Happy Ending

After years of writing sad songs, Patty Griffin cheers up on her new album.

Patty Griffin singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris Three Girls and Their Buddy, featuring Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller. 8 p.m. Thursday, January 24, at the Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, $10-$58, 216-241-6000.
Patty Griffin asks the Sun King to pimp her ride.
Patty Griffin asks the Sun King to pimp her ride.

Patty Griffin's soprano slices into Children Running Through like a church bell at midnight. Her rich timbre bleeds deep nuance into the grooves, conveying hope, solace, and rebirth amid much heartache and disappointment. It's bittersweet, without a doubt. Griffin sings with such power and emotion, it's hard not to be moved — whether by "Trapeze"'s love-averse gymnast or the close of "Someone Else's Tomorrow," where Griffin waves away nostalgia's salty tears: "All the memories fade/Send the ghosts on their way/Tell them they've had their day/It's someone else's tomorrow."

Last year's Children Running Through is Griffin's fifth and best album. Over the past 12 years, she was at times overly delicate, sad, and verbose; on Children Running Through, she exhibits a fire that's been missing since 1998's Flaming Red. Griffin's voice and spirit have the ability to sweep away listeners — even when she calls out the government in the jangling, horn-fueled folk rave-up "No Bad News." "We won't be afraid to be alive anymore/And we'll grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us/Till there are no strangers anymore," she sings.

The song stems from the rainbow-hued terrorism charts President Bush and his crew have hauled out every few months since 9/11. "What am I supposed to do about an orange alert?" asks the fiery New England-born redhead, who now lives in Austin. "Is this just to scare the shit out of me? I think so. And I really resent anyone attempting to control me with fear." While Griffin expresses some animosity toward the prez — she calls him a "sad little boy" — the music and tone of "No Bad News" come off as more rallying cry than hate-filled rant.

Griffin can be counted on to graft a little silver lining onto even her stormiest clouds. In the opening "You'll Remember," she gets wistful about a breakup, hoping that "maybe one day, along the way, you'll think of me, and you'll be smiling."

Still, she says she realized she needed to make a few changes when she was on the road supporting 2004's mawkish Impossible Dream. "We were at the [San Francisco] Fillmore, which is the perfect club if you want to shake your booty or if you just want to watch a show," she recalls. "And nobody was moving. Most of it was sad, slow songs. Occasionally, there would be somebody bobbing up and down, but I didn't have enough material that people could move to. When I started writing for this record, I was thinking about that gig."

Tempos weren't the only thing that turned upbeat; Griffin's attitude followed a similar path. It all got rolling with the understated, piano-driven "Burgundy Shoes," which includes a cozy childhood memory of a bus ride on the first day of school. "I was talking to [a songwriter friend] about the fact that we never write anything happy," says Griffin. "So I went out of my way to think about what seems happy to me. That opened the door for other things."

The singer-songwriter also prepped by listening to other vocalists. She says this "continuing education" helped shape the sound of Children Running Through. "I kept my voice prepared to sing a certain way," says Griffin. "I let the voice tell me what the words should be. So they ended up being a lot more simple."

Singing fewer and less complicated words left more room for the ensuing emotions, she says. "I don't really like much about cleverness. I'm looking for more soul. I began to notice how beautiful and touching a lot of songs are, such as Sam Cooke songs and things that are really basic.

"A friend of mine said, '"Louie, Louie" is a really great song, and there's nothing clever about it at all.' I was looking for a little more lyrical simplicity and something that a voice could have a great time singing. That was my focus."

More than anything, Children Running Through serves as validation of sorts for Griffin, whose songs have been performed by everybody from Emmylou Harris to the Dixie Chicks to Kelly Clarkson. For years, she allowed producers and record companies to steer her career. "Things happen for a reason," she shrugs. "You get directed into this place by something that you really pay attention to, and you go explore that."

Now she's the one calling the shots. "Yeah, I do that quiet thing," says Griffin. "But then I take it to another place, within the same piece of music. I don't think one person that said to me, 'It's much nicer when you sing quiet,' can be the authority on that. It's taken me 14 years to understand this."

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