“Diamonds, roses, I need Moses to cross this sea of loneliness, part this Red River of pain.” Those were the pleading and plaintive first words that most of us heard from singer/songwriter Patty Griffin's debut album, Living with Ghosts. It was a sparse and heartbreaking introduction to an artist who has gone on to become one of the most respected and beloved in her generation.
In the two decades since, Griffin has blown her music wide open, time and again. From the fierceness of Flaming Red to the poignancy of 1,000 Kisses to the spirit of Downtown Church, she has never failed to surprise and delight fans, critics, and colleagues, alike. This year, she brought all of her influences and inspirations to bear in Servant of Love, a masterful and mesmerizing work that searches for meaning in a world that so often feels void of it.
When last we spoke in 2002, you had an awful lot to say about the music business. How are you feeling about that side of things these days, now that you have your own label? Complete control must feel pretty good, yeah?
It helps me to ignore it. I feel like I just want to ignore the music business as much as I possibly can and just stick to doing what I do. So that helps me to not have to worry about that at all. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Fewer cooks in the kitchen, I guess.
I think so.
To me, the new album feels like a coming together of all the things you've done on records past. Then I read that it was partially inspired by some of the things you did on Silver Bell, plus Nina Simone's Nina Sings the Blues, Leonard Cohen’s 10 Songs from a Room, and Morphine’s A Cure for the Pain. Connect all those dots for me.
I'm not sure I can connect those dots! [Laughs] Or do it in that way. I was writing the record and I wasn't listening to a lot of music, anything specifically. But there were ideas for things that I had in my head. So I just kept my listening habits moving. I didn't stick to anybody in particular. I realized that Silver Bell … I had to listen to old material — which I never do — and I realized that I needed to get out of the three-chord world a little bit and sort of go back to where I'm from, musically, a little bit more. I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music, not just three-chord music. I just needed to venture out a little bit.
Those records and artists that you mentioned, they're just reference points that I talked to Craig Ross about because I thought that they represented very little instrumentation. Just simplicity. And straight up power. Good material being presented with real simplicity … concisely. So we used those sort of like that.
So you're saying simplicity and one review I read called it a “simple album,” but I would beg to differ on that. I find it to be wonderfully aloof and challenging. You have to really want it and, if you do, then you are rewarded handsomely for really digging into this thing. There's a lot going on.
[Laughs] I don't think it's that hard. It's just music. When you say it, it makes it sound like it's hard to listen to or something. [Laughs]
No. No. [Laughs]
I think it's beautiful.
Absolutely. I would just say it's more complex than a lot of stuff that's out there.
Servant of love, as an idea — not a title — brings to my mind the Sufi poetry of Rumi and Hafiz … guys absolutely dedicated to the pursuit of capital “l” Love because that's how they defined God or the truth or whatever we want to call it. Do you think it's all a matter of degrees from there on down to the more mundane aspects of serving love in our everyday lives?
I don't think the suggestion … in that song, for me, it's not mundane. There's nothing mundane about life, really. [Laughs] There's pain in life. And I do believe that there's something inside of us. To me, it feels fierce and dedicated to love. I can't really find another name for that thing inside of me that keeps me going and looking and trying to figure out what to do next. Nothing else really makes sense to me, as far as the living of life goes.
I don't think there's any sense in war. I don't think there's any sense in rage, as a habit. I think there's sense in creativity and the pursuit of goodness. And I think that, when I get down to the root of why that is, I feel that it goes back to that word that everybody's saying.
The opposite of love — in my mind and belief system — would be ego, greed, and fear which is what drives a whole lot of people. That side of it is captured in “Good and Gone,” which you've said was inspired, at least partially, by the shooting of John Crawford. But it ends up being much wider and deeper than that, of course. To me, it's about the idea of people who want to make others smaller so that they can feel big.
I think the root of suffering is suffering. If you create it, it's created in others. And it goes on and on and on that way. I don't think I painted a flattering picture of the gentleman who made the phone call and the policemen who shot the young man, but … Martin Luther King talked about that in that speech in Montgomery — the powerful few disorganizing those who have less and are disempowered by their greed by distracting them into hating each other. I think that does happen.
Look at the gun control laws in this country. It's absolutely insane to me. The root of it is greed. There's some really crazy stuff happening in our world right now, as far as greed's concerned. I think the world goes through these … in different cultures in different places, there will be times when there's upheaval and so much greed and such a huge disparity between those who have enough and those who don't have enough. The gap's widening and, as that happens, there's a lot less education and self-respect going on in all communities.
If you could solve one broad issue, would that be it — economic justice? I've long felt that is the first thing because people can't care about the environment or equal rights or anything else if they are worried about how they are going to feed themselves and their children.
I don't really know how to go about doing it. I think it's a consciousness-raising time, more than anything. I think you can't move any of it until there's an awareness that it's happening. And I think people aren't necessarily aware of that happening. We've got a lot of fake news programs out there to sort of back up that it isn't happening. So I think it's a difficult issue. It's not going to be solved in my lifetime even. I really don't believe that. It's a consciousness-raising issue and it's going to take a lot of time and a lot of work. It's very slow moving. It's not a quick fix.
Do you ever wish you were one of those people who could just stick your head in the sand and go about your business without worrying about the rest of the world?
Ummm … No. [Laughs] I'm not. I feel glad to be who I am. I feel like I've had an amazing life, from start til now. All the way through, there have been totally amazing things I've gotten to experience from day one. And I don't think that I'd pick anybody else's life for any reason.
Well, you would certainly miss a whole lot of stories which feed what you do. What is it about the outsiders and outliers in our society that's so appealing to you? The people that most folks look through — what's your kinship with that clan?
I come from low income people. My mother's family was struck really hard by the Depression. She was born in the Depression and they were very, very, very poor. My father's parents were Irish immigrants. They were very intelligent people. They worked as servants on an estate in Boston, MA. On both sides of my family, I was probably one of the first people to be college-educated. Really through the kindness, and a lot of hard work, but it was because of the kindness that they even got that opportunity in their lives. And I think that I was raised with an awareness that you might have a bed and a meal, but not everybody's got that.
I was also raised in the '70s when there was a lot of urban decay — downtown decay — going on. I wasn't raised in a community of wealth. I was raised in a community where a lot of people didn't have any money. And I think that, by contrast to watching television and watching ads about how you're supposed to look and what you're supposed to want … it's not hard to have an awareness that there's a difference between the haves and have-nots. [Laughs] In this country, that's an important difference. Opportunities don't exist for you, if you don't have.
I've always been very surprised that that isn't a broad, conscious thing in our country. I think it has been, from the time of my entering into adulthood, it's really been ignored since, I would say, from '80 on. The growing accumulation of homelessness … on and on and on it goes. Groups get larger. And there's very little focus on free education in this country, so when you try to get something like that passed in Congress or any kind of improvements, financially, to the people who are teaching our children, they cry “bleeding-heart Liberal.” That's absolutely the most insane thing, to be living in a time when that's how that's discussed. [Laughs] I think it's taken me until now to realize that it's a huge, huge, huge issue. But it can be addressed if you can look at it as something that can be addressed on a consciousness level … for me, with my work … and it's a very small ripple in the pool, but it's the one I have, so that's what I'm trying to do now.
Yeah. I was thinking today, as I was driving through Nashville, about our desensitization. The bad stuff is so all around us now, a lot of people don't notice it anymore. So it can keep getting worse and worse, and we don't see it.
I think there's a lot of fear out there, on all levels — especially at the top, there must be a lot of fear. I call it “The Big Grab.” There's a Big Grab going on. Just looking at all of the cities that are getting grabbed up by tech money. Austin, TX, is one of them. San Francisco. People who have lived there their whole lives are no longer able to live where they were born because they don't make the kinds of income that have driven the real estate prices up. I think people are willing to punch through … if they have the money now, they're willing to punch through, get what they can get, grab what they can grab now. Because I think there's a sense that it's going away. I think that sense is probably spot on. At what point? I have no idea. And how, I have no idea.
The last bubble burst, so why won't this one?
It's probably going to burst, at some point. There's a lot of pressure on it with the environment and everything else. The displaced persons in the world. There's a lot that will change our planet really drastically in the next … 10 years even. I think we don't know what that is, so everybody's trying to get as much as they possibly can to hold on to right now. But what if we didn't do that? What if we paused and looked around and just started doing better for our planet? For our neighbors? And what if we didn't grab? What would happen if we didn't grab? What would happen if we watched what we consumed more carefully? What would happen if common sense stepped in? When you get down to the core of yourself and the core of what's important, to me, it's love and caring for others as best you can. Admitting failures, apologizing … all that good stuff goes in there. And starting over again, trying to do better. Because we can do better. I believe.
Photos courtesy of David McClister and Thirty Tigers