Patty Griffin on How Police Shooting, 'Darkness' Led to New Album

'Servant of Love' tackles tough issues and strays from empty country music trends

Patty Griffin's new album is titled 'Servant of Love.' Credit: Paul Morigi/EHBB15/Getty Images

Patty Griffin's Servant of Love is out just in time for fall, but its most poignant track looks ahead to winter, holding onto a perfect day when snow melts from the trees. That's "Made of the Sun," and it awaits halfway through an album that's equal parts haunted ("Everything's Changed"), political ("Good and Gone" is inspired by a 2014 police shooting) and even aggressive ("Gunpowder"). The album follows Silver Bell, which Griffin had recorded in 2000 but remained unreleased until 2013. Rolling Stone Country catches up with the legendary singer-songwriter about making the new LP, overcoming the old one and why she stopped listening to mainstream country music.

One of the most thought provoking — and left-of-center — songs on the album is "Good and Gone." What compelled you to write that?
That was inspired by the shooting of John Crawford in a Walmart in Ohio. I was thinking about the young man who made the phone call. [John Crawford III was an African-American man who was shot by a police officer while holding an unloaded pellet gun he'd picked up from a Walmart shelf. The officer was responding to a 911 caller accusing Crawford of waving a loaded gun at children in the store. Neither the officer nor caller were indicted. Listen to "Good and Gone" below.]

How did you approach writing a song about such a fresh wound?
I don't think it's that topical. It's an ancient problem. In our culture, it's hundreds and hundreds of years old. One of the things that has always gone on is beating up on poor people and unfairness via economic circumstances. Instead of going to the source of that problem, people point blame at things that have nothing to with their frustration.

What did you want to say with Servant of Love?
I'm still figuring that out. [Laughs] I was just trying to write it all down, and it seemed to all go together. I don't know if I set out to have a message, but I feel like this record does have a heart. I'm still learning about it.

What's something you learned between releasing Silver Bell and finishing the new album?
Silver Bell kicked my ass a little bit. I didn't want to listen to Silver Bell. I wanted it to come out at some point, but I really don't like listening to music that I've done, especially when I did it a long time ago. I had to listen to the record because it was getting a new mix, and listening to it I realized that it was really creative — a lot of ideas and influences that I think, spending a lot of time in Nashville around that tradition, I had moved away from and forgot about. Silver Bell reminded me of the whole wide world out there. . . I sort of dug into a more unknown territory.

One thing I liked about Silver Bell is that I barely knew how to play in the tuning I was writing in, and I just went for it anyway. I tried to throw myself into darkness while writing [Servant of Love], influenced by that creativity. I think I tried to hire a new editor [laughs] — don't throw things away so easily. If you're working on ideas and you don't know what they are, keep working on them. You don't know what they'll be.

Servant of Love is both warm and stark. How did you approach that?
I really wanted to keep this fairly stripped down. There's a full sound on some things, but it's pretty sparse, musically — not a lot of musicians playing all at once. The producer, Craig Ross and I talked about this as it was being written, and we got together periodically and knocked out what we wanted it to be. Mostly, we just wanted it to be a folk record. We had a few reference points for that sound, and that was what we did.

What do you make of country music right now, as someone who comes from folk but often ends up in between?
I have to be honest with you: I don't listen to it at all. It hasn't interested me for a while. I don't know why that it is. Not the modern popular country music, it doesn't float my boat. I liked old stuff. [Laughs]. There's a lot of talent in Nashville, but I think there are too many moments of listening to song content and not getting anything out of it for my heart. So I just stopped listening to it.

What artists have you been listening to instead?
Recently I've been listening to a lot of Mexican music. A friend of mine introduced to me do a band from Monterrey. They're called the Mexican Institute of Sound. There's a phenomenal scene from Monterrey, and I just think Mexican of Institute of Sound is so talented. I don't understand the lyrics, but it doesn't matter.

Has living in Texas exposed you to more Mexican music?
Yes. A lot of things drew me to Texas. One is the wilderness: It's pretty close to wide open spaces, which I didn't grow up around and I love. You don't have to have a lot of money to have a view: The view is the sky, and it's everywhere. The other thing is I like being close to Mexico. It's quite a country, and there's so much creativity — the writing, the visual arts and the music.

Has living in Texas changed your outlook, compared to living in Maine or anywhere else?
Well, Maine has it's own racial issues. There's a really big Native American culture there that has suffered. I feel two ways about Texas. Sometimes I'm horrified by the political structure here. I feel like both parties misrepresent the average citizen of Texas, and there seem to be some crazy political motivations going on that I find hard to stomach. But I love Texas itself. The landscape is remarkable. The combination of cultures here is incredible. And the history here is pretty remarkable too, going back centuries. I'm not really sure sometimes what I'm doing here, but there's a part of me that loves it and is rooting for it, for the best of it to come forward.