Patty Griffin, winner earlier this month of the Grammy Award for best folk album for her self-titled 2019 album, has been out walking her two dogs - “two little ones - Chihuahua-esque” - in the early evening, on a pleasant Texas winter day.
She’s less concerned about the fact her album isn’t really folk but an amalgam of American roots and soulful singing that asking about Australia and bushfires, which she’s been following closely with growing dread and sadness.
“People are always spying on Australia and wishing they lived a little closer, I think,” she says. Well, if that is true – and parts of Australia are not that dissimilar to her home town of Austin - is there any reason for her not to move here permanently? Might make her tours a little more frequent than twice in 25 years, the last of them 12 years ago.
“Sure, I get a little visa be right over, me and my dogs,” she laughs. Hey, it’s safer to travel here with dogs now that Pistol and Boo’s bete noir is back in his Tamworth bolthole scaring neighbours.
“Some day. Maybe,” Griffin says, perhaps wistfully. But Australian fans of a songwriter considered by her peers to be, well, almost peerless, should not start planning those living room concerts. Although she is originally from Maine, on the east coast, Griffin has found both a physical and spiritual home in the Texan town sometimes known as the People’s Republic of Austin, and she will probably never leave.
Which is something a former paramour, Robert Plant, found out when he, having moved there to be near her, started getting homesick for the English West Country but couldn’t convince her to move there.
Connections and traditions do matter for Griffin, especially the longer her career goes. To me her second Grammy-winning album was partly about her and the person she was after recovering from cancer, but mostly about a lineage, not just of family but wider, of women who endure, who deal with things and go on.
Women like her mother, to whom she dedicated the album. Like Griffin herself, who recorded after coming back from a long period of treatment during which she lost her voice for some months.
And this has been a career-long message: that working women, poor women, non-white and thrown about by life women are, to borrow an analogy she uses in one of the album’s standouts, like a river – just going on regardless.
“I think I do keep plugging away at those things: the poor, racism,” Griffin says. “I don’t come from people of colour but I was surrounded by racism as a child and this issue is one that we as humans are up against. For me, the female imagery too on this record was a lot more of a metaphor for the planet. A lot of it was.
“And I think that’s how it works: these things are all connected. The image of the female and how they’re degraded and has been for a long time, is part of climate change and wars.”
Whether it is women, people of colour, the environment, you could argue that in Griffin’s songs it comes down to a matter of respect and of understanding there is a place for everything and it isn’t hierarchical.
Which is almost antithetical to profit-driven societies and people like the antagonist in Coins, an autobiographical song from her days waitressing in Harvard Square, Massachusetts, and Delray Beach, Florida, where the narrator, an ordinary waitress in an ordinary diner, recalls a thrusting young man of finances whose entitled disdain for her was impersonal but visceral (and who is probably a Wall Street titan now).
“I think also the guy in Coins is embittered, and that’s something I noticed working around Harvard University for many years, where I met many amazing people going to Harvard, but it does attract that entitled element,” says Griffin, who waitressed for several years before testing out music as a career.
“One thing I did notice was his unhappiness. I’m just a waitress working for, at that time, $3.25 an hour, plus any tip they managed to leave, so I was pretty low on the scale of hierarchy, but I did notice, and I found it chilling, that in that world it’s almost like a rage towards people who are working class. And maybe female too.”
It’s not so hard to find wider examples of course of rage and contempt, of people who feel a constant need to assert their presence and superiority to fill a space in their souls or deflect their fear of losing it all.
“I look at our president, though I can’t say his name [she laughs] and I think about the rumours that his parents didn’t like him and that says a lot about why he is how he is now. There’s a lot going on there, beneath all the noise.”
Speaking of him, or us, the other side of Griffin’s album about the indomitable spirit of women is she doesn’t shy from seeing how men live and react, sometimes from their perspective, sometimes from that of an observer. And it’s not just a matter of judgement and enunciation, as empathy is so obvious.
Did she have any qualms about knowing men, or is the cliché true that we are simpler beasts to understand?
She laughs uproariously. “I have never thought of it that way. I just like stories and I try to tell them from my heart and emotions, and work from there. I don’t feel that foreign to [men]. I’ve been around more men in my life than women and actually became much more comfortable at a certain point with men than with women – the life of a musician, most people around you are men - that’s when I knew I it was time to hang out with more women.
“But I never really thought about why I should not do it [writing about men] or whether I could do it properly or not. I just went ahead and did it.”
Of course even asking that question, one that is fairly common today, particularly, but not exclusively, directed at men writing about women, works from a debatable premise. Griffin, for one, has always written finely judged character assessments and descriptions in her songs, whether of men or women, that strike you as rich with knowledge and understanding.
“You know, in a linear way, [do I understand men]? Hell no,” she chuckles. “There’s a lot about men I couldn’t say I understand. I’m not inside a male body and I think the workings of the hormones do really rule. And also your cultural training, with what is suggested for you, is very different to what is suggested for me. I don’t know all the tiny nuances …”
Neither do we!
“But I think I can dig in there.”
Which makes it easier to ask this next question. We often ask people what they’ve learnt about themselves having gone through serious life-changing experiences. There’s always discussions of a new perspective, or new goals, or changes to be made in attitude or approach.
But I wonder what Griffin learnt about others through that, and then whether a year or two later even that perspective has changed.
“That there is so much beauty and goodness,” she says. “I think I had my head down, working, working, working, working like a machine. I didn’t start off that way, as a songwriter and a singer. After all those years of waiting on people I needed to express myself and tell stories.
“And I worked really, really hard at doing it well for a really long time. Anything that interrupted that, I really did shut out a lot of humanity, I think.”
Did humanity make it worthwhile when she let us back in?
“Getting really sick, for me, was a really good way to sort through who do you know can be there? Who is going to drain you?,” Griffin says. “You start dividing with those lines and those are the people that, I think, can teach you so much about what’s really important in life.
“I find myself now, having gone through all of that, in a world of great people. And I can see that on the street and with strangers too, because I’m actually working on noticing and interacting. Maybe the whole experience made it seem like it’s more urgent to interact and take another look at humanity.”
If humanity was a lesson, something else tested her much more. The return of her voice after the illness and treatment was not a given. Was she in any way prepared for it not coming back in the same sound and style?
“I think at first I was just so glad to get anything out and when I could croak anything out I thought, well this might be it, this might be all you get. So you better learn how to work with it in an effective way,” she says. “I think that can happen anyway as you age and you have to accept that change, especially soprano females. But it was in doubt, and it’s interesting because we identify ourselves with what we do and is not uncommon for a life to shift like that, where someone has to figure out a new way to see themselves in the context of the world.
“And that could still happen, I could still get a recurrence, and I think if it did, I’d have a really hard time doing this twice. It’s something I think about a lot.”
And of course, while this weighs on her mind, let’s not pretend that we don’t have our own demands: for her to make new music, to tour, to be available to us. As unreasonable as that might be, it’s probably sitting at the back of her mind anyway.
“I don’t think about it like that, anymore,” Griffin says. “For me it’s much more that I can’t really believe that this has worked out this way, that I can go to someplace like Australia and people show up. That’s crazy, that’s a miracle. I feel that way about every show, especially now.”
In that spirit, what brings her pleasure now? What adds joy to her life?
“I try to watch as many sunsets as possible. I know it sounds clichéd, but that’s one of them. I really am down to the most simple things, for joy.”
Patty Griffin plays: Meeniyan Town Hall, March 1; Melbourne Recital Centre, March 3; Capitol 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