Out singer/songwriter Patty Larkin is approaching her 30th year as a recording artist. Her latest disc is the radiant and raw Still Green (Signature Sounds). An extraordinary guitarist, Larkin stretches the bounds of traditional folk, incorporating influences ranging from jazz to rock — with the occasional bit of programming thrown in (check out the loops on “Mando Drum” and “So Cold”). A musical journey of healing and heartache, Still Green is a verdant collection of songs that highlights Larkin’s ability to make us cry, laugh and think, all set to appealing and unforgettable melodies. I spoke with Larkin shortly before the disc’s release.
In the liner notes for Still Green, you write that the songs were culled from “journals, digital recorders, cellphones, smartphones, scraps of paper, from memory and dreams.” Is this typical of your songwriting process?
My studio wasn’t up and running. I upgraded my entire studio and just hadn’t gotten it together (laughs). A lot of it was on my cellphone and iPhone and digital recorder, which I take with me when I visit my family and record in my hotel room or my room. The interesting thing about that process was that I thought I had 40 or 50 songs. It turns out that I had maybe six or eight finished songs, and 34 snippets. Once I put it on the voice recorder, I thought, “I’m going to get back to that.” It was a different few years. I didn’t have the wherewithal to get back into these long writing periods. I started going through stuff and said, “Wow, I like this song, but I need to finish it.” Toward the end of the writing process, I thought, “You need to go back to the notebook.” These tools are great for putting down the ideas, but then you need to go back and listen to them once or twice a week so that you know where you’re at. I still haven’t culled all the ideas out.
Over the course of the disc, you take the listener from grief in “Best of Intentions” to gratitude in “Because of This.” Would you have made the journey yourself if you hadn’t been able to turn these experiences into songs?
No, I think the songs are a reflection of the journey. It’s very internal. There’s a reason why, in the Jewish tradition, that you have this service about a year after (someone’s death). Because I found that this whole year you’re still in mourning or it’s reminiscent of what happened a year ago — or here’s a holiday and I can’t recall. My dad died a year ago in September. I feel so fortunate to have the partner I have for 28 years now, and a family we started late in life (laughs). I feel full of emotion and joy. I told a friend that I cry almost every day with joy. The beauty of these children and the companionship I have and how fragile life is. I’m seeing how my life can be as a writer, musician and then as a mother.
Being a singer/songwriter of literary merit, it’s not surprising that Kay Ryan’s poetry found its way into your music. Is interacting with poetry a part of your daily routine?
It gives me points of reflection. Kay’s poetry definitely does that for me. My friend (musician Peter Mulvey) sent me a book of her poems. I love his writing and I love when we tour together, because we talk about different writers. (Ryan’s poems) immediately struck me as songs. The rhyming couplets or the internal rhyme she has is something that I love doing. I just started singing to that poem (“Green Behind the Ears”). That’s kind of rare for me. I’ve done it as a writing exercise, but this was like, “Oh, wow, what am I going to do with this? I really like this!” I started singing it out almost immediately, because it’s really close to my process, really close to what I was going through in terms of my kids and what I had just experienced through my sister’s illness and the death of my mom. “So much freshness to unlearn,” is the line. How tender and green we are. I got really sad, very emotional. This one poem brought all that in for me in just a few sentences. She has that talent.
Has Kay heard “Green Behind the Ears”?
She has definitely heard the song. We waited until it was fairly well along to send it to her for permission. She responded almost immediately. She’s been very generous. She doesn’t want a fee for it. I need to find where to send the album because I would love for her to have a copy.
Do you ever cross paths with poet Mary Oliver on the Cape?
(Laughs.) I’ve been to her house in Provincetown, but she wasn’t there. Artist friends of mine were staying there, friends of hers. I’m a big fan of hers as well. I haven’t had the chance to meet her yet.
You sing about coffee in “Mando Drum” and name check Starbucks in “New Hotel.” Is there something you’re trying to tell us?
(Big laugh.) Those are two really different songs. We had gotten to the tea point, the Earl Grey in the morning and maybe a little in the afternoon. Then we adopted our first daughter (laughs), and it was back to the coffee. We try not to make it too strong. It’s definitely a lifestyle for me. The reference to Starbucks in “New Hotel” is somewhat ironic. I was writing that song in a really beautiful field and I wondered why was that hotel there, why that (highway) exit with nothing else. I just see the process, the ex-urbanization tion of America. These little farm fields in Pennsylvania, or wherever I was, why here? You travel to Canada and you can go for a long time, like an hour, without a gas station, without a McDonald’s or anything. And yet, when I do see the Starbucks sign in 10 or 15 miles, I’m going to wait (laughs). I know there is at least some standard of excellence there.
When you’re in Milwaukee, do you ever stop for java at Colectivo?
Oh, sure. The one down at the lakefront, that’s a good one. That’s a great stop, that’s a great hang. They do good work. It’s a wonderful company.
Do you have any interest in writing film music?
Yes (laughs), I do. I haven’t done any scoring, but it’s really of interest to me. I have two different album projects I want to do. One is an album of covers and one is an album of instrumentals. That’s my plan.
What can your fans expect from the upcoming tour?
I’m doing a national tour. My job is to showcase the new music and to talk about the ideas on the album.