It’s a bit ironic that many casual fans know of Patty Griffin through the covers of her songs done by other, more mainstream artists. After all, her own singing voice is a thing of wonder, and her own interpretations of the songs she likes are usually the definitive ones.
Take, for example, “Making Pies” from her excellent 2002 album, 1000 Kisses. Music critics like to haphazardly throw the word “haunting” around in reviews, even when the music they’re describing doesn’t warrant it. This song is haunting in the best sense, in that the story contained in it and the emotions it so effortlessly conveys stay with you long after its final notes have been played.
At the time of 1000 Kisses, Griffin wasn’t the known entity she would become, and, as a result, had to make the record on the cheap. As she explained to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette around the album’s release, the spare sound she and her band developed was as much a product of necessity as it was inspiration. “We wanted to do something really simple and I paid for it myself, so we kept drums off it,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had the expertise or the time or the money to really do anything bigger than what we did.”
As it turns out, the gentle accompaniment only serves to highlight the beauty of this song, allowing Griffin’s lovely voice to flesh out the forlorn melody and heartfelt lyrics. “Making Pies” is kind of like “Eleanor Rigby” if Eleanor were the one telling the story. The lonely protagonist doesn’t spell out every detail, but you can read between the lines to see where how her life has come to be this way.
Notice how it’s her nephew’s birthday party that she describes; she clearly has no children of her own to celebrate. Her part-time job at the church is more a time-wasting exercise than a vocation, and Jesus’ presence “way up there on the wall” doesn’t even distract her much from her baking duties.
As the song presses on, it becomes evident why this woman is all alone: Her “sweetheart” was a soldier who died in battle. It doesn’t even matter which war, because the loss felt by those left behind is always the same. When she describes the photo of the two of them taken before the war, she doesn’t use the word “me,” rather the “Italian girl,” as if it were an entirely different person.
All of this leads to the crucial final verse, when Griffin lends her protagonist the resilience that makes her more than just a spinster to be pitied. “You could cry or die/Or just make pies all day,” she sings. Her choice tells it all: “I’m making pies.”
Suddenly, making pies becomes an act of seemingly limitless courage. Characters like the one in this song are often overlooked by songwriters telling the usual tales of young love. In “Making Pies,” Patty Griffin shows how the most seemingly inconspicuous individuals often have the most haunting tales to tell.
It’s not far, I can walk
Down the block to table talk
I close my eyes
And make the pies all day
Plastic cap on my hair
I used to mind, now I don’t care
I used to mind, now I don’t care
‘Cause I’m grey
Did I show you this picture of my nephew
Taken at his big birthday surprise
At my sister’s house last Sunday
This is Monday and I’m making pies
I’m making pies, making pies
Thursday nights I go and type
Down to the church for Father Mike
It gets me out
And he ain’t hard to like at all
Jesus stares at me in my chair
With his big blue eyes and his honey brown hair
He’s looking at me
From way up there on the wall
Did I show you this picture of my sweetheart
Taken of us before the war?
Of the Greek and his Italian girl
One Sunday at the shore
We tied our ribbons to the fire escape
They were taken by the birds
Who flew home to the country
As the bombs rained on the world
Five a.m., here I am
Walking the block to table talk
You can cry or die or just make pies all day,
I’m making pies, I’m making pies