Like a learned Greek philosopher, Patty Griffin has a lot of wisdom to communicate regarding her uplifting new album, Servant of Love, her 10th. There’s just one little problem. “I’m really bad at saying this stuff,” she confesses, reluctantly. “If I knew how to do that, I’d be out there doing that, instead of writing songs.”
How is the Grammy-winning artist feeling at 51? Rather than answer directly, she responds with an Aesop’s fable from her past. Two and a half decades ago, when she was married, working as a waitress in Boston and just beginning to explore the folksy songwriting that would eventually become her career, she took the subway into work every day. And every once in a while, she would wind up sitting next to some jabber-jawed schizophrenic, talking to himself, nonstop, for a ride that lasted 30 minutes. Just picture it, she invites: “There’s nowhere to go and the train’s packed. And there’s nothing that this guy can do about what he’s got going on, but there’s something in you that can’t accept that. And you find yourself getting mad at him.”
Which is a terrible mistake, counters the zenlike performer, who delves into such everyday moral dilemmas on Servant. “It’s insane,” she declares. “It’s insane to get mad at this person, because this is a person, yet another part of this gigantic organism and mystery that we’re in the middle of. So is there another way to feel? Sitting next to this person on this crowded train? I think it’s really important to challenge yourself on those things, if you can. And by the way,” she adds, conspiratorially. “I avoid subways like the plague because I’m claustrophobic.”
Griffin was also born extremely shy—something she had to overcome when she first stepped on a coffeehouse stage, post-divorce, back in 1992. “So I don’t always like walking down the street and making sure that I smile and say hello to everybody who’s walking their dog in the opposite direction,” says the Austin native. “But I do do it. And it’s a small, tiny thing to do. But to me, it means ‘I see you. You’re not invisible to me.’ And it makes a difference. It makes a difference to see your world, look who’s in it. And try not to turn away from what makes you uncomfortable.”
On Servant, released on her own imprint through 30 Tigers, Griffin comes across like a crowd-pleasing motivational speaker. Or perhaps some serpent-handling preacher, immune to fanged societal toxins. Either way, the record should have been a vitriolic spitefest—Griffin’s lengthy relationship with ex-Led Zeppelin firebrand Robert Plant recently ended, after the couple was dividing its time between respective homes in Britain and Texas. But she doesn’t dwell on it, and calmly rationalizes the breakup with “It’s just life, you know? It happens all around—a lot of that goes on.” And she reaffirms her faith in romance, and mankind itself, in the opening title track, an oddly forlorn, piano-based ballad punctuated by horns and her whispered lyrics: “I long to live by the ocean/ Carry me away, I’m a servant of love.”
There’s certainly a little venom in other numbers, like the skeletal blues of “Good and Gone,” the roadhouse-reverbed “Hurt a Little While” and the delicate keyboard perambulation “You Never Asked Me,” and its telltale admission “I don’t believe in love like that anyway/ I would have told you that if you’d have asked me/ The kind that comes along once and saves everything between a woman and a man.” But mostly, Servant finds the artist experimenting with the woodsy sound she patented on her ’96 debut Living With Ghosts, pushing it into the future on the gravelly “Gunpowder,” a chugging “Snake Charmer,” a minstrel-traditional “Rider of Days,” and the closing mandolin-plucked rumination “Shine a Different Way,” in which she promises a much larger universe that “I’m gonna let it hear the prayer/ No matter who is there/ No matter who is listening.” It’s the nutcake-on-the-train conundrum, rephrased—is it possible to always see the positive in even the most negative of situations?
Griffin reckons that relying on blind Horatio Alger optimism is the only way. “You have to face yourself and face what you’re made of, or turn away from it,” she says. “And people turn away from it in a lot of different ways, usually looking for safety. But the road is not easy or casual. Life requires things from you—if you’re really living it and are really alive—that are really difficult and painful, and you can’t avoid those things if you’re really participating.” So in truth, there is only one truly honorable choice, she adds. “Because the alternative to serving what we’re made of—which I believe is this energy, and I guess you can call it love—leads you away from feeling alive, and wisdom, and it leads to destructiveness. So I guess if there’s something I’m trying to say, it’s that.”
Make no mistake, though, the artist is as angry as she’s ever been. She stays up-to-date on world news by constantly listening to NPR and the BBC and enjoys the clear, precise reporting of Gwen Ifill on PBS’s nightly The NewsHour (“When my television is working,” she sighs). And she’s come to a few conclusions. The more she discovers about man’s remarkable achievements—both historical and hi-tech modern—the more fired up she becomes, she says, “about the other side of that—what human beings are doing to each other, and how they’re neglecting the planet, and fucking each other over, basically. Now that I’m older, that stuff is something that I can’t turn my eyes away from. Ever. Because I don’t want my nieces and nephews to ever look at my generation as the generation that completely fucked them.
“Because human beings can do better than they’re doing,” she continues. “So I am angry at the cynicism and I’m angry at the greed, and I’m tired of that kind of outlook on the world. I mean, I love distracting myself, just like anyone else. But I also feel a more urgent need in myself to make an effort, to be present, and to try to be something that is in favor of life. Of human life. And of human life being a balanced part of this planet. And that didn’t happen for me until I got old. Not really.”
Musically, however, Griffin—working with her longtime producer Craig Ross—fast-forwarded into the sonic future by boomeranging back into her past. Universal just issued Silver Bell, her long-lost third album from 13 years ago, which—due to contractual snafus—never saw official release. Going over the mixes again with producer Glyn Johns, she was struck by the inventiveness of her younger self, in scruffy tracks like “Driving,” “Little God,” and “Perfect White Girls”—songs penned before she drifted into a more Nashville-friendly smokiness. “I’m from the Northeast, so I have really different influences,” she says. “But listening back to that, I realized what else I used to love, you know? So I kind of dug into myself in a different way, and I made myself play piano and get better at it, so I could discover things that I couldn’t reach before [on Servant]. And I was really drawn to some open tunings that created this drone, and it made things more fluid and less three-chord-oriented. I didn’t set out to make anything like Silver Bell. But I was inspired by myself as a young woman, because there was some bravery—or maybe stupidity, I don’t know—in some of those songs.”
Having made all of her pertinent points, Griffin would like to summarize. But she can’t find the right words. So she relies on those of one of her favorite authors, the late James Baldwin, whose writing first inspired her to become a songwriter. “There’s just this integrity to what he did that, when you read him, you want to have that, too,” she says. “But one of the things he said towards the end of his life was ‘We can always do better. And you can never tell the children that there’s no hope.’ So I think that we can’t stop trying to do better. Even a little bit better.
“I mean, if you do 10 push-ups a day, you’re going to feel better, if you have arms and shoulders that work really well. Even if you do only five push-ups a day, you’ll feel better than if you don’t. So I really firmly believe that a little is better than nothing at all.”