Happiness Amid Melancholy: Songs of Patty Griffin The songs of singer-songwriter Patty Griffin are full of heartbreak and longing — so much so that a friend recently challenged her to write a happy song. She discusses that song and her new CD, Children Running Through.
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Happiness Amid Melancholy: Songs of Patty Griffin

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Happiness Amid Melancholy: Songs of Patty Griffin

Happiness Amid Melancholy: Songs of Patty Griffin

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The singer Patty Griffin moved to Austin, Texas, for love, lost the love, but found a musical home. Patty Griffin grew up in Maine, the youngest of seven children born in seven years. When she was about 12, she realized she liked to sing more than anything and that she could get lost in music.

Ms. PATTY GRIFFIN (Singer): I just started going into my room and literally going into my closet and singing into the clothes. Yeah, the Griffin are a really big family and so I was trying to just sort of get to sing and experiment without bugging a lot of people.

BLOCK: So the clothes idea was that the clothes would muffle the sound.


BLOCK: What's Patty doing in the closet?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GRIFFIN: (Singing) Little man, little man stares in the room. Waiting on the bus (unintelligible).

BLOCK: Patty Griffin's songs are often shot through with a big streak of melancholy, and they come to her at home in here favorite comfortable spot.

Ms. GRIFFIN: I'm a big, big fan of the kitchen table with the guitar. The kitchen table and the guitar is pretty sweet.

BLOCK: So what's the process or, what do you do?

Ms. GRIFFIN: I just really need to sing and sing and sing and not worry about writing. Just by singing for pleasure, your voice takes you to what it wants to sing. And that is how the best stuff kind of emerges. You just - blah - it just pops right out.

BLOCK: So the way you're describing it, the music is coming to you first. And the words are maybe a little bit behind?

Ms. GRIFFIN: They start at the same time. It's like the sculpture in the rock, you have to chip away and it and just, you know, not think too much and just keep going.

BLOCK: A song like "Burgundy Shoes" to me is like a perfect little film, tiny little film. And I imagine that it comes from some very vivid memory maybe you had of being a little girl, but, you know, maybe just the process you're describing sounds very far from that.

Ms. GRIFFIN: I was challenged from a friend of mine to write a happier song, so I just literally sat at the piano and trying to not write a sad song.

(Soundbite of song, "Burgundy Shoes")

Ms. GRIFFIN: (Singing) We wait for the bus that's going to Bangor in my plaid dress and burgundy shoes. In your red lipstick and lilac kerchief, you were the most pretty lady in the world.

I went back to happy memory and that's one my first ones is hanging with mom, waiting for the bus, going to - I grew up in Old Town, Maine. If you take the bus to Bangor, that was the big city. And just those little buses with the vinyl seats.

(Soundbite of song, "Burgundy Shoes")

(Singing) We climb on our seats. The vinyl is cold. Michelle, Ma Belle - the song that you loved then. You hold my hand and sing to yourself in the sun, in the sun, sun, sun, sun, sun.

Ms. GRIFFIN: When you're little, first of all, everybody smiles at you because you're cute, so you think the world is great. And everything is so vivid. You know, you're not clouded out by anxiety and you don't miss things. You see the sun and you see your mom's lipstick and how beautiful she is. You know, you just don't miss anything when you're four years old or three years old.

BLOCK: There's a line - it's the first day I don't wear my big boots.

Ms. GRIFFIN: Yeah. That was always a really big deal growing up in Maine. You know, you had to put those red rubber boots on over your lovely shoes, you know. And I really was frustrated by those red rubber boots, so when they - when we were finally allowed to take them off, it was a pretty exciting day.

(Soundbite of song, "Burgundy Shoes")

Ms. GRIFFIN: (Singing) The leaves are green and new like a baby. Tulips are red. No, I don't miss the snow. It's the first day I don't wear my big boots. You hold my hand. I've got burgundy shoes. Burgundy shoes. Burgundy shoes on.

BLOCK: You've been recording for, I guess, about 10 years. Do you think your voice has changed?

Ms. GRIFFIN: Yeah, it has. It's getting a little huskier, I think. And I was given some old, old, old recordings from like the late '80s and early '90s from somebody last year, and I have lost some of that high bell sweetness, and that's probably gone for good.

Emilou Harris sings on this record and she's got this amazing thing happening to her voice. Now she's coming up on 60 if she's been there already, and you just don't here a lot of those voices being recorded anymore. I mean, it's strange, but there is some much in her voice because of all of the years she's been singing and all the experience she has had in her life. And it has a soul to it that is rare and, you know, we were all in tears, you know, when she was putting her parts down.

(Soundbite of song, "Trapeze")

Ms. EMILOU HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) She started with us on the back of a horse, just 17 and already divorced. She took the air the greatest of ease, like she was born to be gliding on the old trapeze.

BLOCK: This is the song "Trapeze." Tell me about the song and how it started.

Ms. GRIFFIN: Well, I turned 48 a couple of years ago, and if there's something about doing what I do for a living, it's you start getting the brush off. I mean, a lot of women entertainers, actors, musicians talk about it and - but I do think it's all in your head. You know what I mean? You can accept that perception of yourself that you're getting too old to be interesting or buyable. Or you can kind of do what you do and see what happens.

And, you know, the "Trapeze" lady is swinging on this trapeze that she's put herself on, I think just trying to get through and please and figure out where she's supposed to be and what she's supposed to be doing, and finally she just comes down. And it's not a sad thing to me. This song, it's liberating to me. It's like, yeah, she's just coming down off that trapeze. And now we can really get started.

(Soundbite of song, "Trapeze")

Ms. GRIFFIN: (Singing) Spotlight going round.

BLOCK: Patty Griffin, thanks so much.

Ms. GRIFFIN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Trapeze")

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) One of these nights the old girl's going down. One of these nights the old girl's going down.

BLOCK: Patty Griffin's new CD is titled "Children Running Through." You can hear more songs at our Web site, NPR.org.

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