Patty Griffin represents an extraordinary new chapter for this incomparable singer-songwriter and immediately stands among the most deeply personal recordings of her remarkable two-decade career. The album – which follows 2015’s Servant of Love – collects songs written during and in the aftermath of profound personal crisis, several years in which she battled, and ultimately defeated, cancer just as a similar and equally insidious disease metastasized into the American body politic.
Yet as always, like very few others, Griffin’s power lies in how, as Holly Gleason in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette observed, “her songs seem to freeze life and truth in amber.” It’s in how Griffin can express the strikingly intimate while never making it about herself, all wrapped in sparse arrangements that breathe an incomparable force and import into her songcraft in impeccably framed miniatures.
Patty Griffin is available in early March and the first single off the new project was ‘River.’
“It’s one of the last songs I wrote for this record,” Griffin, 54, says. “We recorded it over about a year’s time. I had been spending a lot of time with this song that Leon Russell wrote and Donnie Hathaway recorded in the ’70s called ‘A Song For You.’ I actually covered that song at a show, and I thought it would be great to have my own …which is kind of a high order. There’s something about that particular song that made me feel like it’s an aerial view of a moment in life. The emotion of it inspired me.”
‘River’ is just a preview of Griffin’s deeply personal new 13-track album. As she sings the lyrics, “Takes an army just to bend her/Be careful where you send her/‘Cause you can’t hold her back for long/A river is just too strong/And she’s a river,” one can’t help but guess she’s singing about her own biopic after recently undergoing breast cancer, but Griffin says she hasn’t thought about it that way.
“There isn’t really much of a thought process beyond playing the notes, hopefully, in a fashion that can be understood,” she says. “But when I sit back and I listen back to it and sing it now, I can feel this is sort of an expansive understanding of life. I’m older, I’m about to be double nickels – 55 – her birthday is in March, and you’re closer to death when you’re my age and you kind of turn that corner where that’s the next fantastic place you’re going to go. You have this understanding of continuity that grows out of that feeling.”
“I think life comes in different packages, and I had the cancer package for a little while that I had to get myself through,” she says. “I had some physical disabilities that really impaired my ability to do my work for a while, and I had a lot to get myself through in order to do what I used to do very easily and naturally.”
“Life tends to put you through these moments of suffering to shoot you out somewhere you never expected, but somewhere great,” she says. “You grow in so many mysterious ways.”
If that seems so clear and easy, it wasn’t that simple. “It was intense. I was scared for the first month, because it took a while… and a lot of tests on different parts of my body to determine it was breast cancer only.
“The type of tumor was pretty uncommon, and I got hit with some treatments that are pretty harsh. But it brought this material. I took guitar lessons, and I find myself approaching music from different angles now, not just writing from my voice.” Griffin says she “wasn’t afraid of passing away” thanks to having a great team of doctors and that the most difficult part of what she went through was being “physically impaired” for a while.
…read the rest in Issue 92.