To Shawn Mullins, once upon a time, being one of Atlanta’s best kept musical secrets was better than nothing. But becoming an overnight success is even better, thanks to the breakout of his wry, loop-driven, folk-rock torch song, “Lullaby.”
For those unaware of Mullins’ seven previous independent releases, Columbia this year released The First Ten Years, a compilation of Mullins’ early acoustic, electric and spoken word material. “It’s my work and my own expressions of the world I see, and I don’t compromise what I’m doing creatively at any time,” the singer says with satisfaction.
Mullins was born on March 8, 1968, and his parents gave him a miniature drum kit when he was only 4. By the time he was 12, Mullins had taught himself to sing, plus drums, piano, guitar, bass and cello. In seventh grade, Mullins began writing songs and recording them onto a portable tape recorder. He borrowed another recorder and began bouncing tracks to produce two and three-track versions of his songs. At age 16, his parents gave him a four-track recorder, and his home studio experience built the foundation for his later production work. “By then I was really getting into Prince and Thomas Dolby,” he says. “But I still had Joni [Mitchell] and James [Taylor] on the turntable.”
He attended North Georgia College — a military institution — and was eventually commissioned to the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry at Fort Benning, Ga. As a Second Lieutenant, he released two albums and began playing weekend shows at clubs around Atlanta. Mullins actually got his first airplay in 1990 with “This Time/Last Time,” a song he wrote in his grandparents’ living room. Atlanta’s WRAS-FM got behind the song, and audiences continued to grow at his local live shows. He recorded Better Days (SMG) in 1992 and extended his touring up and down the East Coast. “Even though my third attempt at a ‘breakthrough’ album pretty much failed, I was clueless to that fact,” he admits. “All I had on my mind was getting good at what I did — really good.” Mullins continued to write songs and study artists such as David Wilcox, Ani DiFranco and Shawn Colvin. “The solo singer-songwriter is the bare-boned, stripped down musical poet,” he says.
In 1995, Mullins released Eggshells (SMG) — which sold about 5,000 copies and paved the way for him to enter a full-fledged studio to record Soul’s Core (SMG/Columbia 1998) (“Lullaby” sprang from this disc).
“My writing is always changing. I’ve gone from writing love songs in the first person to writing a lot of character-based story songs,” Mullins explains. Soul’s Core was first released on Mullins’ own SMG label, then repackaged by Columbia with an extra track, “Shimmer.”
“I can take my own stuff and put it into these characters and hide behind them a little bit. It’s cheap therapy,” he explains. “I get most of my ideas from journal entries. I write a lot on the road. ‘Lullaby’ was inspired by a gig I played at a venue that’s also a Chinese restaurant. I could tell that one of the five people in the audience was moved by my music. She told me her story over Chinese food. I wrote down a few lines in my journal. … Her story was sad but I wanted to give her some hope. A week later, driving through the desert, the hook came to me: ‘Everything’s gonna be all right, rock-a-bye.'”
“Shimmer” was written in 1994. Unlike “Lullaby,” that song came quickly, according to Mullins. “It was like a gift,” he reveals. “The song came right after a point in my life that I met Kelly, my partner and soulmate. The struggles of life and starting a relationship helped me write that song. I never get tired of playing it.”
In 1997, he was voted Best Acoustic Artist at the Atlanta Music Awards — and in the summer of ’98, Atlanta radio station 99X-FM placed “Lullaby” into heavy rotation. The tune’s popularity quickly spread far and wide. Suddenly, Mullins was a hot commodity being wooed by major record-label representatives.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy, I gotta get a manager or something,'” he remembers with a laugh. “I never thought my angle of success would come from radio. I thought it was going to be from plugging away in clubs and then finally building a following where I could play bigger rooms.” Mullins signed to Columbia Records in July of ’98. Three months later, Soul’s Core went gold and “Lullaby” went to number one on the Billboard charts.
Mullins still finds the road is his main source of inspiration. “One thing I’ve learned to do on the road is to open your heart up to people [whom] a lot of folks wouldn’t normally want to talk to,” he notes. “There’s real stuff on the [Soul’s Core]. I think that’s why people like it. Eighty percent of what I sing about probably happened. They’re folk stories really, passed down from people to people. I talk to a lot of different homeless people, tramps and hobos; I don’t mind giving them a cigarette and hearing their story.”
Grateful for his own good fortune, the singer concludes, “I can only dream that my next 10 years in this crazy life I’ve chosen will be as unbelievable as the first 10.”