The genre-busting artist discusses her return to personal songwriting with her first album of mostly new material in six years, “American Kid.”
Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin
Tavis: Patty Griffin’s lyrical, mostly acoustic style is described as Americana roots music, but the label doesn’t do justice to the range of her work. After winning a Grammy in 2010 for a gospel CD, she’s returned to personal songwriting with her seventh album, titled “American Kid,” which she dedicates to her father, who fought in World War II.
Let’s take a look at Patty Griffin and her personal and musical partner, Robert Plant, singing “Ohio,” which is a tribute to the Underground Railroad inspired by Toni Morrison’s great novel, “Beloved.”
Tavis: So I mentioned Toni Morrison’s work as the inspiration for this. Tell me more about how that track came to be.
Patty Griffin: I got asked to write a song for a friend of mine who was producing a young band, and he was looking for songs for them. I thought I had this groove that I’d been working on, and I thought I’ll just write a song around it for them. I thought it would be right for them.
They didn’t, they just didn’t have a feel – it didn’t make it. (Laughter) So I had it and a couple months later decided to keep it on my own.
Tavis: I’m glad you did.
Tavis: It’s a nice tribute. Since you went there, Patty, so what does it feel like, how do you process, how do you not take personally being asked to write something for someone, you write it, and they’re not feeling it?
I guess it’s not a personal thing. If they don’t like the song they can’t sing the song. When you write something and give it to somebody and they say thank you, but no thank you, how do you process that?
Griffin: It doesn’t really bother me.
Griffin: It’s so personal. Singing is a weird thing to do. It’s very personal, so you have to really, I think, love what you’re singing.
Tavis: Yeah. But obviously it is the case that you could write something for someone else, it not work, and it still is – you can still relate to it enough to do it yourself.
Griffin: Well, usually I write from something that moves me.
Griffin: That story moves me. When I was studying for the gospel record, I studied some old-timey, old, old, old timey, like field holler kind of lyrics, and there’s some images from that that I used in that song.
It’s just such an incredible story in this country, the Underground Railroad and all of the escaping that people did. It’s not really a very often-told story anymore.
Tavis: I was about to say it’s a story that doesn’t get told terribly often.
Tavis: But I’m glad you did the song about it. This project is, inspires, as I said earlier, in some ways by your father.
Tavis: And your relationship with your father, and the sad loss of your father. Tell me about your dad.
Griffin: He was this little Irish guy. His parents were from Ireland. He grew up in Boston. He was just a little scrapper. He was probably about 5’8″ at his peak and he shrunk down to be about 5’4″ in there. (Laughter)
He just lived a crazy life. He was a real seeker, I think. He was one of those guys that was born in the 1920s in Boston, and his parents were servants. He lived through the Depression, did the D-Day invasion, came back home to be an orphan, and just had this crazy life.
Became a monk for a few years, got kicked out of there. Went to Maine, ended up in Maine on the border, the Canadian border, where he met my mother and then proceeded to have seven children in seven years, and here I am, number seven.
It’s just – I guess there are a million lives that are that amazing, but he’s my dad. As I was about to lose him, I wanted to, just for my own benefit, I wanted to dig into thinking about him and feeling what I felt about him and thinking about his life.
He wasn’t able to really – I had some stories that he wasn’t able to complete towards the end of his life, and then so I just made stuff up and I got to know him, I think, better that way.
Tavis: Are there things – I’m just curious here – are there things musically that you want to, or find that you can say to your dad or about your dad that doesn’t always come so easily via conversation?
Griffin: Oh, yes, yes.
Tavis: Does that make sense?
Griffin: That’s very good. (Laughs)
Tavis: Tell me more about that.
Griffin: I have a song called “I’m Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone” I wrote before he passed away, because he was really suffering, and he was blind and deaf, and he was a big reader, and I think that he always used his intellect.
He lost a lot of brain power at the end and was really suffering and was very angry and upset a lot of the time. I wrote that song for him. I never played it for him, but it did help me to sort of say something to him.
“I’m going to miss you when you’re gone. I know you don’t believe that, but you’re wrong,” is the line. (Laughs) So yeah, I did.
Tavis: So when you do a project that has material on it that is inspired by something that was so personal for you, what’s the hope for how the audience relates, how the audience interprets and revels in a project like this.
Griffin: I guess I’m at a point in my life where people are starting to say goodbye. My elders are dropping away, and I’m at that, it’s just a natural part your life.
I just hope that somehow there’s someplace in the heart that these songs hit with people that maybe help in that part of their lives somewhere.
Tavis: Tell me more about the collaboration, musically, that is, the collaboration with Robert Plant.
Griffin: On this record, or –
Griffin: Well, we co-wrote one of the songs together, which I don’t normally do. We started making stuff up at sound checks when we were in the Band of Joy together, and the highway song “Ohio.”
He is such a brilliant band leader/organizer. When I had “Ohio” in a certain shape but it just wasn’t working, and I played it for him and he said, “Oh, well, just do this, do this, do this, and do this, and you’re done.” (Laughter)
Took him about five minutes to come up with the idea, and it made it happen, so yeah.
Tavis: If I were to ask you to name the song on here that is the most fun, (laughter) you’d say what? I don’t want people to think wow, that project –
Griffin: There’s a song called “Get Ready, Marie” on there that my grandmother, there’s a photograph of my grandparents that was taken in the 1920s, my French-Canadian side grandparents that were, was taken, like, moments after they were married.
My grandmother’s got this look on her face like, wow, this is probably a really bad idea. (Laughter) Meanwhile, my grandfather is this very handsome lumberjack guy who’s kind of leering, like he just can’t wait to get his hands on her. She told the story of the wedding day, and they had a pretty crazy relationship.
But I always thought when you grew up around these family stories, and some of them you just sort of – it has this, like, little framework of tragedy over there, but I never really framed it in another way. I never really saw the point of view from the sense of humor of my grandfather.
So I decided to write this song about him. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on her. That was kind of it. You had to get married back then to do that, so that’s what he did.
Tavis: Yeah, not so much these days. (Laughter)
Tavis: But I digress on that point. The new project from Patty Griffin is called “American Kid,” got a Robert Plant collaboration on here. I think you’ll want to check it out. Patty, good to have you on the program and congratulations.
Griffin: Thank you. Thanks very much.
Tavis: That’s our show tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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