Born on January 10, 1956, in Vermillion, SD; married Simon Tassano (a musician, sound engineer, and tour manager), 1993; divorced, 1995; married Mario Erwin (a photographer), 1997; children: (with Erwin) Caledonia Jean-Marie. Education: Attended Southern Illinois University, mid-1970s. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 666 Fifth Ave., P.O. Box 4455, New York, NY 10101-4455. Management--Ronald Fierstein, AGF Entertainment Ltd., 30 West 21st St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10010. Website--Shawn Colvin Official Website:

During the late 1980s folk-flavored music once again made its way toward the mainstream, through the work of such artists as Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Nanci Griffith, and the Indigo Girls. Shawn Colvin, after more than a decade in various music scenes, waltzed through the door these performers had opened and was met with critical awe.

Likening her to a host of great vocalists and songwriters--Vega, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Janis Ian, Emmylou Harris--music critics tended toward hyperbole when they discovered Colvin. "Singing of the athletics of love and the aesthetics of loss (her words not mine), Shawn Colvin is the best thing I've heard since the sliced bread of the Jurassic era," Melody Maker's Chris Roberts exclaimed. Indeed, Colvin drew praise for her profound and personal songwriting. According to Martin Johnson of New York Newsday, her "songbook is a startlingly articulate chronicle of the pain of adult love," while, as Darryl Morden of the Hollywood Reporter noted, there is "a child-wonder in Colvin's writing that balances out her more serious work." She also thrilled critics with her voice, described by the Hudson Current as "fragile as antique glass, sultry as smoke," "bouncy," "hypnotic," "supple," and "so soft it's like breathing cotton." And as Peter Howell observed in the Toronto Star, "Her voice wraps itself around you, like a favorite song heard on a car radio during a long night ride home."

Colvin was born on January 10, 1956, in Vermillion, South Dakota. As her parents pursued advanced degrees, they transplanted Shawn and her three siblings first to London, Ontario, Canada, and then to Carbondale, Illinois. Colvin's parents were both musical; her father played guitar and banjo and loved listening to folk music. Colvin sang in the church choir, particularly enjoying church hymns, and as she told David Keeps of Harper's Bazaar, "minor-key Christmas carols."

Colvin was also influenced by rock and pop, particularly the Beatles, Laura Nyro, the Band's Robbie Robertson, and Joni Mitchell. When she was ten she picked up her brother's four-string guitar and learned how to play--by the time she was a teenager she was drawing album covers. "I had a very rich fantasy life," Colvin revealed to Ann Kolson in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I thought I'd be a prodigy. I think I really wanted to be very famous, very young.... I knew I was good ... but nobody got encouraged for stuff like that in South Dakota."

Colvin began performing as part of a duo while in high school, a time that she described to Timothy White of Billboard as her "angry high school days," during which she "always felt like an orphan" and had a "pretty self-destructive lifestyle." She graduated a year early and remained in town to attend Southern Illinois University. While in college she played folk and rock in local clubs and soon moved on to music full time. After a turn with her own hard-rock Shawn Colvin Band, she joined the country-swing Dixie Diesels and moved with them to Austin, Texas. Eventually Colvin returned to Carbondale, and after a brief stint back at school, she started performing again.

Colvin's next move took her to California, where for a year and a half she played in small clubs. Then, in 1980, she moved to New York and joined the Buddy Miller Band. When bassist John Leventhal became part of that outfit, he and Colvin bonded over a shared love of the music of roots guitarist Ry Cooder and became involved musically and romantically. Colvin and Leventhal later formed a band that played pop music in the Steely Dan vein. At one point, she was also the only woman in the bluegrass Red Clay Ramblers. These years were not easy on Colvin; as she revealed to Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, she hit "emotional rock bottom" in the early 1980s. But, with the help of Leventhal, she said, "I began to have the courage to say what I really wanted to in my lyrics." While Colvin and Leventhal's romantic relationship did not last, their musical collaboration did; he would be instrumental in her first major-label albums.

Built a Following on New York Folk Scene

In 1983 Colvin returned to solo work, finding a niche in the enduring folk scene of New York City's Greenwich Village. The Fast Folk music collective discovered her and recorded one of her earliest songs, "I Don't Know Why." Colvin soon built a following in New York and extended it to folk clubs along the East Coast. Her career got a critical boost from Suzanne Vega: Colvin sang back-up on Vega's 1987 hit "Luka," joined Vega on her European tour, and signed with Vega's manager.

By 1988, Colvin had arrived, at least in New York City. That year she was named Best New Vocalist at the New York Music Awards and released an independently produced cassette titled Live Tape. She also signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, which resulted in the release of Steady On in 1989. The album included many songs Colvin had written over the years, including some co-written by Leventhal, who also produced the collection. Dark and haunting, Steady On gave Colvin the space to address her past wanderings and exorcise some demons.

Critics were impressed with the effort. John Leland of Newsweek called Steady On "a debut album of eye-opening clarity." Billboard's White observed, "Colvin mounted a siren-like assault on the sensibilities, enticing with fair words and castle-building imagery, and then delivering concrete disclosures that ran dungeon-deep." A Sassy reader gave the album five stars, assessing it as "better than your best religious experience," and gushed, "I can't pick just one song to recommend because they are all just so downright funky!"

Proved Herself a Skilled Singer and Guitarist

Colvin's critics were struck not only by her songwriting, but also by her guitar style. She became known for her unusual tunings and rhythmic playing. The percussive technique is Colvin's way of keeping things lively when she plays for two hours without a band; as she explained to Guitar Player' s Kevin Ransom, "I don't have the patience to really learn the guitar neck or do a lot of fancy picking or finger work. And, partly because I'm a woman, this rhythmic style seemed like a more gripping way to grab attention and make the songs work." Colvin has also been greatly influenced by guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson, with whom she toured after the release of Steady On. "I had to learn a bunch of his songs, which meant learning chord combinations I'd never have thought of," she told Ransom. "His melodies and chord progressions astounded me. Since then, I've wanted to really push myself and take my playing to odd places that it's never been before."

David Hajdu of the Hollywood Reporter found Colvin's singing as clever as her guitar work. "She uses dynamics for effect, going from whispers to full-throated belting. But her most effective vocal device is her way of slurring notes and slipping into conversational speech unexpectedly." Similarly, White noted, "Colvin is an artful yet seemingly effortless vocalist whose prismatic grasp of intonation is married to a serene sense of control." Colvin's colleagues seemed to agree with the music press; in 1991 the artist was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording for Steady On.

Following the record's release, Colvin toured the United States, as well as Canada, Europe, and Australia, performing solo and at folk festivals. Her shows were popular with fans and critics, not only for their quality but for her "easy-going wit and charming stage presence," determined New York Newsday's Johnson. She was a guest on Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show, and CBS This Morning, contributed vocals to a number of friends' recordings and collective albums, recorded a duet with Bruce Hornsby called "Lost Soul," and toured with rock stalwart Neil Young as well as Thompson. It wasn't long before she was ready to return to the studio and record another album. The result was 1992's Fat City and a major headlining tour.

Released Fat City

The mood of Fat City was a departure for Colvin; when she started on the project, she intended to record an album about accepting her status as a single woman, but, as fate would have it, she fell in love with Richard Thompson's sound man and tour manager, Simon Tassano, and, as she explained in Rolling Stone, "It changed the tone of the songs I'd written and inspired others, songs I didn't know were gonna be written. So the joke was on me, I'm happy to say." Colvin and Tassano would eventually marry, in September of 1993. While John Leventhal co-produced some of the cuts on Fat City, the primary producer was Larry Klein, who also played bass on the album. Collaborating with Klein afforded an added bonus--it meant meeting and working with Klein's wife, Joni Mitchell. Colvin recorded Fat City in their home studio, and as she told David Wild in Vogue, "Meeting Joni was a moment I was waiting for all my life." Fat City also included contributions from a wealth of musical luminaries besides Klein and Mitchell: Thompson, Hornsby, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Booker T. Jones, the Subdudes, Chris Whitley, and Bela Fleck.

Critics raved about Fat City, thrilled that Colvin had maintained the momentum of her stunning debut. In Billboard's view, the disc "[fulfilled] all the promise of her preceding Steady On collection, her deceptively handsome sound concealing a wealth of narrative jolts and surprises." Nashville's Metro Music Monthly praised the record's "well-read lyrics with Dylan-esque attention to detail, that shimmery, cool contralto, and a good ear for melody and arrangement"; The Hudson Current reveled in the lyric finesse as well, reporting, "Colvin uses words like found objects, stringing them together into collages of imagery."

One of the songs from Fat City, Colvin's old standby "I Don't Know Why," quickly became the critics' darling. Billboard, the Chicago Tribune, and the Gavin Report were certain the song would become a classic, the latter calling it "one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed songs of this decade." Reviewer Ben Edmonds, writing in Detroit's Metro Times, was a rare dissenting voice: "Sad to say, Fat City is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs show flashes of something ... but none fully press their advantages." Still, even this criticism was qualified, Edmonds conceding, "Most contemporary folk artists would be only too happy to claim Fat City. For Shawn Colvin, it's a small sophomore stumble."

Earned Strong, Dedicated Following

Despite the critical accolades, Colvin was not considered a mainstream pop artist, and her record sales reflected this. As Vogue's Wild noted, no specific radio format was targeted, and as such, Colvin failed to reach the wide audience that radio play attracts. New York Newsday contributor Johnson observed that her songs had "proven too folk for mainstream and too urbane for country." But, like many contemporary folk singers, Colvin enjoys a strong, dedicated following. "I haven't sold a zillion records, [but] these people who come out to see me I think will always be around in some numbers. That's a good place to be, in my opinion," she remarked in a Pollstar profile. "It's a good career to have. I'm not fabulously wealthy and I don't get recognized on the street, but I've got a really, really good job."

In 1994 Colvin released an album of covered songs appropriately titled, Cover Girl. This album was the first of Colvin's recording emphasizing her interpretation of other artist's material. The covers on the album included "Every Little Thing (He) Does is Magic," by the Police and a duet with Mary-Chapin Carpenter on "One Cool Remove." Cover Girl was followed by two 1995 releases, Round of Blues and Live '88. A Few Small Repairs, Colvin's 1996 record that was written on the heels of her divorce from Tassano, propelled her into mainstream popularity with the hit song "Sunny Came Home."

Grammy Success

"Sunny Came Home" earned Colvin two Grammy Awards in 1998, one for Song of the Year and the other for Record of the Year. Chris Woodstra of All Music Guide wrote, "Colvin has always been a songwriter of note, but with A Few Small Repairs, she reaches new heights, painting hauntingly vivid images that address not only relationships but also life in general with great insight." Holiday Songs and Lullabies, Colvin's 1998 release, which she recorded while she was pregnant with her daughter, was inspired by Maurice Sendak's book of children's songs called Lullabies & Night Songs.

Colvin's next release in 2001 was a much-anticipated album titled Whole New You. The album is an exploration of Colvin's personal life in which she discusses topics such as motherhood and her move to Austin, Texas, where she eventually met and married Mario Erwin, an Austin photographer. Lyrics like "Parents should say they're sorry more often than they do, so let it begin with me," from the song "I'll Say I'm Sorry Now," express the impact her daughter has made on her life. Other tracks from Whole New You include "A Matter of Minutes," "Another Plane Went Down," and the title track. The album also includes harmony from artists like James Taylor on "Bonefields" and Charlie Sexton on "Roger Wilco."

by Megan Rubiner Zinn

Shawn Colvin's Career

Began performing in folk and rock clubs, Carbondale, IL, mid-1970s; formed Shawn Colvin Band, 1976; performed solo and with various bands in Illinois, Texas, California, and New York, 1976-83; performed solo in folk clubs, East Coast, 1983-89; toured Europe with Suzanne Vega, 1987; released independent album Live Tape, 1988; signed with Columbia Records, 1988; released Steady On, 1989, Fat City, 1992, Cover Girl, 1994, A Few Small Repairs, 1996, and Whole New You, 2001.

Shawn Colvin's Awards

New York Music Awards, Best New Vocalist, 1988, Best Debut Female Vocalist for Steady On, 1989, and Best Folk Artist, 1990; Grammy Award, Best Contemporary Folk Recording for Steady On, 1991; Grammy Award, Song of the Year and Record of the Year, both for "Sunny Came Home," 1998.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 12 years ago

I have been a dyed in the wool fan of shawns since I first heard "Diamond in the Rough". What is not to love about Shawn Colvin? She has such a beautiful, melodic voice, her songs are so well written and crafted, though at times not particularly "happy" songs and she is an accomplished guitarist. And she's a beautiful woman. Shawn is a superb story teller. A lot of her music is autobiographical in nature and her emotions come out so beautifully in her music. She does not write particularly happy music all the time, but sings about things which have happened in her life which we can all relate to. My only regret is that she doesn't come down here much. I saw her in Mobile, AL about 5 years ago and was spellbound. The venue was not large, which added even more to the atmosphere.

about 16 years ago

As A longtime fan of Shawn Colvin I hope she will forgive the liberty of sampling some of the backing track to One Small Year.I was able to fit one of my own songs(from 1971) with only a slight amendment to the chorus melody.You can find it on You Tube or Myspace.I'll remove it if it causes you a problem.Regards, John