Patty Griffin: Sun Shining Through (INTERVIEW)

    For Patty Griffin, praise hasn’t been the problem.  The man who discovered her, John Curtis, after hearing her sing for the first time, remembered having “no doubt, no doubt at all.” Dave Matthews, who proudly supports Griffin on ATO Records, the label he founded, “can’t think of a more beautiful singer and a better songwriter alive today.”  Steve Earle suspects that Patty’s songs “make most people a little uncomfortable–like they’ve just walked in on a private moment in someone else’s life and they know they should turn around and tiptoe away, but they can’t. They make me jealous.”

Pop stars adore her. Kelly Clarkson (you bet) calls Griffin, who will turn 43 in March, her “favorite person on the planet” and that “people don’t get to hear a lot of her on the radio and it’s such a sad thing.”  Patty Griffin is on “every single one” of Jessica Simpson’s iTunes playlists (sure, it matters).

But what do we really know about Patty Griffin? Sure, this might not actually be a problem, but for someone so seemingly loved by so many, why do we know so little? We know she can sing, probably better than your favorite singer.  We know she can write, and can she ever; songs fill her albums about rain pouring down, worlds where nobody’s crying, mad missions, better ways to say goodbye, making pies, long rides home, icicles falling in the dark, impossible dreams…ordinary disappointments that somehow leave beautiful scars.  She once sang, “Be careful how you bend me/be careful where you send me/careful how you end me/be careful with me.” Maybe that’s all we need to know–Patty Griffin–perhaps the woman who best personifies the beauty of being an ordinary, fragile person who is loved my thousands behind closed doors.

It’s this person who talked to me on the phone for 30 minutes in her Austin home while doing her laundry.  During our interview, the mailman came.  Her dog barked. She cumulatively giggled for probably three of those minutes. She sounded happy and ready to release her fifth studio album, Children Running Through.

“This one was fun,” Griffin said about her newest recording. “ATO records—they’re pretty easy going about the music.  They don’t really jump in there and boss me around very much at all.  So it makes it a little easier. I think that if the record came out the way I wanted it to, I would sound like Aretha Franklin–and that’s not going to happen! But given what I’m able to do and my limitations, I think that it’s a good piece of work and I’m proud of it.”

Five minutes into our conversation and Griffin is already bringing up her limitations as an artist.  Perhaps too humble and too talented at the same time, Griffin somehow still longs and wishes, just like everyone else.  Confused, I ask her to explain herself.

“I think I’m a short, not a super-tall, not a very big red-headed woman who would love to have a little more muscle to sing with,” Griffin says with one of her fluid giggles.  “Singing is athletic.  People who don’t sing probably aren’t aware of that, but it’s very athletic and your size and musculature has a lot to do with how you’re going to sound. I guess I wish I was a little taller, bigger, you know, where singing louder was something a little easier to do. I feel a little limited by it sometimes, my size, and what I have to work with.”

And yet, despite what restricts and bothers her, Griffin decided to write a gospel song, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song),” for Children Running Through, which is one of the album’s many highlights.

“Starting with the time I was born, I listened to soul music.  I was born in 1964 and Motown’s hey day was the earliest experience of my ears with the radio, so that world of singing all comes out of gospel.  So I spent a little bit of time listening to that, really being moved and inspired by that. It’s not a lot of time listening to it, and it’s not my culture, but I think in a way it is now, because I just sort of love it.  And that song just showed up and I felt a little odd, it’s not the usual song for me to write, but I decided to finish it and sing it.”

An emotional tune about Martin Luther King Jr’s struggles right before his death in Memphis, Griffin decided to lend it to soul artist Solomon Burke for his Nashville record, which would be released before Children Running Through.

“I almost didn’t do my version…I thought he did a really good job with his,” Griffin remembers. “I was there when he sang it.  Buddy Miller let me come to the studio on the day he recorded it and that was when I put down my little back-up vocal part there. Yeah, I thought it was beautiful.  He sang it ten times I think, and I could tell when he got his take—little chills came on my arms, stuff like that.

Solomon’s a preacher and Martin Luther King Jr. is a preacher, they’re not too far off in age—he actually knew Martin Luther King Jr., he met him a few times.  Solomon was there when all of this was going on and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if he actually wanted to sing this song.’ And I lucked out, he wanted to do it.”

But as much as her lucky fortunes would over joy her—to have it sung by Burke– “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” is also a personal song for Griffin, a statement for her voice and confidence as an artist.  Admitting that she wasn’t “obsessed with Martin Luther King” when she wrote it, trouble was instead surrounding her view of the world.

“I think that especially in our times and especially in the last few years, I feel like so many of the people that have been hired to be leaders are not displaying what I understand to be the kind of human behavior that sustains life,” Griffin explains.  “And Martin Luther King Jr’s whole gig was, to me…he wasn’t just about the movement, he was about compassion and how to really, really bring people together.  And when I wrote that song especially there was so much going on that was about dividing people, even in this country, which is frightening.

So I kind of really latched on to that last speech I heard—I saw a documentary on him and that last speech the day before he died in Memphis, the ‘Up to the Mountian’ speech. The courage that it took to go to Memphis again, knowing that was probably it, he knew his life was in danger.  And he sort of got up there and made that speech and found his courage right there, and it’s something to behold and something to look at and be inspired by.”

Latching on to ordinary life, like Griffin did with King Jr’s speech, is where the body of Children Running Through finds its strength.  “Burgundy Shoes,” a climbing piano ballad, stands itself up on the simple chant of “Sun! Sun! Sun!” which Griffin emphatically pulls off with grace, recalling her childhood in Old Town, Maine, where there were ” long, dark winters and pretty beautiful magical summer days.”

“That was based on a childhood memory, literally waiting for the bus with my mom on a spring day,” Griffin recalls.  “And she….you know, when you’re little, four years old, you don’t have any of these adult anxieties, any of the ‘Am I wearing the right shoes?’ or ‘Does this person like me?” or ‘Will I have a job? ,’ you don’t have any of that stuff and your perceptions are right there and clear, right in the moment, and sunlight on your face is a big experience when you’re four years old, especially after a long, dark winter, it’s like a brand new thing. I was just trying to write it from someone who was three or four years old.”

For now, Griffin doesn’t have to worry finding sunlight in the Austin, Texas heat.

 “I like the weather a lot better here. I sure do miss being closer to my family, they’re all Northeast people.  I love Texas, I gotta say that I wish that my family all lived in Texas and my life would be perfect.  It’s a great, fascinating country. I know it’s a state, but it’s really a country.”

Without her family by her side, one of her best friends, Emmylou Harris, might as well be considered as such.  Harris, who sings harmony on “Trapeze” on Children Running Through, is never far from Griffin’s thoughts when she’s writing for her next record.

“It’s just really by the fact that I have gotten to know Emmy and she’s usually agreeable,” Griffin says with a laugh. “I mean, I’ll come up with something for her to sing with on my record, I just love having her voice and getting to hear it.

I met Emmy when I first signed with A&M records, I made a record in New Orleans that never came out and she was making Wrecking Ball in the same studio.  I met her there and then on my first gig through Nashville touring for my first record, she invited me to tea at her house. And I got  to meet her mom and she’s got a lot of dogs and cats and she showed me a guitar tuning and the rest is history. She’s been the most wonderful supportive friend.  To me she’s a mentor because I always think to myself, ‘Well, what would Emmy do? Would she put up with this crap? Or how would she put up with this crap and still maintain her dignity?’ I really have learned a lot from her and she’s a great artist and I’m really, really honored to know her.”

Like Harris, Griffin mostly finds herself on the road these days, supporting album after album.  She does admit that the constant touring lifestyle is starting to wear thin at times.

“I love getting there and being in the place when I’m there. It’s all the crap in between, the ‘Wow, I really gotta go to the bathroom and this is it, the truck stop!’ At three in the morning and it’s pretty disgusting. Stuff like that that I prefer I didn’t ever have to do, but it really isn’t that bad.  It’s definitely, in my mind, and Emmylou probably would not support this because she’s on the road all the time, I think it’s a younger person’s game.  I think to myself, ‘Man if I’d had been 22, this would be a blast!’  But there is this other side of me that likes to hole up and write and they don’t necessarily go together, these two worlds, but I feel lucky to get out and be able to do that and see places and meet people, it’s a pretty good deal.”

Aside from touring and releasing her new album, Griffin is also excited about a new musical beginning in May that features her music and lyrics.

“It’s pretty cool.  I was approached to do this with the intention for me to write everything from scratch with the playwright, but I would never have the time to do that, so it turned into something that he (Keith Bunin) has written,” Griffin says. “And at the time I had no interest in Broadway music, this was about 5 years ago when he started talking to me about this. I decided to go for it, because why wouldn’t you? It’s something interesting and new.  It doesn’t have to be anything that’s been done before.

I never had time to do anything substantial with Keith, so he began to work up a story around things that already existed, which I was very scared about, and then I saw a preliminary performance of it, which I thought was beautiful, I thought he had done a great job.  And I’ve written a few things for it since then and tweaking things along the way.  So I’m excited about it. And since then, too, I’ve seen these Broadway performers sing my songs, and I have a whole new respect for what they do.  It’s gotten me interested in some old musical music, I’ve downloaded some musicals on my iPod, like Annie Get Your Gun, some of it’s just bad and cheesy, but some of it’s brilliant.  I’ve had my eyes opened.”

Jason Gonulsen is a writer and Illinois Fighting Illini fan who lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]

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