Experience is an incomparable school…with extraordinarily high tuition. And by any earthly measure, Patty Larkin earned her PhD in the months leading up to the release of her most recent insightful album. “Still Green” is a fresh approach to sound and life by the iconic singer/songwriter who is continually turning the stone over.
The collection of 12 original songs chronicles Larkin’s search for relief, respite and solace during a time when she lost both of her parents, and witnessed a sister suffer a serious health issue. Many of the new songs were written in a dune shack on Cape Cod with an acoustic six-string that the tunesmith rescued from a landfill.
She began recording in her studio on the Cape, carefully weeding out those among the 40 fresh tunes that just “didn’t fit” and refining the rest. With basic vocal and guitar tracks in hand, Larkin joined co-producer Mike Denneen at Q Division in Boston, joined by jazz bassist Joe McMahon and drummer Dave Brophy.
The result is an exceptionally affecting mix of melody and word that sets “Still Green” apart as Larkin’s matchless thesis about the unavoidable emotional challenges that life can present. The Berklee College of Music Artist in Residence chatted with me recently about her masterwork and the personal journey leading up to it.
At times, an artist can be too close to an album to recognize its singularity. But Larkin fully appreciates the record’s weight. “When I'm recording it, that’s more of an analytical time. But once the musicians came in and they started laying down tracks and it came together, I really, really liked what was happening.”
“I was amazed by how they ‘got’ what I was doing and how they interpreted the music, particularly the bass player and drummer because that’s the first two things we went in and did after I laid down the basics. There was just a real synchronicity of spirit working with Mike Denneen and his engineer and the people that he brought in.”
“The bass player and drummer I had never worked with before. The bass just seemed very organic. And then the drummer was just ‘turn the stone over and go back to the initial stones.’ He was a very talented guy. They both are. Living with this for a while, I feel like it really holds together as a piece even though I think of the songs as three different suites of material.”
Different suites or not, the new album is simply breathtaking. But given the emotional and spiritual pain that Larkin was experiencing at the time, “Still Green” was simply “breathgiving.”
“Yeah, I think that the songs that I wrote during the darkest periods were – just listening back to them was revelatory. You know, it was really. It gave me insight into what I had been going through and it brought it all back, of course. But then singing it is a different thing. And performing it is also a different thing.”
“It was part of my healing process to go back and look at that material. And then also to go back and write more material that was basically coming up from those ashes – things like ‘Soon As I'm Better’ or even the ‘Mando Drum’ song. I look at that along with the songs I wrote out in the dunes – like ‘It Could Be Worse’ and ‘Down Through The Wood’ – as songs that really resonated a change in my being and back on the road to recovery.”
The healing process for the gifted tunesmith was about more than simply dealing with hurt and sadness. Larkin had to recognize – and exorcise – her anger at life’s unforeseen detours.
“I think so. I feel and hear it in a song ‘So Cold.’ I get it in that one when I listen back to the writing on that. And certain lines, like in ‘Nothing Else Really Matters’ where it’s, ‘tonight fluorescent halls remind us that we are not dead.’”
“We’ve all had these near death experiences either vicariously through loved ones or on our own. It is a surreal situation to be in the hospitals and rehab and rehabilitation centers. Within that, you do find an amazing humanity and kindness and generosity of spirit. But you also find this machine that’s turning forward.”
“I want people to listen to it. That’s why I want to be listenable. Then I want the listener to walk away with a sense of hope or a sense of self-worth and, ‘We’ve just gone through something here and now we’re choosing to move on.’”
Given the insightful power of Larkin’s songwriting, it’s easy to see that it comes naturally for her. But that doesn’t mean that she’s not inspired by times of deep emotion.
“It can be. I don’t shut down but I'm going through so much that I'm not gonna pick up the guitar and I'm not gonna write – like if it’s a break up or something like that. I was experimenting too, just saying, ‘What if I bring my guitar back out to Wisconsin this trip?’ and ‘I'm gonna just play the guitar in a hotel room’ or ‘I'm gonna play for my mom.’"
“When 9/11 happened there were people who immediately posted songs online. It took me about a month, a month and a half to feel like I could. The danger of songwriting and creating is your critic comes in too fast. At that point, you just have to say, ‘No, stay back until I'm finished with this part of the process.’ And if you’re going through something, I don’t want to romanticize it. I want to stay close to that feeling.”
“So when I wrote these songs, especially after my sister’s stroke, I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. I felt, ‘Well, it’s such a different style of writing and I'm not going to do anything with that.’ And then I kind of stayed that style for ‘It Could Be Worse’ and the other songs that were written in the dunes.”
It’s incredibly ironic for Larkin to share the very personal album with the public when most of it was crafted at a time when she needed to be alone. “Yeah I know. I finished it and my comment was, ‘Thank God those songs are out.’”
“It was an interesting body of work to put together and see how it would hang together because I didn’t want it to be really depressing. I wanted some of these songs to beout almost as a springboard for discussion. It’s a very real conversation that I'm having with people about the record.”
“But it does work as a whole, it’s just kind of striking. The line from ‘Best Of Intentions’ where it’s like, ‘turning your back on a song’ or even in ‘Soon As I’m Better,’ ‘I’ll be funny, soon as I'm able to laugh alone’ – that is really what happens when there’s this darkness of the soul.”
“When I wrote them, I thought, ‘Boy these are interesting. It’s too raw for me to share with anybody right now.’ I don’t think I shared much of it for several years. I put together a little mixed tape of samples and went back and tried to figure out what the heck I was doing. At one time I thought I was going to just really side-step that entire dark period but, I'm glad they’re on there.”
Larkin is no different than anyone – everyone – that experiences dark periods in their lives. It’s at the low points where we ask the most profound spiritual questions. It’s those questions – and the resulting answers – that make for this life’s most sacred experiences. It’s not surprising then that “Still Green” is a deeply spiritual album.
“I was raised Catholic and left that organization, but it’s still very much a part of who I am in the world. And now my position is, ‘What do I pass on to my kids in terms of belief?’ It’s very much a part of who I am, what I want out of my writing and it’s what I want out of my performing.”
“Sometimes I get to a gig and I'm just hanging on by a thread for whatever reason. And I’ll start singing a particular song and go, ‘Oh, this has a whole new meaning for me.’ People will clap at the end of the show and I’ll say, ‘No thank you.’ For me it’s to give back. We just went through something and we went to a different place and now I feel better.”
“That’s what I hope my music does for other people too, that I can get to that place with them and share that – the depths that I go to that not everyone wants to stop and look at or feel. But if you do, we’ll climb back up and feel better at the end.”
The best evidence of Larkin’s overriding hopefulness is the following line from the last stellar tune on “Still Green”: “Because of this / I am tearful and grateful / Heart full and thankful for this.”
There’s really nothing else to say…
You can witness Patty Larkin’s songwriting brilliance live at the following venues:
Nov. 1 Fairfield, Conn. Stage One
Nov. 7 Mill Valley, Calif. Sweetwater Music Hall
Nov. 8 Napa, Calif. Napa Valley Opera House
Nov. 11/10 Grass Valley, Calif. Center For The Arts
Nov. 19/20 Minneapolis, Minn. The Dakota
Nov. 21 Milwaukee, Wisc. Shank Hall
Nov. 23 Fort Atkinson, Wisc. Café Carpe
Nov. 24 Chicago, Ill. Old Town School
Dec. 7 Needham, Mass Homegrown Coffeehouse
Dec. 12 Collinsville, Conn. Bridge Street Live
Dec. 13 Portland, Maine One Longfellow Square
Jan. 11 Chatham, N.J. The Sanctuary
Mar. 19 Crested Butte, Colo. Center For The Arts
Mar. 22 Fort Collins, Colo. Avogadro’s Number
Apr. 4 Brownfield, Maine Stone Mountain Arts Center
Apr. 25 Columbus, Ohio Lincoln Theatre