The story of Shawn Mullins’ musical career is a deeply American one, starting from his folk-rock roots as a songwriter in his native Atlanta, Georgia, to the fame brought on by his Grammy-nominated hit single “Lullaby” that took over the airwaves in 1998.
Mullins has since forged his own creative path, cutting ties with major labels and re-recording “Soul’s Core,” the album that thrust him into the spotlight 20 years ago. He said his latest work, “Soul’s Core Revival,” is less of a homecoming than a reclamation, wielding old material in dynamic new ways that audiences have never heard before.
Mullins will play a full set from his new album, with an opening by Danny Newcomb, at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Vashon Center for the Arts. Tickets for the show, presented by Debra Heesch, range in price from $22 to $45 and are available in advance at vashoncenterforthearts.org.
“I wanted to represent myself in the ‘now,’” he said of the tracklist. In the album, he introduces many of the new acoustic renditions of songs from “Soul’s Core” by recalling the memories that inspired them. Mullins wrote “The Gulf of Mexico” while riding out a storm in his van, thinking about a waitress he met. “Anchored in You” came to fruition after two flat tires nearly cost him a gig in California, but the opening band played on until he arrived.
“Artistically, in the craft of it all, I’m always trying to write a better song, and I love writing, absolutely,” he said. “Influences come from all over — some obvious ones you expect, but [there are] also ones you may not.”
Mullins said his body of work and life-long love of music draws from some of the brightest artists to ever take the stage. Growing up in the South, he listened to the likes of Otis Redding, Marvin Gay, Nat King Cole and Gladys Knight — members of a pantheon of revered crooners that he said left the biggest impact on him as a musician.
Mullins has nine other studio albums under his belt and 10 compilations of live performances spanning the last 30 years. Many of his songs are lyrical narratives written about everyday life, or from the perspectives of ordinary people, steeped in Americana. But across much of his discography, Mullins also connects with feelings of longing and alienation, discomfort and loneliness, encapsulated perhaps most notably in the world of “Lullaby.”
Mullins said he wrote the persona of the dejected, hopeless young woman featured in the song as a kindred spirit of sorts.
“I’m telling myself that everything’s gonna’ be alright, trying to tell myself that living on the road is going to be a good idea,” he said. “On the road, it just beats the hell out of you over time, and you have to do whatever you can to get through it.”
But Mullins said he could not dismiss touring outright, unable to quit the life of a roving balladeer.
“Part of what I love about it is the fight of it all,” he said.
Mullins’ road stories run the gamut from funny to scary. He performed on one stage shielded by chicken wire to protect the band from flying bottles, and at another venue, he was sorely underpaid for a show by a stage manager armed with a gun. At the height of his stardom, he met Donny and Marie Osmond, Dick Clark, Lenny Kravitz and Billy Joel. Mullins spent some time composing music with Elton John. At one of his performances, he saw Chaka Khan watching from the audience, flashing him a thumbs up. He went on a wild goose chase involving an SUV with Mel Gibson in between takes of his 2002 action film “We Were Soldiers.”
“Neat things happen to me and still do. But they’re not so filled with Hollywood and celebrity. I never really liked that stuff. That’s not why I’m doing it,” he said, adding that he prefers the intimacy of playing for smaller crowds in theaters and listening rooms.
Some of Mullins’ other material has made its mark as well. His releases in the years since “Soul’s Core” have earned him a dedicated following in the folk circuit scene. The 2006 album “9th Ward Pickin Parlor” scored rave reviews, followed by his well-received “Light You Up” and “My Stupid Heart” in 2010 and 2015 respectively. The single “All in My Head,” from the album “honeydew,” made the rounds in Billboard’s Top Adult Album Alternative chart in 2007, appearing on the soundtrack of an episode of the sitcom “Scrubs.”
But Mullins said the shadow of “Lullaby” has occasionally diminished the exhilaration of its success.
“Since then, I’ve made it a point to show the audience and people who like my music that there are other sides to it, and I’ve enjoyed that,” he said. “I like so many different types of music that I want to try to learn how to [play] it all.”
To Heesch, Mullins is the perfect musician to grace VCA’s performance hall, catering to the taste of a significant number of islanders who she is sure will be entertained.
“I’m thrilled and honored he is coming here and is going to play at the arts center,” she said.