by Craig Shelburne
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As a songwriter, Patty Griffin has that rare gift of not saying too much. Clearly she writes from experience, yet her songs about strength, sadness and forgiveness are so compelling that it’s impossible not to relate to her lyrics on some level. And that powerful voice can make time stand still.
A longtime favorite among Nashville music fans, Griffin released a new CD, “Children Running Through,” in February, after taking time off the road to focus on songwriting. In addition, a musical based on her songs will be staged in New York in May. Numerous country artists have covered her material too, including the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and the Wreckers.
From her home in Austin, she talks about her gay following, Living with Ghosts and her love for Annie Lennox.
So many people who admire you say, “I can’t believe she’s not famous!” Is that something you want, or that you’ve thought about?
I think when I was 16 years old, I thought, “Wouldn’t that be cool? You could hang out with the Rolling Stones.” I don’t have those same aspirations now. I like my life. I think you end up where you need to be. … I don’t need to be Madonna! (laughs) I think I’m where I need to be and I think that can always change at any time. You don’t know what’s going to happen so I’m just trying to roll with it.
Do you remember when you first noticed you had support from the gay community?
I think it’s probably getting the reaction to the song, “Tony.” Actually, my earliest memory of that is playing a gig in San Francisco and singing “Moses” on my first tour, and a bunch of guys yelling out and making a big deal out of that. I thought, “Ah!” I had never thought about that, connecting into that. I think that’s a really lucky thing because there are some special people that are gay and it’s a pretty lucky thing to get the attention from that community.
A musical based on your songs will open in May in New York. Many of your songs have a narrative element to them, so how do you think your music will translate to the stage?
I have seen a run-through—an early, early run-through—and I was blown away. I thought (the writer) Keith Bunin did a great job. It’s kind of strange to think about that, but he makes it work. I’m all for people playing music and singing songs and people being entertained and moved. I think that a musical can do that just as well as anything, and it will be interesting to see how that goes, and to see it all put together, finally.
Did you draw on a specific memory when you wrote “Burgundy Shoes”?
Yeah, I do remember taking the bus with my mom. I grew up in Old Town, Maine, and you could take the bus to the big city of Bangor, which is probably 15 minutes down the road, maybe a little bit longer in the bus. It was a big adventure when you’re three or four years old. It’s a huge adventure. My mom had her lipstick on, and I was like, “Wow! She is so beautiful.” It’s one of those really simple things that you remember that means a lot later. You don’t know it’s going to when it’s happening.
I have adopted a lyric from “Making Pies” as my personal motto: “You can cry or die or just make pies all day; I’m making pies.” You often put optimism at the end of a song. Do you think of that as a happy ending to a story?
You know what’s funny? When I wrote that, in my mind I wasn’t really answering that line. I was just going back to the chorus! And it does answer it. That was just one of those accidents at the time, which probably wasn’t really an accident. You’re just not aware of what you’re doing. It does answer that line with optimism—probably an optimism I was not aware that I possessed at the time.
You often sing “Mary” as your encore. I know it was inspired by your grandmother. What is about her memory that really keeps that song relevant to what you do?
When I first wrote that song, I was inspired by my Irish grandmother whom I never got to meet. I just have a photograph of her, but she is so beautiful in it and her spirit is kind of legendary. My dad tells stories about how she was really not afraid of very many things. (laughs) She loved a good laugh, and she was a funny lady. I think just from that photograph, I got a lot from looking at her smile. There’s a power and naturalness to her smile that really filled me up. But you know, my other grandmother, who just passed away this fall, was born speaking French. Everybody was named Marie back then and in a French Catholic family, you were Marie-Somebody and she was Marie-Imelda. She’s kind of Mary to me too now. She was the singer in my family. She and my mother were the singers that I learned from.
Do you find that people are curious about your first album, Living With Ghosts, and still want to hear songs from it?
People definitely like that record a lot. Yeah, they do. And some of the songs, I have to say, I can’t do anymore. I am so far removed from that, at least right now, I can’t even revisit that and have it feel like anything that’s me. I mean, maybe someday. I do think things show up again and you’re OK with them. A lot of things on that record—at least one or two things—I’m not really interested in anymore. People are crying out for them in the shows and I can’t do it. (laughs) They have to wait. It might show up at some point.
Was it an artistic statement or an economical decision to produce it with, essentially, just you and a guitar?
I was working as a telephone operator and saving up my money. When I had a few hundred bucks, I would book some studio time with this guy Steve Barry, an engineer who I thought was really good. I was really just concentrating on getting some gigs in Boston. They fell into a manager’s hands and then record company hands. That’s how it worked.
I have always loved your lyric from “Forgiveness:" “It’s hard to live, baby, but still I think it’s your best bet.”
Yeah, there’s also this line that Annie Lennox did on the Diva record, when she says, “Dying is easy. It’s living that scares me to death.” I thought that was really good. It’s hard! I think people give up in a lot of ways, too. I think people shut down what they feel. That’s another way to give up. But then you miss out on the good stuff too. It’s a hard world to figure out and people have been trying to do it forever, literally.
Are there certain kinds of music that you reach for when you need a pick-me-up?
Diva was my record for years. I thought that was really beautiful. Right now, for a couple of years running, I’ve really been interested in Sam Cooke, because that voice is just packed with a lot of mystery. It’s really sexy and it’s got a lot of spirit. There’s something sad about it too. I just really love him right now. I also have been listening to a lot of the old soul stuff, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duets. If you want to get off your ass, listen to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sing together! That’s some un-cynical stuff right there. That’s so unafraid. That song, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” it’s so passionate and believable.
Can you write sad songs when you’re not sad?
I don’t try to write a sad song. To me, singing is my church. I really get in touch with something there. You sit down with a guitar, and you can maybe feel better at the end of the night. Sometimes when you’re doing that, you get a song out of that too.
Are you ever concerned that your songs are going to be considered too sad or too sappy or tragic?
I think everybody’s view on everything is subjective. You can’t walk around worrying about what people are going to think. Not everybody’s going to like you, or like what you do. That’s really interesting that you brought this up. I thought of this thing that’s going on in my life right now, and it’s such a relief that so many things I thought about that way, I don’t really care about anymore. I’m just trying to do what I do and really the only consciousness of writing this record went was trying to not be clever and not worry about what people thought about it. I was just letting myself write from the heart and think from the heart.
Craig Shelburne is a writer and producer for www.CMT.com.