Finding her voice

Patty Griffin: A Texas transplant who launched her music career relatively late. Courtesy photo.
It’s a lot easier to believe what others say than trust yourself. But when you do take that leap and then really stick the landing to the roaring applause of those assembled — talk about validation. For Patty Griffin that moment has happened with the release of Children Running Through. It’s a terrific tour-de-force from the somber, country-tinged allegory “Trapeze,” to the bluesy, hopeful resilience of “Heavenly Day.”

Griffin, 43, is a late-comer to the music business, only exploring the stage after her marriage broke up in the early ’90s. She scored a major-label deal on the strength of a bare-bones demo so good it was released as her 1996 debut, Living With Ghosts. Her voice is a vibrant creature, rattling walls with its emotional timbre, but it has taken Griffin time to learn how best to channel it.

Early in her career, a producer commented that she sounded better on quieter songs, which, in concert with the label’s cool response to her more rocking second album, Flaming Red, set her off in that direction. After an album was lost to the vaults in a label shuffle that saw her leave for Dave Matthews’ imprint, ATO, she released two quiet, emotionally wrought acoustic albums, 1,000 Kisses and Impossible Dreams. While both were critically lauded, the praise was nothing compared to the response that’s greeted her latest, a terrific batch of songs on which Griffin lets loose vocally, to head-turning effect.

“Things happen for a reason,” says the Texas-by-way-of-New-England singer. “You get directed into this place by something that you really pay attention to, and you go explore that. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with me understanding how quiet qualities in my voice are really nice. But I do think that my style is dynamic range. Like, yeah, do that quiet thing too, but then take it to another place within the same piece of music.”

“I don’t think that one person that said to me, ‘It’s much nicer when you sing quiet,’ can be the authority on that. It’s taken me 13-14 years since hearing that for the first time to understand that,” she says. “Not everybody that’s smart that tells you stuff knows better than you. But it takes a while to get your own authority on those things.”

Yet the success of Children Running Through goes beyond Griffin’s singing. It’s the culmination of a number of different factors she brought to bear in producing her breakthrough release.

One key was producer Mike McCarthy’s work bringing out Griffin’s vocals. A friend recommended him to Griffin, and they spoke a year before they even began recording. They discussed the importance of the equipment in capturing sound, and McCarthy set out on eBay in search of analog gear.

“I always sang better just sitting in a room, singing without any equipment at all because there’s a lot of natural air in my voice that a lot of modern digital equipment tends to squash up,” Griffin says. “There’s no avoiding digital, but there’s certain ways things are recorded to analog that I really wanted to try.”

She also began singing every day, as a form of practice, and doing what she calls “continuing education,” which involved listening to old soul albums by artists such as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. It encouraged her to scale back her lyrical ambitions, allowing her vocals more room to breathe. Griffin realized it wasn’t so much what you said, but how you said it.

“Right now, I don’t really like much about cleverness.  I’m looking for more soul,” Griffin says. “I began to notice how beautiful and touching a lot of songs such as Sam Cooke songs and things that are really really basic … I let my voice tell me what the words should be, and they ended up being a lot more simple.”

Her music has also undergone a change in tone, spurred by the comment a songwriter friend made about how rarely they wrote anything happy. She started thinking about what was happy to her, and wrote “Burgundy Shoes,” a pretty, impressionistic piano-driven memory of riding the bus with her mom on a sunny day as a small child. It encouraged Griffin to change her working process, and not be so quick to discard those ideas “you don’t know how to do, why this is showing up or what the hell it means.” She also kept thinking about a particular show on her last tour.

“We were at the Fillmore, which is the perfect club if you want to shake your booty or you just want to watch a show. The choice is yours,” Griffin says. “Nobody was moving. Most of it was sad, slow songs. Occasionally there would be somebody bobbing up and down but I didn’t have enough material that people could move to, to make that more of a party for people and I felt like I wanted to.”

“No Bad News” epitomizes that attitude. Opening with a folksy strum and clattering percussion before being joined halfway through by horns, Griffin declares her freedom and sets off in pursuit of a man, her heart full with intentions of love. Spurred by her anger and frustration over terror alerts (“I really resent anyone attempting to control me with fear”), the song is a different kind of protest song, celebrating life instead of indulging anxiety.

“The war’s definitely taken its toll on me,” Griffin adds. “`I’m` sad about it happening,  but I also feel like people have to be engaged and brought together in more joyful experiences. It’s more important than ever.”

Though Griffin seems to be really coming into her own as an artist, she says, “I still don’t know what I really am definitively.” Because she married young and then embarked on a music career, she claims to be undergoing a delayed adolescence. Just how is that going?

“I feel about 16,” she says with a hearty laugh.

We should all be so lucky.