Today, songwriter Patty Griffin is considered one of the greatest in the world at her craft. She writes spare songs that tear at your heartstrings and rattle the marrow of your bones. Griffin, who has lived in Austin, Texas, for decades, got her start, though, in New England, playing small coffee houses as she honed her craft. She first learned about music at the feet of her mother, singing along with her, and bought her first guitar for $50 at 16-years-old. Ever since, she’s been creating, writing and touring her work around the globe, first in small clubs then later in larger venues.
Now, Griffin is giving back to those spots, many of which are independently owned. Griffin, who released her Grammy-winning, self-titled LP last year, has scheduled three unique shows livestreamed from the historic Continental Club in her hometown of Austin, Texas to help raise money and awareness for those venues who have dramatically and severely suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tickets are available here for the gigs, slated for November 7th and 21st and December 5th.
Venues all over the United States have had to close their doors and will have to keep them shut for an undetermined amount of time. They need help. And Griffin is here to add her support. We talked with the exquisite songwriter about why venues matter to her, what she’s learned by playing their stages, how the government may or may not be helping and much more.
Why are music venues – particularly, independent music venues – important to you?
Most music venues out there are labors of love. Right now most of them have furloughed or laid off or had to let go of almost of their workers. They’re struggling to stay alive and a lot of them are independent and not part of larger corporations. We really can’t afford to lose them. There are so many layers to why we can’t afford to lose them on top of people losing their jobs and there being not enough places for musicians to play. Just that alone – musicians not being able to play – is going to have an affect on just the development of music creatively here in the United States.
I’ve been a working musician since the 90s. I’ve been traveling abroad since the 90s. It was very surprising to find out over the years – American music is actually a wonderful export. It gets developed and loved in these clubs and nurtured in these clubs that are going away right now. We have to try to hang on to and protect them. It’s one of our better spaces in this country. It’s one of our better representatives with all of the live music that’s been developed here in the United States. It connects us to the world. It’s that big. It’s that important.
And these little tiny venues collectively – all over the United States – there’s not one of them that isn’t struggling. If they haven’t closed their doors yet, they’re really hanging on by their fingernails. If they haven’t closed their doors yet, then definitely everybody is afraid of that. I know Lucinda is doing a show like this and I know a few others have done shows like this. But I’m hoping that more and more artists and bigger artists with a bigger reach can start just regularly doing online anything shows that would be contributors and fundraisers for these music venues. Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish – all of these big artists.
Even if they didn’t have to go through that mill, the small venue mill, it really is – everybody, we’re all connected to it. We’ve all been inspired by work or admire artists who have gone through some of these venues that maybe we haven’t gone through but they are all very important, we’re all influenced by the work that’s gone through them. We need to protect them. It’s a national heritage that everybody can agree on. There’s not a lot of those things. It’s also something that puts us in the world that makes us look good! You know what I’m saying? We need that!
You live in Austin where there are tons of venues. What do you see in the city now, how are Austin’s venues affected by the pandemic, the new world?
Well, I’ve been a touring artist for over twenty years, so I don’t depend on the Austin music scene solely for my income. I’ve been told it’s been, you know, a pretty big story in Texas that about 90% of the live music venues in Austin alone have already shuttered forever. I know some of the old granddaddies have gone down. So, we’ve lost some of those permanently, some of the big ones. There are a lot of small venues that come and go around here. I know they probably had a hard time hanging on. And I know there are a lot of places with endowments that are considered pretty solvent because they are connected to other businesses that are solvent. Like the Continental Club where I’m going to be broadcasting from for these gigs coming up, they’re doing okay. But they’re in a completely different situation, financially, than a lot of places are. I would say across the board, even the Continental Club, they’re taking a hit. Definitely the music scene in Austin, which was already under siege from development and the import of the tech industry and rents going up, it’s taken a very, very big hit.
I don’t really know what it’s going to look like. I guess they’re saying we may not even be close to getting back out there until this time next year. So, whatever we can do as artists to reach people who can put a dollar in. If 15,000 people put in a dollar that’s, you know, $15,000. I’ve been told that a contribution of $100 to one of these venues will literally keep their electricity on for months. So, I know it doesn’t seem like much, and a lot of people are strapped right now and not working. So, even if you can part with a dollar, it does really add up and could make a difference to a lot of people out there in these venues.
I live in Seattle and I see dozens of venues that are so vital to the city here experiencing the same problems. It’s worrisome.
We have a few venues on our list that we’re specifically directing funds to and The Neptune is one of my nearest and dearest venues. I just love that venue so much. It’s very special to me! So, yeah, we’ve got them on our list.
When did you decide to take on this initiative to help venues?
Well, my agent, Frank Riley, from the word go of this shutdown, helped create NIVA to get the word out and get some funding for these venues. He’s been connected to a lot of these places for, you know, over I would say going on 30-40 years. So, it’s not only his livelihood and the livelihood of the people who are working with him and his company, but he’s got personal relationships with a lot of people in these cities all over the United States and Australia. He’s been really dedicated to this from the get-go.
It came up that maybe we should tear ourselves away from Schitt’s Creek and go get some gigs. We booked these gigs in November and my management has been working with Frank to reach out to different venues and different people in towns in order to figure out how to help. While people are watching out show life, we will make it very easy to donate in support of these venues. We’ll also ensure that people who watch the shows within the 48-hour window after the live performance will also be able to support.
It’s also to raise awareness. So that if you’re watching from Portland or Seattle and you’ve got, you know, Revolution Hall, you’ve got Aladdin Theater, you’ve got The Neptune, all of these venues will benefit with any donation. It’s so incredibly important for just our culture, American culture. It’s one of our more incredible, beautiful things that we’ve put together culturally in the United States from the get-go. There’s always been music here. So many different cultures come together to make American music and send it out to the world. We need that to continue and evolve!
We need people to have places to go. We need the 16- and 18-year-old songwriters coming to a Neptune Theater, an Aladdin Theater to go to play their songs when they’re ready. And we have to make sure these venues exist. Hopefully, as grateful as I am for Zoom and for online everything now, I come from a generation that didn’t have it! I’m grateful for it now but I think there’s nothing like the real thing. There’s nothing like the in-person and I think we need to get back to that at some point. And we will.
Because I’ve seen a lot of venues over the years get bought up and sucked up into larger corporations, which has been beneficial during this pandemic to those venues. Actually Live Nation has been fantastic, for example. But one of the great things about a music venue that is smaller and locally-owned is that it really does reflect the spirit and the tastes of the town you’re in. You can really get a feel for each place through there and learn a lot about the people you’re playing to. It’s a little less formal – another great one on the list is The Vic in Chicago. If you’ve ever had a chance to go there, it’s historic. It’s an absolutely incredible old venue that they just keep going and going.
Are you keeping track of how the Federal Government and Congress are addressing this issue and a potential bailout, or are you more focused locally?
I think that we are so far from passing a bill at this very stage in our political history – I don’t know what’s happening on a state level, I don’t know what different states are doing to deal with this. But I do know that Frank Riley and NIVA have a bill headed to Congress. I know they’re expecting to talk to Congress about this issue but actually having a hearing and bringing it to Congress and making it something that they can pass funds for, I don’t believe that has happened yet. And I think it may be a while before that can happen. Because of the, let’s just say it, the shit show that is there right now. Just trying to get any funding for anybody going through – so, really, we have to try to, you know, keep everybody hanging in as best as we can on our own right now. I think that’s our best bet. And beyond, I think, when there is a bailout, it probably won’t be enough. You know, we can still help. It’s a way to activate your sense of community, which we all, of course, everybody’s been saying we really, really need to do that. You can help your own community and go into your own community and try to support these different venues.
When you consider this cause, is there a memory or experience of your own that springs to mind, perhaps from a time when you were maybe more reliant on venues to grow your career?
Oh, honey, I’m still reliant on these venues. I’m not playing sheds – I’m reliant on these venues for my work. I’m not solely reliant on the venues for income anymore, but I am reliant on them to do my shows. The independent venues are really, to me, the ideal sort of rooms because of their size and closeness within their community. I couldn’t really pick out a single venue that’s had – you know, going through my list here, I’ve had so many magical nights of my life. I’ve been very, very lucky to have so many magical evenings in each of these venues. I’m looking through this list and I’m literally tearing up because they all have something about them that is very special. They’ve just helped me along evolving as an artist. You know, 50% of the work I do is sitting in a room and taking the songs and trying to work on those and then 50% is getting up on stage and trying to figure out how to express them. You walk into one of these venues where they really know what a magical show is and there isn’t one on my list that isn’t in that category for me. It gives you the space where you feel comfortable and it helps you to dig a little deeper and give a little bit more. And then you go, “Whoa, I can do that. This is cool!” There’s a lot that they are giving to us as musicians and, you know, we have to give back as much as we can.