listening to things individually, you start to listen to the songs one after the other, and then you begin to perceive a sound. Maybe halfway through the project, we realized a more lush, less spare sound than on the previous record."

Colvin and Leventhal's partnership is altogether more harmonious than it was when they recorded her first album, 1989's Steady On.

"It was close to 20 years ago that we started to go out with one another," she said, "and [it lasted for] five or six years. By the time we made Steady On, we had broken up. It was tough. We were driven to it; we worked on those songs very hard. He needed to be a part of that record. ...

"A few years later, I called him and said, 'Do you want to see if we can write again?' That was tough, too: I felt like I had to be prepared for him to say no. ... [But] he readily agreed. And it was improved! We got along, we're good friends and we picked up right where we left off, as far as the music went."

Leventhal, who is now married to Rosanne Cash, was back on board for A Few Small Repairs and Whole New You. "That was obviously the thing in our relationship that was supposed to remain intact," Colvin said. "And I'll always feel lucky that we got to go back to it."

So Colvin has reconciled with her musical collaborator, has a daughter and has moved to Austin. Not everything has changed, though. She is still described and marketed as a folk artist. "It used to bug me, because I thought it would imply to people that the music had no edge to it. I used to say, 'U2's a bigger folk act than me: They write about issues, and all I do is write about boyfriends!' "

But, she adds, folk music is "basically a term for acoustic music, and I still don't think it particularly applies. But I don't care anymore. I've been fortunate enough to get the music out there, and if people don't know what I do by now, then they won't. I just feel like it's clear who I am, so I don't know what place I have in 2001; apparently, not much of one.

"But people are always going to crave honest, melodic music to some degree," she said. "And I have a loyal bunch of fans that like what I do. You're not going to find me five years from now with a sound that no one can stand anymore."