Born c. 1951 in Iowa; raised outside of Milwaukee, WI. Education: Attended University of Oregon, University of Notre Dame (according to one source), and Berklee College of Music. Addresses: Home-- Wellfleet, MA. Management-- Lamartine Productions, P.O. Box 662, Wellfleet, MA, 02667.
Although Patty Larkin does not twirl batons in her concerts--like folk music compatriot Christine Lavin--she seems to do everything else. Larkin is critically acclaimed for her singing, songwriting, guitar playing, and live performances. She writes, according to Steve Holden of the New York Times, "self-critical songs that balance passion against bitter observation," and what Scott Alarik of the Boston Globe described as "vivid, image-rich songs." For much of her career she has been relatively unknown in the mainstream music world, but she is a favorite in folk circles and in her home territory of New England. She has won seven Boston Music awards, including outstanding folk act, outstanding folk album, and outstanding song/songwriter, and was named best folk act in a Boston Phoenix-WFNX music poll. Though perhaps an underestimation, the Washington Post characterized her as a "triple threat," saying, "She dwarfs most of the folkie competition when it comes to playing acoustic guitar, writes first-rate ballads, broadsides and lampoons, and possesses a voice that can be quietly affecting one moment and hilariously on target the next."
Born in Iowa, Larkin grew up outside Milwaukee in the midst of a creative family. Her mother was an artist and both grandmothers taught piano. Larkin and her sisters began as pianists, but as she told Lis Kestier in a Minneapolis Star Tribune article, her sisters were much better players. After four years of studying classical piano, one of her uncles brought home a guitar, and that was the end of keyboards. "I was just enthralled by it," she told Kestier. "It was a very personal instrument. I could waddle into my room with it, close my door, and be by myself." By the time she was in high school she had begun making up chords and lyrics because, as she explained in a High Street Records biography, "I hit the wall at the number of folk songs I could learn."
After attending the University of Oregon, and according to one source, Notre Dame, Larkin studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she remained for a summer and then left to concentrate on performance. Larkin supported herself by working in a toy factory and playing music around Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also played electric guitar in various ensembles. Though particularly drawn to jazz, she drifted away from it for a number of years. "I realized that if I was serious about becoming a jazz player, it would take me years to get where I wanted to be on the instrument, and that I'd have to get more contemporary--explore the whole rock thing and get all the pedals," she recalled in Guitar Player. "It was a little too awesome, so I decided to concentrate on my songwriting instead." She played electric guitar with a rock/R&B band for some time but, as she told Kestier, found rock music too limiting. She preferred the freedom of styles she had when playing acoustic gigs, and in 1981, began playing acoustic guitar full time.
Larkin hooked up with bass player Richard Gates and vocalist Catherine David; they toured, performing opening sets for folk acts. By the mid-eighties she had carved out a place in the folk circuit and had developed a following, especially in New England. Her reputation for very entertaining and funny live shows grew as well. As she told Seth Rogovoy in the Berkshire Eagle, humor has always been an important part of relaxing and connecting with her audience. People did not get the joke on her first attempt at age 16--playing George and Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" out of rhythm. Audiences did catch on eventually, though, and as Joe Brown noted in the Washington Post, Larkin is now "notorious for such wickedly wry satirical songs as 'Not Bad for a Broad,' and 'I'm White'"--the latter including a lyric gem skewering singer Rickie Lee Jones: "There ain't no way that I can hide it / Rickie Lee Jones already tried it / She's still white." In another concert staple, "At the Mall," Larkin impersonates Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda, and Ethel Merman. "As a songwriter, one would hope that your most requested song is something moving, and powerful, and almost spiritual," she conceded to Kevin Ransom of the Ann Arbor News. "But no. My most requested song is about shopping."
As her career moved along, Larkin released two albums-- Step Into the Light in 1986 and I'm Fine in 1987--both on Philo Records. I'm Fine won a Boston Music Award for outstanding folk album of 1987, and in a review for People, critic Ralph Novak praised Larkin's "clean, unembellished approach," as well as her "warm, melodically pure vocal style."
By 1987 Larkin found herself at a musical crossroads again. She explained to Guitar Player' s Kevin Ransom that she was "feeling stuck." Elaborating, she said, "I felt like I needed to put more tension in my chords, move around the neck more, and add more colors." Larkin's dissatisfaction led her back to the guitar study she had abandoned a decade earlier. She began devoting more attention to her instrument, combining elements of jazz, rock, and blues. She embarked on a three-year self-designed study to broaden her range and skills and in the process rediscovered much of the jazz styles she had developed in the late seventies. She used books and tapes to study, including folksinger and guitarist Richard Thompson's Homespun Tapes series. In the process, Thompson and his Celtic/British Isles music influenced her music, as did the guitar styles of Bruce Cockburn and Michael Hedges.
Meanwhile, Larkin continued rounding up fans and awards. In 1990 she released a live recording entitled In the Square. Larkin also joined a number of folk musicians in collaborative recordings and tours. She contributed to the folk music compilations When October Goes (Autumn Love Songs) and On a Winter's Night, and toured with other artists. She and Christine Lavin also toured with Sally Fingerette and Megon McDonough as the Four Bitchin' Babes, and released a live record called "Buy Me, Bring Me, Take Me: Don't Mess My Hair...": Life According to Four Bitchin' Babes.
Larkin's exploration of new styles led her to a new record company as well. Very impressed with her guitar playing, Will Ackerman of Windham Hill Records contacted her. Thrilled that the head of a major company had taken such an interest, she left the more folk-oriented Philo for High Street Records, a division of Windham Hill. The move made great sense; Larkin's music was growing beyond the albeit very fuzzy boundaries of traditional folk music, and as Ransom expressed in the Ann Arbor News, "The complex harmonic structure and rhythmic pulse of her music have more in common with modern acoustic players like [Windham Hill's] Michael Hedges than the Woody Guthrie school of traditional folk picking."
The success of Larkin's Tango proved that the record company switch came at the right time. The album, which she and Ackerman coproduced, exhibited the attention she had paid to her musical style, as well as changes she had made in her singing. "I'm letting more air into my voice now, and a little more personality as well," she emphaszied to Ransom in the Ann Arbor News. The album also captured the quality of her live performances by recording her voice and guitar at the same time, as well as by featuring what Ransom proclaimed to be "a pristine, pared-down sound that puts her percussive strumming and breathy, airy vocals right up front." The critics took notice. In his feature in Guitar Player, Ransom wrote that Tango "reveals a growth in harmonic complexity and rhythmic pulse over her three previous releases on Philo/Rounder." The New England Folk Almanac called her voice "silky and lovely throughout," and praised her "brilliant, often stunning guitar work."
While concentrating on her music, Larkin did not forgo songwriting. The lyrics on Tango were marked by a concentration on Larkin's serious side--more self-exploratory and reflective and less dependent on humor. The album included songs focusing on relationships and human interaction as well as socially conscious songs like "Metal Drums," about a chemical plant toxic waste disaster in Hollbrook, Massachusetts. "I believe in looking beyond myself, and there's a lot going on beyond my personal world," Larkin reflected in a High Street press release. "To avoid these issues would be a sin of omission." Tango does however find room for Larkin's characteristic wit, especially in "Dave's Holiday," which the New England Folk Almanac called "excruciatingly sarcastic."
Armed with her favorite guitar, a 1946 Martin D-18, Larkin returned to her touring schedule, again drawing the attention of music critics. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Barr Nobles effused, "For my money, Patty Larkin could have sung the title track from Tango four or five times during her set.... Larkin is an exciting guitarist, relying on rich open tunings and blurry-fast arpeggios. She's obviously spent hours playing those scales, honing those chops." Having broadened her interests, she also included a bit of storytelling in her efforts. Teaming up with Ackerman, she helped establish Gang of Seven--a record label created to record narrative performers such as monologuist Spalding Gray and cartoonist Lynda Berry.
As her work is extoled and her relative obscurity bemoaned, it has become apparent that the success of Tango is only the beginning for Larkin. Critics agree that Larkin's voice is unique. "Like the best of today's singer-songwriters, Larkin is not willing to tie up tough truths in pretty hooks or easy platitudes," the New England Folk Almanac asserted. "There is a lilting musicality throughout, even when angry, fearful or sassy. Even at her most challenging, Larkin finds comfort in life's blurred edges, and makes it clear she likes much of what she sees when her sharp eyes turn our way." In the Boston Globe Scott Alarik agreed; "Anyone who can tell us such important things, offer insight into our lonely hearts and too-busy lives--and make such pretty music along the way--deserves our attention."
by Megan Rubiner
Patty Larkin's Career
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Played electric guitar with various jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock bands in Boston, late 1970s; switched to acoustic guitar, 1981--; toured with Richard Gates and Catherine David, opening for various folk performers; released Step Into the Light, Philo, 1986; toured solo and with other folk musicians, playing at numerous folk festivals; signed to High Street Records, 1991; helped establish audio narrative record label Gang of Seven, 1992.
Patty Larkin's Awards
Seven Boston Music awards, including outstanding folk act, outstanding folk album, 1987, for I'm Fine, and outstanding song/songwriter.
- Selective Works
- Step Into the Light Philo, 1986.
- I'm Fine Philo, 1987.
- In the Square (includes "At the Mall" and "I'm White"), Philo, 1990.
- (With Sally Fingerette, Christine Lavin, and Megon McDonough) " Buy Me, Bring Me, Take Me: Don't Mess My Hair": Life According to Four Bitchin' Babes (includes "Not Bad for a Broad"), Philo, 1991.
- Tango (includes "Dave's Holiday," "Metal Drums," and "Tango"), High Street, 1991.
- Contributor to On a Winter's Night North Star Records, 1990; When October Goes (Autumn Love Songs) Philo/Rounder, 1991; and Legacy II High Street Records, 1992.
- Harris, Craig, The New Folk Music, White Cliffs Media Company, 1991.
- Periodicals Ann Arbor News (MI), October 18, 1991.
- Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), July 13, 1989.
- Billboard, December 7, 1991.
- Boston Globe, September 12, 1991.
- Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1991.
- Guitar Player, February 1992.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 17, 1991.
- New England Folk Almanac, September 1991.
- New York Times, March 1, 1992.
- People, August 10, 1987.
- Pulse!, July 1992.
- San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 1991.
- San Francisco Examiner, March 14, 1989.
- Washington Post, November 8, 1991; November 18, 1991.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to Tango, High Street Records, 1991, and Legacy II, High Street Records, 1992, and a High Street press biography.