For many career musicians, the challenge of staying relevant to the ever-changing taste of listeners is a lifelong struggle.
While some individuals/ bands attempt to alter their style in order to suit an audience’s mood of the moment, others stubbornly stay the course and slowly fade into the background of public consciousness, or make a living as an underground favorite. However, there are also a rare few who eschew changing the nature of their work but undergo transformations of a more personal nature.
One of these fortunate souls is singer/ songwriter Shawn Mullins. Though most popularly known for his 1998 breakthrough hit “Lullaby,” Mullins has maintained an enduring career on the fringe, recording 11 albums, and working with fellow musicians like Matthew Sweet and the Zac Brown Band.
The Underground recently caught up with Mullins before his show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass., and asked him his thoughts on music today, songwriting, and what it’s like being a new father. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Your newest album, “Light You Up,” marks your eleventh release. How have you managed to stay so productive/ successful for all these years?
A. Well I’m not qualified to do much of anything else for one, but I think I’ve stayed busy with the writing by allowing it to come when it comes. As far as success goes, I think the trick is having your own measure of what success really means. I don’t really mark my success by record sales and hits songs but more by how much of myself I put in to the art.
Q. Also, on the new album you have noticeably opened up your songwriting process by including numerous co-writers. How has this experience changed the way you create music? What are some of its benefits? Drawbacks?
A. It hasn’t really changed the why I write, but by writing with other writers you get another perspective of what you are writing about. As for the benefits of co-writing, I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s kind of like putting together a crossword puzzle with someone you like to hang out with. My favorite part of co-writing is when you get to that place in the song where you are stuck on a particular word or phrase and you both are a part of finding it. The main drawback to co-writing is that once in a while you write with someone and it’s just not a good match.
Q. Speaking of changes, you recently experienced the birth of your first child. What has the past year been like in your new role as a father?
A. Well, it’s definitely different. It changed my outlook on almost everything. I find myself wanting to tour less than I have in the past and I feel a higher level of responsibility. I don’t feel like it’s changing the way I write songs at all. He’s just giving me more to write about.
Q. Your song “Lullaby” famously chronicled life on the west coast, yet you make your home in Georgia. While the influence of both locales is evident on the new album, how do you reconcile the differences between such opposite places in your music?
A. Well first of all, I write a lot about the places that I travel through and the people I meet. “Lullaby” is simply a story – part fact and part fiction – and it probably took an outsider’s perspective to write that song. Especially, the last verse that compares the seedy underbelly of Hollywood to Nashville. My last album, “Honeydew,” was mostly written about Atlanta and the new south. There’s only one “Georgia’” song on the new CD, “Catoosa County,” which is a civil war song. Most of the latest album is set in L.A., but that wasn’t really done on purpose. It wasn’t meant to be a theme. It’s just the way it all came out. I guess geography and setting [are] pretty major ingredient[s] in my songs.
See the video for “Lullaby” here:
Q. A standout track on the new album is “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.” Did you ever get the chance to meet Johnny while he was alive? And what has his influence been on your life? Do you have any other figures in your life that have influenced you as well?
A. I never got to meet Johnny Cash. I’m a big fan though. I sometimes wonder if people really know how much he influenced rock ‘n’ roll as well as country music. I know Kris Kristofferson pretty well. He’s the ultimate songwriter’s songwriter, and he’s told me some great stories about Johnny. I met Kristofferson in 1995 and gave him on of my records. A few months later, I was sitting at home trying to write and the phone rang. It was Kris. He started quoting lines from one of my songs, and that pretty much blew my mind. Here was my hero quoting my lyric and calling me a great songwriter! That really boosted my confidence at a time when I desperately needed it. We’ve hung out several times and swapped songs. Hanging out with Kristofferson is just as amazing as you think he would be. There are other influences, but he’s always been the biggest for me. That song, “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” was written by my friends Chuck Cannon and Phil Madeira. It’s the only cover song on the new record. It’s the ultimate tribute and tip of the hat to the man in black.
Q. You find recent chart success via your collaboration with the Zac Brown Band on “Toes.” Have you ever considered branching out into other genres, even those outside the realm of predictability, in order to expose your music to new audiences? If so, what? If not, why? Please explain.
A. Yeah, I’m open to writing any kind of music. I love all good music regardless of genre. Country music is an obvious one because it’s not that different from what I normally write. Some people say you have to “dumb it down” when you write a country song. Tell Kristofferson that! His biggest hits were country songs, and they’re brilliantly written. No matter what type of music it is, you want to communicate so that your audience gets it. I don’t assume that they’re not smart enough to get my meaning. It’s my job as a songwriter to write a song that speaks to the listener and makes them feel something. It’s not about genres to me. It’s about writing really good songs. That’s always the goal.
Q. Tell us about some of your best and worst gigs. With a career as long as yours, does anything surprise you anymore?
A. My worst gig ever was at a club in Las Vegas, well not exactly. It was outside Vegas, not on the strip. I got heckled, which doesn’t happen too much to me. Anyway, this heckler was doing his best to ruin my show, and all of the sudden this woman jumped up and started giving him hell. It was pretty great. She totally shut this guy up, and the whole audience gave her a standing ovation. I guess that could count as one of my best gigs too now that I think about it. I don’t have a lot of bad gigs. The crowds are usually with me, and the most that can go wrong is a power outage, which has happened a few times over the years. In those situations, I just unplug and sing the rest of the concert totally acoustic. That can turn a potentially bad gig into something really special.
Q. Though many will forever associate you with a particular song, what else can listeners expect at one of your shows? What might they not expect?
A. If you think about it, most recording artists are known for one or two songs. I don’t mind that a bit. I’m glad to be known for any song I’ve written and recorded. But I like to change it up a bit at my concerts. Sometimes after my shows, people that have never heard me play live tell me that it was different than what they expected. I may do a country song or an old standard from the 1930s. Also I tell a few stories throughout my set. People shouldn’t expect pyrotechnics, dancers, auto-tuned vocals or backing tracks. It’s an acoustic show. I don’t pretend to be anything other than a singer and songwriter. Sometimes I get to play with my band, and that’s a really different show than my solo concerts.
Q. Do you have any advice for others out there, who are seeking to make music their vocation? Do you have any warnings?
A. My only advice to those who want a career in music is don’t be in it for the money. If that’s your reason for writing music or performing or recording, then you’re in trouble. Don’t ever do it for the money. Why? Because most great artists don’t make a lot of money. It’s the publishing companies, record companies (although these days, not so much), lawyers and managers who really earn the most money in this business. If you want to be a musician, be a musician. If you want to be rich, you’d better try something else. These days you can do just as well independently as you can as a signed artist, but you have to be willing to work really hard. Learn as much about the business of music as you can, and try to keep the art separate from all that stuff, that’s the hard part.
Q. Lastly, in the past you have had the privilege of having your music used on television shows and in feature films. And many listeners today hear new music for the first time through these mediums. What is your opinion of this process? What effects do you think this innovation might ultimately have on the way people hear/ find new music in the future?
A. It’s definitely a big part of what makes music popular. But it has been for over 50 years already if you think about it. There weren’t rock stars before television. But the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand and other television shows helped launch the careers of the greatest pop stars of the 20th century. It’s an old model with a fresh coat of paint on it. I don’t really see it as a new thing at all. But now there are more ways to be heard and seen, and I guess that’s a good thing.