October 16, 2008

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Opening up the skies
Songwriter Patty Larkin finds inspiration in the big picture
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Musical troubadour Patty Larkin has been redefining the boundaries of folk-pop music for more than 20 years with her guitar skills and penchant for instrumental experimentation. Since getting her start playing the streets of Cambridge, Mass., and studying jazz guitar at Berklee College of Music, Larkin has won an unprecedented 11 Boston Music Awards and is the recipient of the Distinguished Alumnae Award from Berklee. Larkin will perform on Saturday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m., at the Old Meeting House, 1 Main St., in Francestown to celebrate the release of her 11th album, Watch the Sky, which was written, produced, engineered and edited by Larkin herself. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 588-3837.

Q:Where did the inspiration for your new album, Watching the Sky, come from?
Well, if the title hadn’t already been taken, I would have called it Love and Death. My partner and I recently adopted a child, and I think that having children really helped to inform the depth of it. I also had a friend who died this year, so I think this album is really all about looking at the big picture — there’s real sadness in it but also joy as well.

What was the recording process like for this album?
I have my own studio, which I’ve been recording my albums at for several years, but this time it was different because it was just me on my own — writing the material, creating the music, as well as engineering and producing it. It’s really a brave new world with all of this technology now, and I was able to explore that. There were things I would do again and things I wouldn’t do — will never again spend the last week making last- minute changes. Lesson learned.

You experimented with a variety of instruments (toy organ, bazouki, door chimes) on several of the songs. How does that experimentation feed you as a musician?
I remember hearing Michael Hurley play in when I was in New York a while back, and though he’s sort of been associated with the ’60s folk scene, a lot of the stuff he was doing was very modern. It was just coming from a different place. What interests me is discovering what kind of sounds you can get without it being a typical sound. How can you get an electronic sound from an acoustic instrument? It’s like trying to fly to the moon, but still trying to keep it grounded in a real sound.

You grew up in a very arts-centered family. What has that done for you as both a musician and a person?
When you are a kid, the influence is really subtle. My four-year-old just started playing our piano the other day using both hands, and she was really making such a pretty sound with it. For me, it’s really all about getting music back in the house. Mom is still a painter — she did stop for a while during the ’50s and ’60s when women were sort of expected to be at home with the kids. She really regretted doing that, and I saw that tragedy of putting your creativity aside.

You studied music at Berklee and have won several Boston Music Awards. What makes the music scene in New England so unique?
I think that the audience I make music for — those who grew up listening to ’60s and ’70s folk — is still around. New England is unique in that it has the venues and coffee houses and churches that support this kind of music, as well as radio. It’s also become this kind of mecca for people who want to be songwriters — if you want to be a songwriter, New England is the place to go.

What artists have been your inspiration over the years and even today?
The fact that Patti Smith even existed is amazing. I mean, she’s definitely punk but was never straight ahead with it. She always has kept this folk sound to her music. I remembered the first time I listened to a Talking Heads album at a friend’s house when they first came out, and just thought what they were doing was so different and cool. Joni Mitchell as well — and also guitarists like Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn. I love young artists like Macy Gray, Beck, Bjork, and Elliott Smith’s previous records. The top has really been blown off the music industry, so now you have such diversity of artists that are now able to make a mark thanks to the Internet.

Do you think that the demise of the big, all-powerful record label needed to happen?
Absolutely. Record companies became like investment firms and then that filtered down into radio — people began to monopolize what was played on our airways. It stopped the flow of new music. The Internet is really a great democracy for music — there is much more of a level playing field now. What I think will happen is that we’ll have a return to the roots of music — the small venues and local coffeehouses, and more grassroots promotion.

Do you have a specific approach to your songwriting?
I’ve always written with the guitar in my lap, but with this album I really tried any kind of writing I could to see what worked. I tried going to an Internet café and writing on a laptop, but that didn’t quite work for me. So then I went back and starting listening to these music loops I had created — for “Beautiful” and “All Souls Day” for example — and I would just start writing watching the sound waves floating by.

Do you consider yourself a musician or a songwriter first?
I think of myself as a songwriter first. Sometimes I’ve gotten in trouble with some folk audiences for saying that, but I don’t want to rehash that argument again. I did try to write a musical once that didn’t work out, but I’d like to try it again. That’s what songwriting or writing is like — the more you practice, the more you do it, the better you get at it. When I’m not writing, I’m not as happy. So I just take the time to do it, even if it’s for 10 minutes, because it opens up something in my life. — Dana Unger