It might seem ridiculous to compare the career of singer Patty Griffin to the role of Sandy in the movie Grease. After all, Griffin is an unusually intriguing and complex performer, while Olivia Newton-John’s screen character was a deliberately one-dimensional concoction.
Nonetheless, Griffin recently initiated a self-transformation as complete and as startling as Sandy’s shift in the movie from introverted schoolgirl to leather-and-lipstick vixen. The difference is that, in Griffin’s case, evolving from an acoustic singer-songwriter to a fiery rocker involved more than a costume change. Doubtless, her new persona will seem downright scandalous to some of her most ardent followers.
“I know I’m going to scare old fans,” the singer says with a laugh. “But I can’t really allow myself to worry about it. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. What I’m doing is totally me, and I can’t apologize for it.”
Griffin speaks with a confidence that was absent in interviews only two years ago, shortly before the release of her first album, the outstanding Living With Ghosts. That album featured only Griffin accompanying herself on acoustic guitar; by contrast, the new album, Flaming Red, kicks off with a blast of punk-fueled guitar ferocious enough to fit in next to cuts by Alanis Morissette and Rage Against the Machine.
“If I think of where I was at when I was starting, and I look at where I am now, then I can see that it would be surprising to someone,” she says. “But it’s been a long process, so it’s not surprising to me.”
Indeed, Griffin’s evolution is ongoing, and the story behind it is one of a reserved woman who both literally and figuratively found her voice. Her poignant tale emphasizes the empowering role music can play in an individual’s life. And in this sense, she’s still coming into her own.
Griffin grew up north of Bangor, Maine, near the Canadian border. The youngest of seven children, she was taught that politeness and quietness were valued traits; expressiveness and openness were not. “Emotions like anger were not in my vocabulary,” she recalled in an interview two years ago.
Years later, as she struggled through a failing marriage in Boston, she began to notice how she continually capitulated to her husband, holding back her opinions and placing his goals before hers. The problem grew increasingly debilitating as the relationship fell apart.
Her husband had, however, encouraged her interest in performing. Divorced and working as a waitress in Boston, Griffin finally followed through on her ambition, first writing songs that were achingly, nakedly personal. “Writing definitely helped me to heal,” she says.
Too shy to audition for a band, she began showing up at open-mic nights at area clubs. Despite her initial stage fright, the petite redhead eventually found her voiceand what a blowtorch of a voice it was. “I’m not a huge person,” she says, “but I can get loud.”
Her songs were similarly bold. More often than not, the music on Living With Ghosts explodes in a cathartic surge of emotional release. Although the album includes a couple of delicately beautiful songs, the focus of her debut is on brutally raw material that probes personal issues with poetic anguish and compelling candidness. But unlike some of her peers, Griffin didn’t write these songs simply to share her pain or to lash out at those who had hurt her. Rather, she used these expressions of frank emotion as a way of cleansing herself.
So fans shouldn’t be so surprised at the stylistic leap on Flaming Red. Considering the potency of her past recordings and the rocket-fueled force of her voice, the rougher sounds and faster tempos seem like a natural progression.
The transformation came about last year, as Griffin’s fan base and radio airplay were continuing to build. The singer’s Nashville-based manager, Michael Baker, convinced her label, A&M Records, to hire well-regarded Nashville rocker Jay Joyce to add rock tracks to a couple of her songs, “Let It Fly” and “Every Little Bit.”
Joyce didn’t go into the studio with Griffin; he just added a band to what already was on tape. But the singer liked the results, and when she was asked to contribute a new song to a film soundtrack, she recruited Joyce to produce the trackwith a band backing her this time.
It worked out well. Since Griffin had moved to Nashville briefly in 1997, she and Joyce “started to hang out and just play for the fun of it. The more I got to know Jay and his work, the more comfortable I felt with him.”
She knew A&M wanted her to try working with a producer and a band for her second album. Without informing the record company, she started recording songs with Joyce at his home studio in Green Hills. “I kind of sneaked around the company’s back,” she says. “They were real concerned about who I was going to work with. If I brought up Jay, they might’ve said no. So Jay got some musicians to come in without knowing whether they’d get paid or not, and we started recording songs. Once we got started, I had great confidence in it.”
As it turned out, when her record company heard the songs, they expressed a similar confidence. Griffin blossomed like never before in the studio, feeling free to try a wide variety of musical styles. As a result, Flaming Red isn’t as consistent or as cohesive as Living With Ghosts, but it’s certainly less predictable.
Besides aggressive guitar rock, the album features a sunny, melodic pop song, a Tom Waits-like lounge tune, and a spare piano ballad that’s closer in tone to Lisa Germano or Marianne Faithfull than to Fiona Apple or Trisha Yearwood. Surprisingly, one of the best songs on the new album is “Wiggley Fingers,” a playfully raw rocker about masturbation and Catholic guilt.
Still, several of the songs“Mary,” “Christina,” “Blue Sky,” “Carry Me”come too close to the generic modern-pop sound favored by MTV and so-called alternative-rock radio. Griffin and Joyce do add odd twists that give the songs more depth than your average Matchbox 20 opus, but the lyrics and the arrangements occasionally fall into a pattern that lulls rather than grabs the listener. The formulaic sound probably pleases the singer’s record company, but it’s the one aspect of Griffin’s album that disappointsfar more so than the shift from acoustic to electric instrumentation.
But the singer, who now lives in Austin, is thrilled with the record’s diversity. “I love all kinds of music, and I’m real happy that now, with this record, I’m not restricted to any one style,” she says. “We really managed to put a lot on there. There are so many colors, and that’s what’s shocking to me. I just feel incredibly free now to express myself however I want.”
For a shy woman who, less than a decade ago, could barely find the inner strength to walk onstage, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Patty Griffin plays at the Exit/In next Thursday, July 9.
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