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Interview with Joe Montague

Patty Larkin Photo by Joe Montague for interview“I think that folk music is storytelling that draws from everyday life. It is music that talks about everyday life,” says folk singer / songwriter Patty Larkin. “I decided way back twenty years ago, that to avoid talking about things with which I felt uncomfortable, or that made other people uncomfortable, would make people feel sad, or was politically oriented, was going to be a sin of omission. I was not going to avoid talking about issues that I felt were important.”

Larkin’s song, “The Streets Of Birmingham Are Burning,” was written to draw attention to the working poor in America, and particularly in the Alabama city of Birmingham. “At the time that I wrote it, I knew that it was the state where you could earn the least amount of money, and still pay income tax on it. (In the time that has passed) since I wrote it, I have learned more about Alabama, and the dire straits that the people are in.”

If you are a young reader, and grew up in the age of internet connectivity, Larkin’s next remarks may come as a surprise to you, “I look at folk music as storytelling. There is traditional folk music and non-traditional folk music. There is a songwriting tradition that brings up the good, the bad and the ugly. Way before the internet, there was somebody, who would come to town, to tell (through song) about a flood which occurred two thousand miles away. I think that some of that still goes on. You want to assume that it will be intimate in a way, and even if you are doing more pop oriented or updated versions of music, you are still looking for intimacy from your audience. You are asking people to be active listeners. It’s not just about partying, going out, and having a good time. You are asking them to think with you about something, whether it is something that they have never heard, or an issue.”

Patty Larkin is the beneficiary of a rich cultural heritage which includes, grandmothers on both sides of her family, who were pianists, one of whom played for silent films in Chicago and both of whom were involved with church choirs. Larkin has fond memories of house parties at both grandmothers’ houses in which singing was the primary activity. Her older sister Kathleen is an accomplished classical pianist and her mother has her paintings on display at several galleries. Larkin’s younger sister is a classical and Irish music musician, as well as a musical therapist.  Larkin credits growing up in such a stimulating environment and observing her family members’ discipline as they honed their crafts, as helping to instill in her the same type of work ethic, as she fine tuned her own music. Her family tree also includes farmers, union organizers and those who have been involved in the political process. It almost seems as though Larkin was destined to become a folk singer / songwriter.

 Patty Larkin’s mother once asked her, ‘Can’t you write some happy songs once in a while?’ I asked Larkin about that conversation and she said, “When I listen to my songs, I realize that I am working through something, and sometimes when the songs come out, I don’t even realize that I have been thinking about this or that. It’s not like I want to mine the dark side for material. I think that it is more introspective or meditative in a way. Maybe some anger comes out too. I think that for my mother’s generation, music is thought of as being happy, and having a tune that you can sing. The idea of doing this music that is discordant or dark is unappealing to her.”

Elaborating further, Larkin says, “I went to this play and the whole point of it was, do you live in your darkness, do you thrive on it, to the point where it becomes its own living, breathing part of you, or do you keep it at bay and move to the right. I thought that was very interesting and I wanted to go home to write a bunch of happy songs.”

Both Larkin’s songwriting and her performances provide cathartic experiences for her, “When I haven’t done it (toured) for a while, or when I get back out doing gigs, I realize how much breathing that I do. It is a physiological act that makes me feel better. Sometimes I will feel that doing a show is the last thing that I want to do, and then things start to fall into place. There may be something in my own lyric that speaks to me that night. I think that songwriting can be somewhat euphoric. You are concentrating on something other than the daily process. You go into this place that is its own time.”

The late film producer Sydney Pollack who passed away not long after my conversation with Patty Larkin, once observed about her singing, that she has the perfect voice for motion pictures and that she sees visual images when she sings. Larkin’s film and television credits include, Evolution (Dreamworks), Sliding Doors (Miramax—Sydney Pollack was one of the producers), Random Hearts (Columbia Pictures—directed by Sydney Pollack), Men In Trees (television) and Homicide (television).

Larkin recalls the day that Sydney Pollack phoned her, “What a joy to have Sydney Pollack on the phone. (She jokes at this juncture at a possible response) ‘I can’t talk to him, because I am alphabetizing my CD collection.’ He had heard one of my songs on the radio while he was in his car, and then he went to Tower Records to pick up my CD.” Larkin’s song, “Tenderness On The Block,” made the soundtrack for Sliding Doors.

“Sydney Pollack’s comments are totally meaningful, because I feel the same way (about my singing). Early on, as a songwriter, while in my pre-teens and as a teen, I would think visually and I would think about film. I think that it is a compliment to come from someone who is a filmmaker. When I am writing, a lot of the time, I want to recreate the feeling of something that I have seen or something that I have experienced. Really, it is more of a visual thing. I go to that place. I imagine a physical place, and I write from there,” she says.

Watch The Sky, is Patty Larkin’s tenth album, so it would seem natural to inquire about what keeps her motivated as she continues to record and perform. At the time, she had just completed a lengthy tour. “That’s funny, because this is the first day of the rest of my life. I just got home, last night, after four months of promoting this record, and touring around the country. I feel this lightness and sense of, what am I going to do now. I have a couple of little projects that I am working on. I am tired, and sometimes I feel that I am just moving my body around the country, because the travel does promote wear and tear. I still have this creative hunger, and I want to get better on my instrument. For me the problem is when I don’t hear anything that I like or I am not exposed to music that inspires me,” she says.

Larkin recalls a recent event in her life, “I was at WFPK in Louisville Kentucky, a non-commercial AAA station which has a tremendous impact, because they are very eclectic. There are not very many radio stations like that anymore. They played a cut by a guy from England called Fink, and I thought that it was beautiful. It was just him and an acoustic guitar, bass and drums. It had some really evocative things in it that I liked. Recently someone gave me a Neko Case CD, and I thought, ‘Wow this is really adventuresome writing. The band Winterpills, from western Massachusetts opened up for me in Louisville, and I think that they have beautiful vocals and arrangements. They have a really full sound for five people. Their really high singing makes me want to go home and play some barre chords. It made me want to write some things that are not finger style, but just barre chords.”

There are also non-traditional sources of inspiration for Patty Larkin’s music; such is the case with her song, “Walking In My Sleep,” from her new CD Watch The Sky. The lyrics sound like fright night at the folk festival and Larkin’s explanation of what served as the catalyst for her songwriting soon reveals the reason why. “I wrote the song after staying at a haunted B&B (Bed & Breakfast). When I drove away from the B&B I got over my fright, but I thought that I should write a song about my experience. I needed a way in, and the way in was to sing it in a different voice. While I was recording it, I thought more of a Billie Holiday or a Macy Gray voice. Billie was where I ended up going. It was a different style for me to do.  

Having a partner and two small children at home, has caused Patty Larkin to treasure even more, both the times with her family and the times she spends on the road, because of the sacrifice she is making when she is away from them. It serves as a further inspiration for her to ‘be in the moment.’  In watching Patty Larkin perform this past spring, there was no doubting that she was ‘in the moment,’ and that she continues to create masterpieces, while remaining true to her art as a balladeer.