“You said everywhere you look/ The world is changing/Everywhere the water’s closing in/ Something deeper still is always rearranging/Something’s lost/Something new begins,” sings Patty Griffin in “Made of the Sun,” one of 13 songs on her latest album, which is an album of reckonings—vacillating from despair to hope, turbulence to tranquilly and injustice to reconciliation. The album, "Servant of Love," which comes out today, is Griffin’s tenth album and travels between themes of both worldly and personal challenges: contemplating climate change and trafficking of women and personal experiences of loss, departure and moving forward.
"Servant of Love" is built with intrepid, insightful lyrics and bold, rich instrumentation spanning many styles. The song “Good and Gone,” is reminiscent of an Appalachian murder ballad told from the point of view of Ronald Ritchie, who made the 911 call to Beavercreek, Ohio police accusing John Crawford III of aiming an air rifle at children in a Wal-Mart, which led to Crawford's death at the hands of the police. The story in “250,000 Miles” tells of Nepali women trafficked through India to Dubai for prostitution punctuated by the accompaniment of Craig Ross on Indian drones and drums, Griffin’s penetrating guitar, as well as Shawn Colvin’s backing vocals.
Salon spoke to Griffin by phone recently her about the album, writing process, inspirations, both political and literary, and democracy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Were [the songs on this album] all written and created after your last album? Or are these pulled from different points of writing in your career?
They’re mostly in the last year with the exception of I think maybe one or two. A year from the day when we recorded it. They’re pretty new.
Your writing captures this undercurrent of the everyday— experiences that are running just kind of under the surface. When you are writing, how do you keep from veering into nostalgia and kind of get out of the way of the story?
I like economy when it comes to writing. I like reading writers who know how to economize and say the most with the least. But I also think that as far as writing goes, I don’t really plan anything out. It shows up, sometimes musically it shows up, and just there it is. There’s the line and there’s the next one, and there’s the next one. I think the songs start and they tell you what they’re about as your going along.
I wanted to talk about “Good and Dead,” [which] was a response to the shooting of John Crawford. [Can] you could walk me through how you wrote that song?
I think I read about it, that particular account from change.org, and it talked about the guy [Ronald Ritchie] who made the phone call from Wal-Mart. There was a quote [of what] he said in the police report, and he lied. And I really tried to imagine why he would do that. And I really couldn’t come up with anything other than almost jealousy. Such a deficient in himself of, a lack of respect for himself that he would have to attack this young man who was clearly having a conversation with somebody in his family on his phone [and] about to purchase a BB gun.
There are so many of those stories around right now because of these little phones that we’ve got where people can film things, and also video cameras [are] everywhere. So we can actually see these things happening that have been going on forever so that racism is on the table in the biggest way since I was a little kid. I don’t think there has been so much discussion about that. I do think that is the fundamental root of that. I think Martin Luther King talked about it in that speech in Montgomery after the Selma march about turning poor people on other poor people.
And this guy [Ritchie] was kicked out of the marines, and I think he was looking for a target and he got one. It’s just the never-ending story—which could end, you know, if we kind of addressed all of the fundamental issues underneath it. And if everybody got respect. And if everybody got good care. You really, literally, can make this better, but it doesn’t seem to get better.
Do you consider yourself to be a social activist or advocate as a singer/songwriter? Would you put that label on yourself?
I wouldn’t have welcomed that, but I think that the older that I get, I think that as a person I feel like, just as a person living in the world, I do have this consciousness [that] things have gone awry. And I do believe that it may not happen in my lifetime or your lifetime or anyone’s lifetime that is alive right now, but I do believe that humans can do better. We are creating a situation on the planet for our own extinction. And we are extinguishing each other for reasons that make no sense at all. And usually at their root, [they are] things that could have—had they been addressed socially [and] early on—could not had to have occurred.
Anything I can do to make a dent, away from that, I would like to do. So if my music does that— great.
I think that’s a great way to look at it, that we don’t need to have a label as an advocate or activist to have a conscience, to try to find ways to make a difference and to move ahead. And I feel like that came through a lot of your songs where it was trying to these little pockets or corners to really have some life…to find some find different ways to look at it or to shift our thinking. I was just thinking about [the tracks]“There isn’t one way” or even “Shine a Different Way.”
I just finished reading the James Baldwin’s biography, the David Leeming biography ["James Baldwin: A Biography"] and was so moved by it.
So one of the things that he talks about in the book—and it’s so fresh in my mind—is how we can actually do better than we’re doing. And you can’t ever tell the kids there’s no hope, that’s against the rules. So if you can’t tell the kids there is no hope, that means you can’t tell yourself or your dog or anybody there’s no hope. So your actions have to somehow reflect that in whatever way you are capable of. And it seems like a huge task.
Maybe it’s always been this way on the planet, but I do think that we are at emergency levels all over the globe in so many ways. A lot of it has to do with resources disappearing that we are dependent on. I think whatever small corner you can participate in—start there.
One of the things I feel really strongly about is women participating in our democracy on a level that equates to their numbers. They don’t. The largest voting group in this country is single women and they don’t turn out in the numbers that they could be turning out in. And if they did, what would happen? Does the democracy still work? I don’t know. But we don’t know until everybody votes.
And as a person who does get to get on stage and talk to people—this winter there’s going to be a tour with Anaïs Mitchell and Sara Watkins, and one of the things we are hoping to do—is some awareness raising about women and voting and how can we make that happen and how can we support women in voting. [It’s] a really small thing to do.
But it’s also a very big thing to do. It's something you can have an impact—
From our point of view, and our level of audience, it’s small. But why not? Why not start with us? I don’t think anybody should have the expectation that we are going to fix this thing now. Everybody thinks, “This should happen today.” And you can’t. But it seeds can get planted. And you can take care of the seeds. And you can work towards somebody else’s life, you know. That is my hope.
That leads me to the song “250,000 Miles.” What I took from that, and I’d like you to correct me if I’m wrong, but that it was really about the roles of women in our country, [who are] invisible. To me it was a song about domestic workers and nail technicians, the trafficking of women and women being separated from their homes and children to do other work. Am I on the right track with that?
You know, all of this controversy over the nail technicians—that was written before I knew anything about that and it came up from my own experiences as a service person. That song started with hearing about immigrants from Nepal to Dubai. You think of the soulfulness and the old soul of a place like Nepal and [then] a place like Dubai. The attitude [in Dubai] is just — the kind of progress is so completely off-base from where Nepalese people are from. That was like one of the saddest things I ever heard and it made me sadder than anything I ever heard. Then it started occurring to me…the song started turning into something about women.
I’m 51 and I feel like a few years ago I started waking up to the fact that women’s lib was just getting started when I was a kid. In the ’70s Gloria Steinem was everywhere and we thought, “Yeah, we got it,” you know, but no, not even close. And women in America are doing a lot better than some women are elsewhere, and we aren’t doing very well. So this song is about women to me and how far away we are from our own source. We are different from men and we have different things to contribute I believe.
One of the salutes of early women’s lib, at least in America, was to try to move women quickly in to the framework of a male structure rather than bring our own wisdom and represent that with equal respect. And I think it’s necessary that women get out from underneath this—whatever this is—I don’t think our species has a chance without women getting it together for themselves and the planet.