A young man who has been making music since the tender age of four, Shawn Mullins is hardly what would be considered an overnight success. He had been singing professionally for about a decade when his recording of “Lullaby,” a song he wrote himself, started getting heavy airplay across the country in 1998. Half spoken and half sung, the song’s lyrics tell the all-too-familiar story of a lonely soul adrift in cold-hearted Hollywood, wary of the future but fundamentally sure that “everything’s gonna be all right” in the end. Although the song’s story line may have been somewhat formulaic, Mullins’ lyrics and the song’s melody struck a responsive chord with millions of listeners across North America. In no time at all, Soul’s Core, the album on which “Lullaby” first appeared, went platinum in the United States and gold in Canada.
Born on March 8, 1968, in Atlanta, Georgia, Mullins is the son of a railroad man and an elementary school teacher. His grandfather, Tom Brown, who had played bass in a big band from the 1930s through the 1950s, got him hooked on music at the age of four when he gave the youngster a miniature set of drums. Brown played a major role in Mullins’ musical development. Before long he had mastered the piano, bass, cello, and guitar. Since his childhood and early school years were made difficult by bouts of depression and attention deficit disorder, music provided a welcome escape for Mullins. By the time he was 12 years old, he had formed a rock band and soon was writing his own songs and recording them on tape.
When he was a freshman in high school, Mullins met Amy Ray, who was later to become half of the Indigo Girls duo. At the time, Ray was studying at nearby Emory University and performing in the duo of Saliers and Ray. She visited Mullins’ ninth-grade career class to discuss music as a career choice. After listening to her formal presentation, Mullins stayed after class to talk to her privately. After Ray’s visit, he seemed more determined than ever to make music his life.
Fed up with school and somewhat discouraged by report cards bearing mostly Cs and Ds, Mullins dropped out of high school during the spring semester of eleventh grade and headed for the local recruiting office of the U.S. Marine Corps. But as it turned out, the Marines didn’t want him without his high school diploma. Enrolling in an open-campus alternative school, he finished his junior and senior years of high school in about three months. But instead of heading back to the Marine recruiter, he decided to continue his schooling, having been newly motivated by his most recent learning experience. He enrolled at North Georgia College in Dahlonega, where he studied music. Also known as the Military College of Georgia, North Georgia is one of only four senior military colleges in the United States. When he graduated from college, Mullins was commissioned in the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry. While based at Fort Benning, Georgia, he played local acoustic
Born on March 8, 1968, in Atlanta, GA; married Kelly Hobbs, 2000. Education: Attended North Georgia College.
Formed his own rock band at the age of 12 and started writing songs when he was in seventh grade; studied music at North Georgia College, and after graduating, enlisted in the U.S. Army; formed own label, SMG Records, 1990; released Better Days, 1992; released Big Blue Sky, 1994; released Jeff’s Last Dance, Volume 1, 1995; released Eggshells, 1996; released Soul’s Core and Jeff’s Last Dance, Volume 2, 1998; released Beneath the Velvet Sun, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, (212) 833-8000; SMG Records, 2103 North Decatur Road, Suite 124, Decatur, GA 30033.Management —Russel Carter Artist Management, 315 West Ponce de Leon Avenue, Suite 755, Decatur, GA 30033.Website— Shawn Mullins Official Website:http://www.shawnmullins.com.
music venues in Columbus, Atlanta, and Athens. He also released his first two albums, both of which were self-produced, and distributed them on cassette on his own SMG label.
In the early 1990s Mullins left the military and began focusing all his energies on a career in music. After three frustrating years of sending out demo tapes in the hopes of putting together a record deal, he decided to launch a recording label of his own. Thus, in 1994 SMG Records was born. The label, headquartered in Decatur, just outside Atlanta, continues to operate, providing a launch pad for new and promising artists. Josh Joplin and Matthew Kahler are two of the artists presently recording for SMG. Mullins runs the label with assistance from his wife, Kelly Hobbs, who serves as president of SMG. Mullins himself handles production chores and A&R (artists and repertoire).
Even before founding SMG Records, Mullins released two albums: Better Days, which came out in 1992, and Big Blue Sky, released in 1994. He followed these in 1995 with Jeff’s Last Dance, Volume 1, a collaborative effort with Kahler, recorded live.
In 1996, Mullins released another solo album, Eggshells, on his SMG label. But his breakthrough came in the latter half of 1998, shortly after the release of Soul’s Core. “Lullaby,” the first single released from the album, caught the attention of music fans all across the country, and before long record sales were going through the roof. Interviewed by Entertainment Weekly in January of 1999, not long after “Lullaby” had soared to the top of the charts, Mullins said, “I was hoping to get enough Americana, rootsy airplay to move my record sales up to 20,000 a year. We’re doing 30,000 a week right now. I can’t even fathom it.” After playing second- and third-rate venues across the country for nearly a decade, the arrival of success on such a grand scale was very sweet indeed. With it came a flurry of offers from major record labels eager to sign the folksy singer-songwriter.
Mullins told Entertainment Weekly that he was approached by more than 25 major labels in the days immediately following the dizzying climb of “Lullaby” to the top of the charts. He eventually signed with Columbia Records, which less than two months later re-released Soul’s Core, the album he’d produced and released on his own SMG label for less than $10,000. At first he and Hobbs, who was then his fiancée and co-owner of SMG Records, resisted the call of the majors, but in the end, Columbia’s offer was simply too good to turn down. “I was broke and couldn’t make enough records to keep up with all the requests,” Mullins recalled.
As lucky as “Lullaby” had already been for Mullins, the magic was not yet finished. The single spent several weeks at the top of Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart, while Soul’s Core, the album on which the single first appeared, went gold and later platinum. Additional excitement—not to mention record sales—was generated by the video of “Lullaby,” which starred actress Dominique Swain, best known for playing the title role in the 1997 remake of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita. As if all that were not enough, the song received a Grammy Award nomination.
Over the years Mullins’ songwriting style has evolved gradually from an emphasis on love songs, almost all of which were sung in the first person, to character-based story songs. As he travels around the country, encountering characters whose stories appeal to him, he jots down notes in his journal and later browses through the journal when he’s looking for inspiration for a song. His story of how “Lullaby” came to be written is fairly typical. Performing before a tiny audience, “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— ’she grew up with the children of the stars.’ Her story was sad, but I wanted to give her some hope. A week later, driving home through the desert, the hook came to me—’everything’s gonna be alright, rock-a-bye.’”
Mullins toured widely in support of Soul’s Core, an album loaded with troubadour-type songs relating the stories of some of the men and women the singer has observed in his travels across the country. Although their circumstances often seem uniformly dreary and grim, the characters in Mullins’ songs somehow manage to maintain an optimistic and upbeat outlook on the future. Some critics found this unrelieved optimism in Mullins’ lyrics a bit much to take. Other critics complained about the songwriter’s “strict commitment to rhyming couplets.” Writing in the Washington Post, Dave McKenna observed: “On ’Joshua, ’ for example, Mullins tells of a young boy from a mountain community who spends his days with an old man playing guitar, singing, and smoking. The kid in this otherwise touching song is just 10, and one could surmise that Mullins rejected more credible ages, like 15 or 16, only because they don’t rhyme with ’again.’”
In October of 2000, Mullins released Beneath the Velvet Sun, his follow-up to the successful Soul’s Core. But, despite guest appearances by the likes of Shawn Colvin and Shelby Lynne, the album showed few signs of catching fire in the same fashion as its predecessor. Sales were generally slow. Mullins, in Canada for a benefit in December of 2000, told the Toronto Sun, “Singer-songwriters, we’re in a weird time right now. People that are writing their own songs are not really on the radio a whole lot. I feel overwhelmed by all that. But at the same time, I feel a lot of faith and hope that people want to hear what we do.”
Shawn Mullins, SMG, 1989.
Everchanging World, SMG, 1991.
Better Days, SMG, 1992.
Big Blue Sky, SMG, 1994.
Jeff’s Last Dance, Vol. 1, SMG, 1995.
Eggshells, SMG, 1996.
Soul’s Core (includes “Lullaby,” “Shimmer,” and “Gulf of Mexico”), Columbia, 1998.
Jeff’s Last Dance, Vol. 2, SMG, 1998.
The First Ten Years, Columbia, 1999.
Beneath the Velvet Sun (includes “Everywhere I Go,” “Up All Night,” and “Something to Believe In”), Columbia, 2000.
Entertainment Weekly, January 15, 1999, p. 62.
Rolling Stone, April 1999.
Toronto Sun, December 20, 2000, p. 66.
Washington Post, February 8, 2001, p. C14.
“Shawn Mullins,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll (April 25, 2001).
“Shawn Mullins,” Artist Information.com, http://www.artistinformation.com/shawn_mullins.html (May 8, 2001).
“Shawn Mullins,” iMusic Modern Showcase, http://imusic.artistdirect.com/showcase/modern/shawnmullins.html (May 8, 2001).
“Shawn Mullins,” SMG Records, http://www.smgrecords.com/artists_mullins.cfm (May 8, 2001).
“Shawn Mullins Bio,” Shawn Mullins: Beneath the Velvet Sun, http://www.shawnmullins.com/biof.html (April 29, 2001).
“Shawn Mullins Biography,” RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=6102 (April 29, 2001).
Best-selling album since 1990: Soul's Core (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Lullaby," "What Is Life"
Singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins enjoyed a brief moment in the commercial spotlight as his quirky folk-pop song "Lullaby" became a radio sensation.
Mullins was born in Atlanta in 1968; his mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked in the railroad industry. Mullins took to music at an early age, learning to drum when he was four years old. He subsequently became adept at playing piano, cello, bass, and guitar and formed his first band at the age of twelve. When he was a freshman in high school, Mullins became acquainted with Amy Ray, then a local performer and later a member of the popular folk duo the Indigo Girls. Ray appeared at a career day sponsored by Mullins's high school and encouraged the young Mullins to pursue a career in music.
Before committing to music full time, Mullins served for two years in the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry. While in the military, Mullins released his first album on his own SMG label. After leaving the military, Mullins recorded a host of albums for SMG and became a regular on the Atlanta club circuit. He gradually gained a following with his intimate performances, highlighted by his folksy guitar playing and his half-sung/half-spoken vocal style. In 1997 Mullins received the award for Best Acoustic Artist at the Atlanta Music Awards.
Columbia Records signed Mullins to a contract and, in 1998, released Soul's Core, Mullins's most recent independent effort. At the time, singer/songwriters were enjoying unprecedented success on mainstream radio, due in large part to the popularity of the Lilith Fair tour, which highlighted female singer/songwriters. Mullins's quirky single "Lullaby" offered radio programmers a male counterpart to artists such as Jewel and Sheryl Crow and quickly became a surprise Top 10 hit. "Lullaby" bounces along to a jaunty acoustic guitar, while Mullins—in a departure from traditional pop radio fare—alternates between speaking and singing the lyrics. The song posits Mullins as a struggling heartland artist in Los Angeles: "I told her I ain't so sure about this place / It's hard to play a gig in this town and keep a straight face / Seems like everyone here's got a plan / It's kind of like Nashville with a tan." For the choruses, Mullins breaks into a lilting falsetto and offers a hopeful counterpoint to the otherwise dark lyrics: "Everything's gonna be alright / Rock-a-bye." On the strength of its hit single, Soul's Core ultimately sold 1 million copies.
Mullins followed up Soul's Core with a high-profile appearance on the soundtrack to the Adam Sandler film Big Daddy (1999), offering up a faithful cover of George Harrison's "What Is Life." As interest in Mullins peaked, Columbia released an anthology of his earlier works titled The First Ten Years (1999). Mullins released his first true major label album in 2000, but Behind the Velvet Sun failed to garner major interest, largely because the work lacked a hit single along the lines of "Lullaby." Critics also bemoaned the album's slick, pop arrangements, charging that Mullins had forsaken his roots and unique crossover style.
Better Days (SMG, 1992); Big Blue Sky (Rainy Day, 1994); Eggshells (SMG, 1996); Soul's Core (Sony, 1998); Beneath the Velvet Sun (Columbia, 2000). Soundtrack: Big Daddy (Sony, 1999).