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McClatchy Newspapers, Published June 14 2012

Amid life’s darkness, Shawn Colvin finds solace in music

AUSTIN, Texas – Singer Shawn Colvin is a child of the prairie, born in South Dakota. But the emotional topography of her life is jagged and rocky and rough. Beyond the Grammy Awards, beyond the acclaim: Her story is a mountain range of pain.

Colvin lays it all out in a new memoir, “Diamond in the Rough” – a book not so much about transcending personal suffering as explaining its diverse manifestations over the course of decades. Her demons: Depression. Anorexia. Alcoholism. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Hypochondria. Esteem issues. As recently as 2008, Colvin’s feelings of despair were so severe that she considered suicide and checked herself into a psychiatric facility in the midst of a nervous breakdown.

“I got a big dose of stuff. I did. And for generations,” Colvin says softly at home, in Austin, the picture of composure as she reflects upon the range of afflictions addressed in her memoir, released last week in tandem with “All Fall Down,” a superb new CD. “But I have no other story to tell.”

Colvin’s memoir feels a lot like her songs – naked, vulnerable, dappled with restlessness and longing – as it intertwines twin storylines of music and sorrow. As she’s proved on her albums, Colvin is very good with words that reflect the scariest interior sensations: “I’m riding shotgun down the avalanche.” Yet outside the realm of rhythm and meter, “Diamond in the Rough” is often shocking in its directness.

“Who doesn’t have a bit of pyromania in them?” she writes in the prologue, the first sentence of the book. “There’s something thrilling about making fire – it’s primal, right?” Colvin confesses she’s been “setting fires” throughout her life – literally, since childhood, often in the context of failed love – and all have backfired. Colvin references her most famous song, “Sunny Came Home,” which details arson as an act of personal desperation.

“Sunny is me,” she writes in the memoir.

Colvin hopes her memoir will comfort others who suffer from depression. Yet some readers will be more concerned whether the author can save herself. Colvin never says it explicitly in the book – but it’s hard to imagine she’d be here, at all, if it weren’t for music.

Her story of sorrow and estrangement began in childhood. She had a hard time in school. She abhorred school. Colvin was so shaken by her experience at Lincoln Junior High School in Carbondale, Ill. – “it felt like a cold, vast prison, and I was a new inmate” – that she’d walk out of class in the middle of the day ... and hide.

She didn’t do it for thrills. Colvin was genuinely terrified.

At times, “Diamond in the Rough” reads like a sea captain’s account of battling a furious tempest – recorded meticulously, in real time. Colvin’s so involved in the struggle that she can’t see beyond the storm.

Anorexia, which almost killed Colvin in 1978 when her weight dropped to 86 pounds, is covered in roughly three pages. She offers sobering glimpses into her medicine cabinet through the years, with bottles marked Elavil, Prozac, Cymbalta, Abilify and Concerta to fend off depression. She praises the healing power of Alcoholics Anonymous, berates past therapists, breaks into an ex-boyfriend’s email account in a rage, jumps out of cars during fights with her lovers.

Sometimes, Colvin comes across as a tortured artist in her memoir. Other times, just tortured. Yet smart enough to convey a sense of what’s happening to her in the midst of depression.

“The nature of phobia and panic disorder is to intrude constantly and especially during times of pleasure, like the proverbial devil on the shoulder,” she writes. “But instead of enticing us to behave badly, our devils told us we couldn’t have fun or be happy, that something could or would go horribly wrong if we tried. These demons lived in our heads every minute; they were our dirty secrets.”

The tentative, open-ended conclusion of her memoir begs the question: “Are you OK?”

“I’m really OK,” she says, with a kind of casual, over-dinner laugh. “There’s more resolution now than there was when I finished the book. I’d come out (of depression) and was feeling better. But I still had what I’d call ‘sinking.’ Not a hideous descent into a black hole. But just what I would call ‘a sinking.’ You know, several times a day, when things are overwhelming. It’s a paralysis, a bit of paralysis, and dread.

“But I’ve found a great doctor, a psycho-pharmacologist who’s smart and has a heart. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky. She’s fixed it. I mean: I’m good. I’m kind of bullet-proof.”

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