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Uncluttered Charisma

Patty Griffin touches a nerve with her bare-bones, folky style and sensitive songwriting. But the shy musician says she's still 'a rock chick at heart.'

September 01, 1996|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

Patty Griffin is putting up a brave front. For the past half an hour, the petite, raven-haired, soft-spoken singer has been sitting in the bar of a midtown Manhattan hotel, sipping wine and discussing a variety of fairly personal subjects--her family, the breakup of her marriage, her creative process--in what seems like a gently self-possessed manner, littering her comments with warm laughter and witty asides.

Then, suddenly, Griffin pauses for a moment, looks up from her glass and makes a confession.

"As I sit here talking," she says, "I can feel this place in my belly that is seized with terror."

Griffin is, it turns out, painfully shy by nature. It's a condition that has plagued the 32-year-old artist for as long as she can remember. And as she prepares for the fall leg of a club tour to promote her debut album, "Living With Ghosts," she's reflecting on how her timidity has influenced her choices as an artist.

"When I started performing," she explains, "I played acoustic music, partly because that way you don't have to worry about interacting too much with other people creatively. Asserting myself in that way was not really a strong point for me."

In fact, Griffin recorded "Living With Ghosts" without a band accompanying her. She deliberately opted for a bare-bones approach, crafting simple folk- and country-flavored arrangements dominated by her vocals and acoustic guitar work.

But if you're beginning to picture Griffin as a delicate flower, think again. The singer claims to be "a rock chick at heart." She grew up listening to powerful rock and soul voices--Robert Plant and Aretha Franklin were among her favorites--and her own supple, vibrant soprano has garnered comparisons to Bonnie Raitt, Maria McKee and Rickie Lee Jones. And the thoughtful, lyrical songs Griffin writes deal unflinchingly with subjects ranging from romantic turmoil to domestic violence and death.

"I don't actually have to think very hard when I'm writing," Griffin muses. "I mean, there are times where it's a task, and you have to plug away and plug away. But then there are times when a song writes itself in 15 minutes, and you're just struggling to keep up with it. It feels like a visitation, like an out-of-body experience. Stuff just starts shooting out--stuff that you're maybe too repressed to deal with consciously. It's kinda neat how that works.

"I was brought up to express myself only when asked to express myself, and then to do so in a way that's pleasing to hear. But I've always had a need to make my presence known. I was just sort of born that way, I guess. It's my natural tendency."


Griffin grew up in a small community called Old Town near the Canadian border in Maine. Her father and mother met while both were teaching high school. After marrying, they had seven children in seven years, ending with Patty. ("A busy Catholic family," Griffin notes.) One of Griffin's earliest memories is hearing nuns sing in church and feeling compelled to join in--much to the chagrin of her mother, who limited her own performing to improvising songs with her children while doing housework.

Griffin found a safer outlet for her musical ambitions in the school orchestra, where she played flute for five years. She wanted to switch to the saxophone after that because the flute "didn't have a big enough voice." But the school didn't have an extra sax available, and Griffin's financially struggling parents couldn't afford to buy her one. So she began singing and writing songs in her bedroom, and in her late teens joined an amateur band in which she explored her rock-chick side by singing Pat Benatar songs.

After graduating from high school, Griffin moved to Florida and waited tables for a while, then relocated to Boston in her early 20s. "I told people I was gonna go to college," she says, "but I never did." Instead, she got another waitressing job, and at 24 married one of her co-workers. The marriage dissolved about four years later, but Griffin says that her ex-husband's encouragement played a key role in her decision to pursue a professional career as a singer-songwriter.

"He thought I had a gift musically, and he was one of the first people in my life to point that out," Griffin says. "He was really adamant about it. But it wasn't possible for him to be a mentor because we were trying to have a relationship. . . . I guess I really shouldn't talk about that, though. It's kinda deep down there, and I should leave it alone until I figure it out--when I'm about 60."

Predictably, making the transition from performing her songs in her room to performing them for live audiences wasn't easy. "The first time I went onstage alone, I couldn't get a note out--I was literally squeaking," she recalls. Her confidence grew, though, as her gigs drew increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds.

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