Love, Loss and Ever Laughter – A Good Talk with Patty Larkin
CAPE COD, MASS via phone to ASPEN, COLORADO – It’s a busy morning in the Larkin household. Singer-songwriter, respected and renowned guitarist and mother to two adopted Chinese daughters, Patty Larkin steals a few moments to talk about the more monumental developments of the last few years. And US-Chinese financial dealings.
“We just talking about China and the debt situation on the way back from dinner the other night,” she shares, with a wry chuckle, hinting at a greater debt of gratitude for her two daughters, aged 6 and 9, temporarily amusing themselves on the second floor. The occasional sound of toys dropping serves as a child monitor and lets their mom know it’s playtime as usual.
She’s recently returned from teaching at the Swannanoa Songwriter’s Festival in Asheville, North Carolina; originally a gathering for Appalachian music, the festival has evolved into a week-long intensive, full of hard work and thoughtful processes. “Good songwriting comes down to intuition, and knowing the influences that came before you. It’s always hard; unless it isn’t.” She laughs. “Songwriting is an ephemeral process but sometimes, the clouds lift and you see the valley before you, or you stumble into the valley and you don’t know you’ve arrived until you look up. It’s good to write with some kind of regularity, but like anything, that seems to be a challenge at times.”
At the moment, she’s in a roots, “unpluggy” kind of mood but is prone to drastic shifts of tone and musical temperament, depending on what filters through her airwaves. “I’ll start writing and it’ll involve a concept – but then I’ll watch these old style blues guys or discover some Celtic music, and then I’ll hear some jazz standards – and it changes! I just start writing and see what comes out.”
Her latest project, 25, most certainly involved a concept and a distinct sound but, like many creative masterpieces, it morphed into something bigger and more inspiring than first imagined. What started as a musical retrospective became a testament to love, friendship and her mother’s passing.
“For years, fans have asked for an acoustic collection of my songs, so 25 was a real gift to them. I asked all these musicians I adored, admired, who’ve had a profound influence on my work and who I thought would dovetail nicely into the project, to participate,” she explains. During the making of the album the elder Larkin, a talented painter, was battling cancer. “Mom’s feet would tap back and forth while I worked and she’d nod her head… it was important for her to hear me. She’d always been my greatest fan. She herself had stopped painting to find the space to have us kids and while she returned to it in her later years, she needed to know that I’d keep creating, no matter what,” says Larkin.
“When my mother passed, I was grieving, just sort of on auto-pilot. Then I’d hear that someone wanted to do the project – ‘oh, Suzanne Vega said yes!’ – or I’d get someone’s work in the mail, and I’d have to go the studio. It gave me a reason to keep moving forward. I felt so much love and support throughout the whole process. That was the ultimate gift to me.”
Larkin’s speaks fondly of her father, now 92, and his strength and tenacity throughout it all: “He’s the last man standing!” Speaking of her family, Larkin recalls a childhood spent in the presence of true Irish Storytellers. “I’ve realized, in my adult years, how profoundly my family’s influenced me as a performer. My dad’s mother was a corker, i.e. a beloved piano player who could play for four hours straight at a party or gathering. She played at silent movie houses in Chicago and actually worked for the Irish Ward Boss getting out the vote amongst the Democrats; she was very well-connected and a true entertainer. My Uncle Johnny, on my mom’s side was a real Irish storyteller. He could spin a tale for hours and hold us spellbound. He never told a story the same way twice.” She and her siblings would gather around their grandma’s table, Prairie Home Companion-style, listening and laughing all afternoon or late into the night.
“And my dad’s two brothers were both Catholic priests. They were stars in their own right, and for good reason,” she continues, hinting at the oratory powers of the pulpit.
As a storyteller, musician and singer of tales, life on the road serves as fieldwork integral to the cultivation of her craft. “Anyone who travels a lot for work knows the challenges of that life, but what’s meaningful to me is the fact that I become an observer when I travel. I’m an outsider who has an insider pass into other people’s lives, to new places. As a writer, that can be a rich treasure trove for ideas. The trick is to be aware of your surroundings and get out of your own way.”
These days, however, Larkin relishes the ebb and flow of year-round life in Cape Cod and maximizes her time around the island. This summer, she’s been sticking closer to home and venturing out to more events and happenings, re-discovering the local arts scene. “I’ve really been enjoying all that’s offered around here. I’ll pick some happenings and mark them down in my day timer,” she says, with a laugh. ” But still, we all say, ‘one more month, we’ll have it back!’ I’ve lived here 20 years and we look forward to the off-season, after the busy summer rush. And we finally have a year-round restaurant! We used to tell the café and coffees shop owners that they couldn’t all close at once. They’d simply have to alternate!”