Patty Griffin: songs for the wanderer, and songs for the warriors
Two themes dominate the songwriter’s latest, remarkable album – the death of her Irish-American father, and an American predilection for war
But her major influence has no Irish connection. “James Baldwin was the first writer that cracked something open in me about getting down to the bone of things in my own writing. He was relentlessly honest with himself when he wrote, so the integrity was in the bag. Then he just went on to write it beautifully. So strong and vulnerable all at once.”
In many ways that sums up Patty Griffin as well. You hear it in her songs and in her singing of them. “I don’t have a naturally strong voice. I have to work like an athlete to keep it.”
She is also difficult to lock down into any one genre, given her ability to shift between folk, country, rock, soul and gospel. “I always just think of myself as a singer, so the labelling is for someone else to do.”
She also relishes learning new things, which led to a recent stint as back-up singer for Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, the Led Zeppelin’s singer’s continuing exploration of Americana.
“I loved that, because I have always loved back-up singers. I love watching footage of Ike and Tina Turner back in the day. They were astonishing. But when you go to the left of the frame, there are these backup singers standing there and they are out of this world. I love Emmylou Harris’s ability to pull a song out of the gutter. I love the way harmony works. I started years ago trying to learn how to do that, and when this came along I was just so excited to get a chance to do it. Not being up front – I loved it. It was an amazing experience.”
It was happy
as well in that, when the tour ended, she and Plant were in what she calls a “residual relationship”. Their roles are reversed now, with Plant occasionally helping out Griffin onstage.
As her live albums testify, you can believe her when she says that “some of the best moments ever for me are singing on a stage”, but a Plant appearance at her solo show in Dublin would add a certain spice.
“I will keep my fingers crossed on that,” she says.
American Kid is out now. Patty Griffin plays Cyprus Avenue, Cork on Tuesday, the Spirit Store, Dundalk on Wednesday and the Sugar Club, Dublin, on Thursday, and will perform at this year’s Other Voices festival