creative workshop ad
creative workshop

Happy Birthday, Patty Griffin!

| March 16, 2011 | 8 Comments

Soul singer, gospel singer, folk singer, rock singer—just go ahead and try to define this powerhouse of a voice. Or give your best shot to labeling her masterful songs that have been recorded by artists as diverse as The Dixie Chicks, Bette Midler and Emmylou Harris to Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson and Linda Ronstadt.  Then there are the awards: Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year” in 2007 and a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album in 2011. Oh, and let’s not forget the gig as a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy tour. The only thing to do is wrap all that up in a big shiny package, put a bow on it and label it as the incomparable talent of Patty Griffin.

So happy birthday, Patty! We wish you a perfect day filled with music, laughter and love.

People have tried to classify your music as folk, rock, whatever. Where do you fit?

I heard somebody talking recently about the first time they heard the Velvet Underground, and they said, “It’s folk music.” And I went, “Oh my god, it is folk music.” But it’s folk music about heroin. Nobody calls it folk, it just turned into its own thing. It’s better to keep people guessing what it is. I can’t help it. I’m not trying to do that, but I like too many forms of music to pick one traditional style and follow it.

What kind of music has been your biggest influence?

I’m most heavily influenced by soul singers. I don’t really have the pipes for a lot of that—I’m just not built for that fat soul sound. But the last four or five years, I’ve been really taken with Sam Cooke, who had a flute in a world of saxophones. He had a lot of air in his voice, and he couldn’t make a fat sound. But he learned how to sing where his voice would shine and he’d get a lot out of the arrangements. I spent time listening to him, thinking about how strong his vocals are, how simple the arrangements are and how much room he’s got to float vocally on things. And I started to dare and let myself go.

Is it difficult, starting from scratch?

It’s intimidating, because I had such a long, prolific period. When things picked up on the road for me, I couldn’t spend the same amount of time writing. Previously, when I made a record, I’d go in and dial up some old things and start from there. [For Children Running Through] it took me a little while to convince myself that I could do it, but I had some early success. “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” popped up—that was one of the first things I wrote for the record. I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do with that—but I knew I liked singing it, and that gave me a little bit of confidence. It went from there.

So taking a new path sets the stage for growth.

It’s good to dangle yourself off the edge of the cliff. Willie Nelson: What would Willie do? Let’s go back to that. On stage, he’s got the same band he’s had for 40 years, but in the studio he goes in many different directions, and you learn a lot that way. You bring new things into the music and the writing by working with other people. They come in with a whole set of experiences that you aren’t familiar with. If you work with people over and over again, you tend to sort of speak the same language—and it’s nice to have somebody who has an entirely different language.

You got your start in Boston in the early ’90s when you were in your 20s. Looking back, how do you think that scene influenced you?

At the time, there was this big jazz scene in Inman Square in Cambridge. My ex-husband, when I was dating him, lived in Inman Square, and we went to the jazz clubs and it opened up this other world of music for me. We also saw a lot of blues singers. The acoustic version of what you would hear on an Aretha Franklin record was really brilliant to experience live. I went from listening to Michael Jackson and Prince to really digging into some of the soul singers: Etta James, Irma Thomas and Aretha Franklin. Living in Boston brought that out in me.

Michael Jackson and Prince? Do go on.

When I was living in Florida [in the mid-’80s], I danced in the clubs. There was amazing music. Prince was on fire at the time. He’s a genius writer and arranger. We were so spoiled! We had Michael Jackson at his peak. These guys are just brilliant. I have this whole other side of me that doesn’t want to listen to Bob Dylan, that just wants somebody to make me cry or sing and dance along. That’s what I was doing in Florida—trying to have some fun. Prior to moving to Florida, I was into more serious music and songwriters like Springsteen. Florida introduced me to the world of fun music, and I’m really glad. It keeps me humble. I still listen to all of these things that I’ve called guilty pleasures.

—Q&A by Eric Danton

From Performing Songwriter Issue 99, January/February 2007

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (8)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Ron Mcelroy says:

    Any day I can listen to you is like a birthday for me. When I was in Vietnam we listened to Joan Baez and others whose writing was equal or surpassed thier vocals but it was the story telling in a soulful way that struck me personally. Politics aside insn’t that all we can hope for? That our work is meaningful and touches others. You do that, Patty. Have a happy and know you do good in this world, Mac

  2. Ian Holt says:

    Happy Birthday Patty. Saw you in Newcastle, Uk with Robert Plant. So glad that I have discovered your music. Become a massive fan and listened to a lot of your music. x

  3. Katie Lee says:

    Happy Belated B-day Patty. You’re my fat soul sista!

  4. Julie Drigot says:

    Happy Birthday Patty,

    You’re the best and without you my commutes would never be the same. Those cleansing tears and words for my prayers come right out of your songs. May you live a long and happy life.


    Julie Drigot

  5. Mike Watson says:

    Happy Birthday Patty Griffin! That beautiful voice and those wonderful songs that spring forth from you are like an addiction. Very few artists today can really be classified as brilliant, but you are one of them. You truly define the word “artist” and this is why you are my favorite…..

  6. Leah Beth Ward says:

    The first time I saw Patty in Cincinnati in the early ’90s she made me weep. Her voice just reaches in and grabs the raw feelings we all have but often don’t acknowledge.

  7. Jerri Sones says:

    Thank you for the touching music and beautiful poetry.
    May all your dreams come true.
    Happy Birthday!

  8. Sue Dennison says:

    Patty is my favorite singer. She is soooo sooooo talented and her songs are like little mini movies when you listen to them!! Love her!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *