I love Patty Larkin. She’s one of those artists that never disappoints me. Not one for the glitz and glamor, Patty is an artist’s artist, a writer’s writer, pushing her craft with each project without sacrificing quality in the name of experimentation. Her latest release, Watch the Sky, is all her. She wrote, played and recorded the whole darn thing herself. And it just so happens to be one of her best works to date.
I saw you play solo at McCabe’s in the mid-’90s and I remember thinking that the mark of a great artist is when the songs and performance stands up fully in a setting like that. That’s huge in this world full of mediocrity. What’s your secret?
It’s all in the song for me. I like great production as much as anyone, but unless it’s trance or dance I want the lyrics to come first. The thing about playing solo in a small place in front of 125 people is that the smoke and mirrors fall away. (There’s only so much rock posturing you can do on an 8 x 15-foot stage.) What is left to you as a performer is the intimacy and the chance to reveal the heart of the song. I’m happy that you enjoyed the show.
Turning that gaze to your recordings, how is it you manage to keep innovating in your production approach – keeping things interesting without losing the Patty Larkin core – like you’ve done on Watch the Sky and Perishable Fruit?
I think of Watch The Sky and Perishable Fruit as bookends for the last 10 years of my studio recording. Both albums defined and limited the production possibilities (only stringed instruments in Fruit and only me on Sky.) I think that those constraints made me/us think outside the box and, again, the song comes through in the final mix. In the final analysis, the closer I can get to the feeling/mood/scene when I’m writing and/or recording, the closer I am to the truth of the original.
You also manage to avoid writing the same song over and over again. As a writer myself, I can say that’s no small feat. What are some of your inspirations and influences?
That is a very complimentary compliment. Sometimes I think it might be good if I wrote the same song again and again. Listeners might have an easier time digesting me. But, it’s not how I think. I write because of what I hear, and I’m not talking about hearing voices. I’m talking about music that speaks to me at a particular time, something that I hear and I say, “hey, I’d love to do that. I’d love to get to that same place in my own way.” It has become very cyclical for me. I finish a recording, then comes the release tour, then I rest/sit around/go outside, then I begin to be drawn back into listening, and I find myself inspired by what I hear. That’s when I know I’ll begin to write soon. So, the last album it was Bjork and Beck, Laurie Anderson, "world music," trance music, loops and samples that intrigued me. I’m thinking now that I want to get back to songs that are simple in form, but ones whose roots run deep. I heard something from Jakob Dylan’s latest solo album on our community radio station this morning that made me stop and cry. Now that’s a good song.
You’ve seen the music business shape-shift over the course of your career and actually written a few songs about it. You’ve even been on a couple of different labels. What’s your outlook on the industry’s present and future?
I’ve always said that a record contract is a cross between a grant and a bad mortgage, but right now it’s just looking like a bad mortgage. I have always seen the music business as separate from the music itself, but these days that dichotomy has deepened. It will never be what it was, but I think it is a positive morphing. For me, things began to shift in the late ’90s when commercial radio went corporate, owned by companies with execs who had no knowledge of music. The same could be said for record companies, including Windham Hill/High Street, that were bought out, merged, submerged, white breaded and flipped for profit. Good news? We’ve got the goods. Not only do songwriters have the product, we now have the technology to put the product out there at less expense. The question is, where is "out there?" And there’s the rub. I think that the Internet is the future, that the information (music) will be out there for free and that artists will have to come up with alternative ways of marketing their music in order to make money at it, including live performances and tours, film and TV, commercials, special packaging. It’s actually a very interesting time to be making music.
How have you had to adapt what you do to continue moving forward with the times?
This follows up on the last question in a way. I have a home studio, and my last four studio recordings have come out of that space. I mix in New York or Boston, as I don’t have the bells and whistles here, and it lets me hand the material over to new and talented ears. Part of the reason for doing Watch The Sky on my own, playing everything and recording and editing most of it, was that I wanted to deepen my studio skills. Getting a handle on recording technology, no matter what the level, is a very useful tool for all of us. Now I see it as an extension of the writing experience.
I suppose that the other new development for me musically is the use of loops and samples not only in my recorded music, but in my live performances. I’ve been looping sounds in the studio for 11 years, but only in the last three have I performed live with the technology. Playing to loops live is ever popular these days, and I think my best bet is to not overdo it, but to keep it as organic as possible. Still and all, the challenge excites me, and I think that the soundscapes and textures you can create live on stage outweigh the risks.
Next phase? I did a virtual performance at Michael Nesmith’s Video Ranch when I was out in California in the Spring. I played in front of a green screen to a studio audience of eight very attentive, enthusiastic people, but the main show was live online, where audience members could log on, choose an avatar, dance, send me messages during the performance. I saw all of them on a huge screen in front of me. The performance was also going live on KPIG radio. I’m not ready for a setup like that in my kitchen, but there’s something to it. I think Michael is at the cutting edge of where we’re headed in the music business financially and technically. Now, if only I could find a wig and some bright lipstick.