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Photo by Traci GoudieAdd Patty Griffin's name to the long list of musicians-as-corporate-chew-toys, guilty of the unpardonable sin of not selling kajillions of records. But don't put her down as a casualty just yet—she might have come out the other end of the machine a little better off than she went in.
Nearly two years ago, the auburn-haired Griffin recorded a new album, Silver Bell, which was supposed to be her third release on A&M/Interscope. When she turned it in, the rancid girly pop of Britney, Natalie Imbruglia and Jewel ruled radio, so the label just sat on—and then ignored altogether—Griffin's more thoughtful, mature and demanding tunes. Eventually, she was handed a verdict: no identifiable hit songs, no release.
With both sides at an impasse, the two mutually agreed to separate, with A&M keeping the rights to songs they have no intention of ever releasing. That is, unless Griffin should somehow become a star. Dicks.
Yet when I phoned Griffin last week, expecting to hear her spew venom about the situation, I only got mild resentment. She agrees that the execs who treated her art merely as an inferior commodity are buffoons, but at the same time, she says, her experience was actually a necessary one.
"The major labels are dinosaurs at the moment. They have no idea what to do with music of any depth or intelligence," says Griffin. "Plus, after the [Polygram-Universal] merger, it just wasn't fun for me there anymore. The focus for everyone had shifted away from what matters: the music."
Griffin's commercial successes have never matched her critical acclaim, but she's savvy enough to have chosen a new, more viable path. Her new album, 1000 Kisses, was released in April on ATO Records, an independent, artist-friendly New York label co-founded by Dave Matthews and Michael McDonald (plus a couple of business partners). Acoustic-based and generally somber in tone, 1000 Kisses features multilayered songs covering complex, emotional themes, each number sung from the heart in Griffin's nasal-but-pure voice. Supporting Griffin is a host of talented, roots-based musicians who play everything from guitar, cello, mandolin and accordion to screen doors and pie plates.
Griffin unearths fragile, often life-defining moments, ones that can either lead to despair or provide the catalysts for perseverance. In "Making Pies," a widow comes to terms with loss by finding dignity in mundane, day-to-day activities. Equally compelling is "Be Careful," a hushed meditation on how much a woman's worth is defined in restricted, narrow ways—by men, of course. Then there's the steamy take on the blues standard "Tomorrow Night," with Griffin helming a jazzy-sounding trio.
There's nothing on 1000 Kisses you'd expect to hear popping up on a Top 40 bandwidth, which is sort of the point: the whole album is a sweet illustration of what can be done when musicians take control—or are forcedto take control—of their careers, a target-market-free zone for your eardrums.
"I really wanted this record to have a close, emotional feel coming from it," Griffin says. "I was watching for my vocals to be very personal, even in your face. I think we captured that immediacy, that intensity. Plus, it wasn't a stressful atmosphere at all, the kind where a producer is trying to impose his will."
Griffin doesn't need a lame major label to validate her feelings of self-worth. She has been the hand-picked opening act on tours with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and the Dixie Chicks. All of these acts—plus countless other alterna-country mavericks—have recorded songs penned by Griffin, the Chicks landing the biggest hit two years ago with "Let Him Fly."
"I'm so much happier with my situation now," says Griffin. "There is no shame in going the indie route or even self-releasing. The key is self-respect."
Griffin is so untroubled and content these days that she's even gotten over the folkie pigeonhole. Really, she canrock—some of her early influences include the Beatles, Rikki Lee Jones and Bruce Springsteen, plus a slew of lesser-known East Coast rock bands like the Immortals, Morphine and Treat Her Right. Just give Griffin's Flaming Red album a listen if you want your cage rattled.
"It used to frustrate me being linked solely to the Boston/Cambridge neo-folk scene," Griffin adds. "But when I realized that Tom Waits, Springsteen and Emmylou were winning Grammy awards in the folk-music category, I thought, 'Hey, that's not bad company to keep.'"
PATTY GRIFFIN PERFORMS AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930; WWW.THECOACHHOUSE.COM. MON., 8 P.M. $25. ALL AGES.