Patty Griffin: "Children Running Through"
Patty Griffin's new album Children Running Through (ATO) continues the remarkable creative evolution that's quietly established Griffin as a vital and singular musical force. It also belies her persistent sensitive-singer-songwriter image - a limiting perception that fails to fully convey the emotional depth and breadth of her songwriting or the emotive power of her fluid, soulful singing. Indeed, the new disc's 12 Griffin originals maintain a timelessly truthful resonance that echoes a variety of styles, most notably the classic R&B and gospel music that have long been a source of inspiration for the artist.
On Children Running Through, Griffin's seamless songcraft is supported by spare, spacious arrangements and production by Griffin along with Mike McCarthy (Spoon) that emphasize her effortlessly eloquent lyrics, her subtly indelible melodies and her sublimely expressive voice, while making judicious use of such sonic frills as horns and strings. The artful instrumental settings are perfectly suited to the soul glory of "Heavenly Day," the wistful melancholy of "You'll Remember," the haunting intimacy of "Railroad Wings," the vivid storytelling of "Trapeze," the rocking "No Bad News," the steely determination of "I Don't Ever Give Up" and the healing gospel of "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)."
"I just wanted to write from the heart and let it be," Griffin says of the project. "Some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard is when you catch somebody singing to themselves. I wanted to make music that had that feeling."
That sort of heartfelt forthrightness has won Griffin a fiercely loyal fan base that's continued to expand, even as she's retreated from the cookie-cutter machinery of the mainstream music industry. Among her higher-profile admirers are the Dixie Chicks, who recorded much-loved versions of the Griffin compositions "Top of the World," "Truth No. 2" and "Let Him Fly"; Emmylou Harris, a longtime supporter who's covered several Griffin songs, and who lends her iconic harmony vocals to the Children Running Through number "Trapeze"; and Solomon Burke, who covers "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)" on his latest record.
The Maine native first became aware of music's capacity to communicate while growing up as the youngest of seven siblings, listening to her mother sing hymns, country songs and made-up ditties. She began singing during childhood, and wrote poems and songs as a teenager, but was too shy to make much of an effort to perform in public. After a stint living in Florida, she moved to the Boston area, where she waited tables and worked as a telephone switchboard operator at Harvard University. It wasn't until her guitar teacher coaxed her into joining him on stage in a tiny Cambridge club that Griffin mustered up the courage to begin performing her songs in public.
On the strength of a set of unadorned acoustic demo recordings, Griffin won a recording deal with A&M Records. When an attempt at cutting more elaborate studio versions of the same material proved unsatisfactory, the label agreed to release the artist's stripped-down original demos instead. The result was her 1996 debut release Living with Ghosts, which won widespread critical acclaim and won Griffin the beginnings of a passionate and devoted fan following. The following year, Griffin defied expectations by taking a radically different approach on her noisy sophomore effort, Flaming Red.
After an album she recorded in 2000 went unreleased due to corporate shuffles, Griffin found a more hospitable home when fan Dave Matthews signed her to his new, artist-friendly ATO Records. The change in labels coincided with Griffin's determination to scale her music back down to its essence, a direction that was reflected on 2002's sparse, mostly acoustic 1000 Kisses, which earned a Grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. It was followed in 2003 by the live CD/DVD set A Kiss In Time.
2004's Impossible Dream was Griffin's most ambitious and accomplished effort yet, encompassing a broad range of musical influences while boasting some of her most ambitious, emotionally complex songwriting to date. It also netted a second Grammy nomination for Griffin.
As her own releases have continued to win consistent critical attention and a steadily expanding audience, Griffin has simultaneously become a popular source of material for other artists. In addition to the ones mentioned above, Griffin's songwriting has been embraced by a diverse assortment of performers, including Martina McBride, Bette Midler, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Reba McEntire and Maura O'Connell, all of whom have recorded her songs. Also inspired by her work, filmmaker Cameron Crowe personally selected her to appear in his 2005 feature film "Elizabethtown."
In addition to raising her public profile, having her songs covered by other artists has allowed Griffin the luxury of making music on her own terms, and her iconoclastic approach is reflected throughout Children Running Through.
"I invested a lot more time in this than anything I've ever done," she says of the new album. "After Impossible Dream, I had used up all the songs I'd been carrying around for years, so it was a challenge to find out if I had anything left in me. It took some time, but it was a positive thing to be tested that way."
While her new songs maintain the levels of clarity and insight that Griffin's fans have come to expect, the new album's organic, deeply felt performances embody an openhearted sense of directness and simplicity. "The aim," Griffin states, "was to strip everything down and just give it a few brushstrokes here and there, to come up with something that's quiet but powerful. I wanted to be a little less wordy, but I also wanted to make a record where I didn't hold back and let myself sing as loud as I wanted to.
"A great part of getting older," she adds, "is not caring so much what other people think. I feel like I'm allowed to be goofy or whatever, and I'm allowed not to worry about whether something is cool enough or smart enough. That's pretty liberating."
Children Running Through, was recorded in the artist's adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, in a makeshift studio set up in a rented house across the street from her home. In addition to Griffin on vocals and guitar, the sessions featured a sterling assortment of Austin, Nashville and New York players, including longtime Griffin collaborator Doug Lancio on guitar, legendary Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, and a nine-person string section conducted and arranged by multi-instrumentalist John Mark Painter.
"This record was tough, but it was really rewarding," Griffin reports. "I was more relaxed than I've ever been making a record, and I had a lot of confidence in the material. But there was also a lot of tension, and there were definitely moments where we didn't think we were gonna get it together. But we did.
"One of the most important things to me is avoiding cynicism, and that's what this record represents to me," she concludes. "For me, the best songs and the best ideas have always emerged from just thinking, 'Well, what do I feel like singing right now?' That's always a good, honest place to start from. For me, this whole record is a little like that."