Singing into a hairbrush and checking your moves in the mirror is a time-honoured apprenticeship for many young singers but the 12-year-old Patty Griffin was a shy child, the youngest of seven, so she developed her own practise regime.
“I remember thinking I really liked singing more than anything,” she says, “and I thought to myself ‘how do people learn to do this?’ A lot of people in my family can sing pretty well, it just seems to be in the genes. So I would run home from school and actually go inside my closet and sing into the clothes so that they wouldn’t make fun of me.”
Griffin still seems pretty shy at the age of 49 but is gradually getting more comfortable with the attention from being an increasingly recognised vocalist and songwriter – her songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Solomon Burke and Susan Boyle as well as a host of country singers from Emmylou Harris to the Dixie Chicks – and from her relationship with Robert Plant.
Griffin and Plant met in 2010 when she toured as backing vocalist with Plant’s reactivated Band of Joy. The couple live in Austin, the music-saturated city which Griffin has called home for the past 15 years. Plant sings and has a co-writing credit on Griffin’s latest album American Kid but Griffin scotches any suggestion that they might jam together at the kitchen table. “At home, I’m much more interested in relaxing,” she laughs. “But we need to do some more writing.”
As a teenager, Griffin progressed from singing to her clothes rack to learning guitar and writing her own material. “I always thought if I could figure out how to write a song I’d have better luck distinguishing myself and I would have something to offer a band,” she says.
Griffin never did audition for that band but eventually her guitar teacher persuaded her to play the occasional coffee house gig and Griffin was signed up from there. Her career has been a slowburn with seven albums, including the Grammy winning gospel album Downtown Church, released since the mid-1990s but, as she says herself, “I haven’t had a day job since 1994 – that’s success to me.”
Along the way there have been interesting diversions. An off Broadway musical, 10 Million Miles, has been created using her songs, and Griffin herself featured in one of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films. “I was playing at a club in New York and he came by with a producer and thought I would be a really good mass murderer’s girlfriend so I got the gig,” she says.
Meanwhile, Griffin, ever the apt pupil, has continued to learn her craft, including the fine art of harmony singing which she describes as “like parallel parking – if you think about it too much, it’s not gonna go well.”
In 2004, she joined Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue (“that’s going to school, really, to sing harmonies with them”) and cites Kirsty McColl as one of her favourite harmony singers. “She just had this way of wrapping her voice around things, it was like dancing to the song.”
Strangely for an artist who has won awards for her roots music, Griffin feels that American Kid is her first truly country album, the product of a period spent deliberately researching the genre. “We used to make fun of country music, just because everybody’s parents were listening to it where I grew up. But I understand it now.”
The album is inspired by and dedicated to the memory of her father, Lawrence Joseph Griffin, who taught high school science and fought in the Second World War. While he was dying, Griffin found that she was writing songs to honour his life.
“I really did make a lot of this up, just trying to fill in the blanks myself and get more of an emotional register of what his life would have been like,” says Griffin. “When you’re a kid you just think of your parent as this person who’s supposed to be smart for you. You don’t really think about all the things they’ve lived through and how that affects the way they act. My dad’s from that generation where nobody talked about anything but when he got older, little stories about the war would come out. In America in particular, we’re so isolated from the rest of the world that when the soldiers come back from those conflicts nobody can relate to what’s happened to them. So all these secrets are being held in.”
What does her mother make of her daughter’s imaginings? “We haven’t had a deep discussion about it yet – I think she’s getting used to it. It’s a lot to ask of my family to keep digging in there for stories, but I think she’s probably happy about it.”
Griffin is now a respected and established figure on the roots scene, but takes nothing for granted. “I’m in my 50th year now and I’d like for these years to be really exploratory. I’d like to get off the treadmill a lot more often and see what shows up. I still check the want ads to see if there’s something out there I know how to do anymore.”
• Patty Griffin plays Perth Concert Hall on 21 July, as part of the Southern Fried Festival. American Kid is out now on New West Records