At first it’s the voice that grabs you. Floats up out of the speakers of your stereo and pierces something untold inside. It’s hard to describe in words. You have to hear it, like Tom Waits’ scowl, Sinead O’Connor’s wail, Billie Holiday’s sadness or Sinatra’s martini-soaked sonatas. Patty Griffin could be singing about taking out the garbage or the death of a loved one, swooning to old romantic movies or recounting the plight of a poor kid down the block who walks home from school everyday in worn-out shoes. The subject doesn’t matter. She sings about grief, and she sings about love and loneliness and the other stuff you’ve heard a thousand times, but somehow while she’s doing the singing, you’re feeling every bit of it.
It is a talent unmatched.
And the songs, well, they’re some of the most beautifully haunting melodies you’ll ever want to hear. The lyrics are unpretentious, but insightful, and always bittersweet. Whether she is writing for the Dixie Chicks, as she has from the beginning of their precipitous rise up the charts, or for her own four captivating studio records over the past eight years, Griffin is digging deep and holding nothing back.
Before embarking on the East Coast leg of her 2004 Spring Tour, which will stop off at Town Hall in NYC for two shows on 5/7 and 5/8, I had a chance to talk to the woman whose music helped get this tortured soul through a few nagging manuscripts these past years. I found her in giddy spirits and excited about her latest soulfully reflective record, “Impossible Dream” released last month.
jc: Your music has inspired me greatly while finishing the manuscript to my last published book, specifically, “Living With Ghosts”. So I was wondering what inspires you to write such insightful and emotional songs, and have the same things always inspired your work?
PG: I think, yeah, (laughs) they probably do. I get a little deeper into them as I go along, but there seems to be some things that are some things change, but there is definitely a common thread.
jc: Do you write predominantly autobiographical?
jc: (laughs) The reason I ask is that your songs have always struck me as intensely personal with a surprising clarity to the description of events within them. For me, that’s where the inspiration comes.
PG: Well, thank you. Yeah, they kind of show up. (laughs) And they take me there lots of times.
jc: So then do you take personal experiences and perhaps create characters to express yourself so completely in song?
“It usually starts for me with the music. I really just feel like I need to sing or something, and then I start making noise and get a picture.”
PG: It usually starts for me with the music. I really just feel like I need to sing or something, and then I start making noise and get a picture. Something like that will happen usually. That isn’t every single time, but that’s kind of how it works for me. I don’t really have a plan, or I’m not very organized about it. (laughs)
jc: Then you would say the process is more spiritual or emotional than intellectual? You feel the message more than aim to articulate it.
PG: Right. Exactly.
jc: Well then that brings me back to your first record, “Living With Ghosts”, a brilliant example of emotional expression, which one could also say that the recording technique was more spiritual than technical. You released your original demos made for the record company as your first record, right?
PG:: Well, they gave me money to make a real record from those demos, and I went and did that and they hated it. (laughs) So I said, “You really loved those demos, what’s wrong with putting those out?” And they were brave enough to do that.
jc: I think it was brave for a first time recording artist introducing herself to the world with such a raw and emotional record, just you and the guitar in a room with no accompaniment or frills at all.
PG: I didn’t really have much choice at the time. I was really pretty down about having my record that I made with all the fanfare rejected, so I was not in a very good mindset to make another one. But that’s how I played those songs then. That was the way I performed them live. I never really played with a band before, so it made a lot of sense to me that that would be the way they would be done best.
Anyway, going in to play with a band, I was really shy at the time. It was a big, big, big emotional drain (laughs) to go in and record with a lot of strange people. I knew that was not going to work, (laughs) so I didn’t have much choice but to put those songs out the way they were. I think that the really impressive people were the people at the record label. A & M, back in the day, and this was before the really big take-over, they were about artist development. So they really put the money where their mouth was, and they put a record out that wasn’t going to sell a billion copies right away. So they really did it. I thought that was brave of them, really.
jc: I bet you get this all the time, but that record is a masterpiece. I have it listed on my web site as one of my top 10 favorite all time records.
PG: Well, thank you.
jc: You’re very welcome. The funny thing about “Ghosts” is it fits in with many of the records on that list like John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” and Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”, in that it is a personally emotional statement. However, those records are by established monster artists that didn’t need to put on airs. But, again, you accomplished this right out of the gate. I mean, the first song on your first record, “Moses”, an amazing reflection of loneliness, is right on the mark. The performance is haunting. I wonder could any of those songs have been presented any better? In hindsight, could you have seen yourself being splashed upon the public any more honestly than just you and your acoustic belting it out?
PG: Well, I feel really grateful that they were presented that way, because, number one, that was the most honest representation as far as my performance, ’cause they really did capture pretty honest performances, and number two, I had to tour the record that way. So I spent a lot of time on stage and logged a lot of hours by myself, which was really good for me. It gave me a lot of confidence on stage, which I did not have before and it was really important that it turned out that way.
jc: Now to this unearthly voice of yours, reflected in every utterance on that first record and the three other studio efforts since. It’s an incredible instrument to have available to emote these lyrics of yours. When did you discover you were blessed with this amazingly pure gift to express your art?
“If I were a visual artist I’d be making collages. I’d be using a lot of different mediums. My music, I think I’m drawing from a lot of different places and influences. “
PG: Well, my mom was a singer. She sang around the house all the time, really beautifully. So singing was pretty normal around my house. Nobody was professional or anything, but my sisters sang around the house and I sang around the house. There was always singing going on, so sort of from the age of 12 on I decided that I really wanted to try and become a singer. I didn’t know if I could really do that or not, but I spent some time singing with records and going out of my way to work on it. So I think I was about 17 or 18 when I sang in front of a bunch of people for the first time and they let me know that they thought it was exceptional. It gave me a sense that I could do this. (laughs)
jc: This is ostensibly a rock and roll, pop culture magazine, and when someone asks me what kind of music does Patty Griffin write and sing, I want to say folk with a country flavor, but country music today is so fragmented into pop and traditional and so on. I know you’ve written several songs for the Dixie Chicks, who have crossed over to pop and rock. I don’t expect artists to place themselves in a specific genre, but whom would you say were your main influences? Who inspired you to be the singer/songwriter you are today.
PG: There have been quite a few along the way. I would say the original inspiration is John Lennon and the Beatles, and I moved on from there to Aretha Franklin. There are so many talented people out there. We’re really lucky to be living in a time and place that we have access to so much music. It’s almost too much. I sometimes go to the record store and I can’t buy anything, because there’s too much. (laughs) I can’t take all this in! You feel like your life’s not long enough. You start getting anxious at the record store. (laughs) There’s just so much stuff. I remember watching the Mike Douglas Show and watching Ella Fitzgerald on there and going, “Wow!”, you know? I mean we’ve been raised with so much stuff, AM radio, everything – all across the board. I wish I could be more specific and say something brilliant and articulate and nail down one thing.
jc: (laughs) You don’t have to.
PG: You probably don’t have the artwork for the record yet, but once again it’s a collage. The last record was collage work too. Actually I think the artwork on “Living With Ghosts” was collage work. (laughs) And I just noticed in the last couple of weeks ago that there’s all this collage stuff that was originally used to represent what I do by the artist who received the record to do the artwork. And I specifically asked Traci Goudie, who did the artwork on the last record and this record to maybe not have it be as collagey this time, and it’s twice the amount of collage work! (laughs) But, you know, I have to admit it’s pretty appropriate, because I have to say that’s what my music is. If I were a visual artist I’d be making collages. I’d be using a lot of different mediums. My music, I think I’m drawing from a lot of different places and influences.
jc: That’s profound. (laughs)
PG: Well, I think that’s what the music is, you know?
jc: That’s a suitable metaphor. You mention Am radio. I grew up in the 70s’ when pop radio gave you all different styles jammed up against one another, seemingly incongruent styles and genres, but it was an interesting stew. (laughs) And that was a great palate for enjoying different things. I recently remarked to a friend who writes songs that back then songwriters literally wrote ballads, where they tell stories and the emotions resonate through them.
PG: It’s true. But I wouldn’t say that’s gone away forever. It’s definitely not the popular place to be working from right now, though. (laughs)
jc: Listening to the new record, “Impossible Dream” I’m reminded of two of the women artists you mentioned earlier, Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald. It has that soulful kind of sound. That’s how I hear it. Was that your aim this time, to be more bluesy or soulful?
PG: I think that a lot of the songs were coming out of very dark places, some places I’d never really dug down to before. And I was having trouble figuring out how to get those across. So I drew from some music I’d been listening to before I worked on this record like Johnny Cash and the Staple Singers. For the last couple of years the Staple Singers are a regular part of my listening. I was also listening to the Velvet Underground. Definitely different styles, but all of those artists have this in common; they are talking about some really hard stuff lyrically, but their music is uplifting, I think. Beautiful. And I wanted to find a way to have something you can almost dance to and still be real for me, because I go to see people who you can dance to their music and more. Bruce Springsteen’s a great example. There is music out there that has substance and you can dance to. (laughs) There is! And that’s important to have literal music, music that literally uplifts. That’s what gospel music does, and Johnny Cash does that too. He’s sittin’ there telling you about a hanging, but he’s chugging along. And you can groove to it, you know? (laughs) That’s really important to be able to communicate that stuff without having to drag ’em through the dirt.
jc: (laughs) I think you walk that wire well on your records. I call your music “bittersweet”. The melodies are so romantic and endearing and yet sometimes the lyrics are harsh and the points are straight to the bone. I believe that’s what all art, whether it’s a painting or a film or a book, should have two sides. Your songs can be at once heartwarming and chilling.
jc: For example, let’s talk about your song, “Truth No. 2” that is mentioned prominently in a publicity memo I received with an advance of “Impossible Dream”. The song appears on the last Dixie Chicks record, “Home”. It says here “the song spoke most clearly for the band about what its like to be censored.” Does that refer to the whole ridiculous flack – banning their records and burning them or some other such unwarranted nonsense – resulting from their comments about the president while on tour a couple of years ago?
PG: “Truth No. 2” is about that? I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.
“The polls were 70% against the war. There were huge protests and we were standing up on stage with these people looking up at us skeptically. All of us live in Texas, so I can understand how that came out of their mouth when it did. “
jc: The blurb intimates that the song, like many of your songs, frankly, has more than one meaning, and for the Dixie Chicks, who recorded it, it became more or less prophetic.
PG: Well, they sort of used it as a tool for discussing that. It just sort of worked out that way. They recorded the song, obviously, before any of that happened. To me, the song is really about being honest about who I am, when I wrote it. Putting some faith in that, knowing what that is and presenting that. I think the Chicks have to have that message available to them as well. They’re really high-end entertainers and they are in show business, and it was a really difficult situation to be put into.
I was actually in England about three months before them and feeling that heat as well. (laughs) The polls were 70% against the war. There were huge protests and we were standing up on stage with these people looking up at us skeptically. All of us live in Texas, so I can understand how that came out of their mouth when it did. I don’t think they were planning to get on a political bandwagon, but sometimes just by being yourself you end up in these crazy places. “Truth No. 2” is sort of like, “I’m gonna take the chance and show my true colors, because I don’t have a choice.”
jc: Regardless of the penalties that sometimes follow the telling of truths.
PG: Right. And there are definitely penalties involved. (laughs)
jc: Well, if you could see just a third of the hate mail I get for just expressing an opinion it would frighten you.
jc: What can you tell me about this tour you will be embarking on this spring that rolls through here shortly, the band and the interpretations of these new songs?
PG: I’m sorry, I was rubbing my eye. I’m having an allergy attack (laughs) Could you repeat that question?
jc: (laughs) That’s quite all right. Are you going to live?
PG: Okay. (laughs) I feel better now.
jc: Good. (laughs) I was hoping to just get some color on the upcoming spring tour and the new band.
PG: There is a full band that I’ll be playing with. Some of the things I’m just going to be doing with my guitar player, Doug Lancio, but we are leaving Austin on the 29th of April and we’ll be out for three weeks on the East coast and then three weeks on the West coast.
I have a really great soulful slinky rhythm section lead by Doug who is also my bandleader. Michael Ramos will also be coming. He played horns on the record. We’ve only had one gig so far for “South by Southwest” which went really, really great.
jc: Excellent. Looking forward to seeing you at Town Hall in May.
PG: Awesome, that’s great. I’d love to see you there.
jc: You have a wonderful summer and thanks for all the great songs.
PG: Thanks, you have a great summer too.
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