Raised in Old Town, ME; the youngest of seven children; father taught high school physics and chemistry, mother was a home-maker; lived in Florida for two years after high school; moved to Boston where she married and worked as a waitress, divorced, 1992. Addresses: Record company--A&M Records, 595 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022,; 1416 North La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90028, Phone: (212) 826-0477; (213) 469-2411.
Folk and rock singer Patty Griffin burst onto the national music scene in 1996 with her stark, emotional acoustic CD Living with Ghosts. Called a "stunning piece of work, an unprecedented major-label debut by a relative unknown featuring just her naked vocals and acoustic guitar, with no overdubs" by Seth Rogovoy in Hotwired, the album introduced a singer-songwriter of uncommon power. John Scheinman writing in the Fairfax Journal said, "Here's this woman from Old Town, Maine ... making the kind of record only Bob Dylan gets to make anymore.... [But] Griffin doesn't need a band to fill the spaces because the songs come out of her gut with a conviction that's more than enough."
Her second album, Flaming Red , proved Griffin a musician of remarkable versatility and range, capable of hard rockers, contemplative ballads, melancholy country tunes and bright pop songs. Far from alienating her fans, Flaming Red solidified Griffin's position as an important talent. It revealed her as a musician willing to challenge her listeners rather than simply fulfilling their expectations.
Griffin was the youngest of seven children--three sisters and three brothers--in a struggling family in Old Town, Maine, a town near Bangor. Her father taught high school physics and chemistry, and her mother kept house and raised the children. Griffin grew up among singers. Her mother had a beautiful singing voice, her grandparents often sang on their porch in the evening as the sun went down, and from an early age Patty knew she wanted to be a singer. Her parents, however, convinced her the wish was frivolous, and hoping to shield her from disappointment, did not support her.
But they did buy music for her. Her father gave her her first record, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band . Griffin's other early musical influences, for lyrical imagery in particular, included Bruce Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, America, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Stevie Nicks. When she was 16, Griffin bought herself an inexpensive guitar and started writing songs. She didn't know if she could sing, but she did know she wanted to sing.
After graduating from high school, Griffin moved to Florida where she lived for two years. There she concentrated mostly on sports. She eventually applied the self-discipline and goal-setting required in athletics to her work as a musician. In an interview with Philip Van Vleck of the Raleigh Spectator, she compared music and sports. "It's a lot like what an athlete goes through," she said. "A lot of repetition, a lot of repetition, and then at some point, hopefully, it all starts to work for you." Eventually Griffin moved to Boston and married. But she spent most of her time there as a waitress and was not able to pursue her music career in earnest.
At the end of 1992, she was jolted into performing when her husband told her he wanted a divorce. Single again, Griffin started performing in various Boston clubs. At the same time she was shopping around a demo tape she later admitted was overproduced. The demo was recorded in a kitchen in Nashville and in a room near Boston City Hospital, and the sound of ambulance sirens could be heard behind the music. Nonetheless Griffin caught the attention of a scout from A&M Records, who invited her to audition. Overwhelmed by her raw, natural talent, he persuaded her to re-record a second, stripped-down tape with just her voice and a guitar. Six months later she landed a deal with the label. Most of her demo tape was used on her debut release, Living With Ghosts.
Griffin described the ten emotionally turbulent tunes on Living With Ghosts to Rogovoy as "pretty honest, pretty close to what I really am." They reveal her roots in soul, pop, and country, and range over topics as elememtal as poverty, loneliness, anger, and the dissolution of love. Because of her music's themes and passionate intensity, Griffin has been compared by music critics to Kurt Cobain and Alanis Morissette. Van Vleck wrote of Living With Ghosts, "A spare piece of work ... nothing but Griffin, an acoustic guitar and 10 very potent, very intimate songs. The minimalism of the album gives Griffin no place to hide, but that's also the beauty of it. Her strengths are the immediacy of her performance and the emotional depth of her lyrics."
Even after Griffin had long left behind the personal experiences that resulted in Ghosts , new listeners continued to discover and identify with the record. "The album ... is a collection of tunes from a time in my life when I definitely needed to express what was going on inside," Griffin told Van Vleck. "I keep remembering that people are hearing these songs for the first time and I draw from that knowledge when performing.... I may not be as close now to the experience that made me write those songs, but there are other things to draw from, that's the art of performance."
A&M's decision to release Griffin's album in an obvious state of minimalism was unusual for a major label. "Realizing [A&M was] attached to those solo performances made me appreciate the strength of them and gave me the guts to ask if they'd put them out that way," Griffin told Van Vleck. "And they did." John Scheinman praised A&M's insight in the Fairfax Journal. "Living With Ghosts is such a startling debut. The label left well enough alone and just let Griffin be herself. She can wistfully talk-sing with the ache of Rickie Lee Jones, rock with the force of Bonnie Raitt, moan the blues, hiccup the country, turn a phrase about pain that makes you need to hear it twice." Since Living With Ghosts far exceeded expectations at A&M in terms of sales, the label quickly stepped up its promotion machine for Griffin and supported the making of her second release in every way possible.
In 1998, after playing the all-woman Lilith Fair concert tour, Griffin's second CD, Flaming Red, was released to great critical and popular acclaim. In startling contrast to her acoustic debut release, Flaming Red, produced by Jay Joyce, saw Griffin backed by a full band, including Joyce on guitar and powerhouse rock drummer Kenny Aronoff from John Mellancamp's band. The album included a wide variety of musical forms as well: ballads, rock and roll, and pop singles. "Even when Griffin rocks her hardest ... her crystal voice commands the high ground," wrote People . "And she never allows the sound to drown out the lyrics of these 13 well-crafted songs."
Flaming Red included a tribute to a deceased friend, songs about the suicide of an ostracized gay boy, a young girl's love for her red pumps, and the romantic tribulations of the late Christina Onassis. Griffin's work was included in the soundtracks for two films: she played with Bad Liver on the single "Copenhagen" in Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys, and her singles "Not Alone" and "Regarding Mary" were featured in the soundtrack to Niagra, Niagra. An unpredictable, honest musician with natural talent, Griffin will continue to surprise her audience and to chart new musical terrain.
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Patty Griffin's Career
Began performing in clubs in the Boston area; caught the attention of A&M Records scout; released debut album Living With Ghosts in 1996; performed in Lilith Fair concert tour in 1997; released Flaming Red in 1998; singles used in the films The Newton Boys and Niagra, Niagra.
- Boston Phoenix , March 7, 1997.
- Fairfax Journal (Virginia), March 14, 1997.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, April 19, 1997.
- People, July 20, 1998.
- Raleigh Spectator (North Carolina), March 6, 1997.
- A&M Records website, http://www.a&mrecords.com