Songwriter Savant

Where do Patty Griffin’s songs come from?

Songwriters often say that they don’t know where their works come from, that they seem to come from outside themselves. In any given interview you might hear Bono, Alanis Morissette, Gillian Welch, or John Hiatt say so. Last week I talked to the accomplished and idiosyncratic country/pop/folk/whatever singer/songwriter Patty Griffin—on the day before the release of her third CD, 1000 Kisses (ATO Records)—and she was insistent on this very point: that there is something bigger than just herself involved in writing her songs.

For a long time, these kinds of artistic disavowals struck me as coy, or merely attempts at modesty, or, conversely, grandiose claims of divine or spiritual inspiration. Or as an effort to inject interest and connectedness into a process that is often lonely, tedious, frustrating, heartbreaking, and unsuccessful. But recently, with 40 years’ worth of listening and editing and writing experience perhaps reaching a critical mass, I’ve come to realize that most people who make this sort of artist-savant claim actually believe and mean exactly what they say.

Griffin is a good case in point. Like many songwriters (her work has been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and the Dixie Chicks), she sometimes starts with the music—with a phrase or a bit of melody, with a guitar riff—and the words come later. But when they do, “they seem to come from nowhere,” she says—”they just sort of pop out.” At other times, she simply sits and makes silly rhymes. “For 20 minutes or a half an hour I’ll just make nonsense rhymes or just rhymes about my dog,” she says. “And then serious ones begin to happen.” Songwriting can be a physical discipline for her, as well. “Often I have to move my body in a certain way, like exercising, to begin to get into the right rhythm for writing a song.” When she said this, she moved her shoulders around in a swimming kind of way, to show what she meant. (Onstage, when she isn’t playing the guitar, Griffin’s arms become anemonelike, tentacular, in a distinctive, wavy style; from far away—as when I saw her open for the Dixie Chicks at Radio City Music Hall a while back, and, before that, for Harris at the Beacon Theater in New York—these movements look mannered, but closer up, they seemed entirely natural.)

Her lyrics, which often repeat themselves in repeated musical phrases, are trancelike, as well—as if the author were in some way possessed. In “Mary,” an anthemic three-chord song whose words appear to marry Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene and Everywoman, from Griffin’s second CD, she sings:

You’re covered in roses
You’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies,
You’re covered in slashes,
You’re covered in wilderness,
You’re covered in stains.

And from the new CD, in “Be Careful,” another three- or four-chorder, similarly poignant about the general lot of women: “Be careful how you bend me/ Be careful where you send me/ Careful how you end me …” This chorus is preceded by haunting and even more incantational verses that are essentially lists of women in different attitudes and situations (“All the girls on the telephone/ All the girls sitting all alone …” etc.).

It’s not surprising that Griffin and many others like her honestly feel in the grip of something “beyond” themselves, feel “inspired” (a word whose root means “breathe in,” as the oracle breathed in psychoactive fumes at Delphi), when they are writing music. These creative experiences have a long, grand tradition and literature. (Plato, an early proponent of this idea, says that “all good poets, epic as well as lyric, composed their beautiful poems not by art but because they are inspired and possessed.”) What did come as something of a surprise to me in our conversation was the vehemence of Griffin’s resistance to the possibility that she and she alone is responsible for her music. When I said I thought that “inspiration” might actually not be anything mystical but just the unconscious, creative right brain delivering artifacts to the conscious left hemisphere, she not only disagreed but seemed upset about the notion. “There has be something more than that,” she said. “The mystery is beyond that. The fact that you’re writing about experiences you’ve never had shows that. I mean, sometimes the whole room alters when I’m writing a song.”

Part of Griffin’s unwillingness to take full authorial credit for her work may have to do with the fact that she appears to be a truly self-effacing person, and she has known hard times: a bad marriage, six years of waitressing at Pizzeria Uno in Boston, classic record-industry horror stories. She is one of seven children, was born in Old Town, Maine, and is from a family that has had to work hard for a living. She has lived and feels keenly the lot of the marginal, especially working-class women and outcasts of various kinds. Her songs reflect often these concerns: “Tony,” about a gay boy in high school “with breasts like a girl” who commits suicide; “Making Pies,” on the new CD, about a bakery worker who does the same tedious job every day in order to make a living; the quasi-feminist songs “Mary” and “Be Careful”; Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car”; “Chief,” on the new CD, about a nonfunctional Native American Army vet; etc.

When she talks about these songs, it’s clear that she wants them to express, in their lyrical way, the suffering associated with broad social problems. She says, for example: “There’s an imbalance when if a woman goes out for a walk at 3 in the morning and something happens to her it was somehow her fault, and with a man that’s not true.” So it makes sense that she would believe so passionately that she is somehow channeling these elegiac, quasi-protest songs. She needs to believe that she is being spoken through, and may fear that taking the credit—being a musical auteur—will undermine what she sees as a sort of mission.

In a limited way, she’s wrong, as every other artist and Plato are when they assert that the human artist is the instrument of some greater force. Unless the person involved is one of the many plagiarists at large these days, he and he alone made the work. But in a broader way she’s quite right. The brain is, from one way of looking at it, the receptacle—the vessel—for all kinds of information, data, stimuli from the outside world, and, often without any intellectual plan, the mind of the artist will synthesize and structure and give emotional depth to some portion of these stimuli, will chew them up, and spit out art. In that way the artist is an instrument after all—an instrument played by the inchoate world around him.