Patty Griffin on Her New Album, Turning 50, and Dirty Jokes

Listen to a song from the singer's tenth album

Photo: David McClister

In her dressing room back stage at Nashville’s City Winery, Americana superstar Patty Griffin sits at a table with legs crossed and hands clasped. She speaks softly, in careful, measured tones about her new record, Servant of Love (out now). It’s her tenth album—an existential masterpiece fueled by cascades of fury and pain, with a sharply honed fierceness the depth of which she’s never plumbed before.

Later that evening, Griffin plays a short set in front of a rapt audience who hang on every delicate phrase and pluck. Then she moves to a piano for Servant’s title track, her voice now dynamic and devastating, squeezing out every drop of emotion from each note. The crowd, once seated, now at a standing ovation.

Long beloved and adored, the shy Griffin, now 51, remains steadfast in keeping the meaning of her work to herself. “One of my great joys in life and in my songs is that I try to get to my own heart and truth,” she says. Luckily, she shared a little of it with us.

Your fans can be pretty intense; some have described you as an oracle of sorts.

That freaks me out a little bit. In a broad way, we as humans are suppressing and repressing, and on the other side of that, we’re trying to get to our true selves and true natures. And they’re always hitting each other. But one of the things that sometimes surprises me when I write songs is that my heart opens up. Maybe that’s why people feel moved by them.

How much of that freedom is from turning 50? That’s a milestone for many people.

It is a landmark, and for women, I think it’s a bigger deal. To be really detailed about it, I don’t have as much estrogen as I used to. [Laughs] A doctor once told me, “Estrogen is the thing that keeps you from killing the kids, but it also gets you into a lot of trouble.” You don’t care as much about certain things. As a woman, I might have held my true self at bay, rather than take my space and have a creative life. And that comes with not giving a crap what people think. I don’t have time to waste!

How do you write? Do you keep a schedule?

I have to have a routine. I used to do it in a different way, take out my notebooks in the morning. Now, I just try and sit at a piano or a guitar and do it several hours a day and hope for the best.

Who edits you?

I edit myself and I’m a lot more lenient than I used to be. [Laughs] It’s gone back to the time when I first lived in Nashville where I would try anything. I used to throw a bunch of stuff up against the wall and I would play it for people. It might suck, but I’d try it anyway. That’s the way I did this record.

Is there an example?

With “Servant of Love,” I had the piano part and I kept trying to push lyrics over it, and I was like, “Nope.” Finally in the middle of the night, the very first line of that song—“I long to live by the ocean, carry me away I’m a servant of love”—came to me. It still makes no sense to me, but I knew that was it. I’m still trying to unravel it. It’s been murder in interviews because people want to know what it means. I just know it makes me feel a certain way. So the editor is a little less critical, more open-minded.

Speaking of that song, there’s a sweeping, cinematic quality to it. I could envision it in a Terence Malick movie or the first season of True Detective.

I haven’t seen that show.

Just watch the first season, don’t bother with the second.

Ha! I do watch a lot of movies. Basically anything on Turner Classic Movies. I don’t watch much of anything else. I’m not sure why I’m obsessed with old movies.

Do you have a favorite?

I have a lot. Ten years ago, I was obsessed with [Japanese director] Akira Kurosawa films, I love how they’re just pure emotion. It’s interesting to see how that translates into our culture. As I get older, I’m a huge fan of Billy Wilder, people who knew how to turn a phrase in a subtle way, or get an actor’s face to do a tiny movement. And I’m blown away by humor.

So, what makes you laugh?

Oh man, dirty jokes, farts, and burps. I have to hang out with musicians, so that’s convenient.

Tell me a dirty joke.

Damn, I’m on the spot. OK, I’ll tell you a joke a five-year-old once told me.

Hit me.

What’s brown and sticky?

Uh-oh. I give up.

A stick!

Buy Servant of Love here.