Patty Griffin Digs Deep

Aquarian Weekly 4/28/04 BUZZ

COLLAGES, GHOSTS & THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM Patty Griffin Digs Deep and Takes to the Road

Patty GriffinAt 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: I have always wanted to ask you what inspires such insightful and emotional songs?

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. 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: Have the same things always inspired your work?

PG: I think, yeah, they probably do. I get a little deeper into them as I go along, but as some things change, there is definitely a common thread.

jc: Do you write predominantly autobiographical?

PG: No.

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, drawing from personal experiences and creating characters to express them.

PG: Well, thank you. Yeah, they kind of show up and take me there.

jc: So the process is more spiritual or emotional than intellectual?

PG: Right. Exactly.

jc: That brings me to your first record, “Living With Ghosts”, a brilliant example of emotional expression. The recording technique itself was more spiritual than technical.

PG: Well, they gave me money to make a real record from my 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 bet you get this all the time, but that record is a masterpiece.

PG: Well, thank you. I’m grateful that those songs were presented that way, because, number one, that was the most honest representation as far as my performance, and number two, I had to tour the record that way. So I logged a lot of hours on stage by myself, which was really good for me. It gave me a lot of confidence.

jc: Now to this unearthly voice of yours. When did you discover you were blessed with this amazingly pure gift to express your art?

PG: Well, my mom was a singer. She sang around the house all the time, really beautifully. My sisters and I would sing along too. So singing was pretty normal around my house. Nobody was professional or anything, but 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, (laughs) but I spent some time singing with records and going out of my way to work on it. I think 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.

“If I were a visual artist, I’d be making collages.”

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. You’ve written several songs for the Dixie Chicks, who have crossed over to pop and rock, and I don’t expect artists to place themselves in a specific genre, but whom would you say were your main influences?

PG: There have been quite a few along the way. I would say the original inspiration was John Lennon and the Beatles. I moved on from there to Aretha Franklin. I remember watching Ella Fitzgerald on the Mike Douglas Show and going, “Wow!” We were raised with so much stuff, AM radio, everything – all across the board. It’s funny. I just noticed in the last couple of weeks that there’s all this collage stuff on my record covers. 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 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 and drawing from a lot of different places and influences.

jc: The new record, “Impossible Dream” has a distinct soulful sound. 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. 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. And I wanted to find a way to have something you can almost dance to and still be real for me. It’s important for music to literally uplift. 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) It’s important to be able to communicate that stuff without having to drag ’em through the dirt.

Patty Griffinjc: Your song, “Truth No. 2” 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: It just sort of worked out that way. They recorded the song before any of that happened. The song is really about being honest to who I am. Putting some faith in 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 the heat as well. 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)

Unedited Transcript of Entire Interview

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