From the Austin-American Statesman, April 2002
by Michael Corcoran
She was raised in a small town in Maine, graduated to Boston, where she fell in with the rock crowd and then it was on to Nashville after a solo career blossomed. But for the past four years 38-year-old singer Patty Griffin, the eternal up-and-comer who’ll soon be released from major label limbo when her first album since ’98’s “Flaming Red” hits stores, has called Austin home. Practically invisible to the local music scene, where her concert appearances are rare, the nationally-prominent singer lives in a modest, charming Hyde Park duplex close to the constant roar of the 45th St. east-west thoroughfare.
Like Griffin’s songs, her living room is spare, tasteful, airy, detail driven. But it’s not comfortable. The chairs are straight-back with minimal padding, the couch a vinyl ’50s number. There’s no CD collection to peruse as a conversation starter, no place to curl up on a rainy night with a good book. What’s more, a small, black, dog named Bean, comes in and out of the house through a tear in the screen door, yipping and scurrying all the way, every minute or so. During the course of a 90-minute interview, Griffin never loses track of the Bean, who uses his barkette like sonar. At one point, she’s talking about how Austin feels right for her, but then stops in mid-sentence and pricks up her ears when the dog’s yip comes from the side of the house and is perhaps delivered in an unusual cadence. A few seconds later Bean is back in front and Griffin continues her thought. “I’m inspired by all the people in Austin who are working on their stuff. Not just music, but visual arts, theater, film- there’s a creative spirit here that I find very appealing.”
Griffin’s gorgeous new “1000 Kisses,” which comes out Tuesday on Dave Matthews’ ATO label, is an album without distractions. At first all you hear is that voice, so dominating is its pure, breathy magnificence, singing words to hang on to for dear life. “It’s hard to know when to give up the fight/ The things you want that will never be right” she sings on “Rain,” the album’s first single to radio. “Ain’t nothing left at all in the end of being proud” she sings as a wife standing over the casket of her husband of 40 years in “Long Ride Home.” When Griffin and her ensemble played its first show in more than a year March 7 at the Mercury, the club had a poster made that showed a heart surrounded by snippets of Griffin lyrics. She liked that.
But getting Griffin to talk about her lyrics is like asking Gary Condit to characterize his relationship with Chandra Levy. She’ll say that “Tony,” the tragic character who “got a gun and blew himself away” on “Flaming Red” was a real person, but she’ll leave it at that. Ask for parallels and she’ll move laterally, explaining that the new LP’s “Chief” is “a guy from Maine who came back from the war and used to march night and day.” But what’s it all mean?
“My songs aren’t poems,” she says on a recent morning, slightly overinsulated in her living room in a thrift store coat. “They’re lyrics meant to be sung. I write words that will feel special coming out of me when I sing them.”
There’s no denying, however, that Griffin, like her songwriting heroes Springsteen and Waits, has the ability to explore grand themes with her little stories of everyday people. “Making Pies” is a plum example as Griffin uses the hard, lonely life of an early morning bakery worker to reflect on the dignity of moving forward and living life when there’s seemingly nothing to live for. “You could cry, or die, or just make pies all day/ I’m making pies,” she sings in a voice that’s anything but mundane.
“1000 Kisses” is cathartic, soothing and a direct reaction to the kind of radio-driven music her former major label wanted Griffin to record. Just by tacking on “Mil Besos,” a traditional Spanish song she first heard by Little Joe y la Familia, attests that this one was made completely without label input.
“As far as record story horror stories go, mine was pretty mild,” Griffin says with a laugh. The plot went this way: About a month after A&M released “Flaming Red,” the rocking counterpart to the ’96 solo acoustic debut “Living With Ghosts,” the label was swallowed whole by Universal Music. Griffin was shipped off to Interscope, which had been built on hard rock and gangsta rap.”The timing couldn’t have been worse,” says manager Ken Levitan. “We were able to finally convince them to work one more single to radio, but then they let it drop.” Many of those who did hear “One Big Love” on the radio probably went out and bought a Sheryl Crowe record instead – it sounds that much like Patty’s A&M labelmate who was getting a big push.
More bad timing came when Griffin delivered her next album “Silver Bell” in the spring of 2000, just weeks after the huge international Vivendi conglomerate bought Universal. “When these corporations acquire other corporations they end up owing billions and billions of dollars,” Griffin says. “They’re not gonna make that kind of money back with records by folks like me. “Silver Bell,” which included Griffin’s French Canadian mother on guest vocals, was returned to a heartbroken Griffin with a terse instruction: write ten new songs that could be played on the radio.
“That was pretty suffocating because that’s not how I like to write songs,” Griffin says. In the meantime, Griffin had a financial windfall when the Dixie Chicks recorded her song “Let Him Fly” on their 10-million selling 1999 album “Fly.” Touting Griffin as their favorite songwriter, the Chicks took the red-haired songbird on tour. “It was a lot of fun hanging out with the Chicks, but not very musically satisfying playing in hockey arenas,” Griffin says. Back home after the three-month stint, she got back to writing new songs, but when she sent the demos to Jimmy Iovine, the Interscope honcho still didn’t hear a million-seller. In March of 2001, a year after “Silver Bell” had been finished, Levitan had a meeting with Iovine and other label brass that he says “just didn’t feel right” and soon he was negotiating a way out of Griffin’s contract. As part of the agreement to let her go, Griffin would have to buy back the masters if she wanted to shop “Silver Bell” to another label. Also, she could re-record only five songs from “Bell” without payment to the label.
“The thing that no one would say, but I’d bet they were all thinking it was that I’m 38 years old,” Griffin says. “It’s a kids game now and the feeling is that if I hadn’t made it by now, I wasn’t going to make it.” But seeing the likes of Britney Spears at #1 only inspired Griffin to make the sort of dark and introspective (i.e. uncommercial) record that was inside her.
Griffin decided to start again from scratch and make a completely different album than the one which had led to such an aggravating time in her life. Where “Silver Bell” had 15 tracks, from all over the musical spectrum, “1000 Kisses” would have only nine , and they would flow seamlessly together like sweet dreams. Songs would be stripped to their essence and the backing tracks would create an atmosphere of warmth. What’s more, this would be a record that no one in the music industry would hear until it was completely finished.
“We were all so completely into this project,” Ramos says of the musicians on “1000 Kisses.” “When we played our first show after making the record (Mar 7 at the Mercury) we were all so nervous, but it was a good kind of nervous. We knew we were about to go on this emotional musical adventure and when the new songs went over with the crowd we all got chills.” Ramos says the band was so drained after the show, which followed weeks of hardcore rehearsals, that they all suffered flu-like symptoms.
The youngest of seven children of an Irish father and French Canadian mother, both schoolteachers, Griffin grew up singing. “My mother was a great singer, still is. My grandmother could really sing, too,” she says. “I didn’t think my voice was anything special when I was young because everybody around me could sing, except for a couple of siblings who are tone deaf.” As a teenager, Griffin sang in a new wave cover band Patty and the Executives. “It was all that stuff on MTV in the early days- Blondie, Pat Benatar. The band was a bunch of teenaged guys in business suits,” she says, laughing. Although Griffin had been writing songs since age 16 when she got her first guitar, she was too shy to sing in front of anybody until she started taking guitar lessons and had to. Her teacher, John Curtis, was astonished at his charge’s immaculate vocals and asked her if she wanted to start a duet.
Even though she’d broken the ice as a singer-songwriter, Griffin did not see that as a serious pursuit for several more years. She moved to Boston, was married briefly and, from ’86- ’91 waited tables at the Cambridge franchise of Pizzeria Uno.
“Have you seen ‘Office Space’ where there’s this big, stupid discussion about how much flair the waitress is wearing? Well, it was like that at Uno. We had to wear two watches- one with the time and the other with the time 20 minutes later so we could tell customers when their pizza would be ready. Like we couldn’t add 20 to whatever the time was.” Griffin says that when Jennifer Aniston’s character gave her boss the finger in the movie, she let out a big “YEAH!” That finger, she says, was for former waitresses everywhere.
“That job didn’t really support the dignity that I needed to get up in front of people and sing,” she says. So she quit and, after a short stint as a Harvard telephone operator, decided to concentrate on a career in music. The timing was perfect.
“In 1994, Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crowe had big hits, so the labels were all of a sudden signing all these women,” Griffin says, “and I caught that wave.” Based on a group of solo acoustic demos recorded in a basement studio, Griffin was signed to A&M in early ’95 and went to Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio in New Orleans to record her debut. “I was uncomfortable with the whole situation,” she says. “The hype machine was in overdrive and people were talking about conquering the marketplace and I just wanted to make a good record so I could tour and make a living.”
A&M hated the Malcolm Burn-produced, full-band treatment of Griffin’s demo songs, so they asked her to start over on another record. “I was too depressed to get back in the studio, so I said, ‘You loved the demos so much, why not just put them out?'” The resulting “Living With Ghosts” received critical raves and made great strides with Americana radio stations like Austin’s KGSR.
Griffin’s next album opened with a blaze of kick drums and caterwauling guitars. An update on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes,” the title track of “Flaming Red” was a vitriolic spit in the face of attitudes that murdered prostitues or raped party girls deserved their fate. Where the fable, in which a girl puts on a pair of red dancing shoes, to the chagrin of pious townspeople, is a cautionary tale that ends in tragedy, Griffin’s take is that the defiant twirl of individuality is worth it. “So many women are working so hard to be everything to everyone, but in the end they find just how ineffective that is.”
Her dog Bean has finally settled in her lap and Griffin has somehow managed to slink down in the stiff chair. Ramos says that in the eight years he’s known Griffin she’s never been as centered, as content with her place in the world as she is now.
“That whole ordeal with Universal seemed really frustrating at the time,” she says, “but looking back I’m glad it all happened. I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s the lesson I learned from all that- in the end you get what you need.”
She decided to call her album, the one she made all on her own with a small circle of friends, “1000 Kisses” when Ramos told her what “Mil Besos” means. Produced by Ramos in the style of a 40’s cabaret song from Madrid, the tune grew in significance when Griffin, who doesn’t speak Spanish, asked Ramos what she was singing. “I lost my heart on the thousand kisses that I left on your lips,” Ramos translated. “I have to keep loving you until my heart comes back.”
“That just blew me away,” says Griffin. The Bean suddenly springs from her lap and hits the hardwood floor with a skid. “I think what the song is saying is that pain doesn’t go away. Life doesn’t get easier, but you just have to keep living it.”
“I don’t think you can ever get comfortable in this world,” she says, “but you can get dignity.”