Patty Griffin Rises Again With New Take on Music and Touring
By Holly Gleason
Patty Griffin has built a life of traveling the world and singing her carefully framed miniatures. Three decades into her career, the woman regarded as an “artist’s artist” realized things needed to change.
“When I talked to [agent] Frank Riley about my future as a performer, I told him I want to tour as many places when they’re beautiful as possible,” Griffin says, the revelatory singer/songwriter, about reframing the way she attacks the road. “I spent the spring in Oklahoma and the Midwest. Now I’m doing the East Coast in summer. I love the smaller rooms, the smaller towns, because the audiences are so different than the cities. They’re really listening, and taking it in.”
On Thursday, August 2, Patty Griffin arrives on the Vineyard to perform at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series. Blessed with a crystalline voice, the ability to find shadows and nuance in her lyrics and a spark that can ignite songs into brushfires of truth, Griffin stands as one of America’s foremost voices of the human condition.
The Maine-born singer/songwriter’s songs have been covered by Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks, Ellis Paul, Kelly Clarkson, Solomon Burke, Melissa Etheridge and Miranda Lambert. She has also won Gospel Grammys, been named the Americana Music Association’s Artist of the Year, and more than held down her portion of the Band of Joy alongside rock legend Robert Plant.
But as radiant and steely as her voice can be, it’s her writing that truly lifts up her audience. Whether in the haunted Poor Man’s House from her Living With Ghosts debut, to the bullied kid who kills himself in Tony, or the Martin Luther King invoking empowerment of Up To The Mountain, her songs freeze life and truth in amber. Like John Prine, creating visceral moments that will break your heart or open your empathy like a vein, Griffin’s songs feel like something that happened to you.
“Her songs feel so familiar to me,” says Grammy-winner Lee Ann Womack. “They’re like little reels of 8 mm film that I would watch of my parents’ home movies. Captured moments of someone’s life, that although you weren’t a part of it in real time, you feel like you were there, and empathize with the characters. It’s what you want songs to do. Patty just does it a little better than everyone else.”
“It’s spiritual, and primal and seemingly effortless,” Womack adds.
It has also been absent of late, the voice going quiet for the last couple years. Griffin offers a revelation, having been tucked out of sight battling breast cancer.
“There’s this moment of wow, you don’t get out of this alive for real,” Griffin says, calling in from the road. “That mortality part suddenly gets very real.”
She laughs as she shares this. Part stoic, part relief, she has reckoned with the consequences and faced the realities of cancer treatment.
“Life tends to put you through these moments of suffering to shoot you out somewhere you never expected, but somewhere great,” she says. “You grow in so many mysterious ways.”
If that seems so clear and easy, it wasn’t that simple. “It was intense. I was scared for the first month, because it took a while… and a lot of tests on different parts of my body to determine it was breast cancer only.
“The type of tumor was pretty uncommon, and I got hit with some treatments that are pretty harsh. But it brought this material. I took guitar lessons, and I find myself approaching music from different angles now, not just writing from my voice.”
At times, she lost even her speaking voice. She wondered if this was a sign. She soldiered on, found signs in nature to continue. Always an athletic singer who doesn’t go for vocal javelin throwing, she grappled with how to perform songs while feeling diminished by the aggressive treatment.
A performance at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a massive free roots music festival in Golden Gate Park, startled her.
“It was so cool because I had to get up there and pretend I could sing these things I used to have the muscle power to do without thinking. I ran short, had done an uptempo song, realized I was short and out of breath. So I created a new version of Up To The Mountain that was really different, really quiet,” she explains. “A lot of people don’t sing it from the heart. Everybody’s singing it so hard, I feel bad for Martin Luther King because I used so many of his lines, and [his] intention gets lost.”
“It’s like a prayer, really,” Griffin continues. “I thought you might as well sing it that way, so we did a very soft version. When I did it, [I saw] it has more effect, because I took it in a completely different direction. We’ve been doing it that way ever since.”
Griffin has also been doing a handful of the new songs she’s written. “I kept on writing and writing and writing, because I had to get it out. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but it feels like a rebirth with a lot of excitement about playing and singing, because the whole thing really softened me. I’ve never had a soft edge, so it’s been really cool to understand the beauty of it, and the strength.”
She’s also had the opportunity to watch John Prine emerge from his own battles with cancer. “He’s been a big light post for me. I worked with him right before I was diagnosed and wasn’t feeling well. But watching him after what he’s survived, and what he’s been through, seeing the joy and the work? It’s inspiring.”
Admitting she had to start pushing herself to get back to it, Griffin’s been doing two and three-week bursts. As a former hard touring artist, she concedes, “People who don’t tour can’t understand. I still don’t have the energy back to tour the way I used to. But we do what we can, and I get stronger.”
Though her tour doesn’t have a name, it does have a poster. That poster reflects where Griffin is now. “Mishka Westell created this poster, and it’s stunning,” she says. “It’s in the Erte style, and it’s everything this is: a phoenix rising.”