1,000 Musical Kisses

How Patty Griffin went from a flaming red folkie living with ghosts to a world-class kisser

1,000 Musical Kisses
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

Something transformed Patty Griffin this spring. You could hear it in her show at Jovita's during South by Southwest, where the local singer-songwriter debuted her new album 1000 Kisses with a performance that hushed the crowd, except for rapturous response between numbers. Her phrasing's freer, her onstage demeanor more confident. She radiated enthusiasm back at her fans. Coming offstage, she glowed like a gymnast who had just nailed a difficult landing.

Griffin no longer records for A&M, the arm of Universal Music Group for which she made four albums, two of which got released. She's much more comfortable on ATO, which is owned by Dave Matthews and distributed by BMG. She's also stopped trying to prove she's a rocker, although she convinced the hell out of a lot of us with her second album, 1998's Flaming Red. 1000 Kisses establishes a new guise for Griffin's old persona and is a tour de force for a singer's singer, which would be true even if "Rain," "Making Pies," and "Be Careful" weren't among the best songs she's written.

Griffin's songs are so good, in part, because they're crafted to be sung, a departure at a time when many vocals get croaked out as afterthoughts to tunes written as hangers for clever but cumbersome lyrics. It's not that Griffin sacrifices sense to sound -- she's too good to have to make such choices -- it's just that her music is so, well, musical. Her performance on "Be Careful" turns those two words into an anthem, and not with a shout. Griffin sings them so delicately that the listener can't avoid feeling the consequences of careless behavior with fragile souls.

When she brought 1000 Kisses to Joe's Pub in New York City last month, the process had gone even further. Griffin has often seemed as insular onstage as off, wrapped in her own world, turning and stretching through songs as if possessed by a Natalie Merchant dervish. Not now. She's slowed her signature song, "Flaming Red," from punk belligerence to pop purity and surrendered to the transformation.

Or maybe that's backward. Maybe this intensely personal song that she once issued like a threat (even to Dixie Chicks audiences when she toured with them) can calm down because she's found greater mastery of her music. Either way, there was Griffin, tossing her long red locks -- not lost in herself, but instead locked into sounds that shone through her.

It was much more compelling visually than her insular movements ever were. She looked free and vivacious. A friend of mine who's seen many of Griffin's shows put it best: "She never let herself be beautiful before."

Living With Ghosts

Griffin hasn't changed all that much. Her songs remain gems of downhearted observation, sung in a voice that still defines sad. Or maybe just lonesome. Yet before she's anything else, even before she's a writer who earns the admiration of her peers and income from Dixie Chicks covers, Patty Griffin is a singer.

"Songwriting tends to come out of what I need to sing -- the sounds that need to come out of my body," she says. "It's the feel of the thing, the way it feels to sing."

What kind of singer is more of an issue, and has been since Living With Ghosts, Griffin's first A&M album from 1994. The LP's songs were first recorded with elaborate arrangements by producer Nile Rodgers. "The production was beautiful, but I feel like I played a really smart part in it," says the singer. A&M hated it, but loved the demos, so Griffin proposed using the demos as the album, which with some slight touch-ups (mainly redoing vocals), was what they did. The result married intimate, intelligent songs to intimate, intelligent vocals.

Ghosts built Griffin a reputation, but it also created the illusion that she was a folkie. The follow-up, Flaming Red, opened with a punk flare-up that seemed designed to negate the idea that she was a folksinger. It was recorded by a rock producer, with band arrangements that gave it an updated classic rock feel.

"I always felt like I was a rock singer," says Griffin. "It was all I listened to. I felt like, 'Don't call me a folksinger.' I never meant for those songs to come across like that. It kind of stuck you out in the field with all the daisies.

"Now, I don't care."

Griffin never sounded like a folksinger, any more than she ever sounded like she didn't care; if her approach reminds me of anyone, it's Terry Callier, who's essentially an acoustic soul singer. What Griffin sounds like is Southern, a pretty good trick for a girl who grew up in Maine and began her musical career in Boston, where she went at 18. There, she woodshedded around a scene that included bands like Morphine, performing solo in clubs, and made a six-song cassette that was sold at her gigs.

Wherever she grew up, though, her singing makes her sound like she was born in Dixie, which, to begin with, means bluesy.

"The South, musically, makes a lot of sense to me," she says. "There's a twang in my voice, and there's always been a twang in my voice. I think that's the French-Canadian stuff actually. I have that soul. I can't really help it."

On Evangeline Made, Ann Savoy's recently released tribute to Cajun culture, Griffin sings "Pa Janvier, Laisse Moi M'en Aller (Pa Janvier, Let Me Go)." She chose it because she liked singing it best of the tunes Savoy offered, but "Pa Janvier" turns out to be the oldest song in the collection, with roots that trace back to France. More important, the musical style traces back to French Canada, of which Maine was long a part.

When Griffin first visited Louisiana, she was taken to a Cajun graveyard and saw a good many headstones with the name La Fay. La Fay was the last name of her maternal grandmother -- apparently a crucial figure in Griffin's life. "Poor Man's House" on Ghosts was written about her grandparents; at Joe's Place, "Mary," from Flaming Red, was dedicated to her grandmother, although it's ostensibly "about" the Blessed Virgin. 1000 Kisses is dedicated to her grandfathers, however.

In Boston, the fledgling singer married musician Nick Cobb and worked day jobs as a pizza waitress and a Harvard telephone operator. She also studied guitar with John Curtis, who wound up booking gigs for the two of them, and wrote incessantly, which garnered her friends like Ellis Paul, with whom she sometimes played. One of her songs, "I Write the Book," was included on Legacy II -- A Collection of Singer Songwriters, put together by High Street, Windham Hill's folkie subsidiary. Good luck finding a copy.

By 1994, her marriage was ending, but her career had picked up. "Fly Away" was recorded by Southern Rail, a bluegrass group. Somewhere in there she went to Florida, where she was further scarred by waitressing, and then back to Maine. Eventually, A&M heard her demos, gave her a deal, and sent her to New York for the Nile Rodgers mismatch. She toured solo with Ghosts, moved to Nashville, and finally settled in Austin, where she lived for a time with Troy Campbell, now a singer-songwriter, once leader of the great Loose Diamonds.

Identified today as a kind of alt.country singer-songwriter -- Americana, in a pinch -- Griffin has sung on albums by Ray Wylie Hubbard, Eliza Gilkyson, Emmylou Harris, Jon Dee Graham, and Julie Miller; she fits right in with the legends. She's also developed a fascinating live collaboration with Michael Fracasso, one of the few artists who can match her vocal prowess. He's the opening act on her current tour, which ought to lead to interesting encores. Griffin has opened up a lot since she got to Austin. Singing with Fracasso was Griffin's idea.

"She came up to me backstage and said, 'Can I sing with you?'" recalls Fracasso. "I was so flattered."

Their duets began during Fracasso's SXSW 2001 set at the Cactus Cafe, and continued up through the ensuing tour, where most nights they sang "Dirty Old Town," the Ewan MacColl song that's become a staple in Fracasso's show. Again, the judgment involved seems to have centered on singing: Her voice blends beautifully with Fracasso's. Together, the two have become a centerpiece of the songwriter soirees Griffin occasionally holds in her back yard.

Then there's the growing catalog of songs Griffin has had covered: Emmylou Harris did two on Red Dirt Girl and one on her duet album with Linda Ronstadt; Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, and Martina McBride have also found Griffin songs that work for them. Most notoriously, the Dixie Chicks did "Let Him Fly" on Fly, which sold 9 million copies, leading to the absurd rumor that Griffin is set for life economically. The currency of this gossip provides an excellent demonstration of how little Americana rumor-mongers know about music biz economics.

What's really important about all those associations, other than giving Griffin income and exposure, is what they say about her stature among her peers. Gilkyson put it well:

"People work their whole careers trying to find the creative sweet spot that makes music genuine. But Patty doesn't have to try to tap into the wellspring ... She is the wellspring."

1,000 Musical Kisses
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

Making Pies

Unfortunately, that's not the well most of the big-league music industry draws from. The music business does draw from part of Patty Griffin's well -- songwriters can make a living. Griffin is a great songwriter. Her melodies are graceful, easy to sing without being simplistic. Her lyrics plumb sometimes frightening depths.

Griffin is a tough-minded social observer and a romantic visionary, a combination that seems naturalistic in songs like "Moses," "Not Alone," "One Big Love," and "Be Careful." In this, she resembles no writer more than her favorite, James Baldwin, albeit without eccentricities of rhythm. As for songwriters, there's some of John Lennon's wit and rage in her, some of Springsteen's Catholicism, and gift for compressing character and narrative. She expresses feminism with more clarity and less hostility than Joni Mitchell managed, although songs like "Forgiveness," "Christina" and "Nobody's Crying" show the influence of Blue.

Some of her songs are fierce. "Tony," the song about her gay schoolmate who committed suicide, has a furious sense of tragedy, especially because Griffin so strongly identifies her despair with his. It's comparable to "Chief," from 1000 Kisses, about a damaged Indian character from her hometown, a less sentimental sequel to "Ira Hayes." It's still somewhat amazing she wasn't condemned by the Catholic church for a couple of the songs on Flaming Red, and I don't mean "Mary." I mean the ones that can be taken as assaults on the Pope and pedophile priests. Her class outrage animates "Poor Man's House" and the new "Making Pies."

These are the kind of songs that good singers want to record, and for the writer that means both recognition and a living. The record business is another matter.

At A&M, bad luck beset Griffin at every turn. The debacle that was the first version of her debut led to great critical success, and the ensuing solo tour began building a fan base and admirers in the press. Flaming Red increased both. If she had been operating in the classic rock era, the label would have been primed for the third album, ready to give a big push to establish her at radio and support her touring to further develop her career.

That's impossible right now. As great a performer as she may be, Griffin's not going to be heard on Top 40 radio unless she suddenly begins making rhythm-oriented records, and her videos aren't going on MTV as long as she remains an adult woman. Touring with the Dixie Chicks was a coup, but not in a way that the record label chose to exploit; most likely, major labels being as retarded in reality as reputation, it didn't know how to exploit it.

Meantime, A&M, already absorbed by Polygram, lost its identity after Polygram's sale to Universal Music, and its autonomy was further squashed when Seagrams, Universal's owner, merged with Vivendi. All those deals generate, first and foremost, debt that must be serviced, which means that cash flow, not career development, becomes paramount. Hothouse flowers can be forced; the careers of naturally blooming artists like Griffin bud slowly. Time, let alone patience, isn't something the big labels can afford or will cultivate any more.

Griffin went into the studio to make her third album, Silver Bell, with these realities hanging over her. Instead of A&M being poised to capitalize on the gains she'd already made, she was facing a last chance. In fact, after the merger with Universal, there was no A&M at all. Its artist roster became part of Interscope, headed by former record producer Jimmy Iovine. Iovine has a long and (once) deserved reputation as a music guy.

Though Griffin delivered the album in 2000, Iovine and his staff kept putting off its release. All their meetings with her seem to have been cordial, but when an artist tells you in July that an album you expected to hear in September isn't coming out until January, you know they're in trouble. Griffin was, even with the record label publicist in the room swearing all was going according to plan.

It's mystifying why Interscope chose to string Griffin along for so many months -- it may even be a reflection of Iovine's appreciation of her gifts. But it wasn't until last March -- the very week of SXSW 2001 -- that Interscope told Griffin she was being dropped from its roster.

That Saturday night, offstage at Fracasso's Cactus gig, Griffin reported ebulliently, "They finally gave me my release. I'm free now." She had never sounded happier. We agreed to get together the next day at a barbecue.

When she called the next day to say that she really wasn't up to socializing, the mood swing struck me as perfectly logical. People had been abusing her music, which means abusing her, and now she was free of them. That was good. In the new climate of the record business, it might even mean opportunity. By the same token, the future was gray, the complications numerous. Her manager Ken Levitan did strike a deal that let Griffin use some of the songs from Silver Bell, but only "Making Pies" on 1000 Kisses is from that set.

Talking with a friend who's worked in the music business since he left college 10 years ago about Griffin' situation, my inclination (or at least, my conversational strategy) was to rationalize in favor of the record company. They had no idea how to sell this music. He shushed me.

"If you believe in music at all, you don't discard artists like Patty Griffin. She'll sell records someday. And even if she doesn't, she deserves to make records. They're jewels in your crown."

Griffin's free agency didn't exactly spur a bidding war. She credits Levitan with suggesting that she make a "humble acoustic record" on her own, an idea she liked.

"I had all these songs floating around that weren't pop enough for Interscope and also some songs I loved to sing, even though I didn't write them. And I am a singer."

Griffin accepted an invitation from guitarist Doug Lancio to come up to Nashville and record in his home studio. She cut the whole of 1000 Kisses there -- except the title track. The band included her current live group (Lancio, cellist Brian Standefer, keyboardist and accordionist Michael Ramos) plus bassist Dave Jacques. Mix engineer Gilles Reaves added a batch of percussion; a few others stuck their hand in, notably Emmylou Harris on "Long Ride Home."

The recording took a week, at the end of April 2001. They did two days of vocals, three of overdubs, and mixed. The album was done. According to everyone but Michael Ramos. He called Griffin and told her there was a Spanish ballad she absolutely had to sing. Griffin, who doesn't even speak Spanish, told Ramos she'd come over, but "I'm not going to do the song." Then she heard it.

She might have written the lyric herself. In translation, it says: "Encountering your love I lost my faith and that gave me my reason to live. I lost my heart on the 1,000 kisses that I left on your lips. It might be a sin and it might be insane, but I have to keep loving you until my heart comes back."

"Mil Besos" fit so perfectly that it became the title track of the album. It will stand as one of the great crossover performances of her generation, a song she sings with control and passion. It is one of the hallmarks of her art that Patty Griffin doesn't seem to care whether she wrote the song or not. She inhabits it, either way.

1000 Kisses also finds Griffin transforming Springsteen's "Stolen Car" into something that makes sense for a woman to sing. Her rendition of the blues standard "Tomorrow Night" came from Bob Dylan's Good as I Been to You, but her performance is closer to the legato version from Charlie Rich, or Lonnie Johnson's (whose signature song it was), or even Elvis. Like Rich, Griffin is a connoisseur's singer, blessed with a rich voice and the intelligence, judgment, and grace to put it to perfect use.

In fact, anyone who thinks the new Patty Griffin album is lackluster because she wrote only two-thirds of it totally misses the point. By the time she's done with these songs, she owns all of them.

Mil Besos

Armed with 1000 Kisses, Levitan soon found Griffin a new record company: ATO, the label started by Dave Matthews in the wake of his superstardom and distributed by BMG, a major. ATO is the real deal, not an indulgence; it's already had success with David Gray. And the label's belief in Griffin is palpable. As she was finishing her set at Jovita's, label chief Michael McDonald (not the singer; a longtime member of Matthews' posse) whispered, "I love watching people's minds being blown."

The album came out April 9. By then, Griffin was already on tour. She'd put together a new live group, calling it an ensemble since she doesn't think you can really call it a "band" with a cello and accordion but no drums or bass. It fits her better than the rock group, though, because the musicians are much more supportive of her needs. Then again, she knows more clearly what those needs are. A drummer might just get in the way of the "sounds that need to come out of my body."

They are playing small rooms, traveling by bus. Next week, they get back to Austin for a show at Stubb's. Talking about the tour last week, Fracasso seemed exhilarated, because the crowds have been so enthusiastic and attentive. It's hard to imagine being anything else. This band and these songs showcase all that is brilliant about Patty Griffin and her music. They frame her talents perfectly, letting her rock some, croon a bit, and close with "Mil Besos" as a tour de force that simply leaves you gasping for breath. When things click that well, the performers know it, and it sustains them. Often, it pushes them to new heights.

Patty Griffin won't necessarily be a well-kept secret anymore. For all the heights she reaches, her music is fully accessible. And part of the world may be catching on. In its second week in the market, 1000 Kisses topped Billboard's Heatseeker chart, the highest charted release by an artist who hasn't had a hit album yet. It lingers there, in the lower reaches of Billboard's Top 200 album chart, and is one of the bestselling albums on the Internet chart. This isn't the top, not yet, but it looks like Patty Griffin will find her place in the tradition that formed her.

In fact, a good guess would be that in the future, people will lose their hearts to Patty Griffin, and keep loving her music until their hearts come back to them, even if it's 1,000 songs -- 1,000 musical kisses -- later. end story

Patty Griffin plays Stubb's Thursday, May 23.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle