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Patty Griffin
Nine Songs
Patty Griffin

For Patty Griffin, music has always been a way to access emotions that she was never encouraged to share. She tells Alan Pedder about the songs that have served as her guide.

10 June 2022, 09:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

Patty Griffin was too busy being a wife and waiting tables in her twenties to follow her teenage dreams of being a recording artist.

It was only after her husband filed for divorce in 1992 that she laid down her first demos. Recorded in a kitchen in Nashville and in a room close to the emergency department of Boston City Hospital, complete with ambulance sirens in the background, Patty Griffin's first demo tape was scrappy and unpolished but enough to catch the ear of Jim Phelan, a talent scout for A&M Records.

Encouraged to make a second tape of demos – re-recording many of the same songs – Griffin sang and played them exactly as she would on the Boston coffeehouse circuit. Just her voice and acoustic guitar; direct, honest and emotionally piercing. For A&M, the second tape was convincing enough to not only sign her, but to put the demos out, essentially unaltered, as her debut album, 1996’s Living With Ghosts.

A little more than 25 years later, and with ten studio albums, two Grammys and the boundless respect of her peers behind her, Griffin has fully stepped into the pantheon of great American songwriters. Her songs are often covered by other artists, ranging from fellow legends Emmylou Harris, Bette Midler and Joan Baez to actors Jessie Buckley and Mandy Patinkin and pre-Bush backlash The Chicks. And in a slightly incongruous twist, Griffin’s Martin Luther King tribute “Up To Mountain” has become a TV talent show staple, performed by Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson, to name but two.

For her new album, TAPE, Griffin was inspired – or uninspired, rather – by a ‘deep cuts’ playlist that she found on Apple Music while streaming her back catalogue to prepare for a three-day online benefit concert. “I was incredibly disappointed with the content of it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Austin, Texas. “I thought it was pretty boring. It didn’t make me seem very interesting at all.”

Digging into her digital archives, Griffin came up with her own collection of rarities: ten lo-fi home recordings and studio outtakes, including a previously unheard duet with her one-time partner Robert Plant. She says she expected just to “find a lot of shite” but ended up being surprised at how well some of the songs stood up. “I thought, why not just put them out as they are?” she says. “I’m never going to re-record them, and I can remember a lot of the moments that they capture, when the songs were brand new, so it’s kind of neat to have those moments in such a raw form.”

For her fans – especially the ones who would excitedly trade homemade volumes of Griffin rarities back in the late ‘90s – TAPE is a real gift, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “I have a lot more stuff on cassette tape that is never going to see the light of day, ever,” Griffin says emphatically. “They’ll probably end up in landfill, unless we can figure out what to do with all the plastic before that.

For her Nine Songs selections, Griffin aimed to trace a line from her childhood, growing up poor in a small town in Maine, all the way through to the music that helped her during her recent recovery from breast cancer and the treatment that altered her voice. “I was really excited about this assignment,” she says. “Until I sat down and tried to do it. It was really hard!”

Born in 1964, some of Griffin’s earliest memories were of listening to Motown on the radio and watching TV shows like American Bandstand. Through her six older siblings, Griffin discovered artists like Aretha Franklin and Rickie Lee Jones, who would transform her understanding of what music could be.

“The artists on this list are my teachers,” she says. “Growing up the way I did, where being honest about who you are, what you have to say and what you really feel was avoided, these musicians really helped me to get my emotions out. My whole life has been about going against that early training, first in my music and then in the rest of my life. I look at the songs on this list and, for me, the connective tissue is truth in the emotional arena. Like, really, really direct emotion. It’s so beautiful, so good.”

"The Tears Of A Clown" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

BEST FIT: I seem to remember that you used to play this song live quite a bit in the early 2000s.

GRIFFIN: “Yeah, I did. “The Tears Of A Clown” has been a pretty major song for me in my life. I can remember at least two standout moments from my childhood, seeing Smokey Robinson & The Miracles perform this song. The first one was on the TV show American Bandstand and I just couldn’t believe it. The second was when Smokey performed it at the American Music Awards at some point later. I don’t remember when exactly, I was very young. But there was a lot of beauty to those performances, absolutely. The kind that you hold in your memory forever.

“Everything about this song was appealing to me as a child. I just loved it because it was cool and it was really fun to hear, and Smokey Robinson was just beautiful to look at. Later, when I was older and starting to perform myself, I was really digging into his recordings and realised just how phenomenal the structure of this song is. It’s like a cathedral of song. It’s so intricate, full of tiny details, but also completely solid and buttressed. It’s like a symphony in a song, and the structure of it is amazing. It also carries an emotional weight that I can feel much more as a grown up.

“It has been on my listening list for the last 50-something years. That says a lot about a song.”

I had no idea until last night that this song was a Stevie Wonder co-write.

“Is it really? I didn’t know that either. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The musicality of this song is really on another level, as you can imagine with getting Smokey and Stevie together.”

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Aretha Franklin

BEST FIT: I read somewhere that it was your sister who introduced you to Aretha.

GRIFFIN: “I was about 12 years old when I realised that I wanted to sing. That I wanted to at least get good at singing. I tried seeing a vocal teacher but that wasn’t very comfortable for me. I was very shy. Instead, I would just do what a lot of people do and sing along to records at home, whatever we had around the house. My sister gave me a 45" of Aretha Franklin singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and I remember she said something like, “This is the calibre of singing that can be achieved by the human body, so that’s something to think about when you’re learning to sing.”

“I mean, Aretha’s singing was at such a high level, almost disturbingly high for a 12-year-old kid who was just getting started. I come from a very soft-spoken, Catholic family. A 'never speak in church' kind of family. So it was really incredible to hear somebody open up the way that Aretha did on this song.

“I had to put Aretha into this mix, because had I not come across her music, I don’t think I would have really learned how to express myself emotionally in quite the same capacity. I was taught to do just the opposite in my upbringing, so having Aretha around has meant the world to me, and this song is the first one that I really latched onto.”

Was it this song that kickstarted your love of gospel music?

“Probably not consciously. When I was getting into Aretha, I didn’t really think of her as a gospel singer. I just thought of her as a singer who was at a level that was physically beyond my reach. See what she can do, you know? But, of course, you can learn a lot from listening to music at her level, so maybe there was a subconscious awareness. But I didn’t really connect to the gospel side of Aretha’s music until much later.”

"On The Nickel" by Tom Waits

BEST FIT: This song is on Heartattack and Vine, which came out in 1980, when you were around 16 years old. Do you remember how you first heard it?

GRIFFIN: “My brother borrowed that record from a friend of his and it sort of made its way through our household over a few months. I’m not sure, but I think it wasn’t until a few years later that I started really sinking into Tom Waits’ world a little bit. “On The Nickel” is a song that I’ve gone back to again and again and again in my life, and that’s because what he is doing with this song is painting. It’s a song about a very small life that goes overlooked by most humans, but Tom Waits is there painting it on a massive canvas.

“I come from a long, long line of poor people. One of the reasons for my great love of Tom Waits is the fact that he has spent his career writing about forgotten people, people from backgrounds that aren’t often seen the way he sees them. His poetry, the way he chooses his words, really gets to me, more than anybody else. “On The Nickel” brings a lot of beauty and dignity to the character in the song, to their existence. Every time I go back to it, it gives me the same feeling. The strings are incredible. The ending of the song is really something.”

I love your version of “Ruby's Arms”, another song from Heartattack and Vine that you recorded for a Tom Waits tribute. Did you consider doing “On The Nickel” instead?

“No, because I had already played “Ruby’s Arms” on stage, off and on over the years, so I was really familiar with it. “Ruby’s Arms” has a more of a male–female relationship in it, and I think I have a better grasp of that than I do of the character in “On The Nickel”, so I decided to go for that one.”

"Secret World" by Peter Gabriel

BEST FIT: This song is about looking back at the end of a marriage and wondering where it went wrong. I understand that this song was especially meaningful to you when your own marriage was ending. Is that right?

GRIFFIN: “It’s funny. For some reason I spent most of the ‘80s going backwards in time with music. Starting from people like Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones, I was listening to people like Irma Thomas and Ella Fitzgerald, and not really listening to any contemporary music. So I missed the ‘80s. But when my marriage was falling apart in 1992, I decided, 'I’m going to turn over a new leaf. I’m going to start listening to what’s on the radio, just to check in with it and see what’s happening.' So that’s how I got into Peter Gabriel. I heard him on the radio and decided to buy his latest record.

“I was still living with my husband at the time, but we were breaking up. I used to lie on the floor and listen to Us, and honestly the timing could not have been better for me. I listened to that record so many times. The way he writes about his emotions is so direct, so bold and honest, it’s almost like he was sitting in therapy writing the lyrics down. Musically, that was really an awakening for me. It was so powerful to hear someone able to be so vulnerable in their music. I learned that if you can bring vulnerability to a song then you can create something that really resonates.

“The song “Secret World” in particular is incredibly unusual in the way he tells the story. The second verse that goes “So I watch you wash your hair underwater, unaware, and the plane flies through the air / Did you think you didn’t have to choose it? That I alone could win or lose it?” – I mean, holy cow. He is capturing so much information in those lines, it’s like a little film.”

"Danny's All-Star Joint" by Rickie Lee Jones

GRIFFIN: “I grew up in a small town in the northeastern corner of Maine, pretty close to the border with Canada. My mom has a French–Canadian background and her family has lived in the same area for hundreds and hundreds of years. So, growing up, I think my view of the world was pretty limited. There was a certain point in my life when I was really struggling to find women songwriters that I could get really excited about. People would send music by Carole King and Joni Mitchell my way, but I wasn’t really able to hook into that at the time. Then along came Rickie Lee Jones.”

BEST FIT: You’ve described Rickie Lee as being a North Star for you in your music. In what way has she directed you?

“There was something about her and that first record that made me feel like she was just having a blast. She had this sort of bad girl thing going on. The music was wild and untamed and I was looking for that, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was really amazing, to be this smalltown girl in Maine and have this record land in my lap. My brother bought the record after “Chuck E.’s In Love” became a really big hit on the radio. I didn’t know what to expect but I couldn’t believe it. The whole record was like a charm to me from the first listen. It just blew my mind.

“I could only pick one song from the record for this list, so I put down “Danny’s All-Star Joint”. I hadn’t heard anything like it before, and I think it was one of the songs that opened me up to older music. As I said before, I started listening to all kinds of older stuff – people like Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James – that I wouldn’t have listened to at that time had I not listened to Rickie Lee Jones. She got me into a lot of other music.”

"Pove Que Lavas No Rio" by Amália Rodrigues

GRIFFIN: “I think it was during my first year of touring that I heard this song. I was wandering around New York City waiting for a gig to come, because I didn’t have any at the time, and I went into Tower Records to kill some time. "Pove Que Lavas No Rio" was playing and I walked up to one of the assistants and asked them who it was, and they told me it was a Portuguese fado singer called Amália Rodrigues.

“To me, this song is not about the lyric. I don’t think I have even read a translation of it. There are certain things you hear that just have this incredible beauty to them that you immediately connect with. You don’t need to know what the lyrics mean; the meaning of the words is carried by the way they are sung. I really aspired to that kind of emotional directness, especially as a younger performer. Listening to her I thought, 'Wow, how have you learned that?' Well, one way to learn is just to listen to people like Amália Rodrigues. Listen to performers who have the kind of emotional honesty and strength that she had.”

BEST FIT: Your version of the Spanish song “Mil Besos” from 1000 Kisses is one of my favourite recordings of yours. Have you ever been tempted to record a whole album of songs in another language?

“I have thought about it. My mom’s first language is French, so if I tried anything in another language I think I would like to pursue that. I’m the first generation in my family that lost the French language, and that’s heartbreaking.

“It’s just one of those things. My mother spoke French until she turned five and went to school, where she wasn’t really allowed to speak anything other than English. So English became her primary language, and we kids were not taught French other than hearing some of the songs that she had grown up with.

“At shows, I used to play a French hymn that I used to hear as a child (“J'irai La Voir Un Jour”). There is something in me that would like to try and learn some more of the music from my mom’s world, if I do something like that in the future.”

"Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)" by The Staple Singers

GRIFFIN: “I have a friend called Craig Ross who I have made a bunch of records with and played music with for over 25 years now. He was playing The Staple Singers’ Freedom Highway in the studio one day, at some point in the ‘90s, and it really opened my eyes. I didn’t really know their gospel stuff at the time, so I went straight out and bought a copy of Freedom Highway and another compilation of their stuff, and those CDs basically stayed in my player for the next 10 years.

“Listening to The Staple Singers gave me an understanding of how gospel music is really built to inspire sort of transcendental responses. I sometimes think that instead of taking antidepressants, listening to gospel music can make a person feel better. It does work! You don’t necessarily need to believe in Jesus like they do. It just has this openness to it.

“I picked “Why?” because a lot of The Staple Singers’ songs of the time are either really well known or they are interpretations of traditional songs, but “Why?” was written by Pops Staples himself. Again, I think it’s super direct. I feel like, emotionally, it needed to be said and that it took a lot to even get to that point where he needed to write it. There’s an ultimate end-of-the-rope feeling to it. When you get to the end of your rope, what do you do? You ask why.

“This song is like an exhale of pain. It’s a really important song for me, and I think it’s a really important song for any American. It still has a lot of relevance, even today, and that’s incredibly sad.”

BEST FIT: You recorded a track with Mavis Staples, and you’ve toured together too. Was it a dream come true to work with a member of The Staple Singers?

“I talked about Mavis incessantly with just about everybody I knew for about 10 years. Then this gospel compilation project came up and I got to meet her and record a song with her (“Waiting For My Child To Come Home”). I brought in my CDs to the studio to get them signed. I’ve never done that in my life, but it was Mavis Staples!”

You’ve said that singing gospel has made you a much more humble person, which I thought was a really interesting comment. Can you expand on that a bit?

“Well, it’s really about the depth of gospel music. A lot of gospel music is made up of songs that were created by people whose names we’ll never know. A lot of American gospel music originates in slavery. Part of the history of it is that slaves would use songs and symbolic language to communicate in secret.

“The generosity of gospel music is also super humbling. It’s built to inspire resilience and strength, and in people whom nobody should be asking for more resilience or strength from. And it’s kind of out there for anyone to listen to and sing along with. And, let me tell you, if you’re ever starting to think you’re a really good singer, go and sit in a gospel church. Then it’s like, 'Ohhh, oh, never mind.' It’s a good way to get humbled.”

"Homecoming" by Tom T. Hall

GRIFFIN: “I had to get this song in the list because I went through a big phase in my forties of learning about country music. I was working a lot in Nashville, where I knew so many people who had a lot of knowledge about great country music, and I wanted to take advantage of that. But, of course, once you start asking questions in Nashville about great country music, people just bombard you with stuff.

“I was at an event where I sat next to Tom T. Hall for a minute, and he was really incredible and beautiful. Kind of like a Yoda figure, you know? So afterwards I got hold of a copy of The Essential Tom T. Hall and listened to it over and over again. This song, “Homecoming”, is one that keeps coming back to me, in story form. In my mind I can see the photograph of the song that my brain has created.

“It’s a song that really hits home if you’re a working musician, or if you’re living another kind of life where there is no home, or if that home is in the past. That’s true for a lot of people who do what I do, so it’s kind of strange that I’ve never known of anyone to write a song that really nailed those feelings. He’s like, 'Look what I gave up, and look at the way I have present myself around this feeling.'

“There’s so much deep loss and sadness in “Homecoming” that he never says, it’s just in the story. It’s written in such an amazing way that the song is a short story and a film all in one. I don’t think it’s that well known, but it’s a good one to listen to.”

BEST FIT: Do you feel that you’ve missed out on important things in your own life, being on the road all the time?

“Oh yeah. Personally, I don’t think anyone does this unless you get to the place in your life where you have to. As a touring artist, you’re separated out from the rest of the culture in a lot of ways. Being on the move, the people that end up in your tribe are other people who are also on the move. They’re not necessarily people you even get to be around all the time. You see them on the road, passing through some festival or other, and then you might not see them again for four more years.

“After a while, you have your core people that you work with, but for sure there are a lot of things you miss out on and I love how Tom T. Hall got that in this song. I think it’s also a really brave thing to admit. You’re trying to write these songs like you’re a normal person, but you’re not, especially after a while in music.”

"For All We Know" by Billie Holiday

BEST FIT: You’ve specified the version from Lady In Satin here. Is there a special connection to that album?

GRIFFIN: “When I got very ill a few years back, Billie Holiday was pretty much the only thing I could listen to for a long time. I had never been able to listen to her before. There was something about her that stopped me from going very deep into her catalogue.

"Then one day a friend of mine said, “Well, you have to listen to Lady In Satin,” so I went and got it. And you know what? The arrangements on that record are absolutely off the charts. But the thing I really love about it is that you can hear her brokenness. She can’t help being very, very honest about it. That’s how broken she is. I mean, talk about generosity! That’s a lot to give, you know?

“For someone who is themselves an ageing singer, Billie Holiday is another North Star for me. The way she carried her voice through all its changes is inspiring. It’s not the voice that she had 20 years before, but it’s incredibly powerful even in the shape that it’s in on that record. It’s all about the performance and the honesty. And this song, “For All We Know” is an incredible fit for her.”

TAPE is released today via Thirty Tigers
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