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For more than 20 years now, Shawn Mullins has been writing and singing songs of and in the American landscape. His career path began with touring in vans and singing in dirty bars sky rocketed in 1998 with a number-one hit, “Lullaby.” With platinum album “Soul’s Core,” his career has settled over the past decade or so onto path Mullins said he always expected. “That was the original goal … way back when. What I set out to do was to end up playing” places like SPACE. Mullins’ brings his latest record, “Light You Up,” to Evanston SPACE on Oct. 28, and two Chicago-area venues the 29th and 30th.
If there has been a constant in Mr. Mullins’ work over the years, it has been the strong sense of place that anchors most of his songs. He cites John Steinbeck as literary influence. “I love that imagery… that was always a big part of books like Tortilla Flat and The Pearl … where you are in the story,” he explains. “I’m just writing what I’m observing. And I think that that’s probably a habit of mine, to create a place for the song, create a setting. Even if it’s not mentioned, it’s probably thought about. … That’s just one of the things that helps me get closer to a song in my mind.”
Most of “Light You Up,” is steeped in the Los Angeles, Cal., milieu. The opening, and perhaps the album’s best, song, “California,” sounds almost like an extension of some of Tom Petty’s work and sets the Hollywood tone. The title track, though a setting is not mentioned, also feels like Hollywood. There are exceptions, such as “Catoosa County,” a Civil War-themed song set on the Georgia-Tennessee border, and “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” but most of the record feels imbued with the California vibe.
Mullins considers himself a singer-songwriter, but he’s not afraid to work with others to craft a song. In fact, every song on “Light You Up” has a co-writer. In many ways, Mullins says, he prefers the collaborative process. “To me, it’s all about writing the best song that you can, and I’ve really enjoyed that collaborative process and the community that I find in co-writing. It doesn’t happen with everybody you write with. But there’re two of three people that I write with …where the chemistry is good and you don’t feel like one person is giving a lot more than the other.”
The song “Beautiful Wreck” from 2006’s “9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor,” epitomizes both Mullins’ emphasis on setting and collaboration. “That song has a funny story, because Glenn Phillips [of Toad the Wet Sprocket] …wrote this other song completely. We ended up kind of throwing it away. … It’s one of the songs that just doesn’t make it. Years later I was going through some lyrics and I found the lyric to that song, and it started off, ‘I lost count of the times I’ve given up on you, but you make such a beautiful wreck, you do.’… I did change the setting to a bar – the original song was about visiting somebody in a mental hospital.” The resulting new song was completely different from the original version. “Obviously, again, it’s a collaborative effort where different ideas helped to create the whole deal.” The final version of “Beautiful Wreck” lists four writers in the credits, including Phillips and Mullins.
Mullins has been writing and singing professionally since around 1989. Early on, he often slept in campsites or parking lots, and rarely if ever in hotels. “And then 10 years in, around 9, 10 years in it all blew up” with “Lullaby” and “Soul’s Core.” “Then all of a sudden I’m staying at the nicest hotel in town, tour bussing it and flying it, and that lasted for a few years, and then everything … kind of imploded.”
In part at the insistence of record company executives, Mullins tried to follow up the success of “Lullaby” and “Soul’s Core” with another hit. When the songs he wrote for 2000’s “Beneath the Velvet Sun” failed to impress Columbia’s bosses, they sent him back to write “poppier,” more radio-friendly songs. “So, I kind of dug a little shallower and just threw a couple of pop songs on there and they went with that, and it kind of backfired a little bit, you know?” The record flopped.
“I damn near disappeared you know, like between 2000 and 2004. And I was working, really working hard, but there wasn’t anything really going on.” But he kept at it, writing and singing and touring. Shawn Mullins is ack on the charts with his most recent album, “Light You Up,” released Oct. 12. The title track is currently number 12 on the Adult Alternative chart.
He has come full circle in a way. “But it’s actually a lot closer to how it all started because now I’m camping again, a lot. I love it. It actually really makes a tour fun, if you can stay in a state park. … It’s an RV, it’s a little bit better than a van; and the way I look at it, I haven’t changed that much. I have always felt at home on the road but I think the older I get, I’m also trying to appreciate other things,” he said.
Other circumstances have changed as well. Mullins now has a child, a nearly-15 month old son and the subject of the third track on the new record, “Murphy’s Song.” Having a child changes the way Mullins looks at his profession, particularly going on the road. “I’m dreading it. I hate to say that, but I just spent a week away from him…and now I’m going to be gone for another two-and-a-half weeks, again, and so far I have not been away from him more than five days in a row. It’s gonna be pretty crazy, but man, you know, I guess that’s just part of what I do.”
Murphy may have another impact on Mullins’ career. Like a recent Evanston SPACE act the Verve Pipe, Mullins is considering a children’s record. “Maybe. I’ve actually thought about it a lot…. I already know what songs I would do. I’ve got several lists of songs I think would be great to do. .. I think I will at some point.”
Shawn Mullins will be at Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., at 8 p.m. on Oct. 28 with London artist Callaghan. He will be at Schuba’s in Chicago Friday night for a 9 p.m. show, and at the Montrose Room at the O’Hare InterContinental Hotel in Rosemont on Oct. 30.