Shawn Mullins of ‘Lullaby’ fame returns to McCabe’s Sunday with timely tunes
By Bliss Bowen
Shawn Mullins is best known for his Grammy-nominated hit “Lullaby,” whose earworm groove and reassuring message (“Everything is gonna be all right/ Rockabye, rockabye”) spilled out of car windows, store radios and home stereos seemingly everywhere for a stretch in 1998. But the soulful troubadour is far from a one-hit flash in the pan. He’s enjoyed a solid, respected career since self-releasing his first several albums in the late 1980s through the mid-’90s, and has toured steadily behind major and indie label albums since Columbia issued “Soul’s Core,” which produced “Lullaby” and the lower-charting “Shimmer.”
Yet that one-hit perception persists. Does he ever feel like he’s still introducing himself to audiences?
“Yeah,” the independent singer-songwriter admits in his resonant Georgia drawl. “Because you can’t really sit back on your haunches anymore. There’s no one doing it; you’ve gotta do it yourself. I’m trying to connect more and more with people that know me and like my music.”
A lingering desire for privacy spawned by “being a pop star for a moment” contributed to a long-standing resistance to social media, something with which he’s finally getting up to speed. He’s finding it fun to get to know fans, but old habits die hard: he says he hasn’t been on a personal Facebook page (“not once”), and directs his management office to handle his musician page.
“It’s somewhat my own fault that the fan base hasn’t grown more because it’s taken me a long time to grow with technology,” he acknowledges. “I’ve been concentrating all these years on the art part of the craft, and I think that’s the thing that’s going to keep me going as an artist anyway, so I’ve gotta keep doing it. But I have to get more engaged than I have been.”
With his expressive baritone and sly wit, Mullins proved himself adept at the “art part of the craft” early on. Born and raised in Atlanta, where he’s still based (“I’m way west, out in the woods a bit”), his melodic songs have often conveyed intelligent, affecting portraits of characters he’s encountered — from “The Ballad of Kathryn Johnston,” about an elderly woman’s violent death (inspired by a real incident), to the “fallen fathers and mothers” of “Ferguson.”
“All the dreams of the dreamers all misbegotten
There’s mammas still crying for the dying and the dead
And the world rages on and the whole thing is rotten
The blood we all bleed is the same shade of red”
Co-written with Chuck Cannon, “Ferguson” is a stormy, guitar-powered highlight of his most recent album, 2015’s Lari White-produced “My Stupid Heart.” It exemplifies how Mullins finds cathartic uplift in sad songs, and — not unlike “Give God the Blues,” his grooving contribution to the 2012 Americana gospel compilation “Mercyland” — makes powerful social statements without necessarily taking sides. He says his early years of service in the Army have always helped him navigate passionate differences of opinion like those that are currently dividing the country.
“One of the first things I learned as an officer candidate is that you don’t voice politics, as an officer,” he explains. “And you don’t show up at rallies. That’s one of the things you’re not supposed to do. Of course I have political thoughts. But … that’s not what I’m trying to do when I write.
“‘Ferguson’ isn’t pointing a finger really. It’s just telling a story, and you hope it’s more like a good painting, where it’s not really explained to you; you leave thinking about it and make up your own mind where things are. I like that. I like direct storytelling kind of writing, like [Kris] Kristofferson, but he of course was full of different levels in the simplest level of stories, like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. I tend to be more like, my job is to observe all of that and then write about it.”
When he returns to McCabe’s this Sunday, Mullins will be joined by longtime bassist Tom “Panda” Ryan and accordionist/keyboardist Radoslav Lorkovic. Asked if he might be trying out material for his next album, he talks about “Soul’s Core Revival,” which will be released in July 2018 on the 20th anniversary of his breakthrough 1998 album. He’s launching a PledgeMusic campaign later this month for the project, which he describes as a “redo” that will feature two full-length albums — one solo acoustic, and one with his Soul Carnival band.
As far as his live show goes, he says, “I want people to leave there feeling good. To me, that’s part of the job too. People get stuff out of good writing and good storytelling and songs. … When I’m playing live, I do notice that I make people happier, or the music does, anyway. And in turn it actually makes me happier for a little while longer too. It’s definitely a reciprocal thing.”
Shawn Mullins plays at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15 at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com.