Patty Griffin – The big kiss-off
Patty Griffin has a voice as true as a bell, explosive as a firecracker, broken as a heart. It could hold its own with Natalie Merchant’s, Alanis Morisette’s or Jewel’s, but it swells and ebbs and breaks subtly with the emotion of her lyrics; her delivery ratchets the comparisons into Bonnie Raitt territory.
Griffin’s lyrics catch and rend emotions with language bright and attractive as shards of colored glass, or grasps them like a fist, or smacks them like a screen door slamming on your backside. She shows you bleak paths you wouldn’t think you’d want to see, makes you friends with folks who were invisible, then rings the bell and runs when you’re not lookin’.
But, the industry inevitably asks, does Griffin have a hit single? The Dixie Chicks may be the first to know; they covered Griffin’s “Let Him Fly” on their last album, and reportedly have recorded a another song or two of hers for their next release.
For her part, Griffin no longer seems concerned about it. Having surfed the recent music-biz upheaval, albeit with two finished records missing in action, she now laughs the ready laugh of a free woman. And in April, untangled from her former deal with A&M/Universal and aligned with Dave Matthews’ ATO imprint, she released 1000 Kisses — no smash singles required.
Griffin’s career began humbly enough, with some earmarks of a troubadour destiny. She was the youngest of seven children of a struggling schoolteacher and a housewife in a teensy Maine town near the Canadian border. In high school, she says, “I was one of those people…that kept a little book of poetry all the time, all the time writing poetry while having my little rebellion.” She confesses that she was “a crappy student,” and to this day has nightmares about being trapped in high school; but during that time she also discovered Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin — and bought herself a $50 guitar.
After graduating, she fooled around in a new wave cover band for a year, then headed for daylight. Florida beckoned, with an irresistible chance to catch up on 18 years of missed opportunities to play outdoors. Once there, she all but abandoned her musical aspirations and hurled herself into cycling and running, in an athletic discipline that she believes ultimately benefited her voice and her performance stamina. It would be some time, though, before she would test their strength.
Griffin remembers clearly when she decided to pack up her suntan and go home. “I remember listening to U2 on the beach one day and thinking, wow, you know, I need to go back to where I’m from.” Boston was close enough, she figured, so she made that her home for the next ten years. Working as a waitress until she got “homicidal about waiting tables” and switched to temp jobs, she slowly developed the skills and gumption to perform.
“I always felt if I could just learn how to communicate what was in my heart with my music, that would be great,” she says. “I didn’t believe I should be onstage until I felt that I could really play or sing or write or communicate or do one of those things pretty well. I ended up taking guitar lessons for many years, and finally my guitar teacher, John Curtis, got us a gig together and he started gigging with me onstage so I’d be comfortable. He was really kind about it.”
Now practicing what he calls his “musical obstetrics” in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Curtis makes it clear the pleasure was all his. “When I sat her down, I asked her to play me something and she played her own song, ‘Cat’s Out Of The Bag’, and I was just astounded by her voice. She was a shy little wallflower, very unassuming, and when she sang, her voice just came out like a cannon. I peeled myself off the back wall and thought, ‘Holy cow!’
“Either right then or shortly thereafter, I encouraged her to start playing out, but she didn’t have any confidence in her ability as a guitar player, as a total performer. So I finally said I’d book a date. I offered to play with her whenever she wanted, but it was kind of like being a parent: ‘You have a gift. You know what you need to do, now go out and do it.'”
Griffin’s insecurity continued to impede her progress, but between sporadic gigs and occasional street busking, she managed to record a demo tape. It was the mid-’90s and the record industry was gravitating toward female singer-songwriters at the time; so began Griffin’s mad whirl on the major-label merry-go-round.
A&M signed her and permitted her to use the producer of her choice, Malcolm Burn (whom she calls “brilliant,” and whose work she’d admired on Lisa Germano’s releases). In New Orleans at Daniel Lanois’ famed Kingsway Studio, where Emmylou Harris was then working on Wrecking Ball, the pair set about making her first-ever studio recording with a band. Only she wasn’t necessarily seeking the same thing the label execs were after. “They were looking for hits,” Griffin says. “They thought they could take those [demo] songs and have them produced into hits.”
In retrospect, Griffin acknowledges that her inexperience in the studio may have worked against her, but she says, “I didn’t feel like I was in it that much. I felt as though, performance-wise, I wasn’t standing on my own two feet. The production was very beautiful, but…it lost something. I didn’t feel an emotional bounce to it.”
A&M was disappointed, too; they still didn’t hear any hits, so they asked Griffin to start over. By then, though, she says, “I just didn’t have it in me. It was really exhausting to make a record. I’d never done it before. So they told me, ‘Well, we can put this thing out that we don’t like, but we’re not gonna back it up.'”