Soothing and Unsettling
Shawn Mullins on surreal world of ‘Lullaby,’ and why he still likes thrift-store clothes
By DEENA FERGUSON
Special to The Union Leader | March 08. 2017 12:45PM
Same thing happens with Shawn Mullins, and he doesn’t mind. His 1998 smash hit “Lullaby” put this singer/songwriter from Georgia on the radio and everyone’s lips.
To have a chart-topping song after years of working hard to pay the bills was a little surreal, he said in a recent telephone interview.
“I was kind of propelled into this interesting world that I had never really sought — well, maybe when I was a little kid I had dreamed of meeting Gene Simmons from Kiss or hanging out with Donnie and Marie or whatever,” Mullins said with a laugh. “But once you get though nine years of being an independent singer/songwriter and living in a van trying to just make it work without a record deal, you sort of forget about all that.”
Mullins is coming back to New Hampshire Friday night to what he calls “one of my favorite places to play,” the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry. His show there will be one of the last in this location; Tupelo is making a move to A Street in Derry soon after.
“I like telling a story,” Mullins said. “It’s set better in a small room. Three hundred seats is about perfect. I do shows where there are like a 1,000 seats, but they’re often theaters, so they can feel intimate. But even much bigger than that, for me personally, I just don’t feel like I connect as well for some reason. So it’s worked out well for me that I didn’t get more popular. I like playing the small places.”
But when “Lullaby” took off in 1998, it was a different story entirely.
“It was all surreal, to have it move so fast from the life I had, to being catapulted really into this other world and feeling severely underdressed the whole time,” he said. “I mean, I get my clothes at thrift stores. That’s just the way I roll. If someone gives me something at a video shoot or whatever, I might wear it. But I am not going to go buy a $300 pair of jeans. It just ain’t gonna happen.”
Mullins recalled appearing on the America Music Awards in 1999.
“One of the most terrifying moments of my life was the Billy Joel tribute at the American Music Awards,” Mullins said. “I wanted to do ‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” but do it on guitar instead of piano. But it wasn’t one of his hits.
“And so Billy calls me, which is also bizarre. I’m at the studio working on a record and I told the engineer (that) I don’t want to take any calls. I’ve got to get this track done. And the phone rings and he comes running in and he goes, ‘Man, you are going to want to take this call.’ I get on the phone and he’s like, ‘Hey, Shawn, this is Billy Joel.
“He asked me if I knew what I wanted to do, and when I told him ‘Billy the Kid,’ he was like, ‘That’s a piano song, Shawn.’ I said, ‘Well, Billy, all your songs are piano songs.’
“He told me he was thinking ‘Allentown.’ So, yes sir, I’ll do ‘Allentown.’ I’ll just figure it out,” he said. “The day before the show, we’re in the Shrine Auditorium. Dick Clark was raising hell — walking around with a megaphone, just barking orders at everyone. That was my first view of Dick Clark ... Satan’s helper.
“I had to learn the song, had to go up on the stage and do a practice run-through,” Mullins recalled. “It was horrifying. It ended up being fine, but it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
Mullins just turned 49, but he says he feels better than he has in years. He hurt his back in a skydiving accident when he was in the Army — “nothing dramatic, I just landed hard and hurt my back.” He said he was in more pain in his 20s than he is today.
“Honestly, I’ve felt old for quite a while,” he said. “It’s a weird life. You’re traveling all the time, riding in vans and airplanes, sleeping in a different bed every night. It’s hard on your body.
“I never got into hard drugs,” he added. “I don’t drink. (But) I’m like an old wrestler walking around after 20 years. I ache. I work hard on stage. I stomp my feet without even realizing it. So, there’s that. So I feel like, ugh. But then, inside of me, I still feel like a kid, and that keeps the creative spirit happening.
“Why am I telling you about my back pain?” he said with a laugh.
His last record, “My Stupid Heart,” came out in 2015, 25 years after the release of his first, eponymous record. He tours year round.
“I’m always wanting to tell my booking agent, ‘You know, why you are sending me to all these places that are really cold in the winter time?’ Because you don’t have to go,” Mullins joked.
“Lullaby” is part of every show. And that’s OK with him.
“I never have gotten tired of it for some reason. Once in a while, I’m in a part of the song and I will have this internal roll of the eye. It’s only internal. I won’t let it out. But for the most part I really enjoy it. I’m so thankful for it. It’s not my best song by any means, but it’s the one people know. And that’s cool.”