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Patty Griffin releases demos and home recordings on 'Tape'

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Patty Griffin's newest album is a collection of old tunes, but not any that have been released before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE YELLOW HOUSE")

PATTY GRIFFIN: (Singing) Little yellow house with a cross on the door.

NADWORNY: Many are songs she wrote and captured over the years on cheap home recording apps and then set aside. That is, until the pandemic sent her digging through them, where she found the makings of a new record. It's called "Tape," and the multi-Grammy-winning Patty Griffin joins us now to talk about it. Thanks for being here.

GRIFFIN: Thanks for having me.

NADWORNY: What did you hear in them when you went back and listened?

GRIFFIN: I think, you know, I'm always my worst critic. Like, if I play something that's new to a friend of mine and they happen to be - they need a cigarette and they're not really paying attention and they don't give me the full, wow, that's great (laughter), then I tend to just drop whatever it is and go, oh, that must be terrible. They're not giving me the reaction I want (laughter). So, you know, I keep growing up every year. I get a little more grown up. And I thought, well, maybe I read that wrong. Maybe that's a little better than I thought. I should probably check that one out again.

NADWORNY: Well, let's listen to a bit of the first song on the album. This is "Get Lucky."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET LUCKY")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) Maybe you'll get lucky one more time. Maybe all the stars in the universe will shine for you one more time, one more day. Maybe you'll get lucky along the way.

NADWORNY: When did you write this song, and why did you want it to open the album?

GRIFFIN: I think that was probably in the 2010 - '09, '10 region. I'm not really sure. I thought it was a nice starter. It gives you a very big clue that the rest of the record's going to be technically challenging to listen to. So, you know, there's not going to be a pretty recording of things. So you're going to get that information right away. And at the same time, it's a pretty compelling performance, I think. You know, now that I'm older, I can look back at that and be a little more kind and say there's moments in that performance that are good. You know, if I was producing her, I would go, oh, that's good. You know, let's keep that.

NADWORNY: Well, let's talk a little bit about the sound quality because on a lot of these songs, it is different than what we typically hear on a studio album. You've said that your home recordings are almost always your favorite recordings. Why?

GRIFFIN: Because they're very close to the conception of the song. So the emotional content - the emotional part of them is really, really relevant when you're singing them. Like, it's immediate. It's really hard to bring that, for me, into a studio where someone will go, wait a minute, wait a minute - you'll get halfway through (laughter) - something's going wrong the mic. Let's hang on. And, you know, there's a lot of stuff that goes on in a studio that can make that hard to get to. And, you know, songs are always your favorite when you first write them anyway. And you're - you know, I'm by myself and I do really, really love to work very - I'm a night owl. I like to, you know, take a nap until about 10 and then get up and work until 3. That is - that's my dream work schedule.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRIP OF LIGHT")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) Early in the morning there's a long strip of light stretching out across the bedroom floor. There's some dust in the corner and an old pair of boots right next to the clothes that you wore.

NADWORNY: I wonder if you have any specific memories that come up when you listen to the album now, when you listen back to these songs. What other visuals come to mind from some of these memories?

GRIFFIN: Two places. I was at another house I lived in in Austin, Texas, that I don't live in anymore. And I have very specific locations of writing and a very specific process in that house at that time. But I have nostalgia about the simplicity of having that very specific designated time and those places where I loved to hear my own voice bounce off the walls, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRIP OF LIGHT")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) Well you may be right. I'm getting way past my prime, but I still never want any of your love.

NADWORNY: I wonder, could you describe maybe some of those moments in which you've really loved your voice bouncing off the wall? Where were you? Were you in the kitchen? Like, could you give us a little detail so we can imagine it with you?

GRIFFIN: It's kind of a weird little place. I had a duplex that I put together and I had this sort of semi-kitchen, and so I would sit at this old iron - you know, those old 1940s iron kitchen tables, which I'd had for a long time, and - with these red chairs and a white table and just sing against the wall. I mean, it was very simple in a kitchen. And then I had a room in that house that was just really empty except for a piano, and that is a dream scenario, really. I'm a big fan of reverb and rooms that give you your voice back. And it was just sort of this perfect place to sit and write till all hours of the morning, you know?

NADWORNY: Yeah. And when you hear a recording or when you hear a song, do you get transported back to that place where you recorded it or where you wrote it?

GRIFFIN: If I can remember (laughter). You know, "Sundown" I remember writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDOWN")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) When the sun goes down, it really goes down.

NADWORNY: How did that song come about? What can you tell me about that memory?

GRIFFIN: You know, I wrote a whole record about my dad. There was no terminal illness with my father, but he was having a very difficult old age and a lot of - a lot of - health problems. And I just knew in my gut from knowing him really well that he was not going to stick around. He was going to get out of there. So I wrote a whole record sort of getting ready for that moment. And then he died, and I felt like I'd written every single - I tried to turn over as many stones as I possibly could at that point in my life about him and about me losing him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDOWN")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) This is what they call the end. This is where the rainbow bends across the sky.

"Sundown" is sort of this moment of realizing the very permanent fact of losing somebody - you know? - that you love that much. It was like, wow. I mean, that is - he's not coming back, you know? It doesn't matter how much I sing. You know, there's no protecting you from that moment of - really that understanding that this is it. You know, that was all you get.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTY GRIFFIN SONG, "SUNDOWN")

NADWORNY: So in 2016, you were diagnosed with breast cancer and you had to take a break from music. Can I ask how you're doing now?

GRIFFIN: I'm doing really well. I really had to rebuild my voice, I feel like, from scratch. And it took me a very long time to sort out what I could safely do to get myself back on the singing track. The good thing is I've always loved many, many different kinds of music and many, many different kinds of singing. I felt like, in my younger years, I could never pick one and settle down into something that a record label could figure out how to sell. You know, I was writing all over the map, and I think that that, at my age now and where I'm at with my voice, is really benefiting me because I have a lot of different things that I never tapped into when I was younger because I was just really much more powerhouse vocals and, you know, technically proficient, vocal-oriented. And now I'm a little bit - I'm just having a little bit more fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T MIND")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) Your lips say.

NADWORNY: Patty Griffin - her new album "Tape" is out now - thanks so much for being with us.

GRIFFIN: I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T MIND")

GRIFFIN: (Singing) Your eyes say look my way. I don't mind if I do. I don't mind if I do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.