Those who already adore Patty Griffin will cheer when she says, “What I really liked a lot about making this record was writing. I hadn’t really taken as quite as much time off to do it in years, and I had a great time doing it.”
Sounds simple enough, right? But when it comes to capturing the essence of making it through the hard times, this singer-songwriter has few peers. After scaling back her schedule over the last few years, Griffin has issued one of the most insightful, eloquent albums of her career, Children Running Through.
Her songs have been covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Maura O’Connell, Joan Osborne and the Wreckers, among many others. In addition, her albums Living With Ghosts, Flaming Red, 1000 Kisses and Impossible Dream are revered for expressing pain without sounding pitiful, to provide comfort when you feel alone and almost always offering a glimmer of hope when everything seems lost.
Calling from her home in Austin, Texas, with her dogs causing quite a ruckus in the background, Griffin talks about childhood memories, singing with Emmylou Harris and what “pearls of water on my hips” really means.
“Heavenly Day” is a very uplifting song. What was the inspiration to write it?
You hear that barking? That’s what it was! (laughs) Actually, it was a day like today — we’re having a really beautiful day here in Austin. The weather had been kind of crappy for a while and there was a lot of road construction going on in our neighborhood. Noisy jackhammer. Then it all went away, and it was a beautiful day, and the blossoms were coming out, and the dogs were running around and rolling in the grass. It really doesn’t get any better than that. (laughs)
When you sing the word “sun” in “Burgundy Shoes,” does that represent you having a revelation after a long, cold winter?
It’s what I felt like what I wanted to sing there, that word. I can’t really literally tell you why. I think the song really is from a little 4-year-old. You have these very sharp sensations when you’re 4 or 5 years old. You’re not all caught up with this weird anxieties you start getting when you’re older. You can really take in a moment like that — sitting on a bus with your mom, and the sun’s coming in the window. It’s just that, really.
What does Emmylou Harris’ voice bring to a tragic song like “Trapeze”?
That song just took on a whole other world. I thought, “We’ll get Emmy to do a harmony on this.” I wasn’t thinking of a duet. She came in and ran through the whole song about three times and … “Oh! It’s a duet! I didn’t know that! Yay!” (laughs) I like it so much more now. First of all, she’s got something happening with her voice. You don’t hear people of her experience singing a lot, so there’s emotion in her voice that is so rare. I hope this doesn’t sound like bullshit because I really mean it. I’m hearing things in her voice on that session that I’ve never heard before. I get really big chills. She’s tapped into stuff that you have to have lived her life to tap into. You can’t fake that stuff. She’s got this soul in her voice that gets deeper and deeper. That’s my favorite song on the record because of that performance. She brought something to it that wasn’t there.
The Dixie Chicks have recorded several of your songs, like “Let Him Fly,” “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2.” I have to ask, can you shed some light on what “pearls of water on my hips” from “Truth No. 2” means?
(laughs) It’s just a nice. … It’s just about love. It’s like, “Sing me something brave from your mouth, and I’ll give you everything.” Be alive, be brave. Step up to the plate, man. Have integrity.
You often give your characters a sense of determination. In real life, people sometimes have to make a conscious decision to move forward and cope with the circumstances. Is that a challenge for you personally?
I think that’s pretty standard fare for being alive. (laughs) I think especially through my 20s and 30s, I do think I walked around with this expectation, like “Is this going to get better?” (laughs) You know, some of it does and some of it doesn’t. I love that Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” That to me sums it up: “Let’s have some booze. If that’s all there is.” You sort of get to that point when you get older. I understand that song a lot better than I used to. But in my 20s, I definitely was trying to find a reason to continue.
When you’re writing songs about the times when you’re just barely hanging on, are you often in that frame of mind in your own life?
You know, I’ve never been sad a day in my life! (laughs) I made it all up. Isn’t that great? I think I nailed it. (laughs) Yeah, I’ve been to a dark place, man. What can I say? I have — a couple of times. Who hasn’t, really? I think even Cameron Diaz has had a dark day. She seems like she has a bright, bright light — and it’s probably on most of the time — but I’m sure she’s had her day when she’s fallen into tears. Everybody’s got them.
In “Crying Over,” you say you don’t know what will save you from sorrow. For you personally, what do you reach for to find hope?
I think you just don’t give up. Not to segue into another song (“I Don’t Ever Give Up”), but I mean that’s really all you’ve got. Patience, patience, patience. Hang on, you know? I’ve got a funny feeling that not hanging on is not the way to go. So you do the best you can to hang in there. I think that’s all there is. It can get better.