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Ann Arbor Folk Fest headline Patty Griffin is filled with music these days
Patty Griffin released quite a bit of music last year -- more than she expected to, in fact.
In May, Griffin released her latest set of new material, "American Kid," which debuted in the Top 5 on the U.S. Folk and Independent Albums charts. Then, five months later, Griffin's former label (A&M/Universal) released "Silver Bell," an album she'd recorded for release in 2000 but was scuttled amidst a corporate merger -- and then took on mythic proportions as a "lost" album when the Dixie Chicks subsequently recorded two of its songs.
So the singer-songwriter, who's making her fourth Ann Arbor Folk Festival appearance this weekend, found her present and past colliding -- an odd experience to say the least.
"I was a little bit cynical about timing of everything," says Griffin, 49, who was born in Maine and now resides in Austin, Texas. "I think Universal was kind of riding on a wave of (new) record being out that another company was supporting and publicizing and paying for -- although they did put some publicity behind ('Silver Bell'), so that was something that made me feel better about it."
She also appreciates the fact that "Silver Bell" was remixed by veteran producer and engineer Glyn Johns. "I didn't really want to listen to all those songs to give him any input," Griffin acknowledges. "Because of what had happened, I didn't allow myself to think of that record for a very long time. But when (Johns) started sending them back I realized how good some of the work on there was, which was nice."
"Silver Bell's" release may have brought some closure, but Griffin is still on a high from the critically acclaimed "American Kid," which she recorded in Memphis as a loosely conceptual tribute to her late father. "When I wrote it, I was just thinking, 'How do I get through losing my dad?' " says Griffin. "Making it, I was just trying to focus on finding a unique sound for this record so that I wouldn't sound like everybody else's folk record about their dad.
"And getting out on stage with the record, I realized how it did kind of invoke the spirit of my father in me in a way I hadn't anticipated or taken the time to think about before. The songs carry a lot with them and they can stir up a lot when I play them -- in me, in the audience. I was really glad to find that out."
"American Kid" is also notable for three song collaborations with former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. Griffin was part of Plant's Band of Joy in 2010-11, and there have been reports that they're in a relationship and/or married -- the latter steadfastly denied by the publicist both artists share. And Griffin herself is much more keen to talk about what they do together creatively.
"I think his voice has a spook in it that is really beautiful," she explains. "There's a sexual quality that everyone knows about, but there's also a mournfulness and a sadness to his singing, and you can hear it, especially when he sings harmony. And he's a really good arranger; I had 'Ohio' as a song but couldn't really grasp how to sing it, and he arranged it in five minutes and it was done. He cracked the code on it."
Griffin is in the midst of a college tour that wraps up Feb. 8, and she's also has "an interesting writing project coming up that I can't discuss yet." She has, however, transported the "big ol' piano" that she had in her Nashville house to Austin, so she's eyeballing some time "just hoping to write some songs."
"I can't wait for that. I'm really excited," says Griffin, whose songs have also been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Bette Midler, Martina McBride, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert and many others. "I can't stop (writing), really; if I'm not making them up, then I'm worried about NOT thinking about them and making them up.
"I don't see that ever changing, either, so hopefully I'll get a few months to do nothing but that, and we'll see what comes out of it."
The 37th Ann Arbor Folk Festival takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, at U-M's Hill Auditorium. Friday's lineup features Iron and Wine, Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle, Willie Nile, Pearl and the Beard, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and the Appleseed Collective. Saturday's show includes Patty Griffin, Ingrid Michaelson, Jeff Daniels, Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys, Johnny Swim, the Pigpen Theater Co. and the Crane Waves. Seth Walker will emcee both nights. Tickets are sold out. Call 734-761-1800 or visit www.theark.org.
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