Music News & Reviews

Cancer temporarily silenced singer Patty Griffin but fired her inner voice

Singer and songwriter Patty Griffin will be at Lexington’s Lyric Theatre on Sept. 24. Her 10th album was written while she was recovering from cancer and much of it was recorded in her home.
Singer and songwriter Patty Griffin will be at Lexington’s Lyric Theatre on Sept. 24. Her 10th album was written while she was recovering from cancer and much of it was recorded in her home.

“Mama’s worried all the time.”

Those are the words Patty Griffin greets you with, draped in bluesy repose, at the start of her self-titled 10th album.

Are they to be taken as a warning? An omen? A simple state-of-mind admission? As the songs progress through side streets of stark folk, incantatory jazz/blues and even a ragged blast of roots-savvy rock ‘n’ roll, all these suggestions become true. As she has done for over two decades, the Grammy-winning songsmith creates a quilt of compositions grounded by earthy unrest and cautionary introspection but with an eye to the heavens and beyond.

Still, there is a substantial difference in how Patty Griffin the artist approached “Patty Griffin” the album as opposed to sessions for her other nine studio recordings. Two years ago, in fact, she didn’t even have a voice to sing with.

As writing commenced for the album, Griffin was diagnosed with breast cancer. What ensued were a series of treatments that temporarily robbed her of the ability to sing. Writing and recording sessions commenced anyway in her home instead of a formal studio. That meant the songs came to life as her health and voice gradually returned.

“I lost my voice a couple of years ago after the whole experience of being sick,” said Griffin, who returns to Lexington for a Sept. 24 concert at the Lyric Theatre. “The medications and the treatments kind of occluded my voice. A lot of these songs were written during that period of time. I’ve really been learning to sing everything over the past seven months on the road, because as I’ve been going, my voice has been getting stronger and changing. It’s been really fun just to get to sing again.”

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Singer and songwriter Patty Griffin will be at Lexington’s Lyric Theatre on Sept. 24. Michael Wilson

Though much of “Patty Griffin” was written as she was confronting cancer, the songs don’t read like a diary of her diagnosis and recovery. As with much of her past music, her songwriting inspirations are grounded in a mix of personal history, global topicality, a pastiche of stylistic voices and a bit of fancy.

“The period of writing was kicked off by two events. One was a dream I had about Billie Holiday, who I’ve always admired even though I’ve never really immersed myself in her music. The sadness in her voice is too scary for me. I’ve been told, throughout my career, that my voice is too sad. The dream was sort of asking me to embrace that as an asset because, in the dream, Billie was smiling and singing.

“Then I started listening to Billie non-stop. I realized how powerful it is to be able to sing from such a dark place and how helpful it is for people, too. So that was going on, along with getting diagnosed with cancer.

“That’s a pretty big deal. Getting that word associated with you and your body is a whole other thing. A friend of mine was also going through his own experience with cancer which did not end with him surviving, so there was a lot to deal with. I think in any kind of logical or linear sense, I’m still sorting out a way to explain it. All of that was happening at the same time and it began the writing for me.”

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Patty Griffin’s self-titled 10th album was written and recorded as she was recovering from cancer.

The choice of using her home as a makeshift recording studio provided a more comfortable environment to bring Griffin’s new music to life, as did working with longtime collaborator Craig Ross as co-producer.

“I was writing songs and sending him little bits saying, ‘Look, I’ve written this song. Won’t it be great when I can sing it well.’ He said, ‘We should start recording this now.’ I said, ‘I’m really not confident in my voice.’ It was pretty depleted. He said he liked the sound that I was making, so he suggested to start by embracing the beauty of that. His ability to say that to me, and also for me to hear that, comes from us being friends for over 20 years now. I think he did me a very big favor by kind of pushing me. He decided to record at my house because it relieves the pressure of booking studio time, and with me not having a huge amount of confidence in singing at the time, it worked out very well.”

If one needs a further affirmation to the sense of renewal Griffin feels about her health and music, check out the photograph of her inside the album sleeve to “Patty Griffin.” There she sits outdoors, harmonizing - or howling, perhaps - with her dogs Sal and Zeke.

“I hope I’m a stronger person now. I want to be. I think everyone’s life presents these kinds of situations. Our job is to evolve. So hopefully, I’m doing that.”

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Patty Griffin said that the treatments for her breast cancer caused her to lose the ability to sing. But as she recovered it came back and she started recording her 10th album as she healed. Michael Wilson

Patty Griffin/Scott Miller

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24

Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third

Tickets: $45.50

Call: 859-280-2218