Shawn Mullins Transforms His Breakthrough Album With 2018’s Soul’s Core Revival
The celebrated “Lullaby” singer-songwriter delivers new acoustic and full-band studio versions of his platinum-selling major-label debut, due out Nov. 16.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Twenty years ago, one record changed Shawn Mullins’ life. “I had no idea anything like that would ever happen with that song,” he says now, referring to “Lullaby,” his chart-topping 1998 single. “Back then I just wrote whatever I felt and I must’ve got lucky once,” he adds with a chuckle.
“Lullaby” appeared on Soul’s Core, the Atlanta singer-songwriter’s major label debut. Now, two decades later, Mullins is revisiting the album that catapulted him from the folk circuit to the international spotlight. For Soul’s Core Revival, out November 16 on his own Soul Carnival Records, Mullins delivers brand-new full-band and solo acoustic versions of each of the album’s 13 tracks, breathing fresh life into songs he wrote as a young troubadour, traveling the country in a Ford minivan with his guitar and his dog Roadie.
Though Mullins is justifiably proud of the album he made 20 years ago, a simple reissue didn’t feel like the right way to celebrate it. “The songs, they mean something different to me now,” he explains. “I sing them differently.” He was also eager to capture them in the studio with his longtime touring band, Soul Carnival. “The way we’re playing these songs live and stretching them out, people seem to get totally blown away with it. So I thought, let’s put that on the record.”
Working with producer/drummer Gerry “Gator” Hansen, original Soul’s Core engineer Glenn Matullo, and legendary engineer/mixer John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Widespread Panic) at Keane’s studio in Athens, Georgia, Mullins and his band recorded the tracks live, with no Pro Tools and minimal overdubs, giving the project a timeless, vintage quality perfectly suited to his wise-beyond-his-years snapshots of touring life in the ’90s. “I really like that old-school approach,” Mullins says. “It’s important for it to be played by humans and not screwed with a whole lot.”
In addition to the full-band versions, Soul’s Core Revival also features a disc of solo acoustic renditions of Soul’s Core 13 tracks, each introduced with a brief story about the song’s genesis. We learn how Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco inspired “Lullaby,” the tragic yet ultimately uplifting story behind fan favorite “Shimmer,” and that Mullins really was “parked on the state line on a cold November day” when he wrote “The Gulf of Mexico” in the parking lot of the famed Flora-Bama roadhouse.
Propelled by the success of “Lullaby,” Soul’s Core would go on to sell over a million copies and earn Mullins a Grammy nomination. But its origins were far more humble. “Quite a few of those songs started off as journal entries,” the singer-songwriter reveals, written while he was “traveling all over the country, playing little tiny places.” Songs like “September in Seattle” and “Twin Rocks, Oregon” capture little moments from life on the road — as does “Lullaby,” which was inspired by a conversation with a female fan at a folk music club in Los Angeles — the city Mullins described as “kind of like Nashville with a tan.”
Where the acoustic half of Soul’s Core Revival reconnects with the song’s roots, the full-band set recasts them in the light of the artist Mullins is today. Opener “Anchored in You” replaces the original’s acoustic guitars and stately waltz tempo with New Orleans horns and a smoldering Southern groove. “And on a Rainy Night” — one of a handful of songs Mullins “hadn’t played in 18 years,” by his estimate — gets a seductive new spin with backing vocals by acclaimed Atlanta singer-songwriter Michelle Malone and a haunting tenor sax solo by legendary multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett (Bonnie Raitt, Steve Winwood). “You Mean Everything to Me” blossoms from gentle folk ballad into gospel-tinged hymn, losing none of the original’s understated grace even as Mullins’ band fleshes out its mix of world-weariness and warmth with a panoramic arrangement.
Mullins humbly credits his band — which, in addition to Bramblett, Hansen and Malone features Radoslav Lorkovic on accordion and keys, Davis Causey and Patrick Blanchard on guitars, Tom Ryan on bass and sax, and Wayne Postell on trumpet — with transforming his songs in a way that feels both contemporary and classic. “I was just lucky enough to pick the right people and put them in the room,” he demurs. “I’m kind of just letting it happen with these guys. They are all so wonderful that I don’t have to give them much direction.”
But the other element that makes Soul’s Core Revival such a revelation, even to longtime fans of these songs, is Mullins himself. Always possessed of an expressive baritone voice, the onetime Army Reserve officer has matured into a soulful singer with remarkable range, both musically and emotionally. “I kind of get lost in the music a lot more than I used to,” he notes. “I used to have some anxiety on stage but now I’m not worried about, ‘Oh, am I going to be able to sing this note?’” Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s lone cover, a version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that was already a Soul’s Core highlight, but now rivals the gut-punch impact of the original.
“That’s one of the first songs I connected to as a kid, even before I knew what it was about,” says Mullins, who also sites his parents’ Leonard Cohen, Bobby Gentry and Ray Charles records as early influences. The grandson of a big-band jazz bassist, Mullins had music in his blood, but it wasn’t until he met the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray that he was inspired to make it his calling. “She was so engaging and intense and punk, yet able to perform just with a guitar and her voice,” Mullins recalls of his early mentor. “I wanted to be just like her.”
In the years since Soul’s Core’s release, Mullins has become his own kind of Southern singer-songwriter, with a string of acclaimed albums, from 2006’s rootsy 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor (featuring the AAA/Americana No. 1 song “Beautiful Wreck”) to 2015’s witty, introspective My Stupid Heart (highlighted by the stirring but understated protest anthem “Ferguson”), that have established him as one of the most distinctive tunesmiths working in today’s Americana scene. And he hasn’t slowed down — he and Soul Carnival are already at work on his next album of new material.
But until then, Soul’s Core Revival is a welcome chance for Mullins to celebrate an early career milestone, and reflect on everything he’s accomplished in the years since. It’s a set for the fans who have stuck with him since he serenaded that girl in L.A. with a simple, heartfelt refrain — “everything’s gonna be all right” — and, he hopes, a chance to introduce the songs of Soul’s Core to a new generation of fans as well.
“I love the record. And this is such a great band, it’ll really blow people’s minds. That’s the thing, just to get out there and keep the tour going,” he says, sounding just as excited to hit the road now as he was 20 years ago when he sang the words (from “Anchored in You”): “The road is my home/And my spirit is wild.” Soul’s Core Revival is a well-earned look back, but the man behind it hasn’t stopped looking forward.
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