This story originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
Tender, passionate, incisive, penetrating, genuine—Patty Griffin has a gift for writing direct, conversational, narrative songs. She has a keen eye for the humanity all around her, the heart to feel their joy and sorrow, and the integrity to lay bare that heart. Her latest album, 1000 Kisses, showcases that gift in a remarkably poignant fashion. Closer to the acoustic simplicity that characterized her debut, Living With Ghosts, the new album showcases a more mature Griffin. Gone is the unevenness that detracted from her otherwise impressive previous efforts. Her lyrics, her vocals, and the arrangements that surround them flow unstrained off the record and straight into the heart. While missing the appealing punk-rock intensity of Flaming Red’s title track, 1000 Kisses is Griffin’s most consistent and accomplished effort to date. And that’s saying something for someone that’s already earned a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter.
1000 Kisses is Griffin’s first record for Dave Matthew’s ATO Records, and while it’s only her third release, it’s actually the fifth album she’s recorded (not counting the early demo she sold at shows around Boston). Nile Rogers produced her first record, which A&M rejected. Griffin convinced A&M to release her demos, which became Living With Ghosts. The Rogers record was apparently over-produced with little input from Griffin.
“They’re interesting,” she laughs in discussing her hope that those arrangements stay in the vault.
Following Flaming Red, Griffin recorded Silver Bell, but that record was shelved and she was dropped from her label (then Interscope, following a series of mergers and reorganizations).
“It just kind of is what it is,” she says of her difficulties with labels. “You could get upset about it, but it wouldn’t really do much good.”
Part of her troubles, she believes, stems from being a past-her-teens woman. “I think that’s probably true across the board in our culture,” she says. “Women get past a certain age and they’re not considered in the running anymore. Strange,” she adds with a laugh. “I feel like I have some things to offer still. I don’t feel like I’m completely over the hill yet.”
With her new freedom, Griffin recorded 1000 Kisses in the basement studio of guitarist Doug Lancio. She gathered a small, stellar ensemble (Lancio on guitar and mandolin, Brian Standefer on cello, Michael Ramos on accordion, John Deaderick on piano, Dave Jacques on bass, and Giles Reeves on percussion and vibes), recorded her vocals in a day and a half, and finished the recording in a matter of weeks.
“We had so much fun doing it,” she said. “We were just making music. We worried for the longest time that maybe it was terrible because we had too much fun. And we figured out that that was probably a good thing.”
Griffin purchased her first guitar at 16, but didn’t seriously consider a music career until a couple of years after she moved to Florida following high school graduation. Listening to “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2 got her thinking.
“I was sitting on a beach in Florida on one of my days off—I was a waitress there—and I just thought to myself, ‘I should do this, rather than sitting on a beach.’... It just had some vitality, had some soul.”
With that, Griffin moved to Boston and balanced a new marriage, odd jobs, guitar lessons, and performances in small clubs. But she never felt part of Boston’s folk scene.
“What people were labeling folk music there, I didn’t really have an affinity with,” she explains. “I didn’t really find that music interesting. I think because there was a woman playing with an acoustic guitar, I immediately had that label thrown over me. And I resented it at that point, because I never listened to any of that stuff and I thought, ‘Well how did this happen? You know, I’m just rocking-out here and you can’t understand that.’”
Now, she’s come to accept that label. “I really don’t care. People are going to call you what they are going to call you, and you’re going to be what you’re going to be,” she posits. “It’s very rare for a human being to grasp themselves, what they are. How the hell is anybody gonna get what I am? People are just trying to put a name on what I do so that people will understand that I play an acoustic guitar most of the time. So, you know, who cares what they call you, really? It doesn’t make a difference.”
The generally quiet Griffin gets most loquacious in discussing her work with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and its Concerts for a Landmine Free World, which is not surprising given the keen social awareness expressed in her songwriting. Griffin visited Vietnam and Cambodia to see the VVAF programs. “I really think that there’s a lot of healing that our country still has to do from probably all the wars of the last century that we were involved with,” she reflects. “[The people of Vietnam are] further along in their healing than we are. And that’s interesting to me. They still have the bullet holes in the walls there, and the bombed out buildings. But I think they got see the Americans and they got to see that [we] were people and sort of caught up in the same thing that they were caught up in. We don’t have that luxury. But we have an opportunity to sort of get to know them through things like this. We have an abundance of cash and we could really help them.”
If there is an endless rope out there with nobody crying, it will be formed with the help of people like Griffin who open their eyes and heart and offer what rope they can.
Patty Griffin’s Heavy Rotation:
Bob Dylan: Love And Theft
Johnny Cash: The Murder Songs
Morphine: Like Swimming
George Jones: All-Time Greatest Hits
A Songwriter’s Songwriter
“I would go anywhere, anytime to hear Patty Griffin sing her extraordinary songs.”—Emmylou Harris
“Patty Griffin is a true gift to music. She is an astonishing, breathtaking artist. She is what music should be.”—Julie Miller
“I suspect Patty Griffin’s songs make most people a little uncomfortable—like they’ve just walked in on a private moment in someone else’s life and they know they should turn around and tip-toe away, but they can’t. They make me jealous.”—Steve Earle
“I remember listening to Patty sing her song ‘Mary’ during a stunning solo performance one night. It made me cry and that’s always the truest test for me. Her voice alone is enough to rave about and then there are the songs! It blows my mind that Patty’s not already famous.”—Lucinda Williams.
“I told Patty she was a genius. She said I was wrong … so … she’s brilliant, okay?”—Bruce Cockburn
“This is Patty Griffin’s gift; with her voice and her songs, she sheds light on the shadow places, tells the stories of the quietest among us, and breaks every heart in the room with her knowledge of love and its fallout. 1000 Kisses is a masterpiece of songwriting and singing, confirming that Patty Griffin is one of the most eloquent and gifted artists in contemporary music today.”——Mary Chapin Carpenter
Listen to Paste Sampler #1 featuring Patty Griffin’s ‘Chief’ on Spotify.