Getting Out of Her Own Way

An Interview with Shawn Colvin

By Garrison Institute

Last November, singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin performed at the Garrison Institute’s Insight & Impact benefit. We caught up with her recently to talk about how clearing her mind and the 12 Steps inform her spirituality and creative process, as well as her approach to covering songs.

This post is the second in a series of short interviews on contemplation and creativity. Read our interview with cellist and composer Zoë Keating here

Do you have a spiritual or contemplative practice?

Not formally, but exercising could be considered my contemplative process. It allows my brain to clear out. I also follow the tenants of the 12 Steps because I’ve suffered from addiction. I think recovery is a spiritual practice.

Do you find that clearing out your mind enhances your creativity?

I think anything you do that clears your mind—or a “mind dump,” as I like to call it—clears the pathways towards what’s underneath. For me, that’s where the best ideas come from creatively. Once I start thinking too hard or planning too much, then I feel like things sound stilted.

Part of the 12 Steps work is allowing something greater than yourself to take over. Is the practice of clearing your mind connected to this idea in the 12 Steps in that it allows something other than yourself to come in?

The essence of the 12 Steps is that you have an illness that will not respond to human aid. The best doctors and medical interventions can’t arrest alcoholism or other addictions. Self-will doesn’t seem to cut it. What’s really required is a willingness to believe in a power greater than oneself. Of course, a lot of people find power in a group. The most help that I’ve gotten has generally been through those who have suffered the same maladies, not necessarily from experts.

Similarly, to find inspiration, I just have to get out of my own way. The best ideas come through the side door. Often in the midst of trying to write something, I will take a walk or even a nap. It’s a process of just getting out of my own head.

One of the songs you sang at the Garrison Institute benefit was a cover of “Tougher Than the Rest,” a Bruce Springsteen song. Can you talk about your approach to covering someone else’s song?

Well, first of all I have to be in love with the song. Sometimes I ask myself, “Can I possibly bring a different point of view or a different feeling to this song?” Not improve it, because that’s impossible. When I fall in love with a song, it’s really good the way it is. With “Tougher than the Rest,” it just seemed like it could possibly be interpreted as a song of bravado. I don’t think it is. I think there’s a lot of humility in that song. And I thought, by nature of having a woman sing it and by slowing it down and making it a more acoustic tune, that maybe I could bring that vulnerability out.

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