NEW YORK - Patty Griffin’s back in front on her new CD.
When Patty Griffin recorded her first album 13 years ago, her producer gave her a stinging suggestion.
“He told me, `It’s so much nicer when you sing quietly,’” she recalls. “I got that from a lot of people. So I thought my voice must be really harsh and ugly.”
That’s far from the case. But the criticism stuck - to the point where Griffin tempered her powerhouse voice for years, stressing more croons than shouts.
Now, that’s changing.
On Griffin’s latest CD, “Children Running Through,” she lets her voice rip. Moreover, she pared down the complexity of her words to shift the emphasis from the composition to the performance.
The tussle between those two disciplines has long been an issue for this singer-songwriter.
Over the years, Griffin worked so hard to give her words specificity and insight - while laboring just as diligently to make tunes anyone could hum - that some overlooked the emotion and skill of her own vocals.
It didn’t help that Griffin has enjoyed a more lucrative career as a writer than performer. Her songs often have been covered by better-known singers, including Emmylou Harris, Reba McIntire, Bette Midler and the Dixie Chicks (who had hits with two of her compositions: “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2”).
Griffin insists that she has always thought of herself more as a singer than as a scribe. “It’s just good luck that so many people recorded my songs,” she says.
The 42-year-old began performing in her mid-20s. Though she spent her nascent years in Maine, she didn’t hit the music scene until she moved to Boston in the early `90s. Back then, she was married and her husband encouraged her to perform. Soon after, though, he left, which only gave her more time to play the local coffeehouses in Cambridge.
A demo Griffin cobbled together got attention, leading to a recording contract with A&M Records. The company released her debut CD, “Living With Ghosts,” in 1996.
Its first song, “Moses,” was about a bitter, lonely woman whose sole emotional connection was with a gay man. (Later, the song was covered, to a T, by Bette Midler.) “That was a real-life song about me at that moment,” Griffin says. “It was just me blowing off steam.”
More commonly, Griffin makes her songs character studies. “There are pieces of me, and others, in the songs, but most often it comes from my imagination,” she says. “We’re all trying to get inside somebody else - to try and understand what they see and what they’ve experienced. You feel connected to other people when you do that.”
In Griffin’s older song “Makin’ Pies,” she writes of a solitary woman who finds her anchor in routine. “You can cry/or you can make pies all day,” the woman dryly reasons. In Griffin’s song “Long Ride Home,” an elderly man has just lost his wife and narrates the song from the hearse. He becomes distracted by the vehicle’s grandeur, the better to avoid the far scarier ride he’ll take once he gets home.
Griffin often writes from an elderly person’s point of view. “When I meet an older person who’s willing to talk to me, I get real excited,” she says. “Someone who’s lived a long time has something to say. There’s more information and authority.”
Griffin’s authority as a writer has never flagged, but she hit some bumps in her recording career. When A&M Records folded into the larger corporation Interscope, she lost her contract. It was a tough time for female singer-songwriters, who’d fallen out of favor after the late ‘90s heyday of the Lilith Fair tour. Luckily for Griffin, she found a solid home in 2001 on the artist-oriented label ATO, an imprint that also provides a safe haven for acts like Gomez and David Gray.
The new album represents Griffin’s third studio work for the label. It also features one of her few compositions to be covered by a male. Last year, soul man Solomon Burke recorded “Up to the Mountain,” a song inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.‘s final public words in Memphis. “In that speech, you could witness somebody walking straight through their fear and coming out the other side,” Griffin explains. “It was an eloquent act of courage.”
The song’s gospel structure, and spare lyrics, cuts Griffin a blank check to vocally emote. She takes the chance even further in “Stay on the Ride,” which finds her unleashing a shout worthy of Aretha Franklin.
It’s inspiring that Griffin has finally felt ready to swing for the fences. “In the past, I was afraid of hurting people’s ears,” she says, with a laugh. “But I decided I’m not going to worry about harsh edges anymore. You have to sing what’s in your heart.”
// Notes from the Road
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