Something caught the eye of singer/songwriter Patty Griffin at a recent concert in Fort Worth, Texas.
"There was a girl in the audience wearing a hat and braids, and she was singing along with all the songs," Griffin recalled. "I thought, 'What a cute girl.' "
Only after the show did Griffin learn who the girl was. "I don't watch a lot of television and I don't read People magazine or anything like that, but someone said, 'Can Kelly Clarkson come on your bus?' And I met her [and said], 'You're the girl that was singing!' "
Indeed it was, and to say Clarkson is a fan of Griffin's soulful voice and courageous songs would be a vast understatement. "Patty Griffin is my favorite person on the planet," said Clarkson, whose acoustic set on her recent tour was inspired by the folky 42-year-old artist. "She's got a voice that can break somebody's heart, but in a good way. She's amazing and people don't get to hear a lot of her on the radio and it's such a sad thing."
Although she's hardly a household name, Griffin's raw recordings and powerful live shows have attracted a number of famous fans. The Dixie Chicks have covered three of her songs, Kirsten Dunst has sang her praises and Clarkson — well, she's one drunken night away from getting a Patty tattoo. Perhaps Griffin's most unexpected devotee, however, is Jessica Simpson.
"Patty is on every single one of my iTunes playlists," Simpson said last week. "I don't know what it is about her, it's just pure raw talent, something that is so inspirational. Especially as another singer/songwriter, I can listen to her stuff over and over and wish that I had written every single one of the songs. Or want to sing every single one of the songs."
It was actually one of Griffin's songs, "Let Him Fly," that got Simpson through her headline-making divorce from Nick Lachey, which is why she covered the song on her recently released A Public Affair (see "Jessica Simpson Covers Song That Convinced Her To Let Nick Go").
"I don't know what she was singing about, but when I heard this song, I was going through something very, very difficult and I was finishing up my record at the exact same time," Simpson explained. "And I couldn't end my album without giving that to my fans, or letting them in on a little bit. Even though it's Patty, it still became a piece of me because it helped me conquer something and it helped me cope with where I was at."
Now, Simpson's out to return the favor by turning her fans on to Griffin. Although it's not yet a single, she's already performed "Let Him Fly" on MTV and "The View." "For my fans to like the music that I like, and not just the music that I do, is really a cool way to pass it on," Simpson said.
As for Griffin, the humble New England native called her superstar fans "awfully sweet." "I've heard that some of them might like my music a lot, the contemporary pop artists," she said. "I don't know why that would be, but it's very nice."
Griffin grew up singing ("My mom's a great singer and it got in my blood," she said), but waited until she was 32 to release her debut, 1996's acclaimed Living With Ghosts. She had just gotten divorced, which inspired the album's most memorable track, "Let Him Fly."
"It's just an end-of-the-relationship song, of which there are billions," Griffin said. "End of a big relationship — blah. It was one of those songs that wrote itself in about five minutes. That's really the whole story to it."
These days, Griffin — who is signed to Dave Matthews' ATO Records — is working on her fifth studio album and venturing out a bit from her past work. "I've done the low-fi, garage-band kind of record for many records now, so I wanted to try to make something that brought some of the classic elements of old recording," she explained. "So we used tape and old microphones on this record. And it's a happier record. Or at least I've been told it's a little less dark than other things I've done, so we'll see how everybody else feels."
Mike McCarthy, who has produced ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Spoon, is helming the project, and Emmylou Harris and Solomon Burke are adding vocals. The album — which is due February 6 — will be titled Children Running Through, a reference to a poem by 13th-century poet Rumi.
"It's about this point in your life when you start to lighten up and have fun with yourself and see things not quite as seriously," Griffin said. "There's a lot of crap and pain that's never going to stop happening just simply by the fact that someone is alive, and so you sort of, at a certain point in your life, must give up beating on yourself.
"It takes on a self-indulgent quality and it's no longer very useful," she continued, offering up a final word of advice: "You have to learn how to laugh at yourself."