PATTY GRIFFIN: The Midlife Crisis Revisited

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It’s hard to imagine anyone easing into their fourth decade of life with greater grace and moxie than Patty Griffin. She has a bewitching way of slipping right past the social conventions of age, defying anyone who says that rock music is the sole province of angsty male adolescents-or that mellowness is the proper aim of a woman nearing middle-age.

It’s hard to imagine anyone easing into their fourth decade of life with greater grace and moxie than Patty Griffin. She has a bewitching way of slipping right past the social conventions of age, defying anyone who says that rock music is the sole province of angsty male adolescents-or that mellowness is the proper aim of a woman nearing middle-age.

There are moments during Children Running Through-Griffin’s fifth studio album-that burst with the type of unrestrained sonic energy the Austin-based singer/songwriter hasn’t flexed since her second and final A&M record, Flaming Red, in 1998.  “Getting Ready” is a case in point; the song’s frenetic pace borders on punk, with Griffin squealing and cooing-simultaneously the hot-blooded girl and the sensual, sure-footed woman-and the band pummeling three chords repeatedly, punctuated by a whining, feedback-laden guitar solo.

It’s hard to believe that someone actually told Griffin she should stick to the quieter end of the spectrum just a few years back.

“When I made 10,000 Kisses, I was in between record deals, and one of the labels that I talked to…one of the guys asked me straight up, ‘You’re not going to rock again are you?'” she recalls with amusement. “‘You’re not going to try to do that again are you?’

“Rock music-that kind of, you know, crazy energy behind it-is a great way to exorcise the demons. I guess there is this idea in our culture that if you’re a 42-year-old woman, you might have figured that stuff out by now. But I think it’s quite the contrary. I feel like the older I get, the more I need to exorcise my demons so I don’t, um, kill somebody.”

There are plenty of reasons why Griffin’s name is often uttered in the same breath as musical terms like “neo-folk.” She’s sung with Emmylou Harris on more than one occasion, the Dixie Chicks have mined her catalog, and she’s written plenty of songs that require no more than a voice and an acoustic guitar to captivate an audience, to name just a few.

But such musical descriptors don’t do Griffin justice, especially not now, when she’s saturated the r&b and gospel-inflected tracks of her latest album with self-possessed, full-bodied belting. That’s not to say that she hasn’t allowed her voice to soar and swoop gorgeously in the past (case in point the unadorned soul of “Let Him Fly” on her 1996 debut Living With Ghosts), but she has never poured herself into singing quite like this before. Even the intricacy of her songwriting-at least in her mind-took a bit of a back seat this time.

“For this record specifically, I think I just really tried to curtail…with a few exceptions…the lyrics. You know, keep the lyrics to a minimum just so the voice could have more room to ride on the notes.”

In order to capture the vibrancy and immediacy of her voice, Griffin called on Mike McCarthy-whose past album credits range from Lee Ann Womack to indie rock quartet Spoon-to co-produce with her.

“I mean, he’s worked with country acts, gospel acts and Boyz II Men…all kinds of great country singers, and then punk rock bands and boy pop bands,” she says. “He’s really pretty well versed in just about anything you could hope for. I just really wanted somebody [like that], I think, because of the Nashville background. That it’s a pretty vocal-oriented town.”

Griffin speaks about powerful, gut-level singing more in terms of a lofty unmet goal than something that’s nearly within her grasp. The bar she sets is an extremely high one, and that has a lot to do with the copy of Aretha Franklin’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which she received from her sister at the age of 12.

“She handed me that record and said ‘Learn how to sing it like this; then you’ll really be getting somewhere,'” Griffin recalls. “And, you know, I’m still working on that. One of the things I think I have taken out of that music is that Aretha and a lot of singers from that gospel background fill up the song entirely. You don’t ever hear a note that isn’t completely certain of itself in those songs. At least, in modern pop singing, you don’t hear a lot of that-not like Aretha. Aretha is, like, reaching for the stars, and it sounds like she’s just doing what comes naturally. It’s really just a huge, powerful lesson to learn about what’s possible-where a voice can take you.”

All statements of humility aside, Griffin’s voice musters a full range of emotion and nuance during the piano-driven, strings-sweetened, cathartic gospel of “Up To the Mountain (MLK Song).” Her vibrato swells from hushed intimacy to nimble fervor, as she bears testimony to inextinguishable prophetic conviction. The song title’s parenthetical qualifier-added only after the version Solomon Burke recorded on his Buddy Miller-produced album Nashville garnered a misinterpretation or two-is meant to leave no doubt that it was inspired by the late Civil Rights leader’s rousing final sermon.

“I mean, people can interpret songs any way they want,” Griffin says. “But I’m pretty sure I actually lifted some words from the speech right out and put them into the song. I thought I should probably credit that.”

Ever since A&M released Griffin’s stripped-down demo-turned-debut album just over a decade ago, she’s been recognized as an artful composer of songs that capture listeners’ ears with earthy glimpses of humanity and unforced eloquence. Even Jessica Simpson-who inhabits the seemingly antithetical territory of slick pop music-found Griffin’s “Let Him Fly” to ring true during her dark days of divorce and decided to include the song on last year’s Public Affair.

“I don’t listen to pop radio, so I don’t really know her,” Griffin admits. “I don’t think I knew anything about her love life or anything like that. It’s interesting, isn’t it, where things land? From my perspective it’s really unwise to take a cynical kind of point of view about anything.”

But catching the ears of high profile artists isn’t enough. Griffin wants to make her music more accessible still, hence the new focus on simpler song lyrics. For her, the litmus test is the songwriting economy of Willie Nelson and Cindy Walker, “Texans that know how to nail it with, like, three words per line,” she says.

“You go and see somebody like Willie, and every single person right to the back row is engaged,” Griffin reflects. “As much of a genius as I think Bob Dylan is, I think there’s something about making music that everybody can sing…I don’t know very many people who can sing along with “Hurricane,” or whatever the song is he wrote about that boxer.” (Indeed, “Hurricane”-Dylan’s 1976 defense of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter-doesn’t exactly skimp on words-per-line.)

“This all kind of grew out of getting up on stage on my last tour and really wanting my audience to be more engaged with the music, and realizing that I think some of my music was a little too complex for them to do that with,” she continues. “I think at this point in my life I am kind of looking for material that I can bring the audience into a little bit more. You know, I guess now I’m getting so old that I really do want sing-a-long songs. And also I really love the way people sound. I love the way people sound singing together. I’m just looking for that for myself…I want to hear more of that.”

For Griffin, growing a few years older has had the effect of stripping away whatever thin layers of inhibition she may have had. Throughout her new album she sings more boldly, embraces the notion of participation-friendly songs (it’s easy to imagine rows of people pumping their fists and shouting along with “Getting Ready” or swaying and swooning to the billowy soul of “Heavenly Day”) and follows her muse unfettered through tender or gritty terrain, impulses only hinted at during the colorful, folk-leaning eclecticism of Living With Ghosts, 10,000 Kisses, Flaming Red and Impossible Dream.

Children Running Through references a poem of the same title-written by 13th century Persian poet-mystic Rumi-that describes the shedding of seriousness with age: “I used to be shy /You made me sing /I used to refuse things at table /Now I shout for more wine.” It’s a perspective Griffin deems essential for those whose eyes and ears tend to alight on the uglier aspects of the human experience.

“I think that the older you get, the more you realize that youthful anxiety’s gonna kill ya,” she quips. “The older you get, the more loss you’re going to experience, the more wars you’re probably going to see…the more terrible things you’re going to see. There’s got to be some other way of approaching human beings day to day.”

So Griffin opted to surpass the hope-tinged realism of some of her earlier songs in favor of a more conscious, two-fisted hold on optimism.

“I feel that there is absolutely no choice but to suppose that it’s not going to end in a big boom,” she offers. “You have to sort of continue on that way. And I think it is really important to be vigilant about troubles, especially when they’re not in your backyard; it’s really easy to forget about them. I think it is important to try to understand those things in your heart, but I also think you have to take time to-as Coleman Barks [author of numerous Rumi translations] says in that book, that Rumi book-to look away from the misery. I think you have to do that. So that’s sort of, so far, the beginning of my midlife crisis right there, trying to look away from the misery.”

Griffin’s “midlife crisis” is on full display during “No Bad News.” Propelled by buoyant folk-rock seasoned with hand claps and bright mariachi horns, she sings of shielding her eyes from bearers of doom and gloom: “Don’t bring me bad news /no bad news /I don’t need none of your bad news today /You’re a sad little boy /anyone can see it /just a sad little boy /That’s why you’re carrying on that way.”

Likewise, the balmy soul ballad “Heavenly Day” is a straightforward ode to enjoying a few unclouded, worry free moments. It’s also the most lighthearted-make that only, at least according to Griffin-love song that she’s ever written. (“When It Don’t Come Easy”-a weathered promise of steadfastness from her last studio album-evidently isn’t quite love-y enough to count.) Even so, “Heavenly Day” doesn’t address a typical lover per se.

“I actually wrote that about my dog,” Griffin laughs. “I shouldn’t tell people that. Yeah, it was my first love song, and it was for my dog. I realized, you know, when you see somebody you love happy, that’s kinda it right there in a nutshell. I have two dogs, but Bean is the one who kind of inspired that song…she’s my soul mate.”

If referring to a “midlife crisis” generally conjures images of someone emptying the retirement fund to buy a sporty convertible and regain a sense of youthful vitality, then Griffin’s reclamation of it as a time for writing sunnier songs, singing with marvelous self-assurance, planting one foot in playfulness and the other in wisdom and even rocking if the urge strikes, seems a whole lot more like a personal and artistic epiphany. It’s really not a crisis at all.

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