Sometimes the greatest asset a young artist has is his or her naive ambition. When Patty Griffin signed out of the Boston folk scene in the early '90s, she was encouraged to move away from folk and into rock. Looking back on her previously shelved would-be third album Silver Bell, which was recorded in 2000 and released for the first time last week via Universal Records, Griffin is struck by its adventurous spirit.
"That was a time in my musical career where I still had remnants of my original days under the care of A&M Records," Griffin says. "They really did encourage artistry. They really wanted that out of me. They wanted me to be creative. I narrowed things down quite a lot after that, or I tried to for a while."
In the aftermath of Griffin's less lauded, more rocking second release Flaming Red, the aborted Silver Bell and her departure from A&M, she pulled things back. She became persuaded by others that she sounded better on quieter, slower-tempo songs — an approach she retreated into on 2002's 1000 Kisses and 2004's Impossible Dream before cutting loose vocally on 2007's critically hailed breakthrough Children Running Through. There Griffin tried her hand at several more upbeat tunes ("Bad News" and "Burgundy Shows," for instance). That exploration continued on Downtown Church, which essayed 14 gospel tunes.
"Gospel is really powerful when it's good, and there is such a long tradition to it," Griffin says. "So that was just me testing my own prejudices really, and letting my guard down a little bit. Opening up to that world. I struggled with it, but it was really good. Learning changes you on a lot of levels."
Prior to recording her May release, American Kid, Griffin learned of her father's impending death. As a result, the album is concerned with heritage, family, memories, absence and legacy. Sonically, it's spare and direct but abetted by the production work of Craig Ross, a fan of gothic pop supergroup This Mortal Coil who gives Griffin's austere Americana songs surprisingly warm, ambient presence — it's suited well to Griffin's expressive voice.
"I love Cocteau Twins and all that stuff," says Griffin. "A bunch of little elves and faeries running around over there. It's beautiful. I love that [Ross] knows how to conjure that up for my stuff. It was all coming out straight-up folk songs, and I thought, 'That's just fine.' I just didn't want it to be another humdrum production, just because everything is sort of three chords and standard melodic structures, and I didn't want it to be stuck in any kind of expected sound."
Griffin also received some help from her boyfriend, Robert Plant, who helped her rework "Ohio," a pretty, bubbling, pastoral folk tune imagining a love that flows endlessly as the river of life.
"I loved the lyrics, and I had this groove," says Griffin. "I loved the groove. I just couldn't get the melody to fit over it. [Plant] just went, 'Change that, change that, don't sing it so loud, and do that in the middle.' And he really came up with that in about three minutes. He's one of the best arrangers of anyone I've ever met. If he wanted to have a career as a producer/arranger, he could do it easily."
Between American Kid and the eclectic Silver Bell, Griffin's embracing the possibilities.
"It's inspired me to sort of look at everything in a fresh way," Griffin says. "Like, you don't have to do this for the money. You don't have to do anything. You can just go and sort of bounce off the walls until the cows come home, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but you've done something for you. If you want to have chill bumps, do shit that you don't understand. Dig into your heart's desire. Dig into fun. Dig into joy, and don't let self-consciousness or what you know can get you a paycheck take precedence."
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