When Patty Griffin was honored as Artist of the Year at the 2007 Americana Music Association awards, it marked yet another big step in a career that has seen her in constant motion. Scouted by a major label out of a Boston coffee shop in the early ’90s, Griffin scrapped her then-recorded album to release a reworked version of her older demos. And when corporate labels began fusing and culling, Griffin was handed a lifeline by Dave Matthews-and she hasn’t looked back since. She has since released four albums, including her most recent endeavor, Children Running Through. And along with her song “Long Ride Home,” Griffin herself figured prominently in Cameron Crowe’s 2005 film Elizabethtown, where she took on a small on-screen role. Her music provided the soundtrack for an off-Broadway musical, and the unlikely teaming of Kelly Clarkson and Jeff Beck took one of her songs to the Billboard Top 100. Not too shabby for someone who couldn’t muster “a peep” the first time she took to the stage.
I believe when you first started performing you were planning on just becoming a singer. How did songwriting end up becoming part of your life? It was a logical thing. I moved to Boston in the ’80s thinking I was going to be a singer, and there was this whole music world happening that I didn’t relate to and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t really have a feel for a lot of the music that was being made there at that time. I had a guitar teacher who pointed out [that] there are a lot of singers out there, and if I wrote my own songs that would be really something. I happened to be a dark and tragic poetry writer when I was younger and I just pretty much put the two together. It just came down to it being easier for me to get gigs. (Laughs.)
What was it like to step out onstage that first time armed with nothing more than a guitar and your songs? It was absolutely terrifying. There was a coffee house in Cambridge that had open mike nights and my guitar teacher kept telling me to go and do it. I was really shy and I went up onstage and couldn’t make a peep! I mean I really froze : there was a lot of that in the beginning.
You now release your work on Dave Matthews’s label, ATO. How different is it to work with someone who is a music fan rather than a corporate figurehead? I’m really lucky that Dave Matthews sorted me out. It wasn’t a big financially winning proposition for him, you know? He just really liked the music and wanted it on his label. I don’t think I have disappointed him in that regard, but it’s not like I’m going to sell billions of records for him. But he has always thought that way-and thank God he has.
Your songs have since come to be covered by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Jessica Simpson. What is it like to hear your song sung by someone else? Once you write a song and put it out on a record, or however you get it out there these days, it’s almost as though you have given it away. It’s like they’re your little kids and you’re sending them off to school. You know what I mean? They become everybody’s. Ideally, if it’s a good song, then a lot of people will want to sing it.
Presumably there have been highs and lows? I have heard one or two covers that really knocked me out in a good way, and then there have been one or two that have knocked me out in not such a good way. But I’m not going to say which ones are which. (Laughs.)
Do you actively listen to your contemporaries? I don’t listen to singer/songwriters anymore. And people are always pointing out new musicians to me, and I’m sure they’re great, but that form for me is not something my ears are attracted to at the moment. I think because I am in that world and I’ve heard a lot of it. For years I couldn’t even listen to English! I was listening to songs in Icelandic and Spanish and French.
What are you listening to at the moment? There are so many different styles of singing and I’m fascinated right now by how beautiful and natural a voice can be and all the different places it can take you.
For instance? I have developed a huge fascination with George Strait because I noticed that every time I hear him sing I would feel [like] it’s all going to be okay. There’s something about his voice that takes you straight out of panic and puts you in a place where everything’s going to be all right. And that’s a very powerful thing to have in a voice.
Sings Like Hell presents An Evening with Patty Griffin at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Wednesday, August 27, at 8 p.m. Visit singslikehell.com or call 963-0761 for tickets.