A Springfield, Ohio native, singer-songwriter Griffin House
originally thought he’d become a professional golfer. He even had the chance to attend college on a scholarship.
Instead, he turned down that offer, bought a guitar for 100 bucks and began writing original music.
Given that House has toured extensively and opened for artists such as Ron Sexsmith, Patti Scialfa, Josh Ritter, John Mellencamp, Mat Kearney and the Cranberries over the course of the past 15 years, that turned out to be the right decision. House performs on Jan. 19 at Music Box Supper Club
“It wasn’t really to focus on music; it just kind of happened that way,” he says via phone when asked about the decision to turn music rather than golf into his primary occupation. “It was a combination of things that I followed my gut on. Golf was what I had the most promise and talent in as a kid.
I went to Ohio University and interviewed with the people there. They let me know for sure that if I was an NCAA athlete, my time in school wouldn’t be my own. I would be expected to be where they wanted me to be and what they wanted me to be."
The thought of not having control over his spare time proved to the clincher.
"If I believed I could have a great life and go on to be a pro and I could improve my performance, I would have gone that route," says House, who adds that he decided to attend Miami University in Oxford instead of OU. "I wanted four years to be this adventure into the unknown and explore who I was as a person. I did that and put behind me any preconceived notions I had about golf.”
While at Miami, he moved into an arts-oriented dorm. He used his free time to teach himself to play the Oscar Schmidt guitar.
“When I got to college, I had more time on my hands than I realized,” he says. “You don’t have to go to class from 8 to 3. I could practice and before I knew it I was learning songs and my roommate was a really good guitar player. He was a friend from high school who was also in theater. I picked stuff up from other people and one thing led to another. I was around a lot of musicians and changed my major to creative writing. I was falling behind in my other classes because of the work I was choosing to do on my own. I thought I should try to get credit for all that work. I found a love and passion for music that I wanted to explore.”
One day, he took a song of his into his creative writing class because he wanted to show “how the meter of poetry was different than with a song.”
“Poetry was a little more rigid,” he says. “With music, you can bend it around and make two accents be one or vice versa. I sang a song in class and the teacher said, ‘Maybe you should do that.’ I didn’t know if he was telling me I was a shitty poet or a good singer.”
When he moved to Nashville in 2003, he quickly picked up a couple of “odd jobs.” He started getting calls from record execs in New York and L.A. and eventually signed a deal that helped land his songs on TV shows and turned into him into a national act. Now, he’s no longer on a major label and says his career has gone back to “square one.”
“I make my own records and I manage myself,” he says. “I fly to my shows and drive to my shows myself. I try to manage being a family man and a traveling solo music business man.”
His latest album, So On and So Forth
, features mid-tempo rock tunes such as the Jackson Browne-inspired “Yesterday Lies” and the moody “Straight in the Night.” On “Paris Calling (Sweet Sensation),” he sings about the “magic of a Paris night” and effectively croons on the catchy chorus.
The grinding ballad “Easy Come Easy Go” benefits from a driving guitar riff and rocks a little harder than the album's other songs. House says the latter tune came together while he was sitting on his front porch.
“It was one of those five-minute songs,” he says. “I spent some time arranging it, but it was mostly done really fast. Another song like that is ‘Yesterday Lies.’ I had that around for years. I had the bulk of it around, and it was a little idea I was trying to stretch into a song and turn into something.”
He says the album’s other tunes all “came over a period of a couple of years.”
“I’m part of a songwriting group that [singer-songwriter] Bob Schneider down in Austin put together,” he says. “The guy from Bushwalla and [singer-songwriter] Jason Mraz and Bob and me and some people I am forgetting are in it. The group rotates in and out, and you get eliminated if you don’t turn in a song one week. A lot of times, it’s last minute. I turn my recorder on and do something just to stay in the game. It was a way of staying on task. Some songs were born out of that and were ideas that I came up over the last year or two. I used to feel like I wrote 100 or 200 songs a year. Now, it’s like 50. Sometimes, they get left behind and I revisit them and put them on a record later.”
“A Painting by Hieronymus Bosch” references a Dutch painter known for his depictions of hell.
“I thought that was a cool title,” House says when asked about the tune. “That is born out of being able to go overseas and experience artists like that and see their paintings in museums. I did an interview with Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on their Outlaw Country station the other day. There’s a lyric about drinking something green and evil in Prague. They said they didn’t think anyone had ever written about absinthe before. Hieronymus Bosch influenced the album artwork on my last record. The cover was this surreal stuff.”
The album seems like a big production. Organ and slide guitar appear on some of the tunes and it sounds as if 10 musicians play on other tunes. House says the disc is actually one of the “least produced” records he’s ever made.
“There aren’t very many overdubs,” he says. It’s just five guys in a room playing. I went to New Jersey to play with five guys I never met before. We went into the studio. I played them the songs and then we cut them. It was weird to meet these guys I’ve never played with before. I didn’t know how it was going to go. It was a fun experience not having any personal baggage with anybody. There weren’t any personalities in the way. We just went and played the songs. It was a basic way to record and not done that way very often. A lot of the vocals and most of the performances are all live.”
Given that the making of So On and So Forth
was so rewarding, House says he might employ similar tactics for his next album.
“It was stress and drama free,” he says. “It was very positive. Usually, I spend all this time getting a song to sound as good as it can and put all these extra parts on them and then I play them in a stripped down setting. Maybe I don’t need to have a big budget. Maybe it’s better if I accept the fact that I’m more of an acoustic singer-songwriter."
He says fans often tell him they like his live shows better than his studio efforts.
"One of the things I hear all the time is that people like my ‘live from prison’ record and just enjoy that," he says. "It’s a good and bad thing. They tell me I’m better live. It’s just me and my guitar, but there’s an energy in the room. I have plans about doing a live record to capture that so people can hear what it’s really like to be at the show. That’s what I’m thinking for a future recording: maybe a live record or a more stripped down thing. With 11 albums, I could do some kind of compilation too.”
Griffin House, 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $20 ADV, $22 DOS, musicboxcle.com.