Patty Griffin sees her new album as a fresh start.
It comes after battling breast cancer, including complications that made it difficult for her to sing, as well as numerous other unexpected setbacks that all seemed to help make “Patty Griffin” (PGM Recordings/Thirty Tigers) her best in years. Even the name was a last-minute decision, after another singer-songwriter unknowingly used the working title Griffin had been using for a couple of years.
“I told my producer and friend Craig Ross and he said, ‘You could just name it ‘Patty Griffin,’ you’ve never done that before’,” says Griffin, calling from her Austin home. “I thought that was funny. But it does kind of work really well. This album is a bit of a reset for me, starting from scratch.”
The album, as well as her new tour which stops at Town Hall in Manhattan on Saturday, April 6, reflects a new intensity in her music, Griffin says.
“Along with aging and all that stuff, when I got cancer a dear friend also got cancer and he didn’t survive… these experiences make songs that get you closer to the bone,” she says. “That’s always been my aim. But some albums have more bravery than others. I think feeling really, really sick and being close to somebody really sick affected me. It wasn’t just bravery. It was this sense that there was no time to mess around.”
Griffin, who turned 55 earlier this month, says that when she was younger she knew she had her entire career to accomplish what she wanted. “Then the shift starts happening,” she says. “The ambition becomes, for a lot of us, to find more peace in ourselves through honesty and self-reflection.”
Griffin sings of personal issues, like the effect of poverty on a family in “Mama’s Worried,” and of worldly ones like racism in “The Wheel,” where she also tells the story of Eric Garner, who died on Staten Island in 2014 after police put him in a chokehold.
“I feel like I’ve always done that with my writing, from the first record on, in my own subtle way,” she says. “I’ve talked about being poor and living with that kind of vulnerability. My writing has always been informed by James Baldwin and that’s had an effect on the way I see our country and where we’re going and what we have to do to get things on a better track. I feel like I’ve written about it over the years. I just was a little more direct this time because why not?”
Griffin says she didn’t mean for the album to be divided in halves, it just turned out that way. “I was on a plane doing the running order so that they could master it,” she says. “It wasn’t until later where it seemed to me that the first half was really feminine and the second half was more masculine stuff.”
However, Griffin is quick to point out that the two halves are not that different. “To me, it’s all the same,” she says. “Metaphor is metaphor. It’s all going on in me. It’s all completely woven into everything going on around me. It always has been. That’s actually what I like about doing what I do and getting to write songs. It’s about digging deep and my way of trying to understand things in my world through getting down to the bottom of it in my belly. It all feels the same to me.”
One thing that is different on “Patty Griffin,” though, is her voice. “When I started writing, I had never been so depleted vocally in my life,” Griffin says. “Even before I was diagnosed, I was getting sick a lot. I had a lot of respiratory illnesses. Then with the cancer, there was the treatment, the surgery and drugs. They all take their toll on my voice.”
For a while, Griffin was unable to sing, but she kept writing songs. “The reset in my thinking had to do with seeing if this voice might be all I’ve got,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I would get anything back. Then, when we started recording, we decided I would start singing from where I was at in my recovery. I sang, but not with a lot of control. It’s one of the most vulnerable things I’ve done.”
Griffin’s producer Ross convinced her that she was onto something, telling her, “I think it’s beautiful.” “It really forced me, without my vocal tricks and athleticism, to focus on emotional honesty a little bit more,” she says. “I probably wrote a lot more words because I wasn’t holding out pretty notes to carry on melodies. The melodies weren’t turning out that way, so the sound is a little different this time.”
As she starts her two-month tour of America and Europe, Griffin says her voice has recovered fully. “It’s all good,” she says. “It’s all there. It just takes a while to get the meat on the bones. It starts getting a lot easier to do the more you do it… It’s part of the beginning of any tour, where you are still trying to figure out where your hands are and how to do it technically. It’s exciting to me to get to that.”
And Griffin is ready to see where this next chapter in her career takes her.
WHO Patty Griffin
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, April 6, Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., Manhattan
INFO $39.50-$49.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
For years, Patty Griffin’s songs have inspired many artists to record their own versions, from the cast of the off-Broadway musical “10 Million Miles,” which was based on her catalog, to Kelly Clarkson and Robert Plant. Here’s a look at some of Griffin’s most influential songs:
“Let Him Fly” (1996)
Her wrenching ballad about ending a bad relationship is bittersweet, both a determined fresh start and a sad goodbye.
RECORDED BY Dixie Chicks, Jessica Simpson
“Top of the World” (2000)
A tale of regrets from the point of view of a man looking back on his life, realizing how he could have made a more positive impact on the world.
RECORDED BY Dixie Chicks, Kasey Chambers
“Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” (2006)
Her gorgeous tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. uses his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech as the starting point for an inspirational hymn.
RECORDED BY Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson with Jeff Beck, Susan Boyle, and numerous contestants from “American Idol” and “The Voice.” — GLENN GAMBOA