Shelly Colvin Fashions an Inspired Music Career

Some artists make a choice to pursue music, and some are just born into it. As the daughter of a music minister, talented singer-songwriter Shelly Colvin absolutely falls into the latter category.

Learning to sing harmonies and performing onstage with her parents before she even started kindergarten, music was a constant, integral element of her early life. This foundational framework translates to an impressive musical finesse that can be easily felt on her upcoming debut album Up the Hickory Down the Pine.

Mixing a relaxed, seventies country rock vibe with sweeping, breathy vocals that fall somewhere between Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), Colvin creates an inviting sound that is both reminding and refreshing. Not content to use her early influences as simply a destination point, she showcases her creative momentum with the melodic shuffle of “Holding Steady,” the quiet heartbreak of “The Staying Kind” and the banjo-fueled pulse of “Pocket Change.”

CMT Edge: Growing up the daughter of a Baptist minister of music in Huntsville, Ala., you started singing and performing at a very young age. What are some of your earliest memories of your initial drawing to music?

Colvin: Music was so much a part of my family’s existence, I really had no choice. I was 5 years old, having to hold down a third-part harmony with my mom and dad, and I certainly found an early joy hearing the power of that blended sound come back through the speakers.

Your songs have a cool, distinctly 1970s California country vibe surrounding them. What artists are responsible for planting those hazy, sun-kissed seeds into your music?

I’ve got every Emmylou Harris and Byrds record you can get your hands on … Flying Burrito Brothers, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, Karla Bonoff and Neil Young. Those writers and artists helped shape my sense of melody and lyric, without question. I’ve had the privilege to work and perform onstage with Chris Hillman [Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers], as well as Jackson Browne. I’ve also co-written songs with J.D. Souther. Those experiences with some of my heroes are my favorite musical memories to date. I’m hoping there will be an Emmylou memory to make at some point.

Up the Hickory Down the Pine feels like the sonic equivalent of a front porch full of friends. Were the songs written and recorded collaboratively or did you bring them to the band already fully realized?

They began as a collaboration between myself, Mando Saenz and Beau Stapleton. The three of us started a band called Browns Ferry two years ago, which ended quickly when Beau decided to move to Los Angeles and begin law school. I wanted Browns Ferry to feel like Crazy Horse, and we had a good collection of songs to start out that were written on one trip to my aunt’s Elk River house.

When Beau moved, Mando and I were so deep in that energy that we just continued to write. The direction changed a bit, and I shifted my inspiration to creating more of a female Harvest [a Neil Young album], mixed with a little Jerry Garcia. I had been playing shows with guitar great, Gibb Droll, already. Around that time he was working on a record, Eaten by Dinosaurs, with Ken Coomer [Wilco], which they had me come in and sing on. I was blown away by what the two of them had tapped into together, so I brought my new collection of songs to them. The three of us produced the record together, and that gave it its own uniqueness and made it sound more like a band.

Do you feel that the rootsy instrumentation on the album helps put the listener in a specific headspace for your lyrics?

I hope so. The goal was to put all the elements in balance with one another, so that nothing sticks out too much or is a distraction from what I’m saying. I think about creating music like creating a painting. Everything has to work together perfectly so that listener and observer can hopefully see and hear the picture clearly. And if they interpret it differently from my intention, that’s OK.

For an album of mostly laid-back, folksy numbers, “Pocket Change” definitely has some awesome swagger and attitude in it. What was the inspiration behind this song and who played that killer banjo?

I have to give Ken Coomer the credit there. The demo for “Pocket Change” was a double-time, barn burner-type song. When Ken heard it, he said, “What if we did this with a John Bonham vibe?” I’m always up for trying something unexpected, so I went for it. Ken crushed it on drums and made it work for the song. And with that new direction, I was really hearing that banjo part in order to anchor it with the rest of the record. I looked to Gibb, who had never played banjo before. I was able to borrow a guitjo from my buddy Chad Jeffers, and Gibb made it sound like Earl Scruggs on banjo! That may be sacrilege to some, but I didn’t have the budget to bring in another player. I had to make it work. Gibb delivered, as far as I’m concerned.

From your early local theater work to studying drama at the University of Alabama to your current gig as a stylist for Billy Reid clothing, you’ve maintained a creative thread throughout your life. Have these experiences affected your musical creativity, as well?

They absolutely help me stay creative. Staying inspired in the music business is hard, especially when you’re doing it on your own. I try to find as many creative outlets as I can, and Billy Reid is completely supportive in trying to allow creative opportunities for me as an artist and someone on their payroll. I owe him much for his and the company’s support. I just went to dress My Morning Jacket for the Love for Levon show in East Rutherford, N.J. You better believe it sent me home inspired and ready to create and be onstage myself.