Patty Griffin will be performing May 15 in Chicago at the Vic Theatre.
Acclaimed singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, whose songs have been covered by Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris, Maura O'Connell and The Dixie Chicks, to mention a few, comes out testifying on her new album Impossible Dream (ATO). You can almost hear her raising her hand over head and stomping her foot as she sings album opener, 'Love Throw A Line.' The material takes a serious, but accessible, turn on the rest of the disc, and standouts such as 'When It Don't Come Easy' and 'Rowing Song,' are destined to become classics in the ever-expanding Griffin songbook.
Gregg Shapiro: You celebrated a milestone birthday (40) this year. How did you mark the occasion?
Patty Griffin: It was a really busy week here in Austin (Texas) for almost everybody with South By Southwest. We did our big celebration in New Orleans a couple weekends ago. New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world, so that's what we did. And my parents came and a lot of friends came. Just walked around the beautiful old city ... and that was it (laughs).
GS: There is a spiritual/gospel/tent revival quality to some of the songs on your new disc Impossible Dream. It really stands out on songs such as 'Love Throw A Line' and 'Standing,' to mention a few. Can you please say something about that aspect of the songs?
PG: Well, I listen to that music, gospel, old-time country gospel kind of stuff, specifically the Staple Singers; their older stuff. The songs were written by people who were either slaves or not far removed from slavery. They're sort of talking about very painful things, and yet every time I listen to a Staples record, within 15 minutes I feel really hopeful and uplifted (laughs). So I feel like that type of music is almost a way to dance your troubles away. There's beauty in that music. It's sort of written into the formula.
GS: Speaking of timeless subject matter, 'Cold As It Gets' rang for me, as a powerful and timeless anti-war song. Have you had the chance to perform it at any anti-war concerts or events?
PG: No, it hasn't been performed yet on stage. I don't think it has. It's really inspired by the Holocaust, a story about the Holocaust. I never meant for it to be an anti-war song (laughs), although I am anti-war. I'm anti-war in every way. I don't believe wars ever work. It's more inspired by this story I heard from certain Americans who were kept in concentration camps and experienced the march that they sent everybody on when the allied troops were moving in to take over Germany. Inspired by a story that I heard about somebody who had spent maybe the last couple years of his life being tortured, and could barely hold a gun, and the first thing he wanted to do was have a gun. You know, a lot of these guys wanted to have their guns back and go and kill these people. One of the guys wanted to, totally irrationally, steal a car and hunt down the person who had really harmed him. It was kind of a revelation to me that that kind of darkness would create that kind of darkness, and I thought there would just be relief and, 'Oh, now we can go home,' but there was more pain. And that's what the song came out of. I think a lot of people are reading into it that it's very current, political. But I almost called it 'The Nazi Hunter,' about somebody who dedicates their life to revenge. It's just something I never thought about much before until I saw the documentary actually.
GS: What's the documentary?
PG: I saw it on PBS last summer, and it's about Berga. Berga was the concentration camp where they sent American POWs if they suspected them of being Jewish.
GS: There are also songs on Impossible Dream, such as 'Florida,' 'Kite Song,' and 'Mother Of God,' that are what one might call good examples of a Patty Griffin song. There is a familiar and comforting quality to those songs.
PG: Good, thank you. I'm glad that you feel that way. They feel more personal than some of the others.
GS: If you were to describe your style, how would you do that?
PG: I don't know. I think I'm a big, blubbering (laughs) emotional person. It's hard for me to listen to my own music and have this perspective on it, but I feel when I'm singing, I'm trying to push through to a higher place to look at things from.
GS: Well, speaking of personal things, there is an 'Impossible Dream' coda, sung by your parents, at the end of 'Top Of The World.' That seems like kind of a personal sort of thing to share with your fans.
PG: The placement of that is the turning point in the record, which is, the record has a lot to do with my own fears and doubts. Really for the future of human beings if I want to be really specific. It's nothing less than that. And my parents have lived through so much. They both lived through the depression, my father was a veteran of World War II. He was part of the Normandy Beach D-Day thing happening and he survived it. My mother was a week away from having a baby during the Bay of Pigs. You know, they've lived through so much of this, as all human beings have. And they also came from really humble beginnings. And they've taken all of this stuff that they've lived through and tried to really focus on their responsibility and their humanity. I just think they're really inspiring people, and I'm also very aware of their imperfections, but I do see their struggle and how dedicated they are to being good human beings and responsible to others and it's really inspiring to me. We tossed around a lot of ideas of how to go about putting 'Impossible Dream' on the record, because I really wanted to do that, and they were just one of the things that Craig Ross, the producer of the record, and I decided to record, and they won out (laughs). It was so beautiful.
GS: It is. I understand that you were Joined by Phoebe Snow at your Cutting Room showcase in NYC.
PG: Yeah, she came and sang. It was pretty fun (laughs). I was pretty little when 'Poetry Man' was a big hit, but my older sister was absolutely in love with her, and it was really exciting to hear her sing, two feet away.
GS: Speaking of sharing a stage, you will be touring with Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch on the Sweet Harmony Tour. Will you performing together in any of the shows?
PG: I think that the focus will be that we'll each do our own parts separately and then have a certain point in the show where we're all together doing things.
GS: There continues to be signs of a return to people listening to singer/songwriters; with new discs by you and Jonatha Brooke and Norah Jones, and debuts by Rachael Yamagata. What does it mean to you to be a singer/songwriter at this time in musical history?
PG: I feel lucky that it's what I do for a living. I'm sure you can relate, being a writer. I mean, we're really lucky that we have a platform to speak from and share these things and try to connect to other human beings. Because a lot of people don't have that outlet, and I think it's really important, right now, to be able to connect with others.
GS: VH1 is airing the latest installment of VH1 Divas series, which raises money for musical education in schools, and there are indications they are expanding the palette with the inclusion of Joss Stone, Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry. Do you have any interest in being a VH1 Diva?
PG: (Laughs) Never really thought about it before. Interesting idea (laughs).