“Sunny Came Home,” Shawn Colvin’s bright-sounding but lyrically dark song that scored Grammys in 1998 for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, has a highly unlikely origin story. At the 11th hour of making the album that ultimately became A Few Small Repairs, Colvin was trying to complete a song based on a demo by John Leventhal, the album’s producer, and she struggled to find a lyrical angle.
“I tried many things, and I didn’t crack it easily,” Colvin recalls. “In fact, I think I had it as ‘Jimmy Came Home’ at one point before I’d written the lyric to ‘The Facts about Jimmy.’” Then Colvin thought of the cover art she’d already chosen for the album—a painting by Texas artist Julie Speed. “I looked at this [painting] and thought, ‘You need to write a story about this woman who’s got a lit match and a big fire in the background.’” And that led Colvin to imagine Sunny, with her mysterious mission to “light the sky and hold on tight.”
“Sunny Came Home” and A Few Small Repairs are back in the spotlight with the recent 20th anniversary edition from Sony/Legacy. The release includes seven bonus tracks—live recordings from the late ’90s, including strong solo versions of “Sunny” and “Get Out of This House.”
Colvin’s long-running collaboration with Leventhal, who also produced her Grammy-winning debut, Steady On, is at the core of A Few Small Repairs. He co-wrote all but two of the songs, and layered guitars, mandolin, keyboards, and more in the album’s deft pop-folk arrangements. At the time, Leventhal had recently discovered the tuning C G D G B E, which, he writes in the liner notes, “opened up a world of new and elusive chord voicings, and they immediately seemed like a perfect match for Shawn’s unresolved narratives.” Colvin herself didn’t use that tuning (though it is very close to what became a common tuning for her: C G D G B D, or open G with C in the bass), and she reworked some of Leventhal’s parts to play the songs live. Leventhal used his low-bass tuning on the track “You and the Mona Lisa,” for instance, but in the live version of that song on the anniversary release, Colvin plays it in standard.
From a songwriting perspective, A Few Small Repairs marks a time when Colvin began to delve more into character-based songs. “There was a sense of freedom when we made that record,” she says. “We’d kind of written off the idea of having radio-friendly songs. We were like, ‘What the hell, we have nothing to lose.’”
Writing more about characters, however, doesn’t mean the songs are any less personal, she adds. “With ‘Sunny Came Home,’ I think it’s my sense of vengeance or anger. ‘Wichita Skyline’—I’m from South Dakota, and I totally borrowed from my upbringing. You tap into your own emotions no matter what you’re writing about.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.