Interview: Patty Griffin goes back to church

There are two things that Patty Griffin never escaped: growing up Catholic and her mother’s singing. These weren’t necessarily bad things, especially her mother’s singing.

For Griffin, the singing that her mom did while cleaning the house sent her down the path that led to her music career.

“I remember thinking that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard when she opened up her mouth to sing,” said Griffin. “It got me going and thinking singing is a wonderful thing to do.”

The church was another matter. Like many modern Americans, she found its customs and language to be an enigma. By the time she was a teenager, she was so frustrated with the church that she walked away.

Parables and stories that belonged to a patriarchal culture from another time alienated her, even insulted her. She thought she knew better.

“I thought I was very open minded because I wasn’t religious at all,” she said.

For many years this bias existed in her. It was hard to see in a culture that suffers from the same delusion. It wasn’t until recording her latest release, “Downtown Church,” that she started to untangle her feelings and come to a different conclusion.

“I think you can become very closed minded because you’re not religious. You close yourself off…If you’re a smart person nowadays, if you hear somebody say they’re Christian, you cringe a little bit,” Griffin said.

The idea of recording gospel songs was suggested by a record company executive. What started as a career-focused project required that Griffin do a little metaphorical housecleaning of her own.

There were obstacles to overcome. What kind of role can the church play in modern life? Was the church’s message really sexist?

Once again, she took a cue from her mom. From watching how religion worked for her parents, Griffin realized that the system wasn’t inherently broken. Even in this day and age, it could have a positive effect on people’s lives, whether or not she agreed with some of its practices.

“It has pushed me into going into that fear and why that is, and questioning it and really just getting a much more open mind about whatever anyone’s religious beliefs are,” she said. “I think there’s a lot more depth to it for a lot of people than I was able to give them credit for before I did this project. It’s really helped me in that way a lot.”

The next hurdle she had to overcome was the performance itself. After her mother, Griffin said, Aretha Franklin is the second most influential singer on her career. Taking this into account, it’s no surprise that Griffin ended up recording gospel songs. After all, it is how Franklin started.  But how in the world would Griffin stack up to her idol?

“I studied Aretha for a really long time. I feel like I was born with the flute and wanted a saxophone. I’ve always pushed for a saxophone but I got a flute for an instrument because my vocal cords are not naturally big and strong,” she said. “I have to work at it like an athlete.”

The “Downtown Church” album stretched Griffin on all fronts. First she had to come to terms with its Christian lyrics and then she had to take a leap of faith when it came to its delivery and trust that her skill as a singer would help her rise to the occasion.

Luckily for her, she views her art as a continuous project that allows for growth.

“I was pretty afraid of [doing the project.] And then I thought, that’s a really good reason to go into it and do it because it’s challenging to me personally,” she said.

Many have been impressed with the results. Echoing majority opinion in its review, Pop Matters calls “Downtown Church” an “uplifting, moving, and exquisite listening experience.”

Not all of the press has been praise, however.

AVClub.com warns its readers that the album “comes off as a little generic at times.”

Sill, Griffin is happy with the results.

“There have been some negative reactions to this record. But there’ve been positive ones too,” said Griffin who prefers the emphasis be put upon an American music form that not many know about.

“Gospel music is so rich. A lot of it, the good stuff, is so rich and deep, like ‘Never Grow Old’ and ‘We Shall All Be Reunited,’ those Alfred G Karnes songs that are on the record…I think those songs are so powerful and nobody knows who that guy is,” Griffin said. “These songs have influenced a lot of great country songs that everybody knows. There’s some foundation in these songs. It’s really not shakable and I’m really interested in them. I love ‘em! I’m not afraid to say it.”

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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2 Responses to Interview: Patty Griffin goes back to church

  1. L.W. says:

    I love how Patty changed Alfred Karnes’s word “parting” to “marching” on We Shall All Be Reunited. Think about it – “no more marching” means that there’s nothing to protest, which by extension means harmony, in the land beyond the sky. It’s a larger concept than “no more parting”, which is very personal.

    There’s a lot more to say about this, but I think I’m writing to the ether.

    Anyone out there?

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