Interview: Patty Griffin Releases “Silver Bell” 13 Years After It Was Recorded
She recorded it in 2000, but Patty Griffin’s Silver Bell has just officially seen the light of day this week. Intended to be the follow-up to her hard-rocking 1998 sophomore release, Flaming Red, the album was not released by A&M Records, a victim of the label's turn-of-the-century ownership change, and until now, it has remained a missing piece from Griffin's acclaimed catalog.
Newly mixed by legendary producer Glyn Johns, Silver Bell features 14 original songs recorded at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio in New Orleans by Griffin on vocals, guitar and piano with guitarist Doug Lancio, keyboardist John Deaderick, bassist Frank Swart, and percussionist Billy Beard. Emmylou Harris also joined Griffin in the studio to sing harmony on "Truth #2."
Despite its 13 years of limbo, the sought-after album spawned two huge hits for the Dixie Chicks, who covered both "Top Of The World" and "Truth #2" for their six-million-selling 2002 Home album. In addition, the band's Natalie Maines recorded Silver Bell's title track for her recent solo debut, Mother.
Through the years, Griffin's original songs have also been covered by many other notable artists, including Solomon Burke, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Kelly Clarkson, Martina McBride, Bette Midler, Ben Harper, Bon Iver, Linda Ronstadt, Ellie Goulding & Lissie, Melissa Etheridge, Jessica Simpson, Miranda Lambert, Shooter Jennings and Joan Osborne.
Griffin, now touring in support of another 2013 release, American Kid, took some time to talk about this blast from the past.
Congratulations on your new release of Silver Bell. Is it kind of weird to release an album now that you recorded so long ago?
Yeah, it is weird. It’s been out, in a way. It’s been bootlegged quite extensively, I think. But it was nice to have a chance to go get it remixed by someone who’s really good at that. It’s been good to revisit that whole world.
Did you change anything on it or just tweak with the tracks that were already done?
There was a song on there that was not written and recorded for the record that Glyn found on the tapes actually and he threw it in the mix and said, “What about this one?” And I said, “Oh, yeah,” ‘cause he did it for a movie well after we recorded Silver Bell. So, that one is a song called “Fragile.” That wasn’t originally in the mix of Silver Bell and then we took some things out that were re-recorded. Some of these arrangements are really unique, and I think that we cracked into some creative stuff that was pretty special. So I’m glad it’ll be out there for people to hear.
On that particular album, there seems to be a mix of some hard rockin’ stuff and some sweeter acoustic material. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I like all that stuff and it was really at the time, I never really listened to anybody hanging over my shoulder to say, “We like this better. That’s what you’re better at doing.” I just did everything I like to do and I felt free to do that.
My first record label experience was a really good one. I had a great A&R department that encouraged me that way so I just felt like I could try anything and go for it. But the new A&R department I ended up with after all this. Two beverage companies in a row took it over. That changed things quite a lot. They didn’t really think that I had done very good work. They didn’t want to release it. That’s why it’s 13 years later.
So 13 years later, has your approach to songwriting evolved over the years?
That’s a good question. No one has ever asked me that and I think there are some things that probably just stayed the same. Exactly the same. I think that it’s probably a lot like it used to be. I just have different experiences. And I think I write words more than I used to. I have spent a lot more time since then working with words so it’s a different approach to lyric writing.
Do you sit down with a guitar or do you work on lyrics separately? What’s your typical approach to writing something new?
I like to listen to something that really inspires me, and I love to find music that I just can fall inside of. That’s really what I look for. And then, I just listen to it excessively and you know, try to grab some of that electricity and then see what happens from there. There’s no particular way that it starts for me. There’s no particular process.
Do you ever get into a songwriting rut? What do you do to get yourself out of that?
I think everything goes in cycles. I think you can study different ways of doing things and keep up a certain style. Or you can look it from all different angles and different things come out of that. And then it sort of reaches a point where you’ve done what you can with that, and it’s time to move on. You have to be able to let go and move on.
Do you work with other writers as well?
Not very often. I wish I could. I’m not great at it. There are a few people I can do that with, but it’s pretty rare. To me it’s a personal thing and you know, it’s harder to get those juices going when you don’t know the person.
Do you feel what you’re writing comes from a very personal place?
It definitely comes from the heart. I’m a shy person, fundamentally. I would say that I probably protect that around people I don’t know. It’s just how I was born, I am. It’s a little harder for me when I don’t know somebody, for that reason.
I think you’re an amazing lyricist and you write with so much detail and paint this picture. Do you walk around like noticing every detail around you?
No, haha. I wish I did. I’d like to say I’m great that way, but I don’t. I think I’m just like any other person. I’m pretty normal. I think I’ve approached my life in a really working-class kind of way, you know? I’m not fancy. I’m just doing my thing.
Do you have any processes to find that first bit of inspiration?
I think the music sort of opens the whole thing up for me, you know? If I can find some music that I love, then I think I see more and I hear more and I think more and I hear the beauty in things, in general.
I feel like my life means more when I have music in my life that really moves me, you know? And I love it when I’m in something and it’s new. My boyfriend had all these New Orleans funk records – like compilation records from all these funk songs in the ‘60s and ‘70s and it’s all New Orleans artists.
You just never know what’s going to do it for you. Right now, that’s the thing that’s got me. I can’t stop listening. And I just can’t believe how brilliant it is and how intelligent the lyrics are and how funky it is. You can’t believe it when you hear an artist that’s just totally in it. There’s just nothing better than that. It makes you feel like life’s worth living, you know?
Here's Griffin performing "Ohio" off of her other 2013 release American Kid featuring Robert Plant:
Let’s talk about the instruments that you’re working with the most right now. What’s your go-to guitar?
I have this little Martin that I’ve been playing a lot. I allowed myself to get a Martin a few years ago, because I was learning how to not always bash my guitar. And they like to let the single strings ring. That’s kind of how they are set up.
I’ve always been a Gibson person, because I really am much more about rhythm and drums when I play the guitar. But I’m really in love with the voice of this Martin. I got it at Matt Uminov’s in New York a few years ago and it’s from the 1930s. I guess somebody had it but didn’t take good care of it, and the luthier really worked on it and restored it. It’s just incredible.
And the other guitar that I’m in love with right now is this custom Hummingbird. It’s new. I got it at the Gibson factory this summer. They gave it to me, and I was not looking for it. I just went there to visit, and they ended up giving it to me after my show. It was a gift, and I haven’t really put it down. It’s a new one. but it’s a very special new one. Nothing unusual, I should say, but very special.
Right. Is that the guitar you use on tour?
I just started using the Gibson on tour. The Martin, no. It’s a little too old and fragile.
Do you take the Martin into the studio then or just use it at home?
I used the Martin on American Kid actually.
Do you experiment at all with different tunings or open tunings?
Yes. I kind of stick to the tunings I’ve been playing. I should probably get some new ones. But with the Band of Joy project [with Robert Plant] a shortcut to playing some of these parts that I was handed to play was just playing these open tunings I knew was a good way to sound like you knew what you’re doing. They’re really easy to move around in an arrangement with a band rather than doing the standard tuning and trying to find all those chords, you can just find a couple of strings that work and stay away from the other ones and keep going.
So having a good right hand a weak left hand, I depend heavily on the open tuning for that and it really got me into the ones I already use, which are you know the Keith Richards G tuning [DGDGBD] and the drop-D [DADGBE] and also DADGAD, that one. Those are my three that I use.
You’re touring, right? What’s up next for you?
We’re doing a Southeast tour then heading to the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland for some dates. Then, probably out doing some solo, maybe testing out some new stuff in the winter coming up in 2014.
Find out more at www.pattygriffin.com
Laura B. Whitmore is the editor of Guitar World's Acoustic Nation. A singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area, she's also a veteran music industry marketer, and has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Peavey Electronics, SIR Entertainment Services, Music First, Guitar World and many more. Laura is the founder of the Women in Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the She Rocks Awards and the Women's Music Summit and co-hosts regular songwriter nights for the West Coast Songwriters Association. More at mad-sun.com.