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Grammy winner Shawn Colvin performing at Stanford Aug. 2

Singer-songwriter's journey reflects love, loss and redemption

When Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin comes to Stanford's Bing Concert Hall on Aug. 2, she'll bring just two things: herself and her guitar.

In her music and in life, Colvin, 58, who is best known for her 1997 hit single "Sunny Came Home," is without artifice, singing with an emotional frankness about the human condition. After 25 years of recording, her musical style hasn't taken much of a detour, she said.

"It hasn't changed much. But each song seems a little different for me. I try to be honest," she said during a phone interview last week.

And whether she performs her own compositions or covers of others, such as Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," critics have said she owns them. From folk and pop to smooth jazz, Colvin's vocals bring sensuousness and passion against a backdrop of poetic lyrics that can cut to the bone -- songs such as the gently swinging "Tenderness on the Block" or "Round of Blues;" the reverent "I Don't Know Why;" the poetic "Polaroids;" defiant "Get Out of This House;" and the wistful "Shotgun Down the Avalanche."

"It's like turning a gray and uneventful afternoon in a place she clearly didn't want to be into a display of the Northern Lights," an online fan noted of another song, "Wichita Skyline."

Colvin's own journey has been like that -- from dark gray skies in places no one wants to go to illuminating light: a bout with alcoholism that she conquered more than 30 years ago; depression that took years to overcome with the right pharmacology; failed relationships; and the life-changing trials and joys of motherhood.

"Generally speaking, most major events you go through impact your work," she said. It's a combination of dealing with feelings and expressing and acknowledging life's experiences, she said. Through her songs, Colvin has worked through "the pain of some of those things and the redemptions and transitions," she said.

When she appears in the Stanford Live performance at Bing, she'll offer a spectrum of songs from her decades-long oeuvre, along with personal stories about life, her daughter and her journey, she said.

"It's intimate. I want to move my audience. What's the point if art doesn't move you?" she said.

Born in South Dakota, Colvin taught herself guitar at age 10. She grew up in London, Ontario and Carbondale, Illinois. In her 20s, she relocated to Austin, Texas, where she sang with the Western Swing band the Dixie Diesels. She moved to New York City in 1983 after being encouraged by musician Buddy Miller to sing in his band, according to her biography, "Diamond in the Rough." They had previously met in Austin, where she now lives.

Colvin wasn't writing much of her own material then, but in New York, she found her own voice as a songwriter. She won her first Grammy, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, in 1991 for her debut album, "Steady On," and in 1998, she won Song of the Year and Record of the Year for "Sunny Came Home," a song about an arsonist.

She has worked with some of the world's top musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby, David Lindley, Suzanne Vega, James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Taylor Swift and Mary Chapin Carpenter. More recently, she toured with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller.

Two years ago, Colvin and Miller collaborated on her most recent album, "All Fall Down," which she describes as being about loss. She had gone through a failed relationship and was facing her parents' aging, as well as her own.

She recorded the album in Nashville with Miller and a core band that included guitarist Bill Frissell, drummer Brian Blade and Viktor Krauss on bass, all who have credentials in jazz, but the recording stays true to her folk and pop roots. Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Jakob Dylan joined in.

"I like having guests," she said. "In Nashville, it's a tight community. Everybody loves Buddy (Miller). He put the word out, and they showed up."

Colvin has performed on musical cruises with other famed musicians, who she said provide camaraderie, but it's an unusual situation where performers who might seem to be unlikely pairings suddenly find themselves together.

"It's not like anybody's going anywhere. You find out everybody takes chances," she said.

Since March, Colvin has been touring with gravelly-voiced country and roots singer-songwriter Steve Earle. They plan to record an album and are currently in the process of writing songs, she said. Next, there's a new album of her own that she plans to put out, she said.

Last week, Colvin was about to fly to Italy's Amalfi Coast. The trip was to celebrate her daughter Caledonia's 16th birthday, and they were bringing two teen friends. Like her mother, Caledonia is getting into music and plays guitar. Colvin sounded proud talking about her.

"She's getting pretty good. She taught herself online!" Colvin said. (She didn't mind.)

"It doesn't work for parents to teach their kids stuff. She's developing her own vocal style," she added.

Colvin reflected on her own personal growth and on what she has lost and found through the trial and redemption she voices in her music.

"I think I've been cocky in life. You know -- in the way that you are when you are younger. You have to learn lessons in life -- that things don't always go the way you planned," she said. But she is grateful for every experience she has had, she said.

"I don't know that I've lost anything -- unless it's ego. I've just gained maturity. Under that large umbrella (of experience) you'll find better relationships," she said. "I've gained sober thinking, maybe." And humility and wisdom, she said.

What: Stanford Live: Folk and pop singer Shawn Colvin

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford

When: Saturday, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $30-$60, reserved seating; $15 for Stanford students

Info: 650-724-2464; Tue.-Fri., noon-5 p.m.; live.stanford.edu

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