“I CAME TO AUSTIN because of a man,” says Patty Griffin, with a laugh of resignation. “I arrived in the remnants of old Austin, when there was lots of deconstructed hippy, punk rock types and a great traditional country scene. I loved the approach back then: here’s a broken-down house, let’s go live in it. Let’s take this broken-down chair, tie it together with string, and sit in it. Now people buy the condo and hire the designer.”
It may have been a while since Griffin, 55, has had to tie a chair together with string. From 2010 to 2014, she even shared her South Austin house with Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Nevertheless, her music and story — the former fuses elements of country, folk and jazz into deeply personal yet elliptical songs, the latter involves a one-time waitress escaping an early marriage to try her luck as a singer — fits into the city’s bohemian tradition.
Her somberly beautiful self-titled new album, released in March, tackles difficult issues like poverty, feminism and aging — and identity — and it was made in the shadow of the breast cancer, now cleared, with which Griffin was diagnosed three years ago. She says she wrote its standout song, “River,” with its lines, “She’s been left for dead a million times / Keeps coming home, arms open wide,” as a response to the soul singer Donny Hathaway’s version of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” Yet you can’t help but interpret its words as a paean to survival.
“Cancer’s a weird thing,” says Griffin, who is slight, with a mass of blonde curls, quiet and self-contained. She doesn’t come across as someone who just got over a life-threatening condition. “As everyone who has had cancer knows, you cannot help but think the whole time, ‘Is it still around?’ And suddenly there’s clarity. Certain things become much more serious, other things become much less serious. Wear the jeans that make your butt look big, you know what I mean?”
Griffin was on tour with her 2015 album, Servant of Love, when she was diagnosed, after initially feeling she was tired all the time just because she was getting older and because touring takes its toll on you. But then her voice got increasingly weak, and she knew something was wrong.
After diagnosis, surgery and the cocktail of drugs that followed, her voice disappeared. It led to a personality crisis, as if the health crisis wasn’t enough. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘When you’re not singing, you’re not a singer,’” Griffin says. “It got me thinking that when you’re not singing, you don’t exist, your identity goes away. And when I lost my voice entirely, that’s what it felt like. It was only when I got cancer that I realized how much I’d allowed being a singer to define me.”
When she released her debut, Living with Ghosts — to this day her finest album — in 1996, Griffin was hailed as a new kind of folk singer, chronicling lonely, marginal modern lives against a backdrop of traditional Americana. She’s recorded 11 albums since her debut. The Dixie Chicks, Kelly Clarkson and Miranda Lambert have recorded her songs. Paste magazine ranked her No. 19 on its list of the 100 Best Living Songwriters. (Griffin was the youngest in the top 20.) She’s been nominated for several Grammys and won for Best Traditional Gospel Album (Downtown Church) in 2010. To those familiar with her work, she’s legendary.
“I’m not the most articulate speaker,” she says. “I’m better at tackling issuess within a poetic framework. As a female singer you get older and lonelier, and you start wondering, ‘What am I still doing here?’ You feel like the last person at the party.
“But then I’m singing these songs, and I think, ‘Yeah, here I am. I’m a singer.’ I can’t really avoid that.”
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