Patty Griffin is a different kind of heartbreaker. She hashes out some pretty serious stuff in her songs, telling the tales of broken-down souls and ill-fated folks who we feel like we know intimately after a few listens. Calling from Austin, Texas, however, the singer is full of herself, punctuating nearly every thoughtful answer with a good-hearted gut laugh. Like her characters, getting to know Griffin is both intriguing and easy.
Style Weekly: Talk to me about Buddy Miller. He produced "Downtown Church" and he'll be joining you show here in Richmond.
Patty Griffin: We've been sharing the show. He comes out and starts it and he's been letting me sing with him on a lot of it and then, I take the stage and he comes out and plays with us. It's really fun.
He found the actual church you guys recorded the album in, right?
Yeah, I asked him if we could possibly do this in a church and I thought he was gonna find some little country church they use for music videos (laughs). He came up with this gi-normous cathedrallike church in downtown Nashville that was about 150 years old. It was really beautiful.
Did that place change how you sang any of the songs on the album, maybe pull something out that didn't exist when you were writing them?
I learned a lot about natural reverb, I'll tell you that (laughs). You can really get that going when the ceilings are that high. It's totally obvious that it was built to inspire singing.
It's a soul-stirring record, that's for sure. Without getting too personal, do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Ah, I don't know the answer to that. I'm just like anyone else who wonders about the same things. I don't know very much about what this is all about, but I'm certainly interested in it. I long for many of the same things that everybody longs for, so I guess if that makes me a spiritual person, then I'm a spiritual person. [At this point, Patty breaks out into hysterical laughter].
A lot of people admit to being brought to tears by your music. What's it like to have that kind of impact on listeners?
Oh wow. I have heard that a few times and I don't understand it. It's thrilling to me and I hope that they're moved to tears in a good way (laughs). I just feel really lucky that it's going on. I'm just out there doing my thing and I'm glad it moves people.
Over the years we have met some really dynamic characters in your songs. How do those take shape?
Sometimes they're glimmers of people that I've met or known. Other times, they're just photographs I've seen along the way -- a face comes to mind. And sometimes, I have no idea where they show up from. They just show up.
You were just nominated for the ninth annual Americana Honors. It seems like your work has truly embraced the nooks and crannies of American music by exploring bare bones folk, plugged in rock, and now gospel among some other things. Is there anything musically that Patty Griffin won't try?
Well, if I can't speak the language or get close to a type of music I won't try it. I actually tried to learn Hebrew for this record and cover some bases if I could. I ended up realizing it would take too long to get it right and I didn't want to mess it up.
Err or the side of caution, right?
A lot of folks have covered your songs, who would you like to hear do that who hasn't done so yet?
I'd love to hear Gladys Knight or one of the Winans cover "Up to the Mountain". In my heart of hearts, I'd love to hear one of those beautiful, rich, gospel voices do it. Solomon Burke did a great job, but he's not a gospel singer. I'd love to hear a gospel singer from that tradition sing that song. That would thrill me to no end.
How did you actually find gospel music and end up making a record like "Downtown Church"?
My first sort of introduction to it was through black gospel music in a friend's studio. I walked in about 10 or 11 years ago here in Austin and he was playing this record. I was like "Oh my God, what is this?" And it was an old Staples recording from around 1950 when Mavis was really young. There was so much life and depth to those songs. Pain and joy all at the same time. I just fell in love with that era of the Staples Singers. I'm old enough to remember stuff like "Respect Yourself," but it's that traditional stuff that's really amazing. It was my go-to record forever and most days.
What are you listening to these days?
Oh goodness, what have I been listening to? You know, actually a lot of country. I like the country singers. It's an interesting genre. Nashville has gone through this huge battle for the soul of Nashville. I love the traditional singers though. They're vital to recording and they don't always get a lot of attention, some do, but not most. George Strait gets some attention and he does good stuff, but there are others that are phenomenal that don't get their due.
Hopefully we get the Grand Ole Opry back up and running, right?
Well, we've got the Ryman and as long as we've got that we're good. That's the original Grand Ole Opry.
You just played a benefit there, right? Music Saves Mountain?
Yeah, Emmylou (Harris) got me into that. She's a great human being who is so active and informs me. I didn't know much about it because I'm from Maine and I live in Texas, so it's not really of my world but, basically those people are trying to make coal mining safer and stop mountain top removal which is destroying a lot of communities all up and down that region, the Appalachians. Some people are lining their pockets and leaving these communities devastated. I met people after the show from those places and they expressed their gratitude and it hit home that this is a huge deal.
Aside from touring, how will you spend your summer?
Touring. [More hysterical laughter] And then, touring and some more touring. I actually get some time off in August, but I don't know what I'm going to do yet.
Patty Griffin plays "Groovin' in the Garden" at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on June 3 with Buddy Miller. Tickets are $20-$35. For information go to groovininthegarden.net.