The iconic singer-songwriter reflects on her transcendent career and her new self-titled album.
Patty Griffin is a cut above other singer-songwriters of her generation, consistently melding raw, confessional lyrics with a deeply soulful vocal style. Her emotional, poetic, sometimes gutsy, sometimes softly anthemic, always moving songs — strains of “Up to the Mountain,” “Heavenly Day,” “Love Throw a Line,” “Rain,” “Mary,” and “Forgiveness” quickly come to mind — have been loved, covered, and taken to heart by fans.
Now after more than 20 years of making records and garnering awards, she has put out Patty Griffin.
A Texas transplant who’s lived in Austin for a couple of decades, Griffin is originally from Old Towne, Maine, near the Penobscot Native American reservation. She was scouted by a record label while playing the Boston coffeehouse scene in the ’90s. Her subsequent career has seen the release of 10 studio albums and two live albums, two Americana Music Association Awards, two Grammy Awards, and one Dove Award, and many other nominations.
The new eponymous album, released on March 8, comprises 13 songs written during Griffin’s experience with breast cancer. The wide-ranging result is deeply personal and penetrating, shining with intricacies of songwriting and honest reflections of human emotion, struggle, and triumph.
Recently, we spoke with Griffin about the new record.
Cowboys & Indians: Before we get into your new album, I’d really love to know something more about you — where you grew up and what in your childhood drew you into music.
Patty Griffin: I grew up in Maine, the state of Maine. I’m the daughter of an Irish immigrant’s son from Boston and my mother has deep French-Canadian roots. I think on both sides, there’s a little bit of music and poetry, but my mother was a singer. And she comes from a long line of people who was just known for being good singers. So I grew up around [that] — not any professional level, but just people in their community known as the people who sang well. I grew up hearing or singing every day in the house and I realized at a certain point that I loved doing that more than anything and could maybe make a living doing that or get really good at it, anyway, so I should try to focus on that. And that’s what I did.
C&I: What has been the response toward the record from your fans so far?
Griffin: Good. They don’t hate it, so that’s good; I like that. I haven’t heard anybody say that they hate my record, yet, so we’re doing well, all right.
C&I: I think that’d be impossible for one of your records. Can you tell me a little bit more about it? What’s the back story and how did it come to you, and what were the circumstances of the songs coming together?
Griffin: The writing of the record began just before I got diagnosed with some breast cancer that I had to get through, so I wrote one song and then plummeted into dealing with that and the experiences of that. And also, at the same time, a really dear friend of mine dealing with his own cancer was happening. That sort of began this part of my life that I think helped to sort of shape the record entirely. Part of the writing and the style of it grew out of singing in a different way for a while. I couldn’t use my voice the way I was used to using it and just depleted from being sick a lot, leading into getting diagnosed with cancer and then having to deal with the surgeries and the treatments and it just kind of took my voice out for a while. Writing took on this different – I felt like I still needed to write and I had to figure out ways to write around that. Took me to different places, listening to different people that I’d listened to before just for inspiration.
C&I: Garden & Gun called you an “Americana trailblazer,” and you’re widely recognized as one of the most consequential songwriters of our time, having been covered by artists like Emmylou Harris and Sugarland. What’s your songwriting process like?
Griffin: Prior to this record, I always started with my singing because I felt like I could sit down and feel the emotions in my voice kind of lead me to the subject. But I didn’t have the voice to do that, so I just kind of had the emotion only — and a pen. So I just kind of sat down and started writing with a guitar, writing words with a guitar and sort of trying to fill in later how I was going to sing that. It was different and I think, also, I wrote more words. It’s a wordier record, probably, because I’ve less air and less strength to hold notes, so different styles came in. It was nice to do that, really, to be honest. [It was a] refreshing kind of change.
C&I: After your debut in 1996 with Living With Ghosts, you’ve produced so many powerhouse hits. How do you think your music has evolved throughout your decades in the business?
Griffin: I like to look at my life as I feel like I’m evolving. With songwriting, I’ve discovered a tool to help me along with that. I feel like the best moments of doing that kind of work have been me discovering something new about the world and me and hopefully together as one entity that I didn’t know before through songs, you know? Like you tap into the inside to get to the outside.
C&I: How does this last album stand out from your other music?
Griffin: From a young age, I was an athlete and I’ve approached my singing like an athlete. I know you could just work and work and work and get your voice to do all kinds of things and be a really strong singer and throw that into your style and see if that works. I think, for me, it’s a little more focused on the heart and the emotion. I’m not quite so worried about how well I’m singing. I couldn’t be. I had to let go of that to start it. I just didn’t have my full tool kit, so it’s a more vulnerable place to come from. And it’s actually, ultimately, really good for me to write from that way.
C&I: Where do you normally gain inspiration for your music?
Griffin: I go inside. I just kind of start with my emotions, how I’m feeling, and sort of dig in there. We walk around feeling a lot of things, like a million things in a day, but we don’t actually sit down and dig in. It’s like you pull on a thread and try to get down to what it is that actually is making you feel a certain way. There’s a lot of bits to that. It’s sort of like trying to remember a dream. You know, like sometimes knowing why you feel what you’re feeling is like trying to remember a dream. It’s like that complicated. So songwriting for me is sitting down and playing some music and getting the molecules moving and finding out what’s in there. In doing that, I learn a lot, and when it works really well, sometimes when I get the whole thing put together, I notice that I’m talking not just about what’s inside, but what’s outside of me, too. That’s what’s cool about it and kind of magical, too.
C&I: What can we expect next from you?
Griffin: I just want to keep going as long as I love it. Right now, I’m having a blast. I just finished my first week on the road on a real tour, out with a bus and a band. I haven’t been on one of these for a long while and I’m just having a ball, so you might be hearing from me. Might be squeaking them out for a while. I hope so. I hope that I’m that lucky.
For more information on Patty Griffin, visit her website. To purchase her new album, visit Amazon.