25 years after his biggest hit, the Atlanta songwriter continues to hone his craft
In April, acclaimed singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins released Live at the Print Shop, which captures his intimate and deeply moving performance on nine songs chosen from across his three-decade career.
The setlist reveals his knack for memorable songs featuring introspective, resonant lyrics, which he attributes to the universality of his writing topics: “Heartache, of course. How we’re all getting through this crazy time. Just human stuff,” he says, calling from his home in Decatur, Georgia. “The things that I’m interested in maybe interest other people, too.
“Melodies, for me, tend to come as the lyric does – they start to flow together,” Mullins continues, adding that reading a lot is one of the key things that helps him stay inspired. “I know that sounds silly, but I think it’s nothing more complicated than having vocabulary input that you’ve actually read. Very few times have I gotten song ideas from watching too much television.”
Earlier in his career, Mullins used his writing to help him understand himself better. “It used to be that getting out of a space or a place – escape – was part of a theme that I didn’t knowingly do, but I did a lot,” he says. “I think that was part of me growing not only as a songwriter but [also] into an adult and figuring out my own way as a musician. It wasn’t easy for quite a while.”
Mullins first became fascinated with music when he was growing up in suburban Atlanta. He was initially interested in harder-edged musical styles such as punk and heavy metal, and bands like AC/DC and Judas Priest sparked his interest in learning how to play the guitar.
By the time Mullins began attending North Georgia College (now known as University of North Georgia), he’d mastered that instrument well enough that he began seriously writing songs of his own.
At this point, his musical interests had widened well beyond hard rock. Specifically, he recalls “hearing the first Indigo Girls album and being really influenced by that – those lyrics.” He also admired Bob Dylan’s work, and felt inspired by the poetry he was reading in his classes. “All that had a lot to do with how [my music] became more acoustic, and that thing where you can stand on a stage with just a guitar. I thought that was really cool,” he says.
When Mullins graduated from college (which he’d attended on an Army ROTC scholarship), he decided to give a music career his best shot. “I had done some training with the army, and then was in the reserves so I didn’t have to go into active duty,” he says, “and as soon as I was released from active duty training, I was able to hit the road. And so I did.”
Mullins knew he was on the right track when he began regularly selling out shows at Eddie’s Attic, an influential Atlanta music venue. He also began touring all over the Southeast, steadily building his fanbase. “By the mid 1990s. I was like, ‘OK, it’s not like I’m rolling in the green or anything, but I can make a living doing this,’” he says.
His life changed dramatically in 1998 when he released his fourth album, Soul’s Core. That album features the track “Lullaby,” which would become his signature song. The track, with its distinctive spoken word verses and soaring choruses, reached the top spot on the “Adult Top 40” chart in the U.S., and also became a hit in Australia, Canada, and numerous European countries.
After that, Mullins says he felt immense pressure from his record company to immediately create another platinum-selling album, but “I really wanted more time to write for that, and they kind of bullied me a little bit to write pop songs. It really wasn’t what I wanted to do. And so for that next year I remember feeling kind of like, ‘you really did sell out.’ I could have done something else; I just needed a little bit more time.”
As a result, his next album, 2000’s Beneath the Velvet Sun, didn’t do as well as Soul’s Core. The silver lining to this experience, though, was that it taught Mullins to stick with his instincts instead of bowing to outside pressure. All of his releases since then – a prolific mixture of studio albums, live recordings, rarities compilations and reworkings of some of his previous work – have solidified his reputation for being one of the foremost singer-songwriters of the modern era.
Fans will need to be patient as they wait for what will be his tenth studio album, though. “I write slowly these days,” he says. “I enjoy putting a puzzle together the best way it can be fitted all together. The editing process is something I didn’t pay much attention to early on; I enjoy it now.”
He has also been enjoying writing songs with his wife, Amy. “She’s quite a good poet – she handed me something and it came out of me in a song. Then we were like, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun!’”
Mullins also wants to share his songwriting knowledge and enthusiasm with aspiring artists. To that end, “I’m going to be up in Alaska in late August doing Acoustic Alaska Guitar Camp – I’m going to be the songwriter teacher doing workshops. It’s going to be awesome,” he says. (“Let the Moose Be Your Muse!” the camp’s website reads, describing it as “A moosic camp devoted to exploring the inner and outer limits of all things acoustic guitar flatpicking, fingerpicking, blues, mandolin, ukulele, songwriting and more!”)
VIDEO: Shawn Mullins Live at the Print Shop full performance
After that, Mullins will do a few shows down the West Coast, then play a few more in New England and upstate New York. He says he looks forward to performing his hits and his fans’ favorite deeper cuts, and that he’s grateful that he still has a loyal audience.
“The people that really follow [me] over the years, that’s really nice. That keeps me out there doing it live, which I enjoy doing very much,” he says.
Looking back on the success he’s earned so far, Mullins credits “luck, and a lot of persistence and work.” Which, no doubt, are the same elements he’ll bring to the next 30 years of his career.