Though they both have thriving and creatively satisfying musical careers of their own, singer/songwriter/musicians Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin recently decided to work together on an album. Colvin & Earle will be released next week, and the two longtime friends have also scheduled a 32-venue tour to support it.
Teaming up was Colvin's idea. About four years ago, she did some duo gigs with Mary Chapin Carpenter. "I had a great time," she says. "After that was over and we returned to our solo careers, I started to think of who else would be a good pairing."
An accomplished singer-songwriter — whose 1998 composition "Sunny Came Home" won two Grammys — Colvin has been an admirer of Steve Earle's songwriting since his 1986 debut album Guitar Town.
"Steve can write very seemingly simple songs, but they're often much more complicated than they appear to be," says the Austin-based Colvin. When she asked Earle if he would be interested in collaborating, he quickly agreed.
The new album features 10 songs: six co-written by the duo, and four covers. "We consciously wrote every song, and learned every cover, just the two of us playing in a room," says Colvin of the Buddy Miller-produced collection. "And it worked that way. We made sure that each song could be dynamic enough, full enough, or not-full-enough, depending on the needs of the song."
Colvin and Earle each selected two songs written by others, and brought those to the project. "I had been listening to the '60s channel on Sirius XM and heard the Nashville Teens' version of 'Tobacco Road,' and I just thought it would be a great song for us to do," says Colvin. She also selected Emmylou Harris' "Raise the Dead." "I thought that would be a good song for a man and woman to sing together, to each other," she says.
Covers have always been part of her repertoire. Her most recent solo album, 2015's Uncovered, is her second collection of other artists' songs. When she started out, Colvin recalls, "I didn't write for a long time. I was a reluctant, frightened, ill-confident writer, and I made my living doing covers in bars." As she developed her own voice and style, she says that she "branched out and started doing covers that were less expected."
The upcoming tour will feature material from the new album — "There was a conscious effort to make Colvin & Earle collaborative," Colvin says — as well as songs that each of the composers has written separately. "But we'll play and sing them together."
In contrast to their 15-week tour, Colvin & Earle had to be finished quickly, due to individual time constraints. In fact the entire album was recorded in about 10 days. "It was very impromptu, very live," she says.
Spontaneity was highly valued throughout the sessions, a quality that Colvin has only developed over time. On her first two or three records, she recalls, "we put ourselves under the microscope. We wanted perfection. We wanted everything to be just right. I think it worked to a degree, but those records were not that spontaneous."
These days, Colvin believes that "when you can play and sing, there's no reason not to be spontaneous. I learned that the mistakes are sometimes as important as the perfect moments."