Patty Griffin – The big kiss-off
Then Griffin had a radical idea. “I said, ‘Since you like the demos so much, we should just put those out,’ and they said ‘Yeah.’ Those were really my glory days at A&M, because, okay, they rejected that record but they’re being honest about what they like and what they didn’t like, and it wasn’t based on commerciality either, because they backed it up by releasing my demos.”
In 1996, the demos were released as Living With Ghosts, its music naked as a newborn. Songs of self-recrimination, alienation, bitterness and emotional pain, written in the wake of the 1992 breakup of her marriage, were interspersed with the character studies “Poor Man’s House” and “Sweet Lorraine” and the bittersweet lullaby “You Are Not Alone”. The production was naked, too, astonishingly intimate — just Griffin and her guitar, knitting themselves into the fabric of the listener’s emotions.
Griffin toured behind the record, including opening slots for Shawn Colvin. A stop in Nashville allowed her to renew her acquaintance with Emmylou Harris, whom she’d met at Kingsway. “She got to know my music through that record that never came out,” says Griffin, “and when I came through Nashville on tour with Living With Ghosts, she invited me over to her house and was just really sweet. She’s been a big supporter of my music, and I think Bette Midler ended up getting a copy of my record because of her.” Midler covered Griffin’s “Moses”, from Living With Ghosts, on her 2000 album Bette.
Harris, meanwhile, recorded Griffin’s “Falling Down” (which doesn’t appear on any of Griffin’s own albums) on her 1999 collaboration with Linda Ronstadt, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. The following year, Emmylou covered “One Big Love” (from Griffin’s 1998 disc Flaming Red) on Red Dirt Girl.
In 1997, Griffin recorded a couple songs for the soundtrack of Niagara, Niagara with Nashville producer Jay Joyce. Shortly thereafter, Griffin began working with Joyce for her next A&M release. Joyce had worked with Malcolm Burn on Lisa Germano’s records, but more important, Griffin says, was his band, the loud, messy, nonsense punk outfit Iodine. “Going to work with [Joyce] was like getting to play with my favorite band,” she says.
Based on lessons learned from her first, shelved studio recording, Griffin decided on a different approach. “The emotional content of the music that he [Joyce] made for himself was pretty high, and very, very well presented, and I just totally was blown away,” she said. “So I asked him to do this record to save myself from that ‘Let’s go somewhere for a month and make a record and it’s totally out of my environment.’ I actually moved myself down to Nashville…and lived there for a year and worked out of his house for most of Flaming Red. Most of the vocals were recorded in his house on any given afternoon. It wasn’t like, ‘Okay now we have three weeks to get everything done.’
“We’re kind of wondering why all these records sound really processed now. Well, you know, they give people a month with somebody they don’t know to make a record, and they go, ‘We can fix that with ProTools, we’re running out of time. Let’s go!'” She laughs, adding, “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to do it that way if you want to get emotional stuff across. Anyway, I can’t do it. Maybe some people do, but I can’t.”
While the resulting record was nothing like an Iodine release, it nonetheless stunningly reversed Griffin’s growing reputation as a sensitive folkie solo act. It rocked. Says Joyce, “Patty is the kind of artist that likes to do something different. It seems to me that she’s always trying to shake it up a little bit, which is kind of a healthy thing to do. She was pretty aware that it might freak some people out….I don’t know that we had a real good idea of what we were going to do; we just kind of let it happen.”
Joyce points out, too, that a substantial amount of time and experience had passed since Griffin had recorded her demos, and evolution in her music was probably inevitable. But Griffin says, “A lot of those songs I had when I did Living With Ghosts, so I write rock songs, I just have never had a band.” Other contributors to Flaming Red included Kenny Aronoff, Emmylou Harris, and Buddy & Julie Miller.
A&M, which by then had been acquired by PolyGram, released Flaming Red in 1998, and Griffin hit the road with a full band. Then the bottom fell out.
“I think my first week on tour, the guy who was drumming in the band that I was touring with said, ‘Hey, look! Seagram’s just bought PolyGram!'” Griffin can hardly get the story out, for laughing so hard. “So I called my manager, like, that day and he said, ‘Oh it’s nothing to worry about. That won’t affect you.’ Obviously, it did affect me because all of the plans for promoting Flaming Red in whatever format were just cut out completely, and by the fall they were kind of making excuses and scrambling around, but half the people I was talking to were about to lose their jobs, so there was no saving it.”
Still, Griffin figures she lucked out in the massive reorganization, which eventually settled with A&M, Geffen and Interscope absorbed into the Universal ranks. “A lot of people got dropped and miraculously I didn’t,” she says. “I made it over to Interscope for a while. God bless ’em, they put out another single [“Blue Sky”] a year after the record came out, telling me, ‘This record’s gonna be dead at radio but we’re gonna give it another shot.’ They tried to do it and they were right: It was dead to radio.”
Even without a single on the radio, Griffin’s music broad exposure in 1998 and ’99 (a period that also included a move to Austin, Texas). In addition to Harris and Ronstadt, Reba McEntire and Martina McBride released records with Griffin songs on them. She appeared as a guest vocalist on several records, including Julie Miller’s Broken Things and Jon Dee Graham’s Summerland. The 1999 Susan Sarandon vehicle Anywhere But Here featured a Griffin co-write on the soundtrack. She played Lilith Fair, made the rounds of late-night talk shows, participated in an “Austin City Limits” songwriters-circle episode, and took part in Concerts For A Landmine Free World, a series of shows Harris founded for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.