Patty Griffin on battling cancer, losing her voice, and her happy-sad new album
“The hourglass never really runs out of sand,” sings Patty Griffin on “Hourglass,” a rich bit of beatnik jazz from her upcoming 10th studio album. “You get to the end and you just turn it upside down again.” After battling breast cancer, it’s an optimistic way for the Grammy winner to navigate her personal pain — especially when she thought, for a moment, that she might never sing again, after losing her voice during treatment. But she started writing — about her struggles, the political unrest around her, and the riddles of the world — and eventually started recording at home in Austin, Texas. What came out is Patty Griffin (out March 8), a master class in vivid, empathetic roots music that’s both about taking responsibility for the choices we’ve made and surrendering to those made for us.
We spoke to Griffin, who heads out on an extensive tour this spring, about health, social consciousness, and the machines she wants to tear on down. And, of course, Patty Griffin.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You caught your cancer early, quite thankfully. But a lot of musicians miss early signs because they are so worn out from the road, or don’t have access to great healthcare. They often keep chugging even when things in their bodies are awry.
PATTY GRIFFIN: Yes, I just thought, “I just must be getting older.” I didn’t realize. And after you have a show you have a glass of wine, and you unwind. But there is nothing worse you can do for cancer, because it’s inflammatory. You have to get super rigid for a little while. After many years on the road, you develop these habits. But they shifted along with being ill. Even when I had appendicitis a few weeks ago I thought, “I must have altitude sickness.” You have to deal with feeling like crap.
It must have been difficult to write in that context — when did you start putting together this record, and mulling the topics that would become its core?
My big brush with mortality came a week before I was diagnosed with cancer. I began helping another musician in town diagnosed with Stage 4, this amazing bass player. A week later, I was diagnosed. He found out about it, and here is my friend who then helps me out, getting through cancer. What I got out of that moment is a song called “Luminous Places.” You have this life in this body, and it’s really fragile. But what you have inside is what you have to offer, and it’s just as important as anyone else’s. I’ve had a chance to travel and be in so many places and understand how much there is in common and how much beauty there is.
And “Luminous Places” is both thankful and mournful, particularly considering what you’ve been through.
It’s about the inevitability of defeat. One of the things I have seen traveling around is a search for identity. Importing identities, wearing identities instead of being where we are and dealing with our history. A big feeling that this is f—d up, and I love it anyway. And that’s sort of what I have learned so far.
In “Hourglass,” you sing about turning the hourglass over when it’s run out of sand, which feels like a spiritual way to look at things. Do you think that’s what happens? Do we get another shot at life?
I’m willing to bet it’s continuous after our bodies are gone. Just watch what a super elderly person has to contend with: they go blind, they go deaf. And yet they aren’t scared. There is something enormous in front of them, that they have to live their way through and come out whole. And it never stops: there is a continuous starting over again. But you keep going. Nobody knows what any of this is, but you have to live it. You can’t hide from it.
Towards the end of that song, you say, “I just wanna tear that old machine down.” There’s a degree of fighting that goes along with coming out of hiding, too.
What would happen if we tore that old machine down? If we imagined something else? I have a strong belief in creativity in humans. It’s our biggest strength. But it won’t work really well until we let the other part of the brain be a little more dominant. We are not questioning this world and we are just accepting ideas, not digging any deeper. The root of it all is fear. And being alone. And not having enough.
On “The Wheel,” you allude to the murder of Eric Garner. Why did it feel important to write about this?
Most of us don’t keep it on our radar, because we don’t have to. As a white person, you have to work consistently so that you understand your preconditioning, to keep awareness alive. I don’t think there’s any one leader or movement that can change these things. I think it’s something everyone out there has to do.
Do you think artists have a responsibility to sing about social change?
I don’t know about in general but, since I was a kid, I’ve had some of the same exact feelings about the world. I have a memory of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, and my mother vacuuming the house in tears. There was a time when we thought, “we got this.” It’s been a big weight as an older person to go, “Wow. We haven’t got this at all.” There is a lot that still needs to be evolving.
There are great records being made right now that are both reflecting on the strife around us but at the same time, offering some peace. Patty Griffin is one of those records.
Losing my voice got me thinking: should I be doing something else? But then I realized, “oh boy, I don’t think I can.” I hope it makes people happy. But it’s not party animal music. I think it makes people happy-sad, actually: but, to me, that is my personal favorite happy.