Like Joni Mitchell before her, Patty Larkin has gained a reputation as being a musician’s musician over the course of her career. Larkin’s catalogue shows a restless spirit who is always reaching and looking to throw herself into uncharted territory.
On her 10th CD, “Watch the Sky,” Larkin wrestled with her muse alone. Locked away with her computer, she produced, engineered and edited herself.
She describes the experience as exhilarating and terrifying—terrifying because the approach put her on a high wire without other musicians or a producer to bounce ideas off of— exhilarating for the same reason.
MYERS: Let’s start by talking about “Watch the Sky.” On your Web site, you say that the recording process was mostly solitary. The good thing about that was that you can hit Delete whenever you wanted to and the down side was no one was there to bounce ideas off of until after the fact. How did that affect the songs?
LARKIN: I think that it really made me kinda’ dig deep and go deeper on certain occasions, and on the other hand, there were a couple songs where I just let the track run and I started singing to it. I started writing lyrics to it and it would be a loop or a motif that kept repeating. I had never written music that way before. So that was something that I would never have done had there been someone else in the room.
I think that vocally I sang backup vocals in a way that I probably would not have had there been someone else in the room because it’s not something I do. I don’t think of myself as a backup vocalist. I really try a lot of different things. I felt freer in the studio to create tracks that I wasn’t going to keep, just to get ideas from.
MYERS: The album sounds pared down. Were you going for a minimal approach—just exactly the things that you needed?
LARKIN: There’s certain songs that sort of fit into that pared down category of things like “Cover Me” and “Waterside.” And then there were other songs that I just had a lot of fun with, like “Walking in My Sleep” or “Beautiful.” I think “Walking in My Sleep” is probably the one that I spent the most time on just trying to get it so that it was succinct. And I think there was another verse I cut, but production-wise, I just wanted to have some fun with it.
MYERS: What are some other chances you took on this album?
LARKIN: A song like “Walking in My Sleep” is really in a different vocal style for me. I thought of Billie Holliday. I think that that was kind of a big deal. Then also starting the whole thing out with a phone message. I’m playing to basically a hip-hop drum machine. That was the motif that was on my answering machine for two or three years—actually it still is on my answering machine. I have to take it off. My manager said, “You should really record that and write a song with that as your as the base.” And I was like, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” I ended up doing it. Just looping some of these things, I hadn’t done that before and also writing to the track as the track’s playing. Something like “All Souls Day,” that was just an instrumental piece and I just started singing to it. I gave myself permission to sing differently, in sort of a bluesy, more earthy, jazz-tinged voice.
Also, a song like “Beautiful” with the background guitar parts that I came up with; that’s the way my head works, just kind of quirky background guitar stuff. I edited out a lot of it, but I kept a bunch…It’s one of the ones that I wrote as the music was flying by and it’s quirky and stream of consciousness.
MYERS: When you’re working on an art that’s so personal, are there steps you take to make it accessible to others?
LARKIN: Well, I think you try not to edit as you’re writing, but after you’ve written it you go back and see if: 1. Does it make sense? 2. Are you telling the truth? The song is only as strong as its weakest line. So if you have a weak line in there, it’s gonna bring the whole thing down. The kind of music I play and write, the art is to be yourself and to present that to people as genuine. And yet if you’re just walking around going well, “I had a ham sandwich today,” it’s just not that much fun to listen to. So you try to distance yourself a bit and become objective about your experience so that you can write about it in a way that someone else will be able to relate to it and find it interesting to listen to more than once. Otherwise, it’s just your experience and sort of petty. So I think that’s the challenge—to keep writing, and as you’re doing the writing to come back and look at it and be honest and say, “Is this worth keeping?”
MYERS: Now, when you said that the song is only as strong as its weakest line, how do you go about finding your weakest line?
LARKIN: One test is to play the song out in public because you’ll know when you hit that line.
MYERS: Now, you came from a creative family. Your mom was a painter and your sisters were musicians?
LARKIN: Yeah, my mom is still painting and my two sisters are both involved in music very deeply.
MYERS: Were they very encouraging?
LARKIN: They encouraged us to play piano and take piano lessons, which my other two sisters were much more successful at practicing and I had an issue with that. And when the guitar came into the house we all started playing guitar. But I pretty much immediately started writing songs after a few months of learning how to play the guitar. I started like at 11 or 12 years old writing songs. I just wanted to try it. It seemed like an interesting puzzle to try to work out.
MYERS: Has your relationship to music changed over the years? Whatever drew you to it as kid, is that what draws you to it still?
LARKIN: Well, I think the essence of it in terms of writing, being excited by the sounds that I get, or by the chords and putting a melody above it and putting words that reflect what I’m hearing to it— that still really intrigues me. There’s something very magical about it. I know that when I was a kid that’s all I really wanted to do is sit and play guitar and write songs. Then when I was studying guitar I did six to eight hours a day of guitar playing and I was extremely dedicated to it. Now I wonder how much I would play if I wasn’t performing. You have to keep your chops up and you have to keep writing songs to kind of keep going and keep putting CDs out. But what I’m working for now is to get that homespun aspect back to my music—to bring the guitar out and sit there and sing some of the old songs, the old folk songs or old Bob Dylan songs—even Sheryl Crow. For some reason you get away from that. I remember Ryan Kruder saying his son said to him—it just stopped him short one day when his son said, “Dad, how come you never play guitar anymore?” “I play all the time,” he goes. “Yeah, at your gigs, but you don’t sit around the house and just play guitar like you used to.”
LARKIN: And you know, it really made him think about what he was doing with his music and the personal aspect of it. It is business and you kind of dedicate yourself to this art form, but part of the art form is that living-room aspect of it and sitting around with people who play mandolin and maybe violin and having your kids sing with you. There’s something really special about that I’m trying to get back.
MYERS: So, what do you think you might do to try and get that back?
LARKIN: Some of my instruments are so valuable I don’t leave them out because somebody might trip over them or they’re going to get dusty and I keep them in really good cases. I’m trying to leave my good guitars out a little bit more, so I grab it at the end of the day, or grab it before dinner and sit there and play. I know that we want to do that. I have this little family now of two little girls who are 4 and 7 and they love playing music. They love to sit there and sing.
MYERS: Do you sing with them?
LARKIN: I do, yeah. It’s funny though, not as much as I think I would.