“Attention shoppers: A musical performance by Griffin House is starting now in the café area. Thank you for visiting Borders Books and Music.” It’s hardly an introduction worth writing home about, but good-natured Griffin House shrugs off the interruption with a sly grin and continues on talking about his new album, The Learner.
“I wanted to come here and play some songs softly for everybody,” he explains. Just then a blender fires up for someone’s coffee-milkshake concoction, drowning out the rest of his thought. For the slightest of moments, a look of apprehension crosses the singer-songwriter’s face, but the blending thankfully stops soon as more people gather to listen.
By now, you may be thinking House is another hopeful country artist looking to get noticed in Nashville and maybe land a recording deal, but you’d be a little off the mark. As he begins his first song, the serene “River City Lights,” he casually remarks that on the album, this track features a guest singer. Her name? Alison Krauss.
It doesn’t seem like the type of show a well-respected independent artist with nine album releases to his credit would sign on for, but the rest of the performance goes much smoother. The café is filled by the end of the first song, and employees have to hurry to find more chairs. Much of the audience lines up after the 30-minute set to say hello and get an autograph or maybe take a photo with the handsome singer. He looks like he could play the reluctant hero in an action flick, but his relaxed and reflective personality is a perfect fit for the coffee-drinking bookstore crowd — and that bit of knowledge comes from the experiences that also inform his latest album.
He says The Learner captures a time in his life when about five years of living came to a head. He quit drinking, got married and started seeing things differently.
“It was really sort of all the lessons that I kept learning about life. And I was able to say something in a new way, really direct and to the point without a lot of beating around the bush,” he explained during an interview about a week before the bookstore gig. Sitting in a local coffee house, the conversation ranged widely — so much so that he kind of neglected to talk about the new album very much. Instead, he talked about ideas for his next project. Clearly, the easygoing artist is more concerned with looking forward and connecting with whoever is around him.
Maybe that’s why he chose Borders in the first place. Flanked by an electric guitar and bass turned down as low as they’d go, he didn’t even sing through a microphone. It was about as direct a connection with an audience that a musician can offer. Playing for an audience — rather than to them — has long been a singer-songwriter’s craft, and House put on a folk clinic mixed with strong rhythms and his uniquely commanding voice. He sang about longing, patience, oil spills and floods — topical issues and personal philosophy alike.
Then again, some of it was just fun. For his second song, “Standing at the Station” — which features a beautiful opening verse sung in French — he enlisted the crowd to help clap along. When it got so loud that no one could hear the words, he just stopped with an apologetic smile and said, “Maybe start clapping after the second verse.” After starting over, we got the full effect of the buildup into a driving chorus.
By that time, he had charmed his way to the attention of the curious shoppers — and even the Vanderbilt University students who had been studying intently when the commotion started. He wisely capitalized with the brooding “Rule the World,” which came across as a rejection of being too ambitious. It’s an interesting point, especially in a city like Nashville, where aspiring artists can be found in every restaurant, record store and honky-tonk, and even the soon-to-be doctors and lawyers in attendance nodded their heads in approval.
Switching gears to The Learner’s upbeat opening track, “If You Want To,” got four kindergarten-aged kids spinning in circles in front of the band and the adults doing a little chair-dancing. Written with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson (famous for the band’s 1998 hit, “Closing Time”), the song is a catchy, fun-loving standout about taking a risk on love.
But maybe his most moving song also happened to be the newest. So new, it doesn’t even appear on the album. Written “while rain pounded Nashville and caused the city to flood,” “Head for the Hills” is a protest song and captures the frustration that goes along with the disasters we’ve seen recently — both natural and man-made. When talking about the song’s inspiration, House is visibly concerned. “The oil, the floods, it’s like ’What is going on? Am I going to have to get out of here?'”
Judging by the crowd’s emphatic reaction after the performance, it’s a question that seemed to be on everyone else’s mind as well. It’s a shame the song came along after the record was finished, but House was offering a free download of the track on his website along with a video filmed in Louisiana, which premiered on CNN’s Larry King Live blog. House will take its message on his upcoming fall tour as the new single. Calling it his “new favorite song to play,” he’ll plead his case for major-market audiences all across the U.S., beginning Aug. 27 in Chicago and ending Oct. 27 in Dallas. More dates will be announced soon.
Back in the bookstore, House is still holding court in the café while employees have finally found the box of CDs to put out after the show. I haven’t heard the register ring in a while, but that’s because everybody in the store is here listening. After the applause for “Head for the Hills” dies down, you can almost hear a stir stick drop, so House makes good on his promise to sing softly with the tender ballad, “Native.” With lyrics about finding out where you belong, it fittingly sums up the feelings behind The Learner.
“It takes some people a long time before they learn their lesson, and I am one of those people,” House notes in a biography about the album.
With insight like that, he may just be farther along than he thinks.