Shawn Mullins - "Lullaby"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Shawn Mullins.


Artist: Shawn Mullins
Writer: Shawn Mullins
Album: Soul's Core
Label: Columbia Records
Year: 1999
Chart Positions: US: #7, UK: #9
Like a message in a fortune cookie, the words to the song that would make Shawn Mullins famous after years of obscurity practically fell into his lap at a Chinese restaurant in 1997. Finishing a set at the legendary LA eatery Genghis Cohen (whose name undoubtedly inspired the line "it's hard to play a gig in this town and keep a straight face") Mullins was approached by a female fan. Several Mai Tais later she unspooled the story of her life that would form the basis of the song. "After the show she came up to me and said, 'Have you got a minute?'" Mullins related. "She kind of blew my mind with her crazy childhood and teenage years. It was really cool."

So, she must have been aware that it was her story barreling up the charts in the winter of 1999. "I'm sure she probably was," Mullins more or less agreed. "Yeah, there were certain details, like Sonny & Cher and Bob Seger, things in it that were real. But there's also certain things about her character in the song that aren't really like her. The person in the song took a sadder turn. The actual girl really had her act together and she was very smiley. Her smile was incredible."

In fact, it's just possible the song has spawned a depressive Hollywood archetype female he may spot from time to time in the audience. "You'll start to notice the characters in the world that you think you created in a song," Mullins said.

Unlike some other songwriters who grow to resent their most famous song, even going so far as to refuse to play it after a while, Mullins is more than happy to perform "Lullaby" at every gig. "Let's face it," he said, "it's the one that brought me to the dance."

Shawn Mullins:
The whole album was written from journal entries that I would do on the road. So, after that night the lyric was pretty much done. I never edited back then at all. Now I'm more of a stickler for perfect rhymes and that song is full of imperfect rhymes. At that time, I was on the level where you're sleeping in a van sometimes at rest stops or campgrounds or you'll have a friend's futon you can sleep on. That's where I was in my career. And I found that doing a lot of journaling would help the time go by.

I was headed to Colorado and I was listening to Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco. Those two women really helped me with their melodic and rhythmic approach. I was listening to them, listening to the hits on the radio, and to Joseph Campbell cassettes. When I wrote it, I was trying to raise enough money to make the next album. It was probably just a few months later that we recorded it. Brandon Bush, who now plays keyboards with Sugarland, had this cool drum machine where you can slow beats down and then speed them up, or make them sound backwards. We started messing around with a tempo which was just using your typical James Brown's drummer beat and I was like, let's use that in the background. We didn't have a drummer in the band, so we demoed it that way.

I played it a lot in Atlanta and at a bunch of small coffee houses around the country. That's probably the key to see how it connects. It went over great and then the local radio station picked up on it when it came out on my independent release. What really brought it through the roof was this station in Atlanta, 99X, which was known in the '90s for doing that with a lot of Southern acts, like Collective Soul and Butch Walker. They loved the recording and not only wanted to play it on their local show, but they started spinning it about 30 times a week or something. We moved about 6,000 copies in a couple of weeks, which was bizarre. And that was just in all those little indie stores that were around back then. Leslie Fram, the program director from that station at the time, really did me a big favor. She asked for a box of promos and I'm pretty sure she mailed them with a letter to a lot of different programmers around the country. She just believed in the song and got behind it.

I'd never really had any interest from labels before, not enough that there were contracts offered. But this time I had managers and booking agents, record labels, and publishing companies calling. I had to start making some choices. I'd been doing it myself for so long. Like nine years. When I first started out maybe I had hopes of being a star one day, like when I was a teenager, but not after a few years of doing it and now you're 29 and your back is in such bad shape that you're limping around and you already feel like an old man and you got eight records out that no one knows about. Yeah, it was like OK, maybe I do need to pay attention because there's momentum here and you gotta jump on it. I consulted with a local entertainment lawyer who helped me a lot. We even had a marker board, which was like, this is what you're going to give up. This is going to do this and this is what you want to protect. In the end, it was between Universal, Atlantic and Columbia. Columbia won the bidding war and they did a great job.

I got a 50-50 co-publishing deal with EMI. We were in such a position of being in the driver's seat that we were able to get it to where the advances were crazy and we were holding them to the fire. I think the deal was if they ever dropped me as a writer five years later my publishing would all revert to me. That eventually happened and I started getting all my publishing back. At that point my advances were so high it didn't make sense for them to keep me on. I'd been with The Thorns [with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge] and that didn't go as well as everyone hoped, so I was having to start over a little bit. They were like, "We're giving you $2 million," and I was like, "We'll work something else out," and they're like, "Nope."

As the record went up the charts I would go out on the road opening for bigger artists, like Chris Isaak or Hootie & the Blowfish, at places where you're getting three or five thousand people a night and then sometimes 15 or 20,000 people. It was non-stop for three years, and then Europe and Australia and Canada. It was wonderful. I loved it. I was young enough to still be able to do it on that level.

Following up the record was difficult. I wasn't interested in trying to do something like that again, which you can imagine is not really what the label wants to hear. I remember visiting EMI and [company CEO] Marty Bandier comes out in that silk suit, and there's a guy next to him with a toupee. It's like a scene out of Barton Fink. And he's like, "When you gonna write me another hit?" It felt almost frightening.

Of course, you want to follow it up with something that'll do well, but my creative side took over and I was like, "I want to do something really different that would still be me." [The follow-up single was the lovely "Shimmer," which hit #39... in Australia.]

I asked to be released in 2004. This was after an album with The Thorns, which took almost three years where we each made about $17,000. All the money went into promotion. I sent them the song "Beautiful Wreck." My A&R person liked it but the folks above her didn't think it was a hit. Of course, when it came out on 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor on Vanguard, it ended up being a #1 on the Americana chart, which equals about 100 record sales.

But I was excited about the song. Triple A, Americana, was where I wanted to be. They were doing Shawn Colvin that way and I was really disappointed when I delivered a bunch of stuff and they didn't hear anything. But I was ready to move on to an independent label. I'm glad I did it because of the creative control and all of that, but the problem was my international went away and I've had to rebuild that, which hasn't been easy. I'm glad that I can play live because that's the only place left where you can still make money.

I bought some land in the North Georgia Mountains and a duplex in Atlanta where we lived in one side and my studio is in the other. Nothing crazy. I lived on the royalties for a long time. But there were those years with The Thorns and the album before it, Beneath The Velvet Sun, my follow-up to Soul's Core, didn't sell.

And then I was putting out all my friends' records. I was doing 20 or 30 or $40,000 projects that were not going to sell ever, but I just loved my friends so much and I guess I wanted to give back. Probably I felt guilty about all my success.

Now with its tenth anniversary coming up, I'm re-recording Soul's Core Revival, which sounds amazing. I love it. We got Randall Bramblett involved and Michelle Malone. Widespread Panic is on a few tracks. It's got a big community kind of vibe on it and it's recorded live for the most part. It's a PledgeMusic thing. That's how I'm raising money to do the record. I'm doing real different things with some of the songs and doing a solo version of it as well. You got to do what you got to do to stay on the map.

I'm really proud of my last album, My Stupid Heart. The producer, Lari White, passed away recently from cancer. She was the greatest producer I've ever worked with and I've worked with a bunch of them now. She could produce me on a whole other level. It was so sad for all of us. But I'm glad I got a chance to work with her.

I still continue to journal a lot. I find when I don't do the daily writing or brainstorming that I don't tend to write songs as much either. So that's been another thing I've gotten back to.

May 15, 2018
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Comments: 6

  • Valerie Demeerleer Turner from Rogue River, Oregon Thank you for this brilliant writing on Shawn.
  • Rober from Atlanta Love reading about artist. Use to get their stories on radio. Not any more. Shawn has always seemed to be a down to earth kind of guy. Glad he’s gone back to journaling. That seems to be where his most interesting writing comes from, story telling.
  • Doe from HebertThank you!
  • Keith Olsen from ColoradoYou've gotta love Shawn and his big heart. It comes through in his music. Keep on keeping the music coming, man. We'll find you wherever you go.
  • Ajr from Los Angelesstill honored and thankful to be a small part of your incredible story. making records daily in laurel canyon all these years later. drop in sometime you are in La please? i would love to see you. aj
  • Joanne Londis from Brookyn, NyLove your your music. Your voice is incredible, such range. Wishing you much success with this project and for the future. You deserve work hard. Hope to catch you soon. Much love. ????
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