LOOKING AHEAD TO HIS UPCOMING ACOUSTIC GIG at Randy Wood’s Concert hall in Bloomingdale, Shawn Mullins and I caught up with each other for the better part of an hour via phone. The full interview is below.
It’s good to talk to you again. How are you doing?
Shawn Mullins: I’m good, man. I have a day off today, so I’m just chillin’ out.
Where are you speaking to me from?
Shawn Mullins: I’m at my home in Candler Park in Atlanta.
What’s that neighborhood like?
Shawn Mullins: It’s kinda cool. It’s probably one of the first suburbs in Atlanta, period. When they first started building craftsman style houses and those old Tudors. You know, that whole explosion of construction from WWII to the late ‘50s. There’s a few Victorians and older homes in there, too. Our house is like a cabin that’s up on a hill with a bunch of woods around. I love it. It’s a peaceful place to come home to after being out on the road. There’s lots of old hippies that live around here and families with dogs. It’s like a little quiet nest in the middle of all of Atlanta’s craziness. You can just hang out in peace or go out on the bike paths.
It sounds like a hip little oasis.
Shawn Mullins: It is. Inman Park’s like that too. Candler Park is on the East side of Little Five Points, on the way to Decatur. The next neighborhood over is Candler Park. That’s the one with all those old, big mansions that were built right around reconstruction until the 1920s in the antebellum style. But now, they’ve gotten a little funky. (laughs) They have weird mannequins in the windows, or the columns might be painted bright pink. Stuff like that. Wacky but cool.
You know, when I looked at the election results in Ga., I was so completely surprised that we didn’t go Democrat. But my wife said come on, look where you live! When I look around me, I’m in this oasis as you called it. You know, Republican, Democrat, whatever. But I really thought Atlanta would be enough to swing the whole state. It seemed to me that everybody would vote for Obama. I guess that was just around here. (laughs) This is much more of a liberal neighborhood. We have a land trust with a sweat lodge and a drum circle! When the weather’s nice there is caterwauling through the underbrush.
I absolutely love that phrase, “caterwauling through the underbrush.” That’s a great name for someone’s next record.
Shawn Mullins: (Laughs) Yeah, I could hear that. It’s all about just getting down to your own primal thing. Like a Robert Bly trip. There’s lots of yoga studios and it has a good feel for a neighborhood. My wife owns a little store there. It’s a bridal boutique on one side and on the other side she sells what’s called ready-to-wear. It’s women’s’ clothing that’s funky and cool. She does really well with that. I’m hoping I can just retire in a few years because she’ll be doing so well. I still wanna get out and play some, but it would be nice not to have to get out and tour. I’d much rather only do it when it’s most fun.
A lot of folks here in town will remember your appearance at the Savannah Music Fest a while back where you split the bill with Randal Bramblett’s Band. That was a rare chance for you to play with your full band, as most of the shows you do are either acoustic solo or duo gigs, right?
Shawn Mullins: Yeah. I’ve definitely toured mostly as a solo act over the last couple of years. When I toured for the last record, which was 9th Ward Pickin Parlor, was when I played the festival. At that time I was doing a lot of duo gigs with Clay Cook, who’s this multi-instrumentalist. He plays guitar, keyboards and mandolin. We did that for quite a while, and now Patrick Blanchard sometimes joins me. He’s the bass player in my band, but he also plays guitar really well. He can kind of chicken pick and add some nice licks around what I’m playing. I think he’ll be with me for the gig at Randy Wood’s place.
You’ve got over ten albums of original material to your name.
Shawn Mullins: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to believe, but there’s something like 14 albums total, counting compilations and soundtracks that I’m featured on.
Are there any of those records which you look back at and have a hard time listening to either because in retrospect you don’t care for the performances or the production value, or because you find it hard to revisit the period in your life or career when the album was made?
Shawn Mullins: Oh, sure! Yeah, that’s totally the case. I never listen to them because of all that stuff.
Not at all?
Shawn Mullins: Not really. I generally never listen to them after I make them.
You hear that same response from a lot of film actors who say they never watch their own movies after they’re completed. To me that’s really odd, because most movies are shot in such a piece-meal fashion, that no matter what you thought of the take at the time, there’s no real way you can ever know how it will be used or if it will even appear in the final cut of the film. I’m assuming some folks just don’t want to have to worry about whether or not the director or the studio screwed up their good work!
Shawn Mullins: It could totally be that. But there’s also plenty of insecurities involved. I think a lot of it has to do with some actors not wanting to see themselves on screen. They just want to act for the sake of it, and a lot of times, you’ll make more money for acting on camera than on stage. When I hear my albums, I start picking at the production or the songwriting or the singing or whatever. That instantly takes the joy out of it for me. I feel like, whatever success the record had, I’ll just let that be what it is. After the process of recording, mixing and mastering it, my job on that level is done. If the label promotes certain songs to radio and that helps them to sell more of my records, that’s great, but I don’t worry about that stuff so much anymore.
After I left Columbia/Sony and joined up with Vanguard that all changed. Vanguard considers it a plus if you even have something on your record that’s getting played a lot on the radio! (laughs) They’re used to making roots music records that get a little play on Americana or bluegrass or jazz stations. So, it’s been a pretty cool way for me to evolve and still kind of remain on the map, so to speak, without feeling like I have do the “pop hit” thing. That was never my intention to begin with. It was great that that happened, but I had to spend a few years fighting to get back to what I am, you know?
Having met and worked with you a little bit before your career really took off, I always found it interesting how the mainstream public’s perception of you was crafted by the smash success of “Lullaby.” I knew from seeing your live shows that the side of your art on display in that single and video was very much a part of you and wasn’t contrived. But at the same time, it was only one small fraction of what your talent is all about, and many of the songs on that Soul’s Core album simply didn’t sound like that track. I was glad to see that the label hadn’t pressured you to totally remake yourself into something that you weren’t, but I was really concerned that a lot of potential fans would wind up with this slightly skewed vision of what Shawn Mullins the songwriter and recording artist was all about.
Shawn Mullins: That’s exactly right. I really appreciate you recognizing that because that’s what it felt like to me at the time. I enjoyed it a lot too, but all along the way, I kept having these moments of realization. It was like, wow, they’re not really “getting” what you do. I was out playing these big radio station sponsored festivals and shows with people like the Backstreet Boys and stuff like that. I’d come out and have a 20-minute slot where I’d play “Lullaby” and a few other songs that most of the crowd had likely never heard of. I’m thankful for it, though.
(Interrupted by a dog barking on Shawn’s end of the line)
Shawn Mullins: Sorry about that. My beagle’s rasing hell.
What’s your beagle’s name?
Shawn Mullins: Jack Kerouac. I thought that would make him a good road dog, but that’s not the case so far. (laughs) He’s pissed in the RV about a million times! My old dog called Roadie was great. Jack needs a lot of training to be a good road dog, but Roadie came to it naturally somehow. Roadie traveled with me for the better part of 16 years.
You said something a moment ago about having to fight for a few years to get back to what you were doing before. As a result of this unexpected focus on only one aspect of your song craft, did you ever wind up with some audience members leaving your shows pleasantly surprised to discover there was more to you artistically than they perhaps might have been led to believe by your radio singles, or were there some folks who may not have been so open-minded who may have left disappointed that all your material didn’t sound just like those popular hits?
Shawn Mullins: I don’t really know. But I did get a lot of positive comments from folks saying they came on account of the one song and got turned on to all this other stuff, which was a great feeling. Certainly at those big, high-profile concerts where there were a bunch of pop bands on the bill, if I made any new fans there I felt like I did very well! (laughs) There’s a famous one in N.Y. called something like the Z-100 Jingle Ball. I played that one year and it was held at Madison Square Garden. They offered me a limo to the Garden, but I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so I took a subway train. I’m standing outside Madison Square Garden where I’m gonna be playing in about two hours, and I can’t find the stage door! (laughs) I try to go through the box office, but they won’t let me in because I don’t have a pass or a lanyard. I was supposed to get it backstage. (laughs) So, I kept sailing all around the place trying not to be late for my sound check —which for me would really have been just a simple line check— and I was starting to have a bit of an anxiety attack. Things like that happened a lot for a while. They were just highlighting that I was truly out of place in that world. I didn’t let a lot of that get to me, though. It actually felt more like some kind of a weird dream I had, you know?
Well, it’s got to be freeing now to be able to do what you love pretty much exactly how you choose to.
Shawn Mullins: You know, it is. It’s interesting you say that. You do wind up feeling like you’re chasing the sense of freedom you once had, but on the other side of all this, there’s a whole new kind of freedom. Everyone has schedules that play out across their lives, and it does feel a bit like I’ve come full circle in a way. But I’m on a better plateau than I was before all of that. Still, man, what I really want to do after all this is just to write really good songs. That’s what it all boils down to.
Well, long before you got signed to Columbia for your major label debut, you’d been handling all the aspects of your own career. You booked you own shows, did your own publicity and recorded and released your own record, so you already knew how to make this work for yourself on some level.
Shawn Mullins: Yeah. I also had a lot of help at that time from my girlfriend Kelly, who is now my wife. We got engaged at the Eiffel Tower on our first trip to Paris together. We’d been seeing each other since about ‘94 and that was ‘98. It was a cool ride, because she was always there with me when we were down to ten bucks and on empty pulling into some little gig where I’d make a hundred bucks. I definitely spent a few years when I was touring kind of like a homeless person. I stayed at a lot of campgrounds and state parks rather than hotels. I still do! (laughs) I love to camp, so we travel in an RV and try to space out the shows where we can break it up with a day off in a nice town. Sometimes we go to an amusement park or something to help make it feel like a working vacation.
I really appreciate you taking so much time to rap with me.
Shawn Mullins: Oh, man, this is great. I’m really enjoying catching up with you, and these are great questions. You’re doing a great job. Like the question about having just one part of what I do get recognized as opposed to the totality of my music. I’ve literally never been asked that before after all these years, and it has always been on my mind. I don’t know if I answered it as best as I could (laughs), but I just appreciate having the opportunity to express that.
Well, it’s always seemed to me that the finest singer-songwriters are able to interpret their material a myriad of different ways, given the way they’re feeling at the time. Your ability to communicate with your audience and to imbue your performances with all sorts of different emotions, inflections and attitudes is a gift, and if I were you, I’d hate to feel hemmed in by an audience’s preconceived notion of what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
Shawn Mullins: It’s unfortunate that it went that way with Columbia. They’re a great label, and in the beginning I thought they did a good job of what you’re talking about. But my second single “Shimmer” did well, but not nearly as well as “Lullaby.” It did very well in Europe, but when it was time to make the follow-up record, I felt a little overwhelmed. I was used to making a record a year. But I wasn’t used to doing 20 interviews a day and all the other promotional stuff like that which comes along with that level of promotion. I basically had no time to write new material, so I basically had to really dig a bit. I delivered that next album to them and they just didn’t want to accept it, because they felt there was nothing on it they could really push to radio. So I did some co-writing with some really good songwriters and I went in and cut another record I thought they’d like more. Part of all this was the amount of money I was being paid, you know? But somewhere in that process, I kind of bowed down to ‘the man,’ when I should have stuck to my guns and given them the first batch of songs. I think those tracks were more where I was coming from at the time. That’s one of the only records I’ve made where I look back and feel compromised. I can hear a few of those songs and tell I was really trying to get them off my back.
I think once the Thorns thing happened with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge, we all started fighting again for what we wanted. I had some bandmates in that situation and that made it easier. But I think the time line on my demise with Sony was on the wall. I remember that I was writing the tunes for 9th Ward Pickin Parlor, and I had already written “Beautiful Wreck” and some other stuff that I thought would do well in some sort of radio format, and the label wasn’t even returning my calls. There were also a lot of people leaving the label and losing their jobs. I wound up at Vanguard, and they took “Beautiful Wreck” to No. 1 on the Americana and Adult Alternative charts, which was great! It’s definitely been a fun and crazy ride. Kind of like a roller coaster. I just keep trying to do what I do and hopefully somebody will want to listen to it. (laughs)
You released an album in March of this year, and I’ve always been interested about how long some folks hold on to songs before officially releasing them, whereas other songwriters simply include their latest batch of material with each new record. Are you the sort that goes back and revisits old material you’ve perhaps played live for years but never committed to tape for some reason, or who has stacks of notebooks and demos from decades past that you sometimes mine when it’s time to come up with a new record, or is each Shawn Mullins CD a snapshot of your creative output immediately prior to its release?
Shawn Mullins: Well, that’s changed a little bit. It used to be much more like what you just said: over the one or two years prior to the record, that’s what was going on. But over the past couple of records, I’ve gone back to stuff that didn’t get a big response from people at the labels, but which I thought were worthwhile, like “Homeless Joe,” or like “All In My Head,” the single from this record. That one was actually featured on the TV show Scrubs. They put it on their soundtrack album, but I’d never really done a proper recording of it, so I re-made it for this record. Sometimes you can find an old piece of music or a whole song that’ll fit into what you’re trying to do with a particular album.
You took part in what was a kind of proposed supergroup called The Thorns several years ago with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. I got the feeling that the album you three made perhaps didn’t meet commercial expectations, but at the same time, I know a lot of folks who adore that album and wonder if the three of you will ever work together again under that name. Did that project end amicably? Is there any thought that you all might collaborate together at some point, or has the time for The Thorns simply come and gone?
Shawn Mullins: Oh no, I just think that one record has come and gone. I hope we’ll be able to do something again at some point. If we do, it won’t be with Sony, because it wasn’t a success for them. They put some money behind it in an effort to try and make it something that perhaps it wasn’t. (laughs) They tried to make it something that would have been easier to market than what we all wanted it to be. I mean, they wanted to call it “Sweet Mullins & Droge,” and make the whole thing look like Crosby Stills & Nash! (laughs) I know the record sounded a bit like that at times, but live we sounded like Crazy Horse with three-part harmonies. It was really rock. By the time the record came out, we kind of had a bad taste in our mouths. Brendan O’Brien (the album’s producer) is wonderful, but I think he had to bully us quite a bit because all three of us were already producers on our own! (laughs) In the end, we wound up with a record that’s way slicker than what we really wanted. But that was 2004, and I’d had this big hit for Columbia and then I did the Thorns thing and it didn’t do much. So I think the label had pretty much had it with me. (laughs) I was either gonna do a record with them every five or six years, or it was time for me to move on.
Tell me a bit about your relationship with Larry Jon Wilson, who’ll you’ll be playing with at Randy Wood’s place.
Shawn Mullins: Well, he and I met at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur in about 1992 or 1993. That was way back when I was first getting going and playing out a lot live. Eddie introduced us and we really hit it off. Larry Jon played a set and it really blew away everybody in the room. I thought this was another niche of influence that I’d found. Kris Kristofferson was a big influence on my writing, with the way he’d have kind of spoken verses and sung choruses. Johnny Cash wrote the same way sometimes, too. Larry Jon was like a Ga. version of that sort of songwriting. With his tunes like “Georgia River Bottom Land,” he sang about the shit he knew about. It was so real and truthful.
We became fast friends and over the years we’ve done a lot of stuff together. For example, he invited me to the Flora-Bama Songwriting Fest where I got to meet a lot of the old Nashville guys like Hank Cochran, who wrote hits for Elvis. He also introduced me to Randy Wood. My guitar was in bad shape and Larry Jon said I got this fellow down near Savannah who works on everybody’s guitars — and mandolins too. He told me a bit about him and I went down and hung out and had him work on my guitar. He puts a lot of love into it. To have him work on your gear is really special. I saw him pop the neck off my guitar and to see someone do that is almost like watching a lumberjack breaking a tree! When you first experience someone taking the neck off an old guitar, it can be a real surprise. But he quickly reassured me through his actions that he absolutely knew what he was doing. I bought an instrument from him as well. Someone had actually put a Stratocaster neck on this old Martin D-28, if you can imagine! (laughs)
That seems ludicrous, not to mention bizarre.
Shawn Mullins: I know, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Somebody had taken it to Randy’s and he took the Strat neck off and rebuilt a neck just like the 1967 Martin’s had, with all the right shavings and everything. It’s now my favorite guitar to play.
What is it about Larry Jon that makes him a good match up for playing with you? Do your lyrical sensibilities complement one another, or is it more of a musical bond?
Shawn Mullins: Oh, I think our lyrics really complement each other’s, and that’s because he’s a direct influence on what I do — from the stories I tell in between songs to the turn of a line. I’ve looked to his lyrics as to how to put things simply and smart at the same time. We’ve played together a few times over the years whenever we can and people always seem to leave with a smile and feel they’re getting their money’s worth.
Randy tells me that Larry Jon has a very unusual guitar style, in that he doesn’t use a lot of chords, but does a lot of sparse stuff on single strings. Have the two of you ever played together as a duo at any of the shows you’ve done together, or maybe just sitting around informally and picking together?
Shawn Mullins: Not really. I may have sung harmony on a few of songs before, but because of Larry Jon’s playing style, you don’t want to get in the way. It’s true what Randy says. He does play chords with his left hand, but the trick is what he does with his right hand! He has these little grooves and licks, almost like a blues player would. It can sound bluesey, but he’s definitely not playing blues! The whole thing about Larry Jon —and again, this is something I’ve tried to do with my songs— is that they stand alone without anything flashy. He’s a master at that. He chooses not to play all over the story he’s telling.
You’ve played Randy’s place before. How did that go? Did you enjoy the atmosphere out there? It’s about as cozy as you can get outside of someone’s living room.
Shawn Mullins: Oh, I loved it! Yeah, totally. We were there for two reasons: to play and to get our guitars worked on and hang out. And to have some BBQ at the place next door. (laughs) I look forward to it, actually, as it’s different from most gigs I play. It’s not my average road trip. There’s a family element to it and a sense of community. It’s what all the gigs should be like. I love playing there.
What can folks expect from your set at this upcoming show. Would the song selection vary from the kind of show you did at Orleans Hall for the SMF?
Shawn Mullins: Well, I may do some of the same songs that I played when I was there for the Savannah Music Fest, but if I do, they’ll certainly be very different versions than I did with the band. Sometimes, solo shows are less aggressive than a full-band gig, but sometimes, the opposite is true. I haven’t even thought of the set, to be honest. I never do, really, until I’m just about to play. Larry Jon doesn’t work with a setlist either. He lets the mood of the room dictate what comes next. It’s not that he’s taking requests, per se. He’s just keenly aware of what he thinks a given crowd might respond well to. I really respect that.
Alright, here’s the Lightning Round: If you could go back and change one major decision that you’ve made in the course of your entertainment career, what would it be?
Shawn Mullins: To sign Kris Kristofferson’s guitar when he asked me to.
He asked for your autograph and you declined?
Shawn Mullins: I did. I looked down at it, and it had been carved with a knife with like 100 signatures. Everybody was on there. Johnny Cash, Dylan, and a lot of people who are no longer with us, like Hendrix and Janis Joplin. I was so blown away by the whole thing that I let it go. I was at his house and we were visiting and he was letting me know that he felt I was the caliber of artist who deserved to be included, but I obviously didn’t think so. Maybe now I do. Perhaps I’ll get another chance someday. To be honest, I’m sure part of it was that I just can’t imagine cutting into an old Martin guitar with a pocket knife! (laughs)
If I were to ask you what the absolute worst place you ever played a show was, is there a particular venue or event that comes to mind?
Shawn Mullins: Yeah. This place out in Las Vegas. Actually, it wasn’t in Vegas proper. It was in some smaller town outside Vegas at this casino that had hired me to come out and play their lounge. The whole thing was really over the top cheesy, and my fans didn’t really want to come see me in a casino, so there was hardly anyone there. I got heckled all night by this drunk guy right up front. He kept hollering for me to hurry up and play “Lullaby.” Looking back it’s funny, but at the time it was horrible! Some of my real fans in the audience were about to square off with this guy because they were so dedicated. (laughs) The whole thing was a mess.
When you’re out on the road, what’s the one type of restaurant you’re always on the lookout for?
Shawn Mullins: Yes. It’s BBQ! Actually, when I plan my road trips, part of it revolves around searching out the best BBQ restaurants where we’re going.
Well, if that’s the case, maybe you’ll get in town early enough that I can take you to this little joint in Savannah, about a half-hour from Randy’s place. It’s called Angel’s BBQ, and it’s one of the best places in town. It only seats about ten, and the owner is a classically trained French chef who happens to love the art of Tennessee-style BBQ, but he’s put his own subtle spin on it.
Shawn Mullins: Man, that sounds great! I hope we do have time to hook up. I’d love to try the place.
Final question: Can you name the last book you read and the last record you bought?
Shawn Mullins: Oh yeah. I know exactly the two, because I just bought them this last week. The book is called The Portable Steinbeck. It’s a compilation of excerpts and chapters from his various books. I already own all the full versions, but this make it easy to carry around on the road. It’s kind of fun, because they only included two chapters from Tortilla Flats, and they just happened to be my own two favorite chapters! Steinbeck is another writer that I look to for inspiration. I try to do with music what he did with books: paints descriptive pictures of real America. At his time, it was a different America, but in some ways it hasn’t changed a lot. Poor people are still struggling, and with the economy as it is right now, we’re all struggling.
And the last record you bought?
Shawn Mullins: Chet Atkins in Guitar World. I picked up a used copy on vinyl. It’s just a killer album. He is tearin’ it up! (laughs) My grandfather used to have a copy of that record, and so it reminds me of him.
Shawn Mullins & Larry Jon Wilson
Where: Randy Wood’s Concert Hall (1304 E. Hwy 80, Bloomingdale)
When: 7:30 pm, Sat.
Cost: $25 adv. for ALL-AGES at 748-1930