Catching Up With... Patty Griffin

Music Features Patty Griffin
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In 2010, fiery-haired roots chanteuse Patty Griffin has found herself in the eye of a beautiful storm. In January, she released her seventh solo album, Downtown Church; by the end of the year, she will have appeared on two other collaborative releases (the debut of Robert Plant's new act, Band of Joy, and Buddy Miller project The Majestic Silver Strings) and may very well have another album of her own in the can. Meanwhile, she's touring with her band in support of Church, playing more shows on the Three Girls and their Buddy tour (with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Miller) and will hit the road with Plant and his Band of Joy later in the summer. If it hadn't been for an actual storm—a real gullywasher that opened up over the Old Settler's Music Festival near Austin, Texas in April—she might not have even had time to talk about all of her projects in the works. But thanks to the rain, Paste was able to sit down with the Maine native to talk about her current projects, her recent run-in with a tornado and her sudden desire to make her fans dance.

Paste: Do they have thunderstorms like this in Maine?
Patty Griffin: They have some impressive weather but it has more to do with the ocean.

Paste: Of all the cities you’ve traveled to, I’d think you have probably been through a few harrowing storms one time or another.
Griffin: I’ve seen a few things. Driving myself back from Nashville to Austin [recently], there were tornado warnings from Nashville all through Arkansas. Tornado warning, tornado warning, tornado warning. It looked really ominous the whole way. Just me and my pups in the car. I was feeling so relieved when I got past Dallas because by then you’ve been driving like eleven hours and you’re tired. So I see this beautiful sunset with this big black cloud over the sunset. I take out my iPhone and I start clicking. I almost pulled over because it was just breathtaking. The next day I went to see a friend—“Oh, man you gotta see this sunset.” She’s from Ennis, Texas. She goes “Oh, that’s not good. That’s a tornado.” I actually got a shot of a tornado without even realizing I was doing it. I don’t know how long it actually stayed on the ground but it definitely touched. I did feel exhilarated at that time. One of those moments—“I’m so glad to be alive!” I think the energy of the storm—I was picking up on that.

Paste: Tell us about this tour.
Griffin: We’re toward the end of the west coast run. We’ve got a little break now and we start up again in June on the east coast.

Paste: Are you also going to be part of a tour with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy?
Griffin: Yeah, Buddy [Miller, who produced the upcoming Band of Joy album] and I are doing three weeks in June of this tour and then we’re going to go home for ten days, and then start up rehearsals with Robert for July. ... I got asked by Buddy to come and sing. And Robert called me to come and sing. I was planning on doing a recording of my own. I have a studio that I rent with Doug Lancio. I had been planning on starting my next record anyway. I had all these songs sitting around and I needed to get started. And I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to sing with Robert. So I got myself to Nashville for a couple weeks—more like ten days—and I ran back and forth between studios. Just sang all day long and had a blast. He ended up using me on a little bit more than they were planning on. He’d already asked me about doing some back up singing. I’d heard, in the fall, about Telluride Bluegrass Festival with Robert Plant. I’m like, “Okay!” I didn’t know what I was doing. Now it’s turned into much more of an official thing.

Paste: It seems like that’s your career over the past few years—you’re in demand. Do you have a hard time saying no?
Griffin: There are things I’ve had to say no to. I didn’t have time. Come to think of it, I always feel like I’m never doing enough. I also really like what I do. And when you’re on the road there’s a lot of sitting around that you do and you feel like such a bum, so you don’t really feel like you’re working very hard at all. I’ve been really lucky.

Paste: Are you one of those who are able to work, or write, on the road, or is it hard for you?
Griffin: I’ve done a little bit. I’ve done a very tiny amount over the past few years. I keep trying to find the right travel guitars. I had one of those baby Taylors. Sorry, Taylor, they suck. When you have to work on something they’re great to have. When the flight attendant says you have to gate check that, you say, “Okay. Please break it.” But I found a little Parlor guitar. They just started making these ones called Art & Lutherie. We’ll see if that does the trick.

Paste: Downtown Church—it sounds like it was an intense recording experience.
Griffin: Short, and intense. We had to do a lot to get as much as we did in that church, to get the sound of the church.

Paste: When you were done recording how long was it before you got to hear the rough mix? And what were your impressions when you first heard it?
Griffin: It was quite awhile because right after this happened Buddy and I went back on the road almost immediately with [the Three Girls and their Buddy] tour. And about a week into that [in February 2009] he had a heart attack. He was my liaison to hearing any of that. I was prepared to not worry about it. We were just focused on him getting better. So I didn’t actually hear anything till maybe April or May [of last year]. It was very surprising to hear. It sounded pretty good.

Paste: More than pretty good. Amazing sounding recording.
Griffin: Yeah, we were just going for that. I’m not a gospel music expert. Never claimed to be. It wasn’t my idea to do this, but I thought, “It’s so challenging to do this in so many ways.” I know the people I like. I love The Staples Singers. Someone hooked me up to Mavis [Staples] because of that. And it all turned into this. But I had to study all these things that I knew nothing about, and step into a sound of music that I had never really spent that much time singing and representing. I just picked stuff that I liked. I didn’t dig up the archives or anything. We just had a fun little time doing the stuff that people know—a lot of it—and like to dance to. (Laughs) It’s been fun.

Paste: Do you like being challenged with something different, that’s maybe out of your normal comfort zone?
Griffin: I really enjoyed doing this one a lot. Vocally, it’s just so much fun. You try to learn how to make these songs sound like you—all the different genres that we used—and trying to find my own voice in them. The hymn was the hardest one of all. “All Creatures of Our God and King” was the absolutely hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I think I found my place in it. Also, I was under the misconception that putting a record together that you didn’t write would be a lot easier than putting one together that you did write? And that’s wrong! I already had respect for people like Emmylou because they know how to pick a song. But now I know there’s, like, a genius to it. Also, you really have to know how to sort that stuff out. I’d never done it. Buddy had a lot to do with what was on the record.

Paste: Does it make you work harder for someone like Buddy working with you? Or are you already hard on yourself anyway?
Griffin: I work pretty hard. I went in having quite a few things under my belt. I already had an idea how the shape of it—vocally, I wanted it to go down. I call him The Gentle Taskmaster. The song “Move Up”—he gave that to me at the very beginning of our rehearsals. On top of the 500 songs he’d already sent me he thought we were missing a few things so he sent me, like, five more and I listened to it quickly and I went, “I’m too tired.” The “Move Up” song, in particular, is this very complex beautiful Swan Silvertones recording. There’s so much going on vocally. It just sounded like such a spontaneous recording. They sounded like they were riffing and making up the words. A lot of the black gospel music, the words are different from song to song because they really are just making it up, and it’s great. So I thought, “There’s no way in hell that I can learn this song.” Every day Buddy would say, “Did you learn ‘Move Up’ yet?” And I’d say (laughs), “No, not yet.” I got up until the day before the last day and he said “Did you get ‘Move Up’ yet?” “No, not yet.” And he goes, “Well, I guess we should just all learn it together, then.” And that’s what we did. It was one of my favorite things that we did. He gave me the night to go home and scramble out the lyrics and figure out what they were saying, and the next morning we were at it. I’m really glad that we did it. He was right. The record needed that song.

Paste: How did you and Buddy first connect?
Griffin: Through Emmylou Harris. I met Emmylou in New Orleans. I started to work on my first record there, that never came out. She was finishing up hers with Daniel Lanois. We were in the same studio. She got a hold of my material, and was a fan of the record that never came out. She passed it on to Buddy who passed it on to Shawn Colvin. All these relationships sprouted through that. I met Buddy when I first toured through Nashville in 1996, I think. Emmy came and brought Buddy and Julie [Miller] to the show.

Paste: Now, this album of your own that you’re working on—when can we expect to hear that?
Griffin: I don’t know. It kind of depends on how things go with this tour. We may have some more dates we can do. And then the Robert Plant stuff. I wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to do that, so we’ll just have to see. We started. We have a couple things. ... We’re still kind of searching it out. I will say this, though: Playing this gospel music and having people dance at my shows is very inspiring. It makes me want to put a little more time into trying to come up with something that can do that. I love the ballads and I love the sad stuff, and I always will. But it’d be fun to give the people something to dance to.

Paste: In addition to singing back up for Robert Plant in Band of Joy, are you doing duets or solos or what?
Griffin: I don’t know what we’re doing, yet. It’s sort of his baby. I’ve never been in anyone else’s band before, so I’m not going to say boo. Because I don’t know what he’s going to do. It’s the first time I’ve been employed by anybody else since 1994 so I’m pretty excited about that.

Paste: It sounds like a superstar band.
Griffin: It’s going to be fun. They sound great. I got to work with Darryl [Scott] a little bit in the studio. We did some singing together. Robert is just so good. The first time I saw him was standing side stage at the ACL Festival during the Alison [Krauss] run. I was just blown away—the power, his ability to command that many people. And he’s just such a great singer, to boot. A lot of those guys can do it, like Mick Jagger. There’s a lot of people that know how to do, you know, the cock walk. Robert Plant, I guess he can do that, too. But he’s a singer. He’s like a mother of a singer. It’s just really amazing.

Paste: And I guess the Buddy influence is going to add something to it. I think people are going to think of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand. It was wonderful, but from what I’m hearing, we’re not going to see the same thing.
Griffin: I don’t how much I’m supposed to say about this record, because it’s not my record. But my impression of this record is that Buddy has helped Robert to sing his roots out. All of them. Put them all together. I guess he’s always been kind of doing that. He’s very folk music, roots music, blues-roots, folk-stuff oriented. Buddy’s kind of simplified it even more, I think, and made it even more direct and interesting. But it also rocks!

Paste: Which, I think, with Buddy and Robert, it would have to.
Griffin: Yeah, there’s some amazing guitar playing on the record.

Paste: I asked Buddy if it has some of the edge that was in his album Chalk and he says, “Oh, yeah!”
Griffin: Yeah, I think Robert wants to rock a bit. He’s not ready to retire. He’s really good at that.

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