Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir, By Shawn Colvin

Making songs from fear and self-loathing
  • @FionaSturges

As a child growing up in rural South Dakota, Shawn Colvin liked to start fires. Out in the prairie she would build little mounds of straw and set them alight, though one day the wind blew too strongly and she was forced to raise the alarm. Nevertheless, this perilous hobby continued into adulthood as she burned the memorabilia of broken relationships. "Just like when I was a kid, there was trouble," she recalls. "All my fires backfired."

Well, perhaps not all. Colvin's biggest hit song, 1996's Grammy-winning "Sunny Come Home", told of a woman who burned down her home to escape her past, and cemented her place in the folk-pop firmament. "Sunny is me," Colvin confirms. "Everything I write is through me, through my perspective …. Both Sunny and I went through a lot and came out the other side (at least I like to think Sunny was acquitted). She may have gone overboard a tad, but we are both of us survivors."

Colvin's autobiography details her passage from small-town prairie girl to celebrated singer-songwriter, doing battle along the way with anorexia, alcoholism, clinical depression and the aftershocks of late motherhood. Men also loom large in her story, the most significant being her father who, both a joker and a bully, would push her against walls in fits of anger and, on one occasion when she was six, kept her up for 24 hours as a corrective to her night-waking.

It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to make the connection between her father's volatile behaviour and the disastrous relationships that followed, among them two marriages, the dissolution of which sent her on fresh spirals of fear and self-loathing. "I have a commitment problem and some pesky trust issues that just don't jibe with boy-girl intimacy," Colvin explains. "I'm a loyal friend, a dedicated mother, a dependable colleague, a loving sister and daughter. But I am a lousy girlfriend and an even worse wife."

But despite the many personal disasters that have beset Colvin, Diamond in the Rough is no misery-fest. It's with an impressive absence of self-pity and a dry, unassuming style that she teases humour out of the most unpalatable episodes.

Just as absorbing are her adventures in music, starting at 10 when she learnt to play guitar and then discovered other artists – there's an endearing depiction of 14-year-old hero worship as Colvin makes a necklace for Joni Mitchell and gives it to a roadie to pass on.

Unlike the countless young pups catapulted to stardom in their teens, Colvin had the wisdom and self-awareness not to let it overwhelm her. While not a manual on how to hold on to your man, the book at least offers valuable pointers on that rare feat, as well as maintaining a musical career into middle age.