Patty Griffin performing at the State Theatre in Portland on 06.15.14. Credit Tim Greenway
Maine native Patty Griffin has just released her ninth studio album, “Servant of Love.” Griffin, 51, is performing on Saturday night as close to her home town of Old Town as geographically possible with a show at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. Although she hasn’t lived in Maine since the ’80s, she still has family here, including her mother who will be at the show.
Griffin spent a significant stretch of time in Boston and has called Austin, Texas, home for many years. She released her first album, “Living with Ghosts,” in 1996 and set the tone for a recording career that receives consistent praise for her songwriting and emotionally rich voice. Griffin even veered into the genre of traditional gospel music with the 2011 album “Downtown Church” and won a Grammy Award for her effort. Griffin wrote all 13 songs on “Servant of Love,” which was released Sept. 25, and she co-produced the album with Craig Ross.
The songs traverse landscapes of roots rock, Americana, piano and acoustic ballads. There are hints of jazz courtesy of Emphraim Owens’s trumpet on two tracks. Love and relationships are front and center on “Servant of Love,” with “Hurt A Little While” and “Good and Gone” as two examples, but the album also covers specific areas of human suffering with “250,000 Miles” and “Everything’s Changed.” Griffin’s knack for straight-from-the-heart lyricism and vocal delivery has earned her a loyal following of fans and she’s considered to be among the best of contemporary songwriters by both her audiences and her peers.
After years of recording for labels big and small, this is the first album she has released on her own Patty Griffin Music label, with support from Thirty Tigers marketing and distribution. The Orono show is part of a national tour that lasts through mid-November. The singer-songwriter spoke to me from Nashville, where she was performing at The Americana Music Festival. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Given that Orono is right next to your hometown of Old Town, you’re probably going to have about 75 people on your guest list right?
I told my mother she had a certain number, because I knew she’d go over it. And, she has. I didn’t give her the real number.
Does this feel like a hometown show for you?
I am really excited about it. I think it’s going to be great to go back and play. I haven’t done it for 30-something years.
Over what period of time were the “Servant of Love” songs written?
It was a little over a year for all of them before we recorded at the end of April.
Much can be said about the new album’s title track, from its haunting, moody piano intro to the starkly elegiac lyrics. Just when you think you’ve settled into a stark piano ballad, a trumpet arrives and the effect is at first subtle then takes on an arresting urgency. You enlisted Austin horn player Ephraim Owens for this and the track “Gunpowder.” How did you two come to work together?
We ended up going to the same party, and there were people playing music. I sang and he played trumpet and there was a mutual respect thing going on there. He’s pretty fantastic.
Listen to the song for yourself:
“Servant of Love” is such an interesting turn of words. How did the album title come to you?
I had the piano pieces together for quite a while and just couldn’t find lyrics. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I heard the words in my head. The first line of the song came out, and I got up and finished it. I didn’t know what it meant. I still am working on the definition of it but I like it.
The lyrics to “250,000 Miles” are quite poetic with an ancient, mystical quality to them. What can you say about this one?
I started working on that one when I heard about some people from Nepal immigrating to Dubai, of all places, to work. They were being abused and basically enslaved there, and it sort of turns into a song about displaced people. It really turned into a song about women in particular and has a lot of different stories in it for me.
In the song “Everything’s Changed” you say, “There ain’t nothing coming down the muddy river/just an oil slick and the smell of fear.” Where does that one come from?
I was thinking about Hurricane Katrina on that line. There’s so many different things that can blast your life away as you knew it. Things in nature, disasters that humans create and — it’s just about those moments in your life when you look around and you don’t recognize where you are suddenly.
“There Isn’t One Way” invites listeners to pay attention to what’s important in life, namely kindness. Was that your intention with this song?
I ended up having this conversation with a friend of mine for about seven hours. He is Irish, and it’s really fun to talk to Irish people. They’ll actually talk to you for seven hours. I woke up in the middle of the night, and that was the song that came out after talking to him. That’s a lot of the feeling of the conversation I had with him. We’re always striving for things to happen, or to have things, and then we’ll be safe. We’re never gonna be safe. No one’s getting out of here alive and everyone is gonna struggle, everyone is gonna suffer at some point. We put ourselves through things that make people fearful and aren’t helping anybody, and certainly aren’t helping the planet.
Shawn Colvin, your longtime friend and fellow Austin resident, sings backing vocals on three tracks on “Servant of Love.” What’s your favorite part about working with her?
I am a huge fan. I think her voice has influenced a huge generation of female singers. I don’t think people actually credit her with that. On top of that, she’s lovely, she’s hilarious and just fun to be with. That song “250,000 Miles” — I kind of earmarked her to do that with me. I kept on working on the melody piece by piece so that she’d have a place to go around it. She is just one of the best singers out there and has been for a long time.
Can you talk about the “Servant of Love” cover art?
Sometime last winter, I kept on noticing spirals on everything. I talked to my friend Craig Ross about it and he told me about the Fibonacci spiral. He gave me a book on it explaining the design symmetry within nature. It’s a lovely thing to ponder. There are these moments when you have to just take a deep breath and go, “We don’t know anything about our world.” We think we do, but we don’t. I love that. And so, Mishka Westell is the cover artist. I asked her about spirals. She just came up with a bunch of designs. I gave her the Fibonacci book that Craig gave me, and we settled on that one. It’s of a flower and contains a certain number of configurations that are repeated over and over again in nature.
WHERE: Collins Center for the Arts, 2 Flagstaff Road, Orono
WHEN: Saturday 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $47
MORE INFO: collinscenterforthearts.com
1996 Griffin’s debut record “Living With Ghosts” was released
1997 Griffin was part of the Lilith Fair concert tour, founded by musician Sarah McLachlan
1998 release of “Flaming Red”
2002 release of “1000 Kisses”
2004 Griffin toured with Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue
2004 release of “Impossible Dream”
2007 Griffin was the recipient of the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year” Award and “Children Running Through” won Best Album.
2008 Griffin toured with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller. It was called the “Three Girls and Their Buddy Tour”
2010 release of “Downtown Church”
2010 Griffin was a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, played on the self-titled album and toured with Plant, Buddy Miller and several other musicians in support of the album.
2011 Griffin’s “Downtown Church” won the Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
2013 release of “American Kid”
2013 release of “Silver Bell” (recorded in 2000)
2015 release of “Servant of Love”