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A STOLEN MOMENT ON TOP OF THE WORLD WITH PATTY GRIFFIN IN WIND BACK WEDNESDAY


The superb songwriter and singer, Patty Griffin, will be here in March, carrying not just songs from one of the best albums of last year – her self-titled gem (READ MY REVIEW HERE) - but a catalogue which touches genius more often than just about anyone in the past 25 years and earned her the respect and awe of peers such as Emmylou Harris, Kasey Chambers, Missy Higgins and Robert Plant.

For someone so good and so loved in corners of this country, it’s a small tragedy that it is 12 years since she was last here. Since that tour though there’s been shows by a group who probably introduced Griffin to a lot of people, The Dixie Chicks, who still have her Top Of The World at the heart of their shows.


Speaking of that song, as Wind Back Wednesday excavation reveals, it figures in this interview from 2008, paired with something from another pretty decent songwriter.

It was the last night of her first Australian tour and Patty Griffin, the sparrow-like singer with the rich, dark red hair, was looking tired. Tired, but satisfied. Before the tour she had expressed doubts about interest in her in Australia, even when told of a dedicated (if not fanatical) fan base here. "Once they meet me it will be over," Griffin joked at the time. "Shock and awe."


Now the evidence from sold out gigs, many tales of fans following her to three, four or more shows up and down the eastern seaboard and the immediate arrangement of a new tour in March, suggested less shock more awe.


"You really are on the edge of a cliff when you go to a new territory. There are no training wheels," she peels off a laugh. "But I don't let myself think about those things because I just need to get myself to a place where I can sing well, and thinking about that doesn't help at this point."


For such an experienced performer, with six albums over the past 12 years, a Grammy nomination this year for her Children Running Through album and a bevy of songs recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris and the Dixie Chicks, there is still a surprising level of uncertainty at the fringes for Griffin.

For example, one of the highlights of several of these Australian shows had been the pairing of Bruce Springsteen's Stolen Car with her own Top Of The World, a double of gut wrenching emotional power. But she dropped that double for the final show, telling me "I wasn't sure if I was hitting people over the head too hard."


She wasn't of course. Certainly not with Top Of The World which these days is virtually her signature song, despite its best-known version being the Dixie Chicks cover. One fascinating aspect of the song is that for all its undoubted emotional kick, there is plenty of space within it for interpretation.


"I wished I was smarter/Wished I was stronger/I wished I loved Jesus/The way my wife does," Griffin sings in a hushed, husky tone as a barely there guitar plays in the background. Later she sighs with understated but unmistakeable sadness. "I don't have to answer/Any of these questions/Don't have no god to/Teach me no lessons/I come home in the evening/Sit in my chair/One night they called me for supper/But I never got up/I stayed right there/In my chair."


Is it a song about a man who has lost deeply (his family? his wife?), a suicide note even?

"He's gone, he's speaking from beyond," Griffin says. "It was actually a family member at the time. I was thinking about the kind of life he led. I didn't know him very well, he passed away when I was pretty young, but now that I'm a grown-up, thinking about these people, the issue of regret is on the table all the time.


"But you know it's the emotional content in music which works. I have fun writing lyrics but they have to carry a real feeling. So the fact that you arrived at a completely different interpretation is good to me. They don't have to mean the same thing literally to work, as long as the emotion gets through."


The lyrics and the emotion played their part in attracting an Off-Broadway production based on Griffins songs, called 10 Million Miles, which ran for several months last year. It was a first for both Griffin and the playwright. Would she try it again? Maybe writing specifically for the stage?

"I've got to say, not cynically at all, I love that sort of thing," she says brightly. "I was introduced to Cy Coleman this year, when I was asked to sing on a tribute record.  He is an American songwriter who wrote The Best Is Yet To Come and Witchcraft and when I heard that my ears pricked up and I said I'm there. Then I heard that he wrote the music for Sweet Charity, which is the one with Big Spender, and I started exploring some of that world.


"There are great things you can do with that world and at this point in my life, I've listened to a lot of music and I'm very very particular, my ears are trained to listen for mistakes, so I draw a lot of my inspiration from the visual, seeing paintings and actors. I don't know whether my life will land in that world but I have an interest."


Patty Griffin plays: Meeniyan Town Hall, March 1; Melbourne Recital Centre, March 3; Capital Theatre, Bendigo, March 5; Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 7-8; City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 10; The Tivoli, Brisbane, March 12; Lismore City Hall, March 13

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