American-Statesman - The Songwriter's songwriter-Patty Griffin talks new CD, new musical
By Joe Gross
Patty Griffin has a fantastic laugh.
This might come as a surprise to folks who know Griffin only through her music and its confessional, melancholy cast. Her songs are shot through with everyday disappointments and the realization that happiness is an occasion. There are upbeat moments, riffs on the eternal possibility of hope, but Griffin is known as one of modern country-folk's great realists for a reason. Or maybe you've just seen the ethereal cover art of albums such as "Impossible Dream" and figured her music was of a similar bent.
But no, she has a great laugh, loud and boisterous when discussing the pleasures of "Law and Order" addiction (compared with most, a fairly harmless vice to have on the road) and the aesthetic hazards of semi-ironic covers ("We used to do (Aerosmith's) 'Dream On,' and I love singing it").
Griffin has a lot to feel good about right now. This year's album, "Children Running Through," is the most eclectic of her career and has garnered some of the finest out-of-the-box reviews. ("Children" has an average score of 87 over at the music review aggregator Metacritic.com, making it one of the year's best-reviewed albums to date.)
"American Idol" Kelly Clarkson reminded TV viewers just how much singers like Griffin's music by performing the new "Up to the Mountain" with Jeff Beck on the "Idol Gives Back" episode of the mega-popular reality show; the single of that performance released afterwards hit No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its first week, Griffin's highest charting position as a songwriter thus far.
And up in New York, the Atlantic Theater Company is rehearsing "10 Million Miles," a musical road trip featuring Griffin's songs, directed by three-time Tony nominee Michael Mayer. The show's opening night is Thursday at the Atlantic's Chelsea theater. Preview performances have run since May 11.
Of course, to look at the petite Griffin, you wouldn't think her voice could pin you to the wall. It's not just her laugh that defies expectations. She's been doing that for years.
Drama with songs
"I'm in New York," Griffin says, her speaking voice sounding small over the phone. She sounds a little tired, but maybe that's just the "10 Million Miles" rehearsals talking. Griffin is involved, but she declines to pin down exactly what she's doing.
"It's not exactly a musical," she ventures. "There's no choreography and it's meant to play as a drama that involves my songs." Griffin says it hasn't been as much a collaboration as a joining of words and music. "Originally we wanted to try to do this together, but we both ended up very busy, he in New York and me in Austin, and it helps to be in the same place to do that sort of thing."
She characterizes her role in the production as minimal, more as the voice of the audience than anything else. "I think people in this particular group are so mindful of being respectful of my arrangements of these songs that sometimes I think they're a little reluctant to do what they need to do," Griffin says. "They like to have me around and ask me if something's OK. But what I know how to do is sit in an audience and be entertained. I guess I can tell them if something's not quite working."
So no chance of her making a guest appearance up there, maybe just wander on totally at random and just burst into song?
There's the laugh again.
Old Town remembered
Born in 1964 in the working-class town of Old Town, Maine, Griffin was the youngest of seven kids. Her father is Irish American, her mother French Canadian.
"I definitely draw from the place I was born in Maine for inspiration," Griffin says, "the time that I grew up there, people I knew. Sometimes I'm surprised at how that inspiration has kept going, for over 20 years, really."
Old Town is about two hours north of Portland, sitting on the Penobscot River. Lumber used to float down the river to be cut in Old Town and the place is still best known for Old Town Canoe, a manufacturer of canoes and kayaks. Just like everywhere else, manufacturing has died down through the years. These days the population is just more than 8,000; the nearest big city is Bangor, with a whopping 31,000 people. (Check out "Burgundy Shoes" on "Children Running Through" for a snapshot of Griffin's childhood, hanging out with her mom, waiting for the bus to Bangor.)
"When I was a kid, there were shoe factories, a paper factory, the famous canoe factory," Griffin says. "I think one mill is still barely hanging on and the canoe factory continues to be there, but it's definitely changing. The place I grew up is not really there anymore. It's not an easy place to make a living if you don't go to college. You can sell pencils at the dime store for minimum wage or you can leave, which I did when I was about 18 or 19. I don't really like the cold weather much."
You don't think you'll be one of those people who retires to Maine?
"Um, no," she says. "Absolutely not." Cue the laugh. "No, I really hate the cold."
To singer-songwriter geeks, of which there are more than a few in Austin, Griffin's biography is fairly well known, from her time spent in Boston as a painfully shy songwriter to her still-stunning debut album at the age of 32 in 1996 to her fanatical, almost cultish fanbase. But it still surprises people when they find out Griffin isn't from the South.
"There's hillbillies everywhere," Griffin says. "I grew up around them, around working class people who think about music a certain way. I think it translates everywhere. Texas music is country-people music, as is folk music."
Her kind of folk
But it's those country people who have made Griffin the mark of quality. Plenty of folks have heard her work only as interpreted by other artists. There's the Dixie Chicks' take on "Truth No. 2" or "Top of the World," or Miranda Lambert's version of "Getting Ready." And of course, there's Clarkson's minor-hit version of "Up to the Mountain." Given Griffin's modest record sales and "American Idol's" gigantic audience, it's entirely possible there were millions of folks hearing her work for the first time that night.
"Up to the Mountain" can be found on "Children Running Through," an album that sounds different from any other she's made. Produced by Mike McCarthy, known for his work with rock bands such as Spoon and Trail of Dead, "Children" strips away a lot of the gauze Griffin was known for on earlier albums. Under McCarthy, the songs snap and pop with crisp arrangements and crisper sound.
"With this record, I knew I wanted to work with someone I had never worked with before," Griffin says. "Mike and I travel in the same circles, and I know he's got that Nashville engineering background that would mean getting things right technically in the studio."
Singer-friendly arrangements were key. "This is singer's material, as opposed to songs that are challenging to sing," Griffin says, "I've done a lot of lo-fi projects and I wanted to make sure the vocals were really clear."
That said, Griffin says she's not as protective of the songs themselves as she used to be, especially in a live setting.
"I've really grown to respect showmanship," Griffin says. "In my younger years, I was really a stickler for authenticity, for presenting songs in a way that I thought was really true to the song."
The rigors of a tour schedule taught Griffin the value of, as they say, faking it 'til you make it. "I feel a lot less precious about the music and how it's presented," she says. "You might as well give the audience some clues."
Does this mean the woman who wrote such classics of bummer-folk as "Rain" and "Tony" is ready for backup dancers?
"No, not yet," she says. "Well, maybe."
There's the laugh.