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Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle collaborate on a record of new material

by John Adamian

@johnradamian

Even seasoned songwriters like Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle — writers who are widely regarded as among the best in the folk/Americana field — don’t always know how a song is going to take shape.

Songwriting seems to be one of those creative mysteries. It’s not like making a movie, where you pretty much have to start with an idea, then a script, find a director, a cast and a location, etc. Or a painting, where you generally begin the process with a sketch and then elaborate on it. Lots of songwriters will tell you that there’s no set path through the process. Some of them start with a lyric scribbled on a napkin. Some of them carry around a vocal melody sung to nonsense syllables. Sometimes it’s a chord change that needs a tune draped over it. Great songs have been known to flow out of nothing more than an idea for a title. Sometimes there’s a chorus with no verse. Sometimes there’s a verse with no chorus.

For Colvin and Earle, who have known each other for decades, played together on shared bills recently, and who just this year released a record of songs that they co-wrote and sing together, the process retains its uncertainties. The atmosphere on the record, simply called Colvin & Earle, released in June, is more one of an exuberant stomp than of tear-soaked heartache, though plenty of emotional colors are brushed in. The record has a full band, but the pair have been out on tour playing the songs as a duo, just two acoustic guitars and two voices. Colvin & Earl play in Greensboro at the Carolina Theatre on Saturday, July 23. Shawn Colvin spoke with me by phone last week about their collaboration.

“It’s never particularly easy for me,” says Colvin about working on songs with other songwriters in general. “Years ago I tried to go to Nashville and do that thing that people do, which is to sit down with other people and bang out a song in two or three hours. I never felt very comfortable with that.”

Despite their longstanding friendship, their admiration for each other’s work, and their having shared stages together, a fruitful creative partnership was never a given.

“It’s a crap shoot, but we lucked out,” says Colvin. Colvin’s material harnesses candor, straightforward narrative, and emotional insight, yoking them to strong melodies and natural phrasing. It’s easy for listeners familiar with her work to imagine that Colvin would share the kind of confidence conveyed by some of the characters in her songs. But a new songwriting project, particularly one with Earle, who had not done a ton of songwriting collaborations, retained the feeling of unfamiliar turf.

“With Steve it was an unknown,” says Colvin. “I was intimidated and concerned about it, just because of my own shyness. And being kind of loath to just throw ideas out right in front of somebody in a room at the same time.”

Going into the project, they knew they wanted the songs to have a certain feel, defined in equal parts by both their voices.

“It was essential for us that we sing the songs together all the way through,” says Colvin. “We wanted to sort of equally cowrite the material and sing it all together.”

That means that the songs don’t have that playful dynamic established by George Jones & Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty; they’re not duets where each singer alternates verses, or where the story is about the romantic interaction of a pair of male and female characters. Colvin and Earle don’t stick entirely to this rule, trading verses on “The Way That We Do.” But for the most part the record is of the two singers together.

“Our initial inspiration for making a record was the fact that our voices blend well,” she says.

And they do. Colvin can sing high and pure, but she can also sound slightly husky. When the pair do “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones, instead of Colvin covering a high harmony, she takes the main melody with Earle dropping down below the familiar line. In addition to the new co-written material that makes up the bulk of the record, the two dust off another old classic, “You Were On My Mind,” a song made famous by Ian and Sylvia in the ’60s, admirably revealing new shades of despair and darkness to a song that often recedes into its own familiarity.

The record closes with a sweet but potent song of heartache and loss called “You’re Still Gone,” which Colvin started based on a scrap of a verse given to her by a friend. Then she handed the verses off to Earle, who wrote the chorus.

Being open to what bit of melody or what fragment of a phrase might turn into a song, and being open to letting a song about lost love shade into a song about grieving, or for a song about physical desire to morph into a song about spirituality is perhaps the kind of receptivity and creative flexibility required to make music that resonates with listeners. Colvin says that she doesn’t approach the writing process with any kind of formula or any set order of operations.

“I’ve had songs come to me every way you can imagine,” says Colvin. !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

Colvin & Earle play the Carolina Theatre, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, at 8 p.m., on Saturday, July 23. $25 – $95. carolinatheatre.com.

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