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There are singers, there are songwriters – and then there’s Patty Griffin.
Not only has the celebrated songstress been praised for her versatility, Griffin’s untouchable talent has earned her a Grammy and landed her material on releases from some of the industry’s biggest names. For artists seeking poetic musings (and really sad songs), Griffin is a go-to. Besides the Dixie Chicks, Kelly Clarkson, Bette Midler and Emmylou Harris have all given a second life to the writer’s rootsy tunes.
Griffin’s own catalog, though, is immense, and just last year she added two more gems to her repertoire: “American Kid” – a work of staggering genius that, not surprisingly, topped many best-of lists – and “Silver Bell,” her “lost” LP, shelved by her then-label, that was released 13 years after she recorded it.
Touring in support of both albums, Griffin stops at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, headlining the second night of The Ark fundraiser on Feb. 1 at Hill Auditorium. When she chatted from her hometown of Austin, Texas, she was still tinkering with the set list but said to expect a stripped-down performance. And because this is Patty Griffin we’re talking about, you can also expect to be blown away.
“American Kid” is obviously very connected to your late father, who was dying as you were writing it. What is the most difficult song for you to get through live?
I don’t think I have a great deal of difficulty getting through them. My emotional response varies from night to night, and there are times when that can make it hard to sing, but there hasn’t been one in particular that’s gotten me too emotional to sing. It’s all emotional. (Laughs)
It’s been really great to have songs in my own life that speak about him. I didn’t think about it at the time, about honoring him; I was just trying to get myself through him passing away. I didn’t think about how great it would be later to tell his story, at least from my point of view. I don’t know how thrilled he’d be about some of these things! (Laughs)
How is creating and performing music a catharsis for you?
To me, it’s just my nature. It’s how I’m built. I feel like I have to do it, you know? I think anybody who’s a musician who gets to be 50 and is still a musician, that’s really how they’re built. They really have to do it. So it’s very second nature to me. It’s really, really not hard for me to express myself that way.
I think of your debut, “Living With Ghosts,” as the older cousin to “American Kid”; they’re both so raw.
How was your approach to “American Kid” different or similar to “Living With Ghosts”?
Oh, I did think of just doing a straight acoustic record, but there are certain things on it that were crying out for arrangements and other instrumentation, so I wanted to make it a small-sounding record. I’m glad you said “raw,” because that’s what I was aiming for. I wanted it to not be polished at all. For me, I thought “Downtown Church,” although it was recorded live with a band in church, was a very polished sound. “Children Running Through” is probably the most polished sound of any record I’ve done. So I was just ready to get out of Nashville and out of that mindset of everything having that cleanness to it. (Recording in) Memphis really made sense to me – they don’t do clean!
Your songwriting has always come from a personal place. Of all your albums, do you feel particularly closest to one? Which has the most significance in your life?
No, but “Downtown Church” was a great learning experience – one of the reasons I carry those songs into this tour. There’s so much controversy, and spirituality has been abused and confiscated so much over the centuries, causing countless people to manipulate people and make them feel terrible. When you boil it down to these songs and express the spirit in a really honest way – especially listening to a lot of black gospel music or right-off-the-farm white gospel music – when it gets to be that close to the bone, it’s honest, it’s moving and it’s uplifting, and that’s what it should be.
It was an epiphany for me, and it helped open up my mind to a whole school of music that I had brushed off because I didn’t wanna just hear a patriarchal God. If you can remove your prejudices for a moment and get past some of them, it’s a whole world of incredible music. It’s a big treasure chest.
Hey, who says God can’t be a woman?
(Laughs) If you were raised in any kind of traditional Christian home, you never heard them refer to God as a “she.”
Speaking of religion making people feel terrible, let’s talk about the gay community. How aware are you of a gay fan base?
Very aware of it. I have many, many close friends in the gay community. Sometimes I think I know more gay people than I do straight people right now in my life. Looking back through my life, even to my childhood, I’ve always had gay friends – although, when I was little, I didn’t know they were gay! (Laughs)
One of the reasons the energy of the gay community works really well with me is that when you’re different and outside of what’s considered normal and acceptable, you have to either plunge into darkness and never get out or grow into something really strong. You have to develop just to survive, so there’s a depth, a strength, a resilience and also a real kindness within yourself. You have to be really good friends with yourself – and that’s what’s really attracted me to gay people in my life.
My gay friends are just unbelievably resilient and such solid people, and I can’t say that I find the same with straight friends. There’s a little more wonkiness going on. But I think, for me, I always feel – just because of what I’ve chosen to do for a living, and how everybody in my family scored really high on their SATs and they’ve all got careers – I’m the weirdo. (Laughs) It’s been really great for me to be able to hang out with people who just automatically had to develop that resilience, and maybe there’s something that reads from my music that gay people have to look for.
The song “Moses” from “Living With Ghosts” mentions your “best friend who is queer” being oblivious to your pain. Was it written about a real-life gay friend?
You know, yes … yes, it was. (Laughs) That was one of my best friends many years ago, yeah. I was feeling sorry for myself, and after I’m like, “I’m sorry, Paul!”
Actually, he saved my life, that guy. But yeah, I was just feeling sorry about my failed marriage when I wrote that song, but actually, I didn’t know how positive that would be when I wrote it.
How about “Tony,” which has become particularly relevant after the rash of suicides in the gay and lesbian community these last few years. When you wrote that song, did you think it would connect so much with that community?
I remember I was on the road in the late ’90s and I was at a gig in Montana, I think, and this kid came up to me with a friend of his and said that he had just used that song to come out to his family. He was in tears and he thanked me for that.
I didn’t really think about that when I wrote it. Again, I’m always exploring myself, you know? I wrote that song for myself about being a weirdo and suffering from being a weirdo and realizing that there was this really quiet kid in front of me (at school) who was obviously gay.
Later on, after we had graduated and I had moved on and out from where I grew up, I found out that he had killed himself. I didn’t really intend to write anything for people to use, but I guess it does work that way. The point is that everybody’s suffering with something. That’s the place I wrote it from.
That’s what you capture so well in your music: the human connection and the human spirit.
Well, trying for it. (Laughs)
Are there any plans to release any songs from the stockpile of unreleased material you have?
There are songs I’ve done that I’ve forgotten! I probably won’t. I have so many things I wanna do in my life and doing that is not one of them – sorry! (Laughs) At least not right now. My brain won’t work that way. Maybe at some point all my focus will go into that because that’s where I need to be, but right now I just wanna do other things. I don’t wanna worry about what’s out there sitting around. I figure if it’s gonna have a life, it’ll have a life.
Now that you’re romantically involved with Robert Plant, might we hear some happy love songs that aren’t just about your dog?
I don’t know about that! (Laughs)