Although it’s hardly the tactic one might suggest, Shawn Colvin says approaching her new album with “complete terror” ultimately worked for her.
“Whole New You,” due March 27 from Columbia, was “difficult from start to finish,” says Colvin with a rueful laugh. “I kept thinking we would turn a corner, but it was worse than giving birth.”
It wasn’t just the ghost of Grammys past that was haunting Colvin — “Sunny Came Home” from 1996’s “A Few Small Repairs” captured both record of the year and song of the year honors at the 1998 Grammy Awards — it was something much less tangible.
“It was also because [“A Few Small Repairs”] was a particularly charmed experience,” Colvin says. “It was easy and quick to make. The lyrics, the music, the recording — they happened easily. It was the most fun I’d ever had. I thought I’d cracked a code of some sort in making a record.”
Making “Whole New You” was a whole other experience, according to Colvin. She made “Holiday Songs & Lullabies” (an album inspired by Maurice Sendak’s “Lullabies & Night Songs”) following the birth of her daughter in 1998, but when it came time to write an album drawing upon herself for inspiration, she hit a wall. There was no clarion call for Colvin that it was time for her and producer/co-writer John Leventhal to go back into the studio as the months passed — she just knew it was time.
“The label never said anything,” Colvin explains. “I knew I was never going to be ready — maybe in 10 years — but I just knew it wasn’t going to be comfortable and wanted to tap into whatever was coming out.”
What was coming out wasn’t necessarily the usual sunshine and rainbows that often come forth from an artist after the birth of a first child — simply because every bit of Colvin’s energy was going into parenting. She says, “They say having kids is the greatest thing, and it is, but people who say that aren’t telling you the whole story.
“There was no poetry in me,” Colvin continues. “It was like every creative part of me was being used to be a mom. My whole heart and soul was in my daughter and my family, and I had nothing to say. I felt incredibly deep things, profound things, but they weren’t translating.”
So Colvin stopped waiting for lightning to strike. “I just gave up thinking it would be easy,” she says. “I just chipped away. Every now and then, I’d come up with a good idea, but I never had any confidence; some songs were just beastly.”
Difficult or not, Colvin’s process yielded a stellar song set that marks the changes that have occurred in her life, as well as touches upon outside events over the past few years (“Another Plane Went Down” is a stream-of-consciousness song based on the crash of TWA 800). Many of the songs indeed revolve around parenthood (including “Matter of Minutes,” “Bound to You,” and “I’d Say I’m Sorry Now”), but not one is so mommy-centric that only parents will be able to relate.
“We’re rock’n’roll children, and we fell in love with the Beatles or whoever, and these are not role models who were parents — or we didn’t know about it,” Colvin says. “There’s a generalization that if you’re going to have kids and it’s going to be part of your subject matter, you’ve lost your edge, majorly.”
Despite her concerns, “Whole New You” does display an edgier, more contemplative side to Colvin. The album is “strange because of the degree to which it’s sobering and even depressing,” says Colvin, whose songs are published by WB Music Corp. The notable exception is the title track, a jangly, unsparingly upbeat, empowering tune about not being ashamed to be happy and want the best for yourself.
“There aren’t a lot of songs on the album as redemptive as ‘Whole New You,’ but it resonated a lot with me because of becoming a parent,” Colvin says. “You make a whole new person. If ever I have felt transformed by an event, this is it, for better or worse.”
To help market the new album, Columbia has a deal with the Borders Books & Music chain to offer an exclusive retrospective disc in Borders stores. The five-track collection sells for $4.99 and includes alternate versions of “Sunny Came Home,” “Diamond in the Rough,” and “Round of Blues.” In addition, a special version of “Whole New You” with the bonus track “Fall of Rome” will be available exclusively at Borders.
Colvin is “a strong artist for Borders — I think this will be a good record for us,” says Len Cosimano, the chain’s VP of merchandising. “I think Lilith Fair fans have been waiting for some new music to come out from the Sarah McLachlans, Sheryl Crows, and Shawn Colvins. I think there’s a pent-up demand.”
Columbia is also placing “Whole New You” for sale in more than 800 Starbucks locations starting April 25. The album will be available in the stores through June 27.
Fans will get plenty of chances to see Colvin on television. On March 15, she taped an hourlong episode of “Austin City Limits” with guests Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, and Bruce Hornsby; the air date is yet to be set. She will appear on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” March 27, “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” March 29, and “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” April 10.
Touring remains a mainstay of Colvin’s career. She hasn’t confirmed plans for this summer but says she would love to re-create the 1999 tour she undertook with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Hornsby. “That was great. It was good practice. We had the baby on the bus, my husband, the nanny.”
Touring is also Colvin’s livelihood. After 12 years on Columbia, the artist says she has yet to make any money from her album sales. “A Few Small Repairs,” Colvin’s top-seller, has moved 872,000 units in the U.S., according to SoundScan.
“I still have a huge debt to the record company,” Colvin says. “There are video costs, promotion costs. I have one record that went platinum, and the rest went nearly gold. I’m going to have to sell a whole lot of records to get into the black.
“It would be nice to have the choice not to tour after 25 years of being a musician,” Colvin continues. “But I support my family: My husband is a househusband; I’m the breadwinner of the family. But I’m not whining. I’ve got this faithful audience that will come to see me. I’m extremely grateful.