For Patty Griffin, the past five years were filled with ensemble work, including her Grammy-winning gospel record Downtown Church and a summer tour with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller. More recently, she had a heralded run with Band of Joy, the A-list group of Nashville players fronted by Robert Plant, former Led Zeppelin singer (and Griffin’s significant other).
Currently touring solo, Griffin delivered two albums in 2013: American Kid, her first collection of new songs since 2007’s Children Running Through, and Silver Bell. The latter was recorded in 2000 but held from release until now. She spoke with The Hippo from her home in Austin, Texas.
Silver Bell finally came out after being locked up for 13 years. How does that feel?
I’m glad it has a beautiful cover … I love the art! I’m glad I got a good mix [because] the first time around it was mixed at the whim of the person I was working with — and I use that term loosely. I think Silver Bell was really subject to the trends then. Glyn Johns [remixed and] stripped away a lot of the crap to give it a classic sound, and I was really glad for that. I haven’t thought about it for a while, but that was the real triumph.
Some of your best songs have a first-person male narrator. How did you find that voice?
I write stories and they aren’t all about women. I like reading fiction and I think it would be incredibly boring if it was all my personal female take. … Men are such an odd condition on the planet. If you’re a female on the planet and you’re paying attention, there seems to be an imbalance of power. But I also think men are in a very difficult position because of that as well. I am drawn to male stories because I want men to have a voice for me, so I can understand them better, to know the male way of doing things.
What’s your responsibility as a songwriter in terms of telling the truth, fiction, and truth as fiction?
Well you are getting into a big area — what is truth? A lot of people think that everything is creativity; you are making it up as you go and it’s the reason you’re creating through your experience. I think, for me, emotional honesty is the best I can do. I’ve been accused of being sentimental [but] I feel like it’s a label to slap over somebody who has strong emotions in their music. I try to get to what feels honest emotionally. Does that make sense? I’m not forcing a feeling to happen; the song actually provides the launching pad for that emotion.
You write with more economy and precision than any other songwriter I know. How do you do that?
I think that comes from being a singer. You know, Dylan’s voice is not the voice of a classical singer. … He’s a poet and he uses a lot of words because his voice can tell a story really well with a lot of words. I really like long notes and I like to be able to blast them and I think at times when you write too many words. … A friend of mine [worked] with a really great lyricist, I watched him sing and I was just overwhelmed at how many [words] he had to cram in. I thought, “Oh my God, take it back and make him stop!” It’s hard to sing so many words. I think that is why I like the simplicity of it.
Robert Plant helped you finish “Ohio” on American Kid. What did he tell you to do?
He told me to slow it down a hair and he suggested a bridge. By slowing it down, it fell into a timing that was really great — it made the song calm and relaxing. … He’s a brilliant arranger; not many people know that about him. I think Jimmy Page was sort of thought of as this mastermind in Led Zeppelin [but] I think Robert picked up his own fair piece of that along the way. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, heard or hung out with.
What attracted you to doing the Band of Joy project?
I have been studying to be a backup singer. … One of my goals is to always be available to do that, and to do that well. I’m so glad that somebody finally made a film about backup singers. You know when you see one of those giant Reubens paintings and there is all this background? He came in at the last minute and did the details, but somebody else painted the background. That’s such a standard in art, all across the board. Tina Turner is so stunning that you barely looked at the Ikettes, but if you did you’d go, “Oh my God — they are brilliant!” I just really love the tradition of it. It was a no-brainer for me to be offered a full-time gig doing it. I learned a lot and I had a blast and I loved just getting to be a working stiff.
As seen in the June 12, 2014 issue of the Hippo.