If you don’t happen to know about Patty Griffin, I won’t go so far as to say “shame on you,” but, really, do something to remedy the situation. That’s just downright embarrassing. Start with picking up a copy of 1,000 Kisses, her latest release on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. If you don’t trust me, know that Grammy herself has nominated it for Best Contemporary Folk Album. (Actually, Patty recorded an entirely different album called Silver Bell that never got released. Parting ways with her previous label, she made a fresh start and this is it.)
Extraordinary! Mesmerizing! Enchanting! That’s Patty. Her voice, her songs… just plain WOW! As she glides between vivid narratives of lives gone by and vulnerable confessions from her very core, just try not to fall in love with her. Bet you can’t. (I mean, whoever fashioned an entire heartbreaking tune around making pies?) And once you’re hooked, you must snatch up her other two discs, the poignantly stark Living with Ghosts and the fiercely provocative Flaming Red. Put your player on repeat, because one listen and 1,000 Kisses from this eloquent and charming redhead just won’t be enough.
VP talked to Patty about her record and the state of the music industry. By the grace of caffeine, she broke through her shyness and had a few things to say.
Being a dyke culture magazine, I’m going to hit you right off the bat with this one… First you wrote about having a queer best friend and then Tony the fag. You really have to be the only straight singer I know who can get away with that language because it’s obvious where your heart is, where you’re coming from. Did you suffer any misunderstandings or backlash?
You know it has happened. But when it has, it’s usually been from people who are so unwilling to communicate with me on it because they’re afraid of whatever it is that they’re afraid of, that I almost couldn’t really be offended that they’d misunderstand. If somebody doesn’t get that it’s totally not from an offensive place that I would use that language, it’s almost pointless trying to explain it.
Because they’re so far gone.
You consistently sketch amazing lyrical landscapes, so vivid they hurt. Where do those characters come from, because they seem to reflect something much deeper, though not really darker, than most in pop music or even folk?
You know, I don’t know. I just go live my life and experience what I experience and these songs come out. I don’t really… other than putting a big general “Gee, I’d like to write songs” out to the universe, I haven’t really tracked any of these stories down. They kind of find their way to me.
There’s definitely an aching or longing in your songs and, although you don’t specify it, there’s also seems to be a sense of faith. A certain grounding point. Whether it’s life, love, pies, or something else. Is that conscious?
I think it sort of… I can plug my record here…
Go for it.
The title track is actually a Latin-American standard called “Mil Besos” — which we named the record 1,000 Kisses. That’s sort of a very, very loose translation of that. But the opening line of that is “Encountering your love, I lost my faith and that was my reason for living.” And I thought, “Well, that is just an absolutely, stunningly perfect line.” Love and pain have never been separated. They’re always hand in hand. It’s the Sun and the Earth. It’s really night and day, and they all have to have each other to exist.
Along those lines, are there any particular spiritual views that you really hold fast to?
I guess I couldn’t really be specific about it. It’s difficult to get into that in a sound byte. That would be a weekend retreat. [Laughs]
Aside from the writing, the other part of the equation is the expressiveness of your voice and how you relate the stories. How do you pour yourself so fully into all those different shoes?
Well, first I’m a singer. I have a need to sing. It’s just like having to breathe or walk. Or for a painter to paint. Or for a race car driver to drive the car. I really just have to sing. And so it’s pretty sustaining, something I need to do. And that’s how it turns out.
As much as I love Flaming Red and Jay Joyce’s work, your voice over an acoustic guitar just kills me. I have to admit that I was happy you went back to a more simple production motif. You can hear your breath and the squeaks and all the little things. That was basically generated by financial decisions more so than creative, right?
Well, the sparseness in the record was. But the way the vocal was recorded was done very specifically to have a very personal sound to it.
“Stolen Car” is the first cover that you’ve recorded for one of your records, but it weaves so seamlessly into the texture that it feels like you wrote it. It has the same feeling as one of your songs.
Oh, good.
And then there’s “Mil Besos,” which you mentioned, and its insanely beautiful lyric.
It’s a great song.
You don’t speak Spanish, right?
No. [Laughs] It’s really helping me though to pick it up. I have a little bit of Spanish, but not fluent at all.
Yeah, I’ve been listening to Buena Vista Social Club trying to pick some up. I’ll have to add “Mil Besos” to my repertoire.
Well, you’re dealing with two very different Spanishes there. [Laughs]
Will we ever hear Silver Bell in all of its glory?
Not all of it. I don’t think so. But someday you might.
It’s just such a travesty, when you sold 100,000 copies of each of your records… that’s a sustaining career for any artist not on a major label. So God bless Dave Matthews.
[Laughs] He’s a good guy. And I think he’s smart, too. Just in a business sense, I think that the lifeblood of the labels is artists from a long time ago that they actually spent time developing. And nobody’s doing that right now. So he’s got a whole camp full of it. He’s got Chris Whitley and people who are career artists. People who will go out and always draw a crowd. They just have an established base of people who like what they do and know who they are. And go and expect to be entertained at the live shows. And they’ll go out and just buy the record without having heard anything from it because they loved the last one. That’s sort of how the old major labels used to work and they don’t work that way right now. I think they just have huge debt that they have to worry about. And they have to make a shitload of money right now to keep their jobs. So there’s no artist development going on. And I think that eventually will bite them in the ass.
A career artist, like you’re saying, someone like Jackson Browne — he doesn’t sell a whole lot of records, but he can support himself. And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that without having to sound like the latest thing on the radio. Or have a huge hit.
You know, I also think that there are no victims or perpetrators here, either. I think that, as a business, it’s just completely in a big, chaotic, development period. I landed in a good spot. They did hold me up for a year. If they’d held on to me, then I’d really be in trouble. But they did let me go. I don’t consider them the evil empire. I just think there’s a lot of just naïveté, really, on their part. The ironic thing is they sort of look at you like you’re naïve. But if you just look at the history of music, of anything in the arts… I want to leave work behind that people are going to listen to in 20 years and still feel something about. I’m not interested in the coolest production of the day. And I think, if that’s all that you’re trying to do, then you’re really not in very good shape for the future, for the long haul.
Your records will stand the test of time, like a Joni Mitchell record or a James Taylor record.
I hope so. That would be nice to have it transmit something that moves people many years from now.
I often think the music business — for all its warts — it’s really just a bad business model, more so than anything.
It’s the worst. [Laughs] There is not a worse business model. I’m sure that even the underworld crime syndicate has a better business organization going on.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, they’re very efficient.
[Laughs] This is the worst. Probably Colombian drug lords have better organization than this thing. I mean it’s really a disaster. I think the Colombian drug lords know that everybody’s going to want their product. I think that the thing about the music business, it’s the age-old thing, they don’t know if people are going to want what they’re putting out. And I think that takes a lot of faith on their part and they’re certainly lacking in that lately. [Laughs] Yeah, they’re really not necessarily… I can’t tell you how many people have said “Man, you’re our favorite artist on this label and we’re so glad that we have artists like you. It keeps us here, otherwise we would just go nuts.” And then I can’t get a record out to save my life on that label. I just tend to think that that’s so… it’s just a lot of crap. [Laughs] It’s a load of bullshit. Totally misguided. You have to really risk your ass and do what you love. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so it’s second nature for me now. I think that when you run into this music business, they don’t mind you doing that. But they don’t necessarily want to do that for you. But that is what it involves. And to get an audience for yourself means going out and maybe falling on your ass. And taking a chance. And selling one record at a time. [Pause] I don’t know. [Pause] Okay, I’ll get off the podium now.
You were doing very well. You could give a lecture. It’s artists like you who have kept me in the business. Because every time I try to get out, I hear one of your records or the Jonatha Brooke record from last year, and I get re-inspired. And I think, “These people are out there busting their asses and making amazing art.”
I think you could just totally turn your back completely on the major labels and never have to worry about what they’re doing and still get plenty of records. I think the only issue at hand that is potentially dangerous to artists like me is people buying up the promotion companies all over the country. That’s now a cartel, as well. And then also the Recording Industry Association of America, their lobby group is very pro major label. And any opportunities that musicians have created for themselves to break free of the slavery qualities of those labels, they counteract that with their very powerful government lobbies. That’s dangerous stuff. I mean that could be detrimental to my financial future.
My artistic future is totally up for grabs at all times. If I don’t mind, at some point down the road, having to wait on tables, if I don’t see shame in that, then I guess I’m going to be free for as long as I live. If I don’t see shame in digging a ditch, then I’ll be fine. I think a lot of it has to do with the artist’s head on it and what they expected to happen and what didn’t happen. And once you can get past having an idea that this is what you deserve and that you’re entitled to this…
Well, look at the huge slew of people on those Alan Lomax recordings recorded in prison that have influenced the Beatles. You know what I mean? They didn’t get any glory either. But they sang their asses off and they got to break their hearts inside of songs. And then they helped other people to feel something that they couldn’t get to themselves, they couldn’t access themselves. And, to me, that is the beauty of it. That’s why I do it. That’s what I want to stick to, that point.
It’s really hard. It’s very confusing, on a day-to-day basis, to try to keep it at that level. It takes a lot of work. Because I’m not perfect at it. Every now and then I go, “Wah, you guys need to all take showers. You guys stink.” Like I’m crying about the bus. [Laughs] But I’ve waited on tables and I’ve done much harder things in order to do this and sustain the ability to sing for an audience. And if you can deal with it, you’ll always get to do what you do. [Pause] Okay, I’m back up on the podium. I’ve had too much coffee. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You could’ve warned me. It’s just now kicking in? But it’s true, when I saw that Alan Lomax had died. I thought, “What a loss.” His work, the documentation that he’s done for music, the history of music, it’s just astounding. And for all of those reasons that you just mentioned.
But I think there are other Alan Lomaxes out there right now, as we speak. When Alan Lomax was doing all those recordings, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were getting all of the attention. Now we have that stuff. There’s no should or should be. It would be great if we could all have easy access to something that could… music that could just turn people on their ass. Like just get them to see the big picture right away. Somehow or other it works the way it’s supposed to work. I think. It’s going at its own pace. It’s going at the pace that people can handle right now. And it’s not a very fast pace.
If you’re on coffee…
[Laughs] Exactly. If you’re on coffee. [Laughs] You know, it’s a little tiring to listen to the old, puffed-up hip hop crap about their nice cars and their nice asses. I mean, who the hell cares? Why can’t Public Enemy get on the damn radio? You know what I mean? Why can’t all these great people get on the radio? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. I think people can only handle what they’re getting right now for some reason. And I think it will change. [Laughs] Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I don’t usually talk this much.
I keyed into something. This piece is writing itself here. They wanted me to do an exposé on the music business, but I think we’ve just done it. So thank you. I appreciate that. [Laughs] Well, I think my time’s up.
[Laughs] Wait, I’m not finished ranting yet!
Okay, go ahead. There’s a little more time on the tape.
[Laughs] I’m only kidding. I’ll put you out of your torture now.
Article originally published in Velvetpark magazine in 2002.