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Patty Griffin on Her Heartbreaking New Album, 'American Kid'

Singer collaborated with beau Robert Plant for deeply personal new disc

May 6, 2013 2:35 PM ET
Patty Griffin performs in Newport, Rhode Island.
Patty Griffin performs in Newport, Rhode Island.
Douglas Mason/Getty Images

Tomorrow, Patty Griffin releases American Kid, her eighth studio album and first album of mostly new material in six years. It's a set of songs the Americana veteran started writing four or five years ago while dealing with the impending death of her father, who passed in 2009.

"I didn't feel like singing anything about my life, at all, after he died," Griffin tells Rolling Stone of why she hesitated to release the material. She let the songs gestate while she toured in beau Robert Plant's Band of Joy and recorded 2010's Downtown Church — an album predominantly comprised of folk and gospel covers that boasted collaborations with Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller and Regina McCrary.

Video: Patty Griffin and Robert Plant Journey to 'Ohio'

Griffin aspired for a more raw sound once she was ready to record American Kid. "It's grittier than anything I've done in a really long time," she says. "I've been working in Nashville a lot in the last decade, and I think that the aesthetic has crept in. You have some technical prowess in Nashville; you can really stand your ground in a lot of situations. I don't come from that; I really missed the rawness in myself, and I needed to embrace it more."

So she tapped North Mississippi Allstars brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson to back her, cutting the record at their father Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch recording studio outside Memphis. (Jim Dickinson also died in 2009.) Then she enlisted Austin singer-songwriter Craig Ross to coproduce, reprising his work from Griffin's 2004 LP, Impossible Dream. She says Ross's role was to counter-balance the Dickinson brothers' spontaneous, down-home nature.

"[He] comes from a very different world," she says. "His ear is incredibly delicate in the studio. . . I need that, because I wanted it to be gritty, but I also wanted to have an etherealness to it, and otherworldly thing."

That moody, celestial aesthetic radiates on "Ohio," a haunting collaboration with duet partner Plant. "I didn't really have it in a form that I liked very much, so I took it [and threw it] at Robert right away," Griffin says. "He just kind of went and, in about five minutes, tweaked it entirely into its form, dynamically." (No word on whether Plant will join Griffin's newly announced U.S./U.K. tour in support of American Kid, which kicks off May 30th in Asheville, North Carolina.)

If most Led Zeppelin fans gave the song a cold listen, they probably wouldn't even peg the second singer as Plant, who takes a backseat approach to his vocal.  "He's harmonizing!" Griffin says. "If you pull out my vocal, he's singing another melody. That's another thing about that harmony that's beautiful, is that he's got another song [there]. He's such a lead singer that [his] harmonies are not classical at all."

On the album's centerpiece piano ballad, "Irish Boy," Griffin pays tribute to her father by imagining his scrappy Boston youth and singing from his perspective. "I sang it more than I've ever tried to sing anything on any record," she says of the song, which she eventually cut in two takes after many failed attempts (the victory happening on St. Patrick's Day, coincidentally). On another of the album's standouts, the folksy waltz "Get Ready Marie," Griffin reflects on her grandparents' long, tumultuous marriage, also singing from their perspective. "That's about my grandmother's wedding, literally," she says. "I mean, I made it up; I'm filling in the blanks."

"There's so many untold stories, so I think I make mine up," she concludes. "I really do."

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