Patty Larkin Breaks New Ground In Folk Tradition

Multitalented player augments her songcraft with unusual arrangements, instrumentation.

Patty Larkin's an accomplished lyricist — her song "Good Thing" was featured in the soundtrack of "Random Hearts," the recent Harrison Ford/Kristin Scott Thomas film — but beyond that, she works territory far outside the realm of most modern folk musicians.

Her portraits of characters in transition are given backgrounds of colorful sound, such as the looped lap steel and percussion tracks, Brazilian samba riffs, and classic blues solos found on Regrooving the Dream, due Tuesday on Vanguard.

"I think of myself as a visual songwriter, almost like there's a film going on in my head that I want to capture," Larkin said recently from her studio on Cape Cod, Mass., during a break between tour dates.

That visual sense is apparent in the eerie Appalachian overtones of "Hotel Monte Vista" (RealAudio excerpt) and, in an entirely different context, in the thoroughly modern love song "Only One" (RealAudio excerpt).

Larkin rendered much of the sonic landscape herself, recording in her home studio and tracking many of the instruments, including electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel, mandolin, bass, accordion and harmonica.

The songwriter has always been hungry to absorb a variety of influences. Learning to play guitar in her teens, Larkin stoked her interest in words with a degree in English literature at the University of Oregon, and then headed east to advance her knowledge of guitar at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music.

There, she studied jazz and Brazilian music to open up her guitar skills and, drawing on a background of listening to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, developed her distinctive vocal style.

Learning On The Street

She honed her performance chops on the streets around Harvard Square.

"The thing about playing on the street is that you're in a very honest relationship with the audience. Somebody could be curious for a moment or two, but if they stop and listen you've really got something going as a performer, because they're not stuck in a hall where they can't leave until intermission," Larkin said.

"I was in an Irish band, a dance band. The first time we did it, it was very exciting: These two women started dancing, creatively. It was a beautiful day, and then this half-nude guy started dancing with them.

"Another guy selling bagels started throwing bagels over his shoulder up into the air, and then the half-naked guy started picking up our money and throwing that into the air.

"I thought, 'Wow! I love this!' " she recalled.

Moving on from her busking days, Larkin played in a variety of music settings and began establishing herself as an imaginative and passionate songwriter. After issuing several discs on Rounder Records, she became one of the first musicians signed to Windham Hill's songwriter label, High Street, and recorded four records there before joining Vanguard for a live album, A Gogo, last year.

Taking Time To Reflect

Along the way, she relocated from the bustling music hub of Boston to the quieter realm of Cape Cod.

"It's beautiful here," she said. "I used to live in Boston, and then when I'd come off the road I'd want to escape to someplace beautiful like this. So I decided, why not move to a place where all I have to do to enjoy the beauty is walk out the door? I feel a bit cut off from what's going on musically here," she said, "but then when I go out on tour I make a point to go out and listen to people play and to get new music to listen to while I'm traveling."

Recently that playlist has included Lucinda Williams and Ron Sexsmith, among others. "I've been going back to Dylan and other people who influenced me early on, because I've been working on songwriting ideas. And Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball album is one of my all-time favorites," Larkin said.

The sights and sounds near her home at the end of Cape Cod will be turning up more in her music, Larkin suspects.

"When I was in Boston, I used to hang out in the clubs a lot checking out other bands and other players. This has been a quieter and more reflective experience, because I'm out in nature a lot, and I think that's seeping into my writing.

"Whatever you expose yourself to comes up in your dreams," Larkin said, "and I think that songs are a part of that."