Nanci Griffith – If there’s no hope at the end of it, there’s no point in writing it
ND: Another song on Hearts In Mind, “Big Blue Ball Of War”, which you’ve been performing for a while, is marked by angry anti-war sentiment — not to mention anti-male feelings. “Almost a century, the blood has flowed,” you sing, “We’ve killed our men of peace around this ball, and refused to hear their ghosts.” And yet, musically, it carries you along in an almost chipper state.
NG: It’s a serious song, a bloody song. The feelings expressed in that song are very important to me. But there’s also hope in that last verse. [“A reformation might just save us all/A voice of harmony and open heart/Where the women teach the song”]. If there’s no hope at the end of it, there’s no point in writing it.
ND: You performed last year in Hanoi, which is evoked on your new song “Old Hanoi”. What was that like, and had things changed there since the last time you visited?
NG: Oh, it was wonderful. It was just terrific. It was the first time I did a performance there where the minister of information didn’t require every lyric to every song I was going to perform. I also found my CDs bootlegged in the market. I was flattered; I wasn’t insulted at all. I got to perform with the Vietnamese National Chamber Orchestra. That was quite a moving experience. Even though some of the orchestra members didn’t speak English, they still understood what I was singing about.
II. MY CAREER WOULD HAVE BEEN A WHOLE DIFFERENT BALLGAME HAD I MOVED TO NEW YORK
ND: You’ve been making albums for a long time, but Hearts In Mind is the first one you’ve produced yourself. How did that come about and what did it mean in terms of how you recorded the songs?
NG: Recording and listening to my last album, Winter Marquee, which was a live album, I just felt, you know, that this was a kind of hallmark of a phase in my career. I wanted to move to another phase. I didn’t want to change the way I sounded, and I certainly couldn’t change my voice because it’s so identifiable. But I was writing again, and I really wanted to capture what I was feeling here in my life, having entered my nifty 50s. I went in every day with the attitude of, well, if anything was out of my realm, Pat [McInerney, who co-produced] would do it, and vice versa. And if we lost our way, Peter Collins and Greg Ladanyi had agreed to take the wheel. They were waiting for that phone call and would come in and help us.
One of my conscious decisions was that though I have always done my own backing vocals, my own harmonies, I didn’t want to do that on this project. I wanted my vocals just to be solo, just like I was behind the wheel solo as a producer. I brought in some wonderful singers to do the backing vocals. I really like the sound of it. It really puts my voice in its own individual space and makes it a lot more personal. I think even though it is personal doing your own backing vocals, it just sounds more personal with my voice right there and not a clutter of voices.
ND: You appeared on Jimmy Buffett’s smash 2004 album, License To Chill, so it makes sense that he would return the favor by appearing on your record [Buffett is featured on “I Love This Town”, written by Clive Gregson]. But how the heck did Keith Carradine end up co-writing as well as singing with you on “Our Very Own”? The last he was heard from him as a musician — aside from playing a former pop star in Samuel Fuller’s unseen swan song, Street Of No Return — was doing “I’m Easy” in Robert Altman’s Nashville. That was a long time ago.
NG: My niece is a makeup artist. She was working on a movie they were filming in Tennessee called Our Very Own, and she invited me to go down there to Shelbyville, have dinner with the producer and director and crew. I got down there and Keith was in the movie, along with Cheryl Hines [Larry David’s wife on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”] and Allison Janney [of “The West Wing”]. It was incredible meeting all these people.
After meeting Keith, I told him I really loved the script of the movie. What did he think about co-writing something with me? He said, “You’d really want to write something with me?” I said yeah, so when I was in Los Angeles about a month later, he came over to my hotel and we wrote “Our Very Own”, just a beautiful song. He had never co-written before, but he didn’t walk into the room with any kind of agenda. He was very easily manipulated.
ND: You’ve moved around among a bunch of labels, including Rounder and Elektra and MCA. Tell us about New Door.
NG: Well, it was founded by Bob Mercer. I’m the third artist they’ve signed. They’ve also got Tears For Fears and Joe Cocker. The main focus in on artists who have longevity and have a good following who have been somewhat overlooked in the past few years.
ND: Do you feel overlooked?
NG: Yeah, I do. Certainly not by my wonderful fans. Not in terms of being able to tour. I’ve done well. But it just seems like there haven’t been any Grammy nominations in a while and, you know, I’ve done projects like Blue Roses From The Moon and Clocks Without Hands. I love those projects and they just garnered very little attention here in the U.S.
ND: What was it that inspired you, back in 1985, to move to Nashville from Austin, where you grew up, established yourself as an artist, and still have a strong following?
NG: Actually, I was intending on moving to New York. On the way, I stopped in Nashville for the mixing of Last Of The True Believers, one of two albums I recorded there at Jack Clement’s studio, and got a call that the apartment I had subletted in New York wasn’t available. The person who lived there decided not to leave New York. So I had no place to live. A friend handed me the classifieds and said go out and find a place here.