Thriving On the Outskirts of Fame: Shawn Mullins Returns to Infinity Hall
By Robert Burke Warren
You cannot keep a good troubadour down. While naysayers bemoan the difficulty of convincing couch potatoes to invest in live music, a dedicated breed of singer-songwriters still grace stages in small-to-medium sized venues, connecting with appreciative audiences as if the Internet and basic cable never happened. Shawn Mullins, at Infinity Hall on Friday, August 16th at 8 p.m., is a proud member of that singer-songwriter tribe, an acolyte of masters like John Prine and Lyle Lovett, with a loyal fan base and a growing catalog of canon-worthy material. Like his road-faring brethren, Mullins peppers his repertoire with stories of madness and misadventure, heartbreak and hilarity; unlike many singer-songwriters, however, he can weigh in on one very rare challenge he overcame about fifteen years ago: stardom.
“I never wanted to play arenas or stadiums, except maybe when I was nine or ten and listening to Kiss,” he says. But in 1998, after a decade of eking out a living as an indie folk musician, selling acoustic-based CDs from his trunk, he achieved “overnight” fame. Mullins’ hooky “Lullaby,” a distinctive blend of drum loops, acoustic guitar, and gimlet-eyed recitation from his eighth album Soul’s Core, captured Columbia Records’ fancy. The label re-released the single, which rocketed into the Top Ten, and helped garner Soul’s Core a Grammy nomination. (“Lullaby” was also a highly rotated video, starring actress Dominique Swain, above right.) As the millennium loomed, Mullins shared stages with Britney Spears, En Vogue, Destiny’s Child, and Backstreet Boys. Meanwhile, “Lullaby” helped move over a million copies of Soul’s Core. Needless to say, Mullins’ life changed radically. But mega-success was not what he’d planned, and not without its downside. “I found myself onstage solo at the Z-100 Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden,” he recalls, “saying, ‘What am I doing here?’”
He wasn’t there for long. With no equally huge follow-up single, the surreal world of limos and awards shows receded, much to Mullins’ eventual relief. Thanks to the previous decade of building a following in coffeehouses and acoustic clubs, he knew he had the goods, regardless of mainstream success.
“When I started playing in the late ‘80s,” Mullins says, “I knew my material was meant for smaller spaces. It’s perfect for me to do it that way. These days, the people that show up like ‘Lullaby,’ but it’s not really what it’s about for them, which is great. Every now and then I do a gig where most of the people only know the hit, but that’s very seldom. The real honest connection between the audience and me – that’s why I do what I do. Part of it is to get out what’s inside me, and the other part is to connect. As I get older, and my audience gets older, the connection aspect actually gets better.”
Scaling back and recording for an indie label – Vanguard – has proved very satisfying for Mullins. He re-emerged in the mid-aughts as a mainstay on the humble singer-songwriter circuit, consisting of festivals, clubs, house concerts, and old opera houses like Infinity Hall. (“I love that room,” he says. “All that soul in the walls.”) Mullins has released four studio albums and several live and “best of” collections, and even scored a couple more hits: “Beautiful Wreck” from 2006’s 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor rose to the top of the Americana charts, and the Zac Brown Band’s “Toes,” which he co-wrote, hit number one on the country charts in 2008.
Although he hasn’t released a new CD since 2010’s acclaimed Light You Up, Mullins has been busy. He became a dad in 2009, and in-between regular touring and contributing to benefit collections, he’s been dabbling in voice-over work. His focus, however, is on being a hands-on dad to his son, Murphy. “We sing all the time,” he says, laughing.
“Fatherhood changes everything,” he says. “It’s what’s most important. It’s not that making records isn’t important for me – it is. But the writing of the songs needs to happen first. I’ll have an album out next year, but I’m not in a real big hurry. In the climate right now, I don’t need to put a record out every year or so like I used to. I used to feel more pressure.”
In other words, Mullins makes the lion’s share of his living touring, and he does well because he’s one of the best, a quadruple threat writer/singer/player/raconteur. Whether he’s delivering a haunting ballad worthy of Johnny Cash, a spoken-word gem like John Prine, or hitting the falsetto high notes in his Top Forty hit, he’s one of the reasons people still get away from their creature comforts and connect to something deeper.
Shawn Mullins with Chuck Cannon
Aug 16, 2013, 8 p.m.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro
20 Greenwoods Road West
Norfolk, CT 06058