Colvin's formative years were spent in the town of Carbondale, Illinois, where she attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She learned to play guitar at the age of 10. Her first public concert was at age 15 at the University of Illinois campus. Colvin cites Joni Mitchell as a primary influence on her music, and her initial performances closely mirrored Mitchell's inflections and guitar tunings.
Colvin began working in the music scene in earnest in the late 1970s, first in Austin, Texas and then nationally. She met music partner John Leventhal during this time; Leventhal would go on to be Colvin's producer on several albums. Colvin often lends her talent to contemporaries in the music business - she can be heard singing the backing vocals on the Suzanne Vega hit, "Luka" from 1987. Vega returned the favor, singing backup on Colvin's, "Diamond In The Rough", from her debut album, "Steady On". Colvin, again can be heard singing backing vocals on Mary Chapin Carpenter's, "The Hard Way" and "Come On Come On" and Mary Chapin returns the favor on Colvin's, "Climb On (A Back That's Strong)", from Colvin's "Fat City" album.
Colvin's first several albums were met with critical acclaim, but did not sell in substantial numbers. After several albums of original work, Colvin released "Cover Girl", a collection of cover songs, but the work was a departure for her and was not well received.
Colvin experienced breakthrough success with "A Few Small Repairs" in October of 1996. The single "Sunny Came Home" reached the US Top Ten, and won Grammy Awards for Song and Record of the Year. She has released several subsequent albums that were nominated for Grammys, and has also released a greatest-hits album and a collection of Christmas music.
A new album from Colvin, entitled "These Four Walls", was released on September 12, 2006.
She was the guest vocal artist on the Lisa Loeb single "Falling in Love" as well as appearing at various Lilith Fair music festivals. She also has been featured on the popular live music show Austin City Limits and played at the 2003 Austin City Limits Music Festival. She also appeared in a tribute to her idol Joni Mitchell in 2001 that was broadcast on the cable network TNT.
She has made two guest appearances on The Simpsons as Rachel Jordan, lead singer for a Christian rock band. She first appears in "Alone Again, Natura-diddly," where Rachel wins Ned Flanders' heart after the untimely death of his wife, Maude. Later, in the episode "I'm Going to Praiseland," Ned dates Rachel, only to scare her off when he tries to turn her into a version of Maude.
Colvin lives with her daughter, Caledonia, and husband, Mario Erwin in Austin, Texas, and still participates in the Austin music scene.