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Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin on doing something ‘magical’ with her life

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: For some artists, telling their personal story is best done through song.

Jeffrey Brown went to Dripping Springs, Texas, recently to hear a veteran singer-songwriter lay out the chapters of her life and draw her audience in.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Patty Griffin is known for creating indelible characters in her songs, singing other people's stories. But in the new song "River," the character is much closer to home.

Patty Griffin: Oh, I am writing about myself there.

Jeffrey Brown: You are? Yes.

Patty Griffin: I'm writing about my emotions, the emotion of this thing that I'm in called life.

Jeffrey Brown: We met Griffin, who just turned 55, on a glorious day in the Texas Hill Country at a ranch called Camp Lucy, home to a small festival, an offshoot of the much larger South By Southwest in nearby Austin.

For Griffin, it was a first chance to perform music from her self-titled new album, songs written in a more introspective mode, in the wake of her recent bout with breast cancer.

Patty Griffin: There was definitely a reality check for me. There's lots of them as you get older. But this one was very specific: You will not be getting out of here alive, by the way. You better start living the life you want to live and that kind of thing.

So that sharpened, I think, my writing a little bit more, and to sort of sitting down and figuring out where you are now, and writing truthfully from that point.

Jeffrey Brown: Griffin grew up in a small town in Maine. Her grandparents and father immigrated from Ireland. And several of the new songs speak to that heritage. She was one of seven children in challenging circumstances. When she got sick, she looked back.

Patty Griffin: I was having a conversation with my mom, who's still alive. And I was saying, "You know how when we were growing up and we just didn't really have any money?"

She said, "You mean, we were poor?"

(LAUGHTER)

Yes, like that.

Jeffrey Brown: You remember that.

(LAUGHTER)

Patty Griffin: And I decided to sort of bring that into the record.

Jeffrey Brown: That came out in the lovely song she wrote and performs with guitarist David Pulkingham, "Mama's Worried."

Texas has been Griffin's home for many years, a musical home, the venerable PBS show "Austin City Limits." The new record is her 10th studio album, as she's built a faithful following in folk and Americana circles. She's won a Grammy, and had her songs covered by many leading artists. And she's now reaching several generations of fans.

Patty Griffin: I have been told that I have been played at -- my music's been played at funerals, deaths, births, weddings. Weddings, I find very surprising.

(LAUGHTER)

I only have one love song, but they have used it at weddings.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, it only takes one.

(LAUGHTER)

Patty Griffin: It only takes one. So, that's doing something. That's -- those are big moments. So, hopefully, it's stirring some things up inside.

Like Billie Holiday's voice for me, I get it now. She goes deep, so you can go with her there. And you're kind of -- she's kind of holding you there with her, and it's a huge gift. And mine's not exactly like that, but I aspire to that sort of thing.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Griffin lost her voice for a period during her sickness and feared it might not return. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, she's now cancer-free following surgery and radiation.

Patty Griffin: One of the things that I have learned in the last few years is to stop being so damn critical of my own work.

Listening -- without a voice, listening back to the work that I have done, I just went, wow, that was pretty good. I don't know why I didn't like that.

Jeffrey Brown: And what did you hear in your younger self, going back and listening?

Patty Griffin: Something kind of magical. I feel like it came -- I have got this -- something in my blood. I feel like I come from some really magical people.

Yes, I mean, I can play guitar, and I can stand on a street and sing, and I know how to do that. And that's what I'm hoping, is that people will come listen to the shows. And I don't really want much more out of it than that, just to keep going a little bit, and have a little bit more time doing it.

Jeffrey Brown: Patty Griffin is on tour across the country and abroad through this summer.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Camp Lucy in the Texas Hill Country.

Judy Woodruff: Such a lovely look.

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