Singer Patty Griffin, with her plaintive vocals and clever turn of phrase, can make compelling storytelling of the most mundane of subjects.
By Naila Francis
Patty Griffin’s music is not the kind to grab you, to hit you in the face with an immediate visceral power.
Instead, the Austin, Texas singer-songwriter’s guitar-laced creations are more likely to settle over you, to slowly penetrate and seep beneath the senses with a haunting, aching eloquence.
Although many of her influences as an emerging artist came from Boston rock bands such as Morphine, Treat Her Right and the Immortals — and despite some of the punkish, more-racuous tracks on her second album, “Flaming Red” — Griffin has always been drawn to a deeper, more soulful kind of singing.
She comes to the Keswick Theatre Thursday as part of a tour to promote her third commercially released album, “1000 Kisses” — an acoustic collection of songs on which she says she’s just pouring her heart out.
This is Griffin, singing the music she loves the way she loves to sing it. With her plaintive, almost hushed vocals and clever turn of phrase, she can make compelling storytelling of the most mundane of subjects.
Consider “Chief” — her whimsical reflections on a man who would walk the streets of Old Town, Maine, where she grew up — or “Making Pies” — a celebration of a longtime pie maker who has managed to survive a dull and tedious position with dignity.
Griffin actually wrote the song years after seeing a story on the news about the anniversary of Boston’s former Table Top Pie Co.
“I remember seeing photographs of these women in these drab uniforms and plastic hats,” she says. “I’ve always been really curious about group shots like that from factories and sweat shops — you know, whose these people were.
“I don’t know how my songs come out or why they come out the way they do. They feel right or they don’t feel right and I just sing them or I don’t.”
Then there are the songs that are pure, unabashed romance — a cover of “Tomorrow Night,” the blues standard popularized by guitarist Lonnie Johnson and later Bob Dylan, and “Mil Besos” (“1000 Kisses”), a lush Spanish ballad that presented a challenge she couldn’t pass up.
Her accordion player, Michael Ramos, offered to produce a Spanish track for the album, and although Griffin doesn’t speak the language, she was intrigued.
“It’s challenging to do that as a singer, to not really know the subtleties of the language you’re singing,” she says. “It sort of frees up something inside me to sing that way. It was really fun and it’s such a nice, beautiful sort of music, I thought, ‘Why not put it on there?’
“I’m very drawn to that sort of music and drawn to movies from the earlier part of the last century, just the stories from back then and the elegant, stylized songs — very simple songs that were written for singers to sing.”
Long before she received her first guitar at 16, Griffin knew she wanted to be a singer.
“My mom was a housework singer and a really good one,” she says. “She had a beautiful voice and was one of my favorite singers. I did not meet my grandparents, but according to her, they would all sing on a regular basis and sit on the porch and harmonize.”
But being somewhat shy, Griffin admits that, for a while, she did her best stuff in her bedroom.
Even when she found the resolve to perform the songs she wrote onstage, she was not truly comfortable in public.
In Boston, where she moved after spending two years in Florida, she remained on the fringe of the Boston-Cambridge music scene, but eventually built up her confidence by taking guitar lessons. She had to perform in front of her teacher, John Curtis, once a week.
Today, Griffin blames a “split personality” on her ability to share her wry, often deeply intimate musings on life with her audiences. Still admittedly shy, she says she now has the tools to overcome her timidity.
She even feels comfortable with the folk singer label — something she initially bristled at with the acclaim of her 1996 debut album, “Living with Ghosts,” which featured just her voice and guitar.
“There was a lot of music that just didn’t appeal to me at that time,” she says, “and people were calling it folk music and I was just offended by that. I don’t want to be synonymous with a field of daisies.”
Then, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris — both singer-songwriters whose vocal style and poignant lyrics she’s always admired — won Grammys for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1998 and 2000, respectively.
Griffin was reminded of what folk singing is all about.
“It’s just trying to find a voice,” she says, “to give the smallest voices a voice and the most tireless voices a voice onstage. I really don’t think your average person on the street is looking for a big pop single. They’re just looking for things they love to listen to and things that move them, things that make them want to dance and want to cry. That’s what people have always sought out in music and that’s, as far as I’m concerned, the bottom line.”
– The Intelligencer