A folky riff sets the mood: melancholic, but with hints of optimism. If you owned a radio in the ‘90s, you probably know exactly when the words kick in. After a few seconds, Shawn Colvin sweetly croons, “Sunny came home to her favorite room / Sunny sat down in the kitchen.”
The song was featured on the singer-songwriter’s fourth album, released in 1996, which earned her a Grammy in 1997. It tells the story of a woman who’s resolved to seek revenge on someone who’s spurned her. She carries out a deliberate plan, setting her own house on fire. It’s a violent image, but the end of the song is hopeful: “She’s out there on her own and she’s alright / Sunny came home.”
The imagery is expressive, but the literal meaning isn’t clear. Why did Sunny come home with a list of names? Whose names? What’s in her box of tools? What’s her mission?
In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Colvin said, “You want to write a moving song, and something personal, but you want it to be well-crafted enough so people can project themselves into it. That’s what I always appreciated about my heroes. That their stories could be my story, too.”
It makes sense, then, that Colvin’s most popular song was inspired by something abstract. The lyrics to “Sunny Came Home” didn’t spawn from a specific fight or relationship but a folky, surreal painting that served as the cover of her album “A Few Small Repairs.”
“It was the last song to be written, or for me to put lyrics to, on that record,” Colvin said. “I had already chosen the cover of the record, which was a painting by a dear friend of mine, Julie Speed. And there’s a woman, obviously, with a match. A lit match, and what appears to be a huge fire in the background ― in the far, far, background ― and I thought, why don’t you write a story about her?”
Colvin said she focused on imagery while writing the song ― the kitchen, the tools, the fire – and, now that it’s been recorded and released, she leaves it to listeners to sort out what those details might mean to them personally.
Some fans have interpreted the song as feminist, citing Sunny’s anger about being relegated to the kitchen as evidence that Colvin meant it to be empowering, or at least freeing.
When asked about that interpretation, Colvin said, “Oh, I love that! I think there’s a domestic problem. And I’m not meaning to be obtuse. I just went with the images. I didn’t have a specific method to whatever destruction she was moved to create. We just know that she was building something. Obviously there was a fire, there was obviously revenge. And I think there was a domestic element, a domestic problem, in there somewhere. If it’s been interpreted as a feminist song, I think that’s great. I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s not hard for me to ascribe a sense of possible abuse within that song, and oppression, clearly, within a home.”
“If it’s been interpreted as a feminist song, I think that’s great. I think that makes a lot of sense.”
Although “Sunny Came Home” isn’t based directly on her own life, Colvin asserts that all songwriters cull from their experiences ― that it’s impossible not to. She says that she once burned a pile of paraphernalia after a failed relationship, and that she tapped into that feeling when working on the song.
“I was raised on this kind of confessional songwriting. These are my heroes, people like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell,” Colvin said. “’Sunny Came Home’ is an interesting example, because it was a departure for me to write about another ‘character.’ And this character is obviously up to doing something that I would never do. This was just taking it to an extreme that was sort of fun.”
Colvin says the act of songwriting is cathartic for her. Whether she’s laying her own emotions bare, or inhabiting a character who’s unafraid of expressing herself, she finds that singing can be healing ― and she hopes that the act of listening can be, too.
It was a popular sentiment in the ‘90s, a decade that introduced us to the unabashed Kurt Cobain and unfiltered Alanis Morissette. While today’s Top 40 songs tend not to be quite as diaristic or expressive, “Sunny Came Home” was a song of its time.
“I love a great pop song that’s joyful and even nonsensical and positive and upbeat, but I think there’s such a place for art to be a pathway for people to be put in touch with some of their suffering.”
“I love a great pop song that’s joyful and even nonsensical and positive and upbeat, but I think there’s such a place for art to be a pathway for people to be put in touch with some of their suffering, and to be moved to recognize it, to work through it, to grieve,” Colvin said.
It took years’ worth of experimenting with various genres ― imitating the artists she admired ― before Colvin could arrive confidently at what would become her own philosophy on songwriting. For years she had clinical depression and was unable to engage with her creative work.
“When you’re on the floor, clinically, those stretches ― there really isn’t any work going on in terms of artistic expression,” Colvin said. “I like to say I was a great copycat, and I really was. I was not a writer. I was afraid to write. It really wasn’t until I was about 28 years old that I got it together enough spiritually and personally and emotionally to go, ‘My own stories are valid, whether I’m a good writer or not, I don’t know. But I’m gonna give it a shot.’”
Colvin learned from her influences ― Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell ― that emotionally wrought songs can be powerful for listeners, but only if there's room for them to enter into others’ experiences, and only if you don’t try to tell them how to feel.
“It really wasn’t until I was about 28 years old that I got it together enough spiritually and personally and emotionally to go, 'My own stories are valid, whether I’m a good writer or not, I don’t know. But I’m gonna give it a shot.’”
“You have to have enough distance so that there isn’t too much self-pity,” she said. “I think as you get older, you do get distance from a lot of the drama. And it becomes a challenge to put yourself in that frame of mind. You find ways to pull it from somewhere else, pull it from the past, pull it from someone else’s story, pull it even from a phrase that means a lot to you.”
Colvin’s more recent endeavors ― including a tour with fellow folk singer Steve Earle ― involve writing songs that are more parabolic than expressive. She doesn’t delve into her own struggles so much anymore; instead, she uses her music to embody the thoughts of others, a through line for empathy.
In 2006, she wrote a song called “That Don’t Worry Me Now” after watching a Martin Luther King Jr. special. “It’s very moving to me, the sentiment of that song, which is sort of like, I’m rejecting notions of redemption,” Colvin said. “[But] I’m not speaking for that person, I’m speaking for myself. But it came not from a failed romance; it came from watching that program.”
It seems, then, that Colvin ― who is and isn’t Sunny ― has, though her music, found a way to be at peace with herself. As she sang back in the 90s, “She’s out there on her own and she’s alright.”
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