Before — and after — Shawn Mullins was a pop star in the late ’90s, he was a songwriter of both substance and style. While his early Big Blue Sky release shared a folky kinship with Shawn Colvin, some of his later records were more in step with the classic country of Kris Kristofferson. On his latest set, My Stupid Heart, Mullins mixes all of those styles, and a few others, into a big, glorious gumbo of artistry that, by most all accounts, is his best album yet.
For the first time since Beneath the Velvet Sun, you worked with a producer who’s an old friend of yours. How’d it feel to let go the reins?
Well, I’ve always worked with old friends when it comes to production and engineering… mostly the same folks, really. The big difference on this record is that I didn’t want to be the producer, so I was glad to let go of the reins, so to speak. With Lari [White] producing, I had no worries at all when it came to that.
There are some great sounds on this thing. The title track alone combines a Roy Orbison snare with some Beatles harmonies. Did you have those ideas going in or did Lari bring some of that along with her?
From the writing of “My Stupid Heart” on, Chuck Cannon, Lari, and I all talked about that — how the song cried out for a Beatles/Beach Boys arrangement. In the end, Lari is the one responsible for the sounds you hear and don’t hear. She’s one hell of a producer.
The crazy percussion and wild hollering on “It All Comes Down to Love”… that must’ve been a fun day in the studio. How do elements like that come about? Trial and error? Whiskey and weed?
It was a fun day. Some of that stuff happened after the first day, though. During playback at one point, I took a pencil and started beating on a whiskey glass and wine bottle, then I picked up a maraca and started playing this weird metal ashtray thing. Chuck grabbed a really great microphone and stuck it on all that as I was doing it. That’s probably the crazy percussion sound you’re noticing. Wine-bottle-whiskey-glass-ashtray-maraca. That’s my son Murphy in the intro, and my beagle Jack. Chuck tracked Jack on his iPad while he was barking into the woods right outside the studio. That stuff doesn’t typically happen if I’m drunk or stoned. We’re all relaxed enough to have a good time, but still on our toes and focused.
When Ferguson was in the headlines, there was some criticism that artists weren’t responding. But you get into it here with the song “Ferguson.” Do you feel pressure — externally or internally — to take issues on?
I don’t feel any pressure externally or internally to take those or any issues on. That song was a challenge, though, for sure. A challenge to Chuck and me as songwriters. There’s a lot being said in there, in that story, and then there’s a lot left unsaid… purposefully. I guess we, as writers, just wanted it to be said. We didn’t feel pressure to do it, but found it challenging and necessary. We weren’t hearing other artists talking about it much so we took it on.
A lot of critics (me included) are calling this your best album in a long time, possibly ever. How’s that feel — to know you still got it… in spades?
It feels great. I’m really proud of this one. It was a total team effort. Honestly, I’m not sure what else I would do if I didn’t do this. I just know that I’m thankful and glad to be doing good work.