Everywhere he goes

Shawn Mullins follows up the success of Soul’s Core with the new Beneath the Velvet Sun

Listening in on what others have to say about you in conversation can be disarming, but when it’s Elton John and David Letterman on national TV, the experience jumps a few notches up the bizarre meter. “I was in Europe, about to fall asleep, watching TV and Elton John was on Letterman,” says Georgia native Shawn Mullins. “Letterman started to give Atlanta some shit, but Elton said, ‘Oh no, they have one of the finest music scenes around. They have all these great acts: TLC, Dallas Austin, Collective Soul.’ And, he goes, ‘Atlanta has Shawn Mullins,’ like as a separate thing. I was just lookin’ at the TV going ‘huh?’ It was surreal.”
That’s just one of the many signs the local singer/songwriter has encountered over the past two years indicating the notoriety he’s achieved as a result of his platinum-selling album Soul’s Core and its inescapable hit single “Lullaby.” Now, after having attained international airplay and world acclaim, comes the daunting but inevitable new hurdle: the follow-up.
“I try not to think about it,” Mullins says of the pressure for his latest, Beneath the Velvet Sun (out this week on Columbia Records) to match the success of its predecessor. Over lunch at the Righteous Room, Mullins considers the chances of continued chart success. “Columbia thinks this will be way bigger than Soul’s Core. They think it’s several singles deep, and they’re talking about us going to Asia, just a lot of crazy stuff. I didn’t know if I was gonna deliver or not, but I wanted to make a good record no matter what.”
Mullins has no need to worry, the new collection is an expensive-sounding collection of his best work to date. A varied landscape of sounds and textures, the album is anchored by Mullins’ trademark gritty, cinematic world view — reminiscent in equal parts Kristofferson, Dylan and latter-period Byrds, amped with today’s effects and armed with a modern production mindset. His half-spoken/half-angelic vocal style is still firmly in place, and his tasteful use of loops and modern technology makes Velvet Sun one of the best specimens of contemporary singer/songwriter fare around. “It worked out great because Anthony [Resta, album co-producer] comes from a real electronic background, and I come from the organic music background. We have two very different ways of looking at it, but the bottom line is to make the album the best it can be.”
While Soul’s Core cost Mullins less than $10,000 to record — “People spend that on catering for a major label recording,” he says — the budget for Velvet Sun came in somewhere closer to the music industry norm. “This one cost more money, sure, but I had access to the finest musicians around.” Both Shawn Colvin and Shelby Lynne lend their vocal talents. In addition, Mullins co-produced the album with Julian Raymond, known for his work with Hole and Fastball, and with Resta, who has worked with Duran Duran, Missing Persons and Collective Soul.
For the recording, Mullins rented a set-up of Pro Tools, outboard gear, high-quality microphones, old tube compression and EQ that had been set up at the Crossover rehearsal space by Collective Soul’s Ed Rowland. By using various work-stations in the studio, Mullins was able to experiment with new sounds and production. And the melting pot of bands practicing nearby rubbed off on (and bled into) the production as well. “I think there’s a moment or two on the record where you can hear other bands rehearsing in the background,” Mullins says.
The scruffy Mullins was cleaned up a bit for a series of photo and video shoots in preparation for the promo onslaught of the new album. But currently he’s letting his hair grow back out a bit, and certainly hasn’t gone Hollywood. But after lunch, the singer was heading off to begin acting work on a feature film, his first. The Deliveryboy Chronicles, an independent film by Michael and Stacey Childers, is currently in production locally and centers on activities in a fast-food delivery place. “I play one of the guys who has been there a long time. He’s real cynical. I’m diggin it,” explains Mullins, who acted as a kid with the Alliance Children’s Theatre.
“I’m tryin’ to grow and change as an artist,” he says humbly. “Some musicians are happy doing what they do, if they’re playing Smith’s or even Dante’s Down the Hatch, there’s a level of fame there and a lot of people are happy to be at that point. I surely was.” For Mullins, early fame came by playing Trackside Tavern and then Eddie’s Attic, where he first developed a following.
“The early ’90s was a very good time for people like Kristen Hall, Catbird Seat and me,” Mullins recalls. “We packed the Trackside. Then, when Eddie decided to open the Attic, he knew we’d all bring our crowds. Man, I lived off that money I made playin’ Eddie’s. It allowed me to be a full-time musician and tour a little bit.”
In negotiating the transition from local folkie to international recording artist, Mullins found inspiration and guidance in the Indigo Girls, who followed a similar path. “I watched how they did things and how they stayed true to the community,” he says. “Now it’s interesting because I’m managed by the same guy and we’re on pretty much the same label.”
Like the Indigo Girls, Mullins continues to support the local community by calling attention to deserving local artists. “I want Atlanta to continue to be buzzing with excitement about local artists. It always is, but the industry and the rest of the country doesn’t see it until it’s about 10 years too late. Every kind of music you can think of is right here. My records are a big melting pot of sounds, and I think my music reflects the Atlanta scene. In one night you can go see four or five types of music and if you’re a songwriter, you’re gonna take all that in.”
Mullins’ SMG Records has, in addition to releasing his own work, branched out with CDs by the Josh Joplin Band and Matthew Kahler, with a new project from Columbus, Ga., band Cornbread on the way. In addition, Kahler — whom Mullins calls “one of the greatest songwriters on the planet” — co-wrote Mullins’ new single, “Everywhere I Go.”
“It’s important to stay close to people who are still doing what you were doing,” he says. “That way, you never lose sight of what you are gonna go back to. Elton John’s not gonna go back to playin’ clubs anymore, we’re very sure of that, but there’s no crystal ball saying anyone’s going to have hit records. I mean, Jesus, I’ve only had one. This is the ninth album I’ve done, and I’m hoping it will do OK.”
Beneath the Velvet Sun was released Tues., Oct. 24; check www.shawnmullins.com for more information.