Soul's Core: Revisited and Revived
Twenty Years Later, Shawn Mullins Rerecords His Definitive Album

By Lee Valentine Smith

Back when commercial alternative radio could make or break a career, Shawn Mullins' Soul's Core propelled him to international acclaim and a lucrative major label deal. By late 1998, his single "Lullaby" was inescapable and the hype - initiated by Atlanta's 99X - immediately boosted a career which had languished in small clubs for the previous nine years.

Originally issued on his own SMG label, then remastered and released by Columbia Records, Soul's Core remains Mullins' most successful album. The easy-going singer-songwriter still performs selections from it at every performance.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the record, Mullins comes full circle with an independent, crowd-funded release of the collection in a dramatically revisited and expanded edition via PledgeMusic.

Soul's Core Revival features special guests Michelle Malone and Randall Bramblett with Mullins' longtime collaborators Gerry Hansen (drums), Tom Ryan (bass), Davis Causey and Patrick Blanchard (guitars) with Radoslav Lorkavich (keys and accordion) in a roadshow-style revue. The result is an impressive double-CD, four-LP version of the album, set for launch this month at the Variety Playhouse.

INsite caught up with the Atlanta-born and based singer-songwriter at his home studio.

For a twentieth-anniversary celebration, most artists might reissue a remastered album, but you really went all-out for this one.

Well I think the main reason is creatively, the songs are just so different now. After 20 years, they change. I thought it'd be a really cool thing to record them all the way we're doing them now. That's pretty much what you'll get with this record. We all went out to Athens to John Keane's studio to do it.

He's moved into a new space, hasn't he?

Yeah, he's moved into an old farm out there and it's wonderful. It's just real peaceful out there and he has a great room to record a full band live, old school. And that's what we did. We only did one or two takes of most of it because we've done 'em so much. But we changed a few things tempo-wise and had some fun with time signatures.

It's definitely a good way to revisit the album. When did you come up with the idea?

About a year ago, Glenn Matullo, who recorded Soul's Core the first time around, reminded me that the 20-year anniversary was coming up. I hadn't even thought about it, but he said I ought to do something about it. He said he thought Sony would put out a remastered thing and I started thinking about it. I thought, if I do these songs again with solo and full-band versions and stories before the songs, it becomes two very different things. It's new but it's retrospective in that I'm also talking about the songs. I thought it would be different and fun. It was just a wonderful time with Michelle Malone and Randall Bramblett there with us. They feel like a part of my band, even though that's silly to even say. But it just felt like family.

How are you planning to present it live? Will you do the album in its entirety?

What I'd really like to do is eventually take the whole thing on the road like a big musical carnival. And have Randall and Michelle and all these great people who are all kinda local, between Athens and Atlanta, and do a real Soul's Core Revival tour - featuring not only my stuff but theirs too.

Like your very own Rolling Thunder Revue.

Exactly! Or what [drummer] Levon [Helm] was doing at his "Rambles" [in Woodstock, New York]. We did five of those shows with this band and it was always an incredible experience. The first time was the big one, you know, when you first meet Levon, but seeing how he and [guitarist] Larry Campbell and all the rest had developed this vaudevillian - but not over-the-top - show, with everyone contributing their songs. Multiple people singing and everyone playing. What a show it made. That's what I see for this band that I'm calling Soul Carnival.

You have a few shows this month before the Variety date, but is that the official debut of the record and the revival?

Yeah, it'll really start at the Variety with Michelle Malone and her band Drag The River opening.

I was talking with her a couple of months ago and she said that you are "singing your ass off" these days.

Well that's really nice of her to say. She's always been a big influence on me and I loved Drag The River when I was first gettin' going. I'd go see them religiously.

In addition to being a fine singer-songwriter and musician, she's got an incredible spirit about her.

She sure does and I've learned a lot from her. A lot of what I do, I look to her and Amy [Ray] and Emily [Saliers]. A lot of my favorite singers are women, which is interesting. I look for the passion that comes from a woman singer. Like Ann Wilson or Janis Joplin. I go backwards a lot with my influences and I love Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and that's the same kind of spirit Michelle has. It's blues, it's gospel, it's everything. It's rock and roll.

She's right about your singing, it has changed over the years and lately it seems more soulful than ever.

I think it's a survival thing. When you go through things in your life that are really heavy, you come through to the other side if you don't drown. As Larry Jon Wilson used to say, 'If I don't drown, I'll be a better swimmer when I'm though.' It just changes you. Now, I don't even think about singing when I get up on stage, it comes out the way it comes out.

That's singing in its purest form.

It is and unless there's some kind of feedback or a distraction from the audience, for the most part, I'm kind of in the moment of the song, whatever it is I'm singing. Lately it's more of a blues and soul thing. It feels like it's what I'm supposed to be doing right now.

It's a natural expression.

Yeah, it feels like it. And when I'm singing country-type music, it's more whiny and more high-lonesome than it used to be. So I feel like, as a singer, you learn from your life experiences and you hope it'll lead to a better voice. It's like with [John] Mellancamp, I heard an interview with him a while back and he said smoking four packs a day actually helps his voice! For me, I think just living through tough times has made me a better artist.

As your delivery has changed, do you find your songwriting style has changed over the years?

I think the melodies come the same way and I try to utilize them the same way. But what's different now is the way I write lyrics. That tends to change every decade. I'll kinda try a new school and study on it and really work that stuff out. It probably ends up becoming a combination of schools. But the one that I grew up with, people like Kris Kristofferson, they're always there. That's the mark. When I'm really trying to write a good song, as a goal I try to get anywhere near him or Leonard Cohen. I rarely get to that, but the goal is to try. So the intention hasn't really changed all that much. I guess it all comes down to just making somebody feel something.

Soul's Core contains some very personal songs. Over the years, have they changed from personal expressions into pure performance? Or are you acting as the narrator of someone else's story?

Yeah, most of them were journal entries. Some aren't even changed much from what I wrote in the journal. "Lullaby" was almost verbatim. It's weird but that feeling or level of loneliness and desperation is what led to that stuff. The way I would journal, I was trying to exercise my songwriting at the same time. That's why they would loosely rhyme sometimes. Like, "stars" and "boulevard" don't really rhyme, but it kinda works because of my accent, I guess. So the original intention was to not put too much of myself into it, but to tell it like you're watching a little movie or reading a novella or something. Otherwise it seems a bit self-serving. Of course, it is anyway. But if you can make the audience believe that you really did meet that person or if that exact conversation was had, you can come up with something around that idea. I do that a lot. But I do mix it up and yeah, sometimes I'll put myself into it. But it's always a fine line. At the end of the day, I just like telling a good story.

Shawn Mullins plays Saturday, November 24 at the Variety Playhouse. Michelle Malone and Drag The River open. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit variety-playhouse.com.

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