Patty Griffin Talks Grammys, Gospel Music and Robert Plant

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Patty Griffin's albums are popular with both fans and critics and her songs are covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and the Dixie Chicks (just to name two). What draws so many people to Griffin's music is her unflinching honesty and her beautiful simplicity. Over the course of 8 albums, Griffin has moved easily within the folk, alt-country and Americana genres. She even won a Grammy for best traditional gospel album for 2010's Downtown Church.

From a tour stop in New Orleans and in anticipation of Saturday's gig at the Kessler Theater, Griffin talked with DC9 about her time on A&M Records, playing with Robert Plant and her surprise at winning that Grammy.

It's been a busy year for you. You release American Kid in May and now the reissue of Silver Bell came out a few weeks ago. Can you talk about the evolution of Silver Bell?

It was one of the records I made in my last days on A&M Records. The record company got bought by somebody and bought by somebody again. They liked one record I made and then came the Silver Bell project. They held on, held on and held on and then finally decided they were not going to put it out. That was kind of the end of my relationship with them. I moved on and then just decided to put it out.

So you basically have two albums to promote on this tour. Will you play an equal amount of songs from both?

I've been much more heavy on American Kid because it's more what I feel. My friends The Dixie Chicks did do a few songs from American Bell and I believe Natalie just did another one. It has kind of had a life of its own. I've already recorded a few tunes myself from that record. It's been quite a serious bootleg. People always request songs from it. People call out the name of very obscure songs. It's been out there a while, but I got a chance to have it remixed by Glyn Johns. He did a great job cleaning up the 90's mess that it was.

Your time on A&M Records was very strange. Didn't they reject your first album [Living with Ghosts] as well?

I recorded a whole other record with a band and a producer and they didn't like that. They didn't think it was the right way to enter. I told them that I play solo and I don't play with a band. I told them if they like my solo stuff, why don't they put that out? They went for it.

Did you at least get to meet Herb Albert?

I did, yes, did meet him. A&M was great. At first, thing were very, very good.

You've had so many of your songs covered by other artists. Have you ever had someone think it was you covering somebody else's song?

I don't know. I do not. I am sure that has happened, but I don't pay attention.

What is it about your songs that make so many people want to cover them?

I think that I write emotional songs and in that way, they are more traditional. There's something about them that has the right sound. They are not methodically written. They are written from my heart and my gut. Singers are always looking for things like that. I write in a style that a singer can wrap their voice around and put some emotion in it.

Do you have any favorites of those who have covered you? Do some make you cringe?

The cringe worthy ones shall remain nameless. I think that Solomon Burke's cover of "Up to the Mountain" is pretty great. There are some other ones, too, but I can't think of them. Some of them have blown me away and I really embarrassed to be blanking on them right now.

You were born in Maine and lived in Boston for a while. How long have you been splitting time between Austin and England?

I've lived in Austin mainly. I spend some time in England, but I've lived in Austin since 1997. I've been in Texas about as long as anywhere now.

Does that mean you are officially a Texan?

You know, one of my dear friends is 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th generation Texan. She's called me a Texan for quite a while. She is from Ennis and she told me I qualify.

There's been a lot of change in Austin since 1997.

Yes, it's a very, very different place.

Is that different in a negative sense?

I am getting older and the city has always been based on the whims and the interests of the young. For me, it is losing some of its softness. It is getting very big. The traffic is terrible. I always loved how people used to be so relaxed and just park. You can't do that anymore. It is not as relaxed as it was.

What did you think about your album Downtown Church winning the Grammy for best traditional gospel album in 2010?

No one was more floored by that than me. I never saw that coming. When I got the nomination, I did not take it seriously because I was up against some amazing players, singers and writers. I was really surprised by it all. It was a learning experience for me. I knew a little bit about gospel music, but not a lot. The process of making that album was special. Every kind of music that I have loved my whole life came from gospel music. When I heard that music on the radio, I wanted to sing like that person. It is the foundation of rock and roll and the blues. I am a huge Mavis Staples fan and it all got sparked by getting to work with her. I almost didn't do that, because she is just so amazing. I didn't really feel worthy playing next to someone like that. I did it anyway so I wouldn't miss out on the opportunity.

After Downtown Church, you ended up touring with Robert Plant. What was the demographic of those audiences? You had to have people yelling out Zeppelin songs.

I think that is a pretty common thing for him. All those guy who were in that band are always being asked to do that, the Zeppelin stuff. I love that tour. I got to be a backup singer. I had to learn how to do that. I am not great at it. I always wanted to be a member of the band and not out front. It was really great just to sing music and support someone else. It improved my guitar playing as well. I had to learn how to learn on the fly. All around, it was a very good experience.

Patty Griffin plays with Kristy Kruger on Friday, October 25, at the Kessler Theater.

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