"We both have similar places that we come from as singers," she says of Plant. "He inspires me. He goes far and deep"
Just how intimate can this sound? That's the question Patty Griffin set forth to answer when recording her seventh solo album, "American Kid," out May 7 on New West Records.
The cult singer/songwriter already connects with a legion of fans through songs detailing all manner of heartbreak and joy. But for her first album of new solo material since 2007's "Children Running Through It" (2010's Grammy Award-winning "Downtown Church" was a live recording), she says, "I wanted it to sound like I was in the room with you."
To that end, she and producer Craig Ross hired her stage sound engineer Roy Taylor to rig up "a bunch of old microphones to get that local sound," while hunkered down at the "funky, lived-in" Zebra Ranch Studio located an hour outside of Memphis, owned by Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars (both of whom play on the record).
"Studios are designed to pull out all of that beautiful ambience you get from singing in a room, and then the engineer puts it back in digitally or through whatever machinery you've got," says Griffin, speaking from her home in Austin. "But I wanted it to be a little rough around the edges. I didn't want it to be slicked up; I didn't want the life all drained out of it."
With its hypnotic rhythms and varied textures, first single "Ohio," inspired by the Toni Morrison book "Beloved," was a natural pick to set up the album. The track is one of three that features Robert Plant. The Led Zeppelin frontman, whom Griffin is dating and with whom she collaborates in the rootsy Band of Joy, sings harmony and gets a co-writing credit for rearranging the track, Griffin says.
"We get a lot of energy from each other's singing," she notes of their creative back and forth. "We both have similar places that we come from as singers-a lot of emotion, and sometimes the emotion overrides technique. He inspires me. He goes far and deep."
Griffin seems bemused by the subject of online speculation about whether the two are married or not. "We're not legally married, no," she says, putting rumors to rest. However, their romantic and professional partnership means she spends more time in the United Kingdom when they're not hunkered down in Austin, leading to the decision to release "American Kid" overseas, which hasn't been the case for several of her prior records.
A LOSS INSPIRES
"American Kid" proves to be Griffin's most soulful and pensive album yet, owing to the life circumstances that inform it.
"My dad was getting ready to pass away and I was just kind of writing for myself; he was a big influence for a lot of the record," Griffin recalls of her father, a World War II vet and high school teacher who died in 2009. "It's life, and everybody goes through it. But it was good to have that outlet, to be able to write songs about it."
Meditative, but not somber, the album kicks off with "Go Wherever You Wanna Go," in which Griffin imagines a carefree afterworld. "It occurred to me that there's another way to look at this besides my own grief, which is: They're OK. They don't have to pay bills anymore-no taxes!" she says with a laugh.