I’ll admit it; singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins seemed to me a one trick pony, his songs the stuff of grocery stores and drive-by car radios. But last December I had the privilege of seeing Mullins at The Chicago House of Blues. An intimate songwriter’s circle-style show with recently out musician Chely Wright and folk/rock mainstays The Indigo Girls, the event afforded me my first true glimpse of Mullin’s lyrical dexterity and vocal power. Easy to pigeonhole Mullins based on mainstream hits like “Lullaby,” but also a mistake; “Lullaby” and its ilk are only the tip of the iceberg, with Mullins, greater things lie beneath.
Our Town Did you always want to be a musician?
Shawn Mullins Yeah, I didn’t know what else I would do, really. I had to do a little time in the military to help me pay for college, but that was never a career thing. I never really saw myself doing anything other than music.
OT Did your military time influence your songwriting or sensibility?
SM The experience of it comes out in songs, little bits and pieces here and there. I’ve done more than a few years of hardcore road travel, not so hardcore that I’m in a train car, but living in my van and traveling around that way, not staying in hotels, but just camping. The endurance of being in the military helped a little with that.
OT Do you enjoy touring?
SM It goes back and forth for me. I really do love the road, but now that I have my son at home, it’s harder to leave. It used to be, I did six or eight weeks, sometimes three months on the road, but now I’m doing a couple weeks at the most before I head back home.
OT Your songs are like little stories or character sketches. What draws you to that writing style?
SM Growing up, my dad really preached the classic American stuff like Hemingway and Steinbeck. I read a lot of the beat poets. I got really into the kind of American landscape with these characters living through a particular time in history. My favorite songwriters do that a lot too, people like Kristofferson and Dylan are obvious ones, but there are other people that aren’t as obvious, like Tom Waits. I’m a huge Tom Waits fan. I love the way he writes a character with really serious subject matter but really funny at the same time. I don’t know how successful I am at doing that, probably not very, but I love that kind of stuff.
OT You also count Indigo Girl, Amy Ray as a mentor. How did you two meet?
SM I met Amy when she was in her first year at Emory University and I was in ninth grade. She was a friend of one of the teachers and she came to my school to talk about songwriting and being a musician. She was doing exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know exactly how to do it yet. She sang a couple songs and talked to us. That’s when we first got to know each other. She was influential with kind of following your bliss as a musician and just working really hard and doing it independently—that was years before they ever had a deal and I did it that way too for about two years. The passion, the energy she performs with, the persona she puts on, that’s pretty amazing.
OT You have a good size body of work at this point. Are there any songs that were particularly important in teaching yourself how to write?
SM Oh yeah, totally. On this new album there’s a couple. “California,” the first track on the new album was written in a weird sort of way. My friend Chuck Cannon and I wrote it together, back and forth answering each other’s lines and then tweaking it over time to make it better. Writing with Chuck is really interesting. A lot of songwriters would say the art in songwriting is when it comes to you and you don’t have to change it. But Chuck says good songs are written and great songs are rewritten. I think every now and again a song comes out a certain way and it’s just perfect, but mostly I have to really work on a song.
OT What’s your usual writing schedule?
SM Today was a good writing day, we’ve been writing about five hours off and on and we’ve been working on one verse. When you’re co-writing, it’s a great way to get to know someone too. You have to be honest with each other and keep putting the puzzle together. Sometimes I don’t get to write at all during the day. I’m doing family stuff or I’m on the road and I can’t concentrate.
OT You perform at Metropolis March 5th and then come back to do some seminars as well. Tell as about that.
SM I love to teach. I do a lot of songwriting workshops. It’s a lot of fun to let people see songwriting is something they can do too; there aren’t any real rules. I’m also looking forward to the seminar at Columbia College. I did a little thing last year there. This time I’m working with the students there for a whole week. I’m also doing a workshop at Metropolis, specifically about performance and stage presence. I don’t know that I’m the right guy to do it really; there are people with way bigger stage presence than me. Maybe I can talk about subtlety.
To purchase tickets for Mullin's nearly sold-out concert March 5th at 8 p.m. go here.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. Follow Our Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez