SINGER-SONGWRITER Shawn Colvin had a problem.
How do you follow up a first album that sold a few million copies, sent you all over the world, and won a Grammy award? For Colvin, the answer was to take it slow.
"I was afraid of making the second record," she says, relaxing in her dressing room before a recent show in Colorado. "I mean, how many times have I bought somebody's second record and gone `Yuck - it's just not as good?' ... A lot ... and for the second thing to be as exciting as the first is almost not possible."
But after hearing her second album "Fat City," the critics disagreed.
In the Billboard Magazine review, her work is described as an "example of the sinuous, crystalline balladry that has made Colvin one of the most distinctive new voices since the dawn of Bonnie Raitt ... an exquisite performance...." Newsweek magazine called Fat City a "shimmering new album of tempests in an especially likable teapot."
It appears that this time around, there was no second-record letdown.
Colvin released her first album, "Steady On," in 1989. It was immediately greeted with unanimous praise from the music world and brisk sales at the record stores. Her music videos found their way to VH-1's Top 21. She performed solo in Canada, Australia, Europe, and crisscrossed the United States. She earned three consecutive New York Music Awards as Best Folk Artist. And in February 1991, she snared a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Folk Recording."
The subject of several songs on that first album: Colvin's heartland roots.
She grew up in the small South Dakota town of Vermillion, the second oldest of four brothers and sisters. At age 10, she picked up her brother's guitar, started strumming, and her love of music awoke. Her family made a few moves and ended up in Carbondale, Ill. That's where she formed her first rock roll group, the Shawn Colvin Band, at age 20. It was the first of several bands that kept her going until 1983, when she decided to go the solo route.
"I love to go out on my own," explains Colvin, who has not played with a band since she began recording. "It is uncomplicated, it's economically much better ... you can actually make a little money rather than sink it all back into your band."
Her songwriting got a big assist from John Levanthal, who co-wrote much of what appeared on Colvin's first record and who served as its producer. They parted ways after the first record, but his name does appear on "Fat City" songs.
Colvin went to the husband of one of her idols to produce her most recent release. Larry Klein, husband of Joni Mitchell, had admired Colvin's work, and he heard she was looking for another producer.
"You want to meet with the people who you have a mutual admiration with," says Colvin, "so we met, and he's a great guy, and I really liked the work he had done ... and he was making records in his studio at home. That appealed to me because I think people come up with unique ways of making records when they have their own systems at home."
The result was a record of 12 songs that includes a balance of sad ballads and melodic rockers with an acoustic core. It's an album of intimacy and diversity. And she got some talented help: guests artists on the record include Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Bela Fleck, Richard Thompson, David Lindley, Bruce Hornsby, and a band called the Subdudes.
But while the album really moves in a musical context, what Colvin is perhaps most proud of is her ability to get a message across.
"I felt like I always had a strength, a gift, for putting things honestly, perhaps bluntly. I may not be the best poet, I may not have the best wit, but I've got an introspective quality that I think is good.... I think I can move people with it, I think it's powerful. So that's how I continue to define my style."
This quality shines through her lyrics, such as those in the song "Polaroids":
Please no more
Mother take care of
Piece me together
Needle and thread.
Wrap me in
Lace from your
Fold me and lay me
On your bed
Or liken me to a shoe
Blackened and spit-
Kicking back home to
Smiling back home
Singing back home to
Laughing back home
Dragging back home
Like many artists now wearing the "singer-songwriter" hat, Colvin feels pigeonholed. While Mary Chapin-Carpenter has been locked into the "country" pigeonhole, Colvin has been labeled with "folk." She says it's frustrating, but she can live with it.
"It's not that I don't like folk music," she says, "it's just that I don't know what that's supposed to mean. It's all too easy to dismiss a supposed folk musician as someone without an edge. You have to understand that I grew up at a time when the type of music I'm making was really the thing everybody was listening to - James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jackson Browne."
Colvin rolls her eyes when she realizes she has just mentioned her idols in the same breath as her own career. She quickly changes the subject to the current rise of the so-called singer-songwriter.
"I think that we [singer-songwriters] are on the rise," she explains, and then she bursts out laughing, "now all we have to do is get them to quit saying the female singer-songwriter; you know, "look at all these girls...." But really, I am extremely grateful ... all artists dislike labels."
For her fans, who wore down Colvin's first album while waiting for her second, there is good news: Colvin says the wait for her third album probably won't be as long.