Wednesday, Sept. 9
The Pub & Grill at Santa Fe Brewing Company
37 Fire Place
Eleven years ago, Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins hit it big with "Lullaby." The song clogged the airwaves and TV stations with that infectious chorus ("Ev-a-ree-thing's gonna be all-right, rock-a-bye..." Yeah, you know it. Sorry I just got it stuck in your head). After that song's big summertime rise to the top (it also earned Mullins a Grammy nomination in 1999), Mullins came out with a few other songs that got modest airplay, but nothing ever equaled the sudden success of "Lullaby." Yes, this is what many would consider a textbook case of One-Hit-Wonderdom.
The only thing is, the difference between Mullins and any textbook One Hit Wonder is that Mullins is actually good. Great, even. His music is rife with intricate storylines in an Americana-folk-bluegrass sound that's consistent, comfortable but still retains a challenging emotional edge.
Now, this is where the truth will out: In 1998, I, along with thousands of others enthralled by that ev-a-ree-thiiiing, picked up Soul's Core and gave it a listen or two. Or a million. I continued to herd Mullins albums into my cache for the next 11 years until one day, sitting innocently at my desk at SFR, an email popped up in my inbox. Shawn Mullins is coming to town, it said - yes, this I know, I thought. The email continued: Would you like to set up a phone interview?
I spilled the beans to Mullins and his publicist: I've been a fan for over a decade, I said, and of course I'd like to set up that interview. So set it up I did.
Below the jump, read a bit more about Mullins' music and see SFR's exclusive Q&A with the man himself. Be still my heart.
Soul's Core was the first album to bring Mullins to the public eye, but it was actually released only a month after an album called The First Ten Years - so it obviously was hardly his first release. That being said, Soul's Core is quintessential Mullins. The folksy Americana oft-bluegrass sound is easy to listen to and easy to get lost in - Mullins' songwriting has a flair for the narrative and for character development (just give a listen to "Gulf of Mexico" or "Tannin Bed Song" and not only hear a song, but meet real people in your mind's eye). The album is often stripped-down, beautiful in its simplicity and unnerving in its rawness. Mullins' voice is grainy and low-slung one moment and soaring to sweet heights the next. It's a varied, yet cohesive mix of ballads and urgent Western-sounding stories.
After the success of "Lullaby," Mullins released Beneath the Velvet Sun with Sony records, but that record deal soon went sour (read more about that below). His most recent releases, 2006's 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor and 2009's honeydew, are out on Vanguard Records (also home of the Indigo Girls, Matt Nathanson and Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters). He comes through Santa Fe about once a year; it's one of his favorite stops on his country-crossing, and we welcome him every time.
This time he swings through town, he's got something big to celebrate in addition to honeydew: A little over a month ago, he became a daddy to a baby boy, Murphy. When I spoke with him from his home in Atlanta, he and his wife had just finished walking Murphy around the block. Of course, babies are great and all, but I did get Mullins to talk about music too.
SFR: I have been listening to your music for 10 or 11 years now. I'm only 24, so when I say 10 or 11 years, I started early. So I remember being 13 years old and sitting on this bus - my middle school would all go skiing, and I was sitting on this bus listening to Soul's Core on my little CD player.
SM: Aw, that's sweet! Thanks for telling me that.
I was one of the hordes that bought Soul's Core based on 'Lullaby.'
Yeah, that's how it happens. I definitely feel thankful for having that song do what it did, even though I never thought it was my best song or anything, but it's definitely the one I appreciate having brought me to the dance, so to speak.
I was driving around in my car last night listening to all your albums again, and I was listening to a cut off 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor, and I thought - man, if someone thought they were going to get 'Lullaby' over and over and over again, then they went and bought this album, they probably would have been disappointed in one way - but I'm in the same boat as you are, because it's a good song, but the rest of your work is just so far superior.
Oh, thanks. For me, it's a matter of not boring myself to death as an artist. It's funny, having that success happen one time and then never really trying to do that again. I didn't even try to do it the first time, it kind of fell in my lap. But I listen to stuff on the radio - let's take a band like Coldplay, for instance. Coldplay - it's not that all their stuff sounds the same, but there's something about it that lets you know it's Coldplay. There are bands that have continued to be majorly successful, they get the fact that the audience needs to recognize their sound. And I never have embraced that. For me, the music and creativity leads. And I'm not saying that's the right way to be, because honestly, its been a much harder career for me to continually try to do different things. It's always me, it's not like I'm putting out a country record and a reggae record and a pop record, it's always that whatever you want to call it - singer-songwriter Americana sound - but I've always wanted to make each record a little different, not only for me, but for people who are going to be listening to it.
But yeah, you hit it on the head - in a way, that hurts the artist, because it's not as easy to sell if you don't keep doing the same thing over and over again. I always shunned the idea of force-feeding a listening audience. I always and still do hope that giving somebody something a little different each time will be embraced.
Beneath the Velvet Sun just has such a different, polished and produced sound, especially compared to Soul's Core and 9th Ward. I noticed once you did Velvet Sun, you went back to the more simple sound. What was that transition and translation like to you?
The transition from Soul's Core to Velvet Sun is a pretty easy explanation. The record I delivered to Sony Columbia that was going to be Velvet Sun, they didn't accept. [I gave them] songs like 'Lonesome [I Know You Too Well]' and 'Yellow Dog Song;' it was very acoustic. They basically said, 'Man, you're not giving us anything that we can work at radio.' And I didn't really know what to do. So I co-wrote some things with pop type songwriters, and then we had Tom Lord-Alge mix the album.
That was the real stickler of why the record sounds so polished - it's who we got to mix the album: the Lord-Alge brothers. Tom Lord-Alge had mixed 'Lullaby,' but not all of Soul's Core, just that song for the radio. The record company really wanted Chris Lord-Alge to mix the entire album of Velvet Sun, so I just went along with it because I was tired of arguing about it. But it backfired, and it actually did hurt me, because it was a different-sounding record than Soul's Core, but not different in the way that I wanted it to be.
I think about half the album I really like a lot still, but the other half, I'm like - 'Wow. That's selling out, dude.' I look back on it and it's very hard for me to hear, because I fell like I did what they wanted me to do and it still didn't work. So that was one record that I did what the label wanted me to do, and after that I said, 'I'm not doing that any more.' So I left Columbia Records and started independently and with smaller labels doing it again the way I wanted to do it. That transition felt great, it felt very freeing to make 9th Ward.
Ever since then, I make less money, but I have complete artistic freedom to do the kinds of records I want to make. And Vanguard's the kind of label that they're really into real artists and real interesting music. They don't even really work pop radio at all - they work stations like Radio Free Santa Fe. I feel like I'm where I need to be, but it's been a bit of a harder climb, you know, because I just refused to keep doing what they wanted me to do.
So it's a double-edged thing, because you're happy because you ave the freedom, but sometimes I think - 'Wow, I just keep doing this and the records are selling less and less each time.' But I'm writing a lot, I've got a new baby and I've also learned not to make being a recording artist my whole life. For a while it was, and it's hard to be happy when your ego is so intact. It's like, jeez, everything becomes about you. And I never really liked that feeling. So that's where I am now. I still get out there and tour and I still make records, but I'm somewhat off the pop radar, I'm definitely not known among the masses. And that's okay. I feel okay about that in the end.
Just the other day our music writer was putting together the music calendar for the week of the 9th, and he comes across the Brewing Company's press release and he said, 'God, Shawn Mullins. He's still putting out albums?'
[Laughs] I've had so many people come up to me at different shows going, 'Man, I didn't know you were still around.' And I'm like - well, god, I do 150 shows a year! I'm totally around. I'm just playing to hundreds of people a night, rather than thousands. But I've always been more comfortable playing small rooms. It's a coffeehouse kind of thing, what I do. I've played lots of bars too, and it needs to be small. If you're playing a stadium it's very hard to make it an intimate setting.
Yeah, and I think your music lends itself much more to that intimate setting. Then again, I'm biased, because I started listening to your music right as I was transitioning to high school. So all through my adolescence I was sitting there in alone my room, moping, listening to tracks off Soul's Core.
Aw. Yeah, what I've learned over the years is telling the truth in songs is the most important thing about what I can do as an artist. Because that way, people, when they listen to it - some people, anyway, like yourself - are going to connect with that and go, 'Wow. That is speaking to me.' And stuff that's a little more on the surface, where you're not digging down, it's fun to listen to and bob your head to while you're driving down the road, but you're not really moved by it. And it's always been more important to me to communicate.
You were saying that half of Velvet Sun is what you wanted it to be. Are there any tracks that you won't play?
Yes. There are a couple songs off that album I won't do at all, because I felt forced to write them. Songs like 'Everywhere I Go' and 'Up All Night,' even though lyrically I don't think they're shit songs or anything, the production of them ended up so poppy. I just felt like I'd betrayed myself by doing that. On top of it, I got sued over both of those songs.
Really! What happened?
One of the guys that wrote the songs with me ended up saying that I stole the whole song from him, which was just a real bummer. Because I mean, the last thing I want to do is steal someone else's song. I try to do original music. It's very hard because we only have 12 notes in our system so there's only so many ways you can arrange them, but you try. So those two songs, I never do live because I just have such a bad feeling about them. And 'Everywhere I Go' gets airplay, still! It just blows my mind. I mean, I hear it in the grocery store sometimes and I go - 'My god.' [laughs] But you know, I just have to move on, and I know that I've done better work since then.
That being said, I have to ask - 'Santa Fe.' Do you perform it?
Oh, yeah! I do that almost every show, actually. I love that song.
Every time I've listened to it, I've wondered - what cafe downtown does that take place in?
Cowgirl Hall of Fame! Yeah, that's a true story. A friend of mine, she's done all kinds of music and at that time she was more of a folk singer, but she was working a construction job during the day and then playing gigs at night. I happened to be in town at the same time. It was summer, and she'd had enough of Santa Fe. She was like, 'You gotta get me out of here.' That's where the original idea came from. I even really like the production, even though it's a little slick because of the mixing of it - but I like the production of that song, still. It's unusual, and it's not so far pop that it makes my stomach turn.
Yeah, it's a different kind of produced than 'Everywhere I Go.' It's produced, but it still retains that gritty sound that you have.
That track was done in Atlanta with all my guys. 'Everywhere I Go' was done in LA with a whole other group of players - you know, members of the Wallflowers, session people. People that do records all day long. Plus, I felt pressure at that point - the label was like, 'You gotta give us something we can work at radio.' So I was like, 'Well, how 'bout this? I'll give you something that's undeniably pop.' And they loved it! They were like, 'Oh, this is great!' [laughs] But my fan base was just like, 'What?'
But yeah, I still do 'Lonesome I Know You Too Well,' 'Santa Fe' - those two specifically I do almost every night. Is Cowgirl still there?
Cool. That's great.
You come to Santa Fe quite often, as the case may be.
Yeah, I was there last December doing a benefit for homeless veterans, which we're going to do again - I think in March. It's one of my favorite areas of the country, so I try to get out there as much as I can. The Lensic Theater is a beautiful little theater, and I've also played the Brewing Company a couple times, so I'm looking forward to doing that again.
What would you say is the biggest influence in the different sound of each of your records?
A lot of it has to do with where the songs were recorded. A lot of the songs [on 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor] were recorded in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. The songwriting was what it was, but some of it that you're hearing is the tones. And you know, the charango in 'Cold Black Heart,' that's a Bolivian instrument but it has almost a mandolin sound about it.
Yeah, when it first came on I thought of India.
The second part of the melody in that charango line is almost Middle Eastern. It's kind of a cross between bluegrass and some type of Eastern music. That was really fun - that was one of the most fun songs I've ever recorded because it did spread out on what it was. The story takes place back before cars when this guy has to hop a train to get out of town, so there was that element of it, but also I think having the charango, which is a ten-stringed instrument kind of like a mandolin but has nylon strings, it added a whole other flair to it.
I was listening to 9th Ward coming into work today, and it struck me that you have sort of an old-timey sensibility. There's that sensibility of music that could have been made 100 years ago, but it's being made now. There's a strong bluegrass influence, there's a strong narrative influence. How did you come to that type of songwriting?
I think [it came from] growing up in Georgia, having a grandfather that played upright bass, watching him play in a number of different types of bands, from bluegrass to Dixieland to big band. We would go to the country a lot, which was about an hour away from Atlanta. When I was a kid we built a log cabin over a series of years, just going there on the weekends. That was really great experience for me as a little kid, because I was a country boy. But really I was a city boy - we lived in Atlanta, 10 minutes from downtown. But I still can smell the cows and hay and that connection to the earth and the woods and the garden. It was kind of a double life, and having that going on in my childhood really made me want to make that kind of music too.
Wednesday, Sept. 9
The Pub & Grill at Santa Fe Brewing Company
37 Fire Place