Posted August 24, 2016 by Jeff in Tunes

Colvin & Earle: In harmony

Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin by Alexandra Valenti
Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin by Alexandra Valenti

Singer-songwriters Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle first met almost three decades ago when Colvin opened for Earle while he was on a solo acoustic tour. The show was so great that Earle immediately proposed that he and Colvin record an entire album together. The resulting release features a mix of original tunes and covers that the duo hammered out in a six-day session. Earle spoke to us via phone from a Lexington tour stop.

Talk about how you first met Shawn three decades ago. It was at the Iron Horse in Northampton, right?
It was. I had heard of her from friends of mine. I started doing solo tours in between my band touring cycles as soon as I started making records. I knew that I instinctively needed to do that to keep touch with who I am and what I am as a singer-songwriter. It was the way I was taught to assay what I had created. Guy Clark told me they’re not songs unless you play them for people. I was doing that and I was in the one the cycle between Exit 0 and Copperhead Road. Her record was getting ready to come out but wasn’t quite out yet. She opened for me at the Iron Horse. I knew exactly what I was looking at. She was a folk singer who could stand up there and hold down an audience by herself with just a guitar. And she was hot. I remembered her and ran into her off and on over the years. A short time later, I was pretty much homeless and one of the tiny points of life that gave me hope was that Emmylou [Harris] had recorded “Guitar Town” and Shawn had recorded “Someday.” That was a big deal to me. It made me believe that what I had done was remembered and was worth something and I needed that. It was one of a handful of things that helped me find my way back.

When did you first try singing together? Your voices have different qualities. How are you able to successfully harmonize?
As soon as I got out of jail and started running into Shawn again, we started singing “Someday” and “Fearless Heart” and a few other things together. Just a few years ago when Shawn came up with the idea of doing a tour together, we started singing “Someday” all the way through together in harmony. That’s the first time we realized that something happens when we sing together. That was what made me want to make a record. I wanted to write songs for those two voices. That was what I wanted to do. It was her idea for us to tour together and my idea to make a record.

Do you share a common philosophy about life?
We have a lot in common. It’s hard to talk about. You have to talk to her. We have some common experiences. We have a shorthand that we can communicate in that other people don’t have. We’re different in temperament. So much for Western astrology because our birthdays are days and a year apart. We’re pretty different in the way we deal with the world. As far music goes, she underestimates herself as a writer a lot of the time, and she writes really great songs. She talks in terms of it being something that’s hard for her to do. She struggles to do it. I have to wake up and assume I’m going to write something otherwise I would probably shoot myself. It’s how I justify my existence. I don’t have writers’ block because I don’t believe in it, I guess.

You recorded with Buddy Miller. What did he bring to the table?
He was somebody we had in common. Shawn and he have known each other since the ’70s and were in a band together in New York City in the late ’70s. I’ve known Buddy since I got out of jail in 1995 or ‘96. We worked together a lot and he was in my band for the touring part of the El Corazón cycle. I always wanted to work with him as a producer. Shawn had just made a record with him and I’ve known him for a long time, so it’s an obvious choice. It was cool. It was just in his house. There’s no formal control room, but there’s a first-rate console. There’s a Trident B range there, which is a great consoleSome great records have been made there. He was really busy because it was the last season of Nashville and he was the music director. He had all that stuff to record for the show every year. It wasn’t like HBO. Network television is a whole different deal. It’s 32 episodes.

We just found a hole in our schedules and made the record in six days.

“Come What May” is such a great song. Did something in particular inspire it?
It was a guitar riff that any guitar dealer in North America and most of Europe has heard me play. Whenever I picked up a large acoustic guitar, something you’d strum on rather than finger pick, it was a riff I’d play. I did that for a couple of years and I knew it’d become a song one of these days. “Come What May” was just a title that popped in my head. Shawn told me there was a song called “Come What May.” I said, “So what?” We went and wrote the song anyway. It was kind of cool because it’s Beatles-esque in the chorus and for the verses, we did this cross harmony thing that the Delmores and the Louvins and the Everly Brothers did. We change parts and we don’t rehearse when we do it. We just sing and it works. That’s what’s intriguing and made me want to make a record with her in the first place. It’s a very natural approach to harmony singing. I thought I was the worst harmony singer in the world. Some people probably still think I am, but my opinion of myself as a harmony singer has been elevated somewhat in the process.

“Tobacco Road” has a great bluesy vibe to it. I like the snarling guitar and clanging percussion. Can you talk about that song?
The covers are all fantasy camp stuff. Well, the Emmylou song isn’t but we just both wanted to cover one of her songs because she’s been writing great songs for the past couple of years. She doesn’t get her due and I don’t think anyone has ever covered one of her songs. Shawn brought “Tobacco Road.” I brought “You Were On My Mind.” We just got an email from [the song’s author] Sylvia Fricker, which I was thrilled about. She really likes the version of “You Were On My Mind.” She thanked me for including her original second verse, which was taken out of the We Five version because it was cleaned up. The We Five didn’t want to get drunk and sick so they took that out. I heard both the We Five and the Sylvia Fricker version growing up so I knew the words. Shawn wanted to do it. She always says it’s a song she couldn’t see herself singing it on her own. She likes to do covers and has done two covers records. Once we started singing together, she wanted to sing one of the two parts on it and knew what part she wanted to sing.  

“You’re Right (I’m Wrong)” might be my favorite track on the album. It has a real edge to it. What did it take to achieve that vibe in the studio?
It wasn’t hard. There’s one change on it. We had Chris Wood for the first four days and the fifth day my own bassist Kelly Looney came in and played electric bass on “You’re Right (I’m Wrong)” and “Raise the Dead.” That song started with this weird B-minor suspended something that I came up with. The guitar riff is Richard’s. I emulate it when we play it live now. It was one of those things where the song had this inherent lonesomeness to it from the beginning. It was the last thing we wrote. We literally finished the lyrics on the last day of recording.

You’ve been through some serious shit in your life. How have you managed to overcome those hardships and how has music played a role?
Music is just what I do. I played music until I couldn’t when I was still using. That took away everything, including music. Nothing was going to come back until I got sober. That’s what it was about. Once I got clean, there was no way. To this day, it’s still 12-step. I go to meetings. I call my sponsor. I sponsor people. And a little yoga. That’s what I run on nowadays.

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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].