Patty Griffin on Her Battle With Breast Cancer and New Album
Local songwriter rises through the fire
And they say what is lost will be what is won.
What is done will be done and undone again.
They say don't think for a second that you won't become
One more voice in the wind.
– "Luminous Places"
Patty Griffin knew something was wrong.
Throughout the summer of 2016, touring took an increasingly harsh toll on the local songwriter. One illness slipped into another, and the fatigue compounded beyond the usual weariness from the road. That October, she finally received the diagnosis: breast cancer. After canceling her remaining dates – and having former partner Robert Plant fill in for her on Emmylou Harris' refugee relief tour, Lampedusa – Griffin returned to Austin to prepare for treatment.
"I was lucky to have the type of cancer that doesn't like chemo," she offered quietly in the back room of Waterloo Records following an in-store kicking off her SXSW earlier this month. "It wasn't a small tumor, and it wasn't an unsubstantial tumor, but they don't do chemo on that type [of cancer] anymore, so I just had to do radiation."
Surgeries and radiation depleted her, though. Preparing to join some friends onstage the following spring, she made a horrifying discovery.
"My voice was just gone," she recalls. "I wasn't sure I was going to get to do this again. For me, that was a loss of identity."
In those moments of doubt – of her career, her craft, her life – she found an ally in Austin bassist George Reiff. Facing his own diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, he died May 21, 2017.
"We reconnected as friends during that time, and he actually took me under his wing – even with all he had going on," says Griffin solemnly. "That changed me forever. I've never experienced anything like that. He'd show up for coffee, and it was really hard for him to just get out of the house.
"Even many weeks into radiation, he would meet me for coffee," she continues, eyes watering. "You go through these experiences and there's no more monkey business about certain things. You have an acute tuned-in-ness to your own bullshit, because you don't have any time to waste. When you're with somebody who's in that – where he was at – and also you have this thing in your body that doesn't want you to live, it does something to your brain.
"'Luminous Places' was written during that time. I was looking at our lives lived as musicians, and hoping we made some kind of contribution. He and I were both single, and we didn't have any kids, but what do we leave? He brought that song out."
So I call to the sea and I say, "Here I am,"
Hour after hour, loud as I can.
I say, "Tell me, tell me, tell me old friend,
Where to, what next, what now?"
– "What Now"
Released March 8, Patty Griffin's 10th album is self-titled. She admits the eponymous labeling came about when another act used her intended inscription, but it's hard not hearing the album as a reclamation of identity. Patty Griffin carries the weight of time, ruminating on the inevitablility of mortality and the cycle that continues beyond us.
Tracks like "Hourglass" – wandering through a fever dream in David Pulkingham's gypsy jazz licks – and the dark and bluesy "The Wheel" churn a cycle of frustration and redemption with a biting political pull. There's a sense of seeking that succumbs to the fate of never knowing. Most remarkable are "Luminous Places" and "River," with the former bending cello and piano in an openhearted plea amid love and loss, and the latter ringing an anthem of feminine strength.
"There's some brilliant pieces of music that people have poured themselves into, and they're gifts. ['River'] is one of them for me," acknowledges Griffin. "I wanted to try and do a song like Leon Russell's 'A Song For You,' where he's talking about his whole damn life. How do you paint a picture like that?
"For me, when I'm writing, it's all about my inner life, of course, but you notice many times that you just don't want to know things or see things or feel things, and you let things go. I wanted something sincere and real about how it felt – to really get it out onto a song and not be afraid to say certain things."
Griffin's vocals aren't the crystalline, quivering trill of her youth, but they strike direct and raw, with a burning power that achieves new emotionality.
"My voice was just starting to come back when we began making the album," she reveals of the fall 2017 sessions. "I wasn't comfortable with it at all, but [producer] Craig Ross said, 'Let's just start and we'll figure it out.'
"People go through so many different things physically, and human beings are constantly being asked to reconfigure. Without all my little vocal tricks to make everything pretty or cool, I really felt free in a way," she explains. "I could write more words, for one thing, and that was a new thing for me. Not having tricks knocked some of the shit off of it, too. You can get a little too athletic and bullshitty about singing something.
"So now it's not exactly pretty, but it's pretty true."
Onstage at the inaugural Revival Experience outside of Dripping Springs on the Wednesday of SXSW, Griffin looked otherworldly against the fading sunlight. In root-brown boots, a flowing dark green dress, and her hair vining in a wild tangle, she seemed every bit a goddess of spring trembling hymns of rejuvenation after a long winter. Three days later, she marked her 55th birthday by headlining a free SXSW concert on Auditorium Shores, but in the Hill Country – flanked by Pulkingham and Conrad Choucroun – she introduced her new songs to the intimate, reverential crowd.
Opening with the soft flamenco sketch "Mama's Worried," she then burrowed into the bluesy bruise of "The Wheel" and "Hourglass." The first familiar strums of "Heavenly Day" unleashed the greatest appreciation from the crowd, but another, older song offered her most powerful testament. As the evening wind whipped across the stage, Patty Griffin delivered the earthy, soulful moan of "Standing" from 2004's Impossible Dream, a communal plea and determined promise:
Mother, I am weak but I am strong,
Standing in the darkness this long.
But in the deepest darkness I listen to your song.
Mother I am weak but I am strong.
I'm standing, and I'm standing, I'm standing.