The Sublime Comedy of Patty Griffin

Music Features Patty Griffin
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It’s been said that true comedy begins with a funeral and end with a wedding. Given that, most of Patty Griffin’s recording career has been a series of comedies. Hating her Nile Rodgers-produced debut, Griffin’s label effectively buried it with a refusal to release it. Then came a wedding of sorts, the critically lauded Living With Ghosts, followed by the feisty, career-defining Flaming Red, full of punk and pathos. A sort-of honeymoon for Griffin, Red created palpable anticipation for her follow-up. Unfortunately, Silver Bell also ended up interred in a musical mausoleum, this time by Interscope, the company that acquired Griffin in a corporate reshuffle. It’s not as uncommon as you might think: Sheryl Crow, Ryan Adams, Liz Phair and Abra Moore are just a few of the artists that, for a variety of reasons, have had projects shelved.

But the idea of a Patty Griffin record languishing in corporate limbo is particularly frustrating, given her singular vocal and writing talents. Her voice, delicate and sylph-like, then suddenly a gospel holler filling the corners of one’s soul, demands great material—it seems an offense against nature to trouble those pipes with pedestrian tunesmithy. Fortunately Griffin has one of the most adroit pens in American songcraft. She’s the kind of performer on whom critics pour superlatives, like leis at a Hawaiian airport; the sort of talent that gives other artists moments of awe and self-doubt.

So when Dave Matthews’ fledgling ATO label came calling, Griffin’s followers felt relieved. By all accounts ATO is hands-off, a musician’s label, and it’s hard to argue with the results. 1000 Kisses, her first ATO record, was a stunning acoustic affair along the lines of Living With Ghosts. The CD introduced now-classic Griffin-penned songs such as “Rain” and “Long Ride Home” and reaffirmed her remarkable ability to wrap themes of loss and heartache with the characteristic warmth that makes her writing both personal and universal.

The Galadriel of Americana herself, Emmylou Harris, remarks, “Patty Griffin says the thing we’re all saying about love and death and longing, but she says it in a completely new way. She opens up whole new wounds—in the best possible way. It’s that hurt where you have to go to that place you want to be hurt.”

And Harris is absolutely right. On Impossible Dream, Griffin’s latest release, the tracks that twinge most also have the greatest pull—the wistful ache of “The Rowing Song”; the desolate “Mother of God”; the abandoned hymn of “Kite.” Asked about Harris’ kind words, Griffin immediately picks up the thread but typically directs attention away from herself.

“I think I understand what she’s talking about. For me there are certain artists that can go to a place for you. Lucinda Williams is one and, actually, Trent Reznor is another. Pretty Hate Machine was one of those records that brought some things forward. I was so grateful to him for doing that because I felt like I needed to express that. He gives you access to certain darker places.”

Not to disparage either of the artists mentioned—the potency of Lucinda Williams’ records being indisputable, and Reznor’s evocative power recently reconfirmed in Johnny Cash’s devastating cover of “Hurt”—but Griffin’s writing possesses a quality that makes her special. Dar Williams, herself a considerable talent, agrees:

“Some people have a gift that is really otherworldly. Something touches you when you hear their music that isn’t just the lyrics and melody. Patty chooses words really beautifully, and her melodies are really interesting; at the same time, I think she has a gift that’s found her. There’s an extra layer that’s ethereal.”

Bouldin Creek Cafe, where Griffin and I convene around coffee and tape recorder, is casually bohemian in a way only an Austin coffeehouse could be, rambling and full of boho bric-a-brac. Griffin’s teased hair is indeed flaming red, and on this cold, drizzly day, she’s wearing a multicolored scarf and thin-rimmed glasses, sipping java and looking rather bookish. She has a reputation for being shy and soft-spoken; sure enough, when introductions are made, she is slightly hesitant and a little close, like a dental patient trying to assess just how uncomfortable this procedure is going to be.

But as we settle into the conversation, she makes herself heard over the din of brisk coffee sales, quickly revealing what should be obvious from her songs—she’s thoughtful, engaging, and an acute observer of the human condition. I asked her what she thought Harris meant when she said we want to be hurt.

“I think there’s so much about the way we live that’s meant to anesthetize us from feeling scary things. Eventually you’re completely anesthetized, so it’s a relief to feel anything. When you’ve been shut down, the initial shock is a painful one, like a muscle you haven’t used for a while.”

Impossible Dream may stretch those unused muscles more than anything Griffin has released so far. With her current situation at ATO, she seems to be at a better place, industry-wise, than she’s been since Flaming Red. But that hasn’t attenuated the doleful spirit always hovering behind her writing. “Some of the saddest stuff I’ve ever put together is on this record, I know that. I didn’t intend for it to be harsh. Sometimes I worry that it’s too difficult and sad. But it’s a relief for me to sing it.” For all the gratification performing affords her, Patty occasionally wonders how much better off she is now than when she was serving pizzas in the early ’90s, while getting started on the Boston folk circuit.

“There’s so much that is expected of you by the industry that makes me really tired and drained. I get up onstage, and I feel like I have to go through the motions just to get myself going. A lot of times I feel like I’ve never stopped waiting on tables, I’ve never stopped walking up to the customer, puttin’ on a perky face for them so I can get a tip. And I’m not really sure that’s ever going to change completely. I think to expect it to get perfect is probably a bad idea.”

If Griffin ever subscribed to the Romantic mythos of the suffering artist finding salvation in her work, it’s not something she buys into anymore. “Singing and writing together was the first time I had the experience of discovering something in myself I didn’t know I had. I thought, wow, there’s so much power here. I thought it was that simple—you just keep pulling more of this power out and then you’ll know everything. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s like the magician—stuff keeps coming out of the hat.”

Griffin has returned to this theme—finding dignity in apparent futility—periodically throughout her career. And until now, her songs generally opened up a window or carved out an escape route. “Chief,” from 1000 Kisses compares the singer’s life to that of a battle-scarred veteran whose entire existence is one long, pointless march. But the song’s bridge digresses into a dreamy soliloquy, Griffin reaching out for her better angels, attempting to make them incarnate: “I wish you could see me / When I’m flying in my dreams / The way I look when I fly / The way I laugh / The way I fly.”

By contrast, Impossible Dream mostly leaves its characters to their own devices, to forge their own dignity or find relief in giving up the quest. This surrender can be heard in her voice; she doesn’t attack notes with the old aggressiveness. The album feels tired, but also wise and somehow stately—a chronicle of Patty Griffin during one of the most questioning periods of her life.

“More than anything I’ve done, Impossible Dream feels like me, right here, waving my arms—‘Hello, I’m here, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing or what I’m talkin’ about—can you listen?’ [laughs] The older I get, the more confused I get, the more I know that I don’t know anything, and it’s interesting to try to put that in your work. Living With Ghosts required a certain amount of cockiness, honestly, to scream some of those songs at people. It’s not that I’ve lost my confidence, I just don’t really know that I have the right thing to say to be in people’s face.”

But Impossible Dream hardly lacks intensity or emotional weight; the songs unfold slowly, with the detail and complexity of a good short story. Two of the later tracks, “Florida” and “Mother of God,” form a sort of couplet, each song taking the perspective of characters with an implicit (though not immediately apparent) connection. “I think ‘Florida’ is the daughter. ‘Florida’ is about giving up all hope. There’s some freedom in that, to let go of hoping for anything. And on ‘Mother of God,’ well, a lot of emphasis is put on women finding fulfillment in relationships. They go through their whole life never having developed a private world because their fulfillment was to be in caring about somebody, and somebody reciprocating. You wait for it to come back, and you might keep waiting. In ‘Florida’ I think she finally figures out she’s gotta make that happen herself. She says, I’m going to get some sleep now; I’m not going to wait anymore.”

After all this talk of resignation and unfulfillment, the question arises whether the introspective Patty of Impossible Dream still feels like blistering paint off walls to Flaming Red. “Yeah, yeah, I mean I love doing that, it feels really good to do that. But I think when I wrote those things, I felt like I needed to tell you this, and now I feel like, oh, it’s really fun. I guess I’m just getting old [laughs].

“I would love to do another rock record, yeah. Somebody who was talking to me about signing for 1000 Kisses wanted the assurance that I would never try to rock out again. I said, ‘What is this, an age-appropriate thing? Is this a female age-appropriate thing?’ It felt really awful to hear him say that. I didn’t end up signing with him, I wanted to leave that open. I always fantasize about getting an all-girl rock band together in town just for the fun of it. But I haven’t had time to pull that together.”

Griffin has always been a musical omnivore, finding inspiration in everything from blues to industrial and punk. “I love The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Clash. Those were in my brother’s record collection. I actually did pay attention to that stuff when it first came out. I went through a big Replacements thing, after they broke up. I was into a whole other world of music in the ’80s—blues and R&B. Then I dated somebody who was a total punk-rock guy, and I got really into that. I still listen to my Johnny Thunder records, when I’m cleaning my house—it’s kind of my ritual to listen to this live record of his.”

A more recent influence, gospel, shows up on two tracks of Impossible Dream—the opener, “Love Throws a Line,” and the fourth track, “Standing.” The grit, soul and hope of gospel resonates with her on many levels; it’s something Griffin feels her music needs more of.

“I discovered The Staples Singers a few years ago, especially the ’50s Staples records. I’d put them on in my house, and no matter how down or confused I was about something, the music made me happy. And when you listen to the lyrical content of that stuff, it’s pretty heartbreaking, but it still makes you happy. There’s something joyful and beautiful about it. I feel like I need to get more groove into my work, groove for the sake of presenting things that have more light in them. And gospel is the perfect formation of that.”

Beyond just being a source of inspiration, Griffin has tremendous admiration and gratitude toward black culture. “I’ve pulled a lot of soul out of African-American music. At the same time I’m subject to the stereotypes that are fed to us day after day about African-Americans, on TV and in the news. I feel like the light is so bright from that place. African-American music is worldwide, it has made it all the way around the globe a hundred times over, because there’s something about that culture that is so powerful.

“There’s so many ways we do that same thing, we turn away from the light of things, the light of others. And I like my comfort zones just like anyone else. But they get pretty suffocating and unlivable. ‘Standing’ is—I think you always have to be standing, really looking at the mysteries. You gotta face your life. If you put off something that’s dark, it’s gonna keep giving you trouble and causing suffering. The line ‘I turned away from your suffering far too many times’ was admittance, like, ‘OK, I know I’m doing that.’”

This empathy is another characteristic theme that emerges when encountering Patty Griffin and her music. Her writing evinces longing, loss and occasionally even despair, but it’s always tempered with a sensitivity to injustice and suffering. This is nowhere more true than on Impossible Dream’s second track “As Cold as It Gets,” which seems to tap the indignation and righteous anger of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” She says she was inspired to write the song after watching a documentary about the Holocaust.

“I almost called that song ‘Nazi Hunter.’ It was a revelation to me that the first thing a lot of Jews that were in the concentration camps did when they ran into the Americans —they asked for guns. They didn’t ask for food, they were lacking shoes, and the first thing they wanted to do was kill the people that were harming them. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. I thought that you get out of that and you’re relieved and you move on and everything is uphill from there. I think that kind of agony creates more agony.”

But much of the dark, wandering melancholy in her work is undeniably personal. Her oeuvre includes numerous songs about release, whether letting go of a loved one—“Long Ride Home,” “You Are Not Alone”—or forgiving and moving on in the face of hurt—“Let Him Fly,” “Nobody’s Crying.” Asked if these benedictions had something in common, Griffin offers an unexpected and candid response.

“I think there definitely is a person in my life that comes up over and over again. I pull him into the picture and my experience with him. I’m still working that one out. I’ll probably work that one out my whole life.”

Whether from high-mindedness or simple loss of nerve, I resist the urge to follow-up with the obvious: Does she mean her ex-husband, from whom she was divorced in 1994? In any case, the answer would be as irrelevant to an appreciation of her songs as Dylan’s divorce ultimately was to the visceral power of Blood On the Tracks. Like any good poet, Griffin begins with her own experience but refuses to stop at the self-indulgence of simple confessionalism. One heartache opens up to the whole human comedy—the personal mixed up in the universal.

Later Griffin invokes another Dylan record, Time Out of Mind, released three years after her marriage ended. “You know what I love? There’s a line from a Dylan song, ‘Cold Irons Bound’: ‘after all this time you’re still the one,’” she begins to sing, adopting a nasally Dylan accent, “‘Ohh, honey after all this time you’re still the one.’ [laughs] When I heard that line I went, oh my God, I’m gonna be 60, and it’s gonna be the same thing. You have to give up this expectation that you’re going to completely clear the hump—it doesn’t ever get cleared. Bob Dylan is a great example of someone who has sacrificed so much to be able to write these songs. He’s had a weird f---in’ life you know? [laughs] And man, what a concept, to work that hard and feel like you got maybe an inch.”

We begin wrapping up, switch the recorder off, and I ask if there’s anything she wanted to talk about that we missed. Absolutely, she wants to make sure we mention Craig Ross, the producer of Impossible Dream, who also produced half of Silver Bell. I switch the recorder back on, andshe leans into the mic as if to make sure the whole world can hear her.

“I just wanted to sing the praises of Craig Ross. The stuff that he produced for Silver Bell is so infectious and beautifully done, it always broke my heart that people never got to hear that. He had a record out on MCA records, bless his heart, which was the worst place for a white man to be, especially in the ’90s. It was called Dead Spy Report. It’s no longer in print, but it’s brilliant.

“He’s got an incredible work ethic that sets the bar. He works really, really hard. So you stay in there and try to listen and try to pay attention, because I have a short attention span. [laughs] He’s introduced me to the weirdest, craziest, music and showed me how beautiful it is. He’s opened my mind up to many different sorts of music, without any elitism or cool-ism. He’s pretty amazing.”

How appropriate that Patty finishes by talking up someone else’s virtues. It’s the same outward-looking stance she takes in her songs, inviting listeners to do the same. But Dar Williams explains it better:

“That’s something that I respect about Patty, where looking into human pain is not an occasion to try to change it; it’s an occasion to become a more sensitive person. Patty’s not rallying for change, she’s witnessing—witnessing to a depth of sadness in the human condition that we can all empathize with. She allows for a more deeply human way of seeing things.”

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