“Sunny Came Home,” Shawn Colvin’s bright-sounding but lyrically dark song that scored Grammies in 1998 for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, has a highly unlikely origin story. In 2017, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary release of the album A Few Small Repairs, Colvin shared the story with me of writing “Sunny” as part of an interview for Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Here’s a recent video of Colvin performing the song solo.
Striking a match
In the final stages of making the album, Colvin was trying to complete a song based on a demo by John Leventhal, the album’s producer, and she struggled to find a lyrical angle.
I tried many things, and I didn’t crack it easily.
The inspiration behind that story came from the painting that I chose to be on the cover of the record. I just liked Julie Speed’s work and I really wanted something different rather than a photo. In the 11th hour, “Sunny Came Home” was really barely there—in fact I think I had it as ‘Jimmy Came Home’ at one point before I’d written the lyric to “The Facts about Jimmy.” I looked at this cover and I thought, you need to write a story about this woman on the cover who’s got a lit match and a big fire in the background.
When we made that record, we’d kind of written off the idea of having radio-friendly songs.
We didn’t think we were not pop or worthy, but in the previous three records there’d been attempts by the record company to put out singles and cross our fingers and hope they went somewhere, and they didn’t. There were a couple things on those previous records where I made concessions in the production and stuff like that. [With A Few Small Repairs] John and I were like, what the hell, we’re just going to make a record we like and turn it in. We have nothing to lose. We’re not going to worry about the radio . . . which is ironic. There was a real sense of ease and freedom and no rules. We were just in a great space.
Beyond first person
A Few Small Repairs marked a time when Colvin began to delve more with writing character-based songs—not just “Sunny” but “The Facts About Jimmy,” “Wichita Skyline,” and others. But the fact that they are about invented characters doesn’t mean the songs are any less personal, she says.
Oh, I think they’re all about you. With “Sunny Came Home,” I think it’s my sense of vengeance or anger—I mean you tap into your own emotions no matter what you’re writing about.
“Wichita Skyline,” I’m from South Dakota, I totally borrowed from my upbringing and my birthplace. “The Facts About Jimmy” really was about somebody that I was thinking about. And ‘New Thing Now’ is a commentary on the music business, really, so that was a real personal point of view. They’re all driven by something personal.
Sunny came home to her favorite room
Sunny sat down in the kitchen
She opened a book and a box of tools
Sunny came home with a mission
She says, “Days go by, I’m hypnotized
I’m walking on a wire
I close my eyes and fly out of my mind
Into the fire”
Sunny came home with a list of names
She didn’t believe in transcendence
And it’s time for a few small repairs, she said
Sunny came home with a vengeance
Get the kids and bring a sweater
Dry is good and wind is better
Count the years, you always knew it
Strike a match, go on and do it
Oh, light the sky and hold on tight
The world is burning down
She’s out there on her own, and she’s all right
Sunny came home
Sunny came home