August 7, 2007

Old friends: Patty Griffin is big now, but Louisville knew her way back when

Patty Griffin: Photo by Traci GoudieA dozen or so years ago, when the Twice Told Coffee House was on Bardstown Road and booking shows in its tiny back room, an amazing array of talent went through. A lot of it was singer-songwriter in nature, people like Lucy Kaplansky and Alejandro Escovedo (with the acoustic version of his orchestra, playing without amplification or microphones).Another regular was Patty Griffin, who played there often as she was climbing the ladder. Louisville took to Griffin early on, and when her following outgrew the coffee house, proprietor Rick Towles teamed up with his neighbors at the Guitar Emporium, where she played a couple of shows.Towles eventually moved on and helped start Artemisia on East Market Street. He died unexpectedly in February 2003.Griffin kept moving, too. These days, she’s a big name in folk-rock, and you won’t find her playing venues with 50 or 100 seats. She returns to Louisville next Wednesday, Aug. 15, for a show at the Brown Theatre. It is her first show in Louisville since she played there during a LEO/WFPK Listener Appreciation concert in 2005. Scott Miller, formerly of the Commonwealth, opens with a solo set, making for a tasty double bill. Griffin is touring behind the CD Children Running Through, another tremendous collection of songs that showcases her musical range, from beautiful, pensive ballads to upbeat, emphatically strummed tunes. Hearing her work with melody and exposition is like watching a master painter at the canvas. You may not understand why, but it is incredibly moving.LEO sent a few questions her way via e-mail.LEO: You used to play often in Louisville, intimate shows at the Twice Told Coffee House and Guitar Emporium, and you had a personal friendship with Rick Towles. How common are such relationships with a city/person/venue?Patty Griffin: I was friendly with Rick, yes. That’s rare. Rick was a great guy. There are a lot of great, hard-working promoters out there, on small and large scales, but Rick came along early. He was on a small scale and I was on a smaller scale. There was more time for chatting and hanging around back then.LEO: How would you describe Louisville compared to other parts of the country?PG: Louisville has a warmth about it. It reminds me a little of New Orleans. There’s a feel for music here.LEO: Early in your career, the story goes that you needed to be coaxed into performing in front of people. Is that true? If so, it seems you have moved well beyond it. Does it seem funny in retrospect? PG: Yes, it’s accurate. Performing is hard work, or it can seem that way when you’ve been doing a lot of it, but I have a lot more fun with it than ever in general.LEO: It seems the public has impressions of musicians and artists, but I always wonder how fair/accurate those perceptions are. Like, people will hear a new record by you and complain that a song has a trumpet, or that the new songs aren’t like the songs on your previous album(s). Fans get a little possessive, but it seems they don’t give the benefit of the doubt about why an artist doesn’t stay stuck in one place. What doesn’t the public understand in this regard, and how do you process it internally, if at all?PG: I try to do what feels right to me to do and not worry about the rest when it comes to recording and writing. It’s impossible to know very well or understand the workings of a lot people you might see every day. Life is pretty full and complex, don’t you think? Having an expectation of being literally understood seems like a recipe for unhappiness. I’m not sure I understand it. I don’t think that’s why I do this anyway — to be understood. I do this to communicate, sure, but a large part of how that works is a mystery to me. For instance, what the heck is singing anyway?  I mean — why? Nobody really knows. But it feels good to do it, to me.LEO: Do you ever hear what you’ve come up with and say, “Holy shit, that’s good! I did that!”?PG: When I was younger I felt like that more often. I was surprised to hear my own voice recorded, for instance. I sounded like I knew how to sing, and that was surprising to me.LEO: It seems you are extraordinary at striking a balance between not sugar-coating life and personal experiences, but also advancing hopefulness. How do you do that?PG: All I know is that I try to let my emotions be in my work. More than anything I could intend to do in a technical way, being as honest as I can emotionally tends to make things ring more true — at least that’s been my experience so far. And that’s as vague in reality as it sounds in this explanation, by the way.LEO: Regarding the wear and tear of singing in live performance: What can you do to protect your voice?PG: Give it a rest when you can. Keep hydrated. Sleep. You can’t stay up all night with the bass player and the drummer.LEO: What happens when you have a show and you don’t feel so good about it?PG: Some shows are harder than others, sure. That’s life. Perfectionism is the road to ruin for me.LEO: Chris Thile once told me that the doctor ordered him off caffeine. Any such modifications in your life?PG: I’m a big fan of Chinese herbal remedies. I carry a little pharmacy of that stuff with me usually on a long tour, as prescribed by someone who’s qualified. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.comPatty Griffin w/ Scott Miller (solo)Wednesday, Aug. 15The Brown Theatre315 W. Broadway584-7777www.kentuckycenter.org$27; 7:30 p.m.