Patty Larkin finds inspiration in old and new
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 15, 2003) – In the run up to writing the songs for her excellent new album, “Red=Luck” (Vanguard) – due in stores on February 11 – Patty Larkin was listening to a diverse range of music.

“I’d been listening to a lot of Neil Young and Elliot Smith and Ron Sexsmith,” said Larkin in a recent phone interview from her home on Cape Cod. “They all have a beautiful, melodic sense, and I wanted that to stand out on my record.”

It comes as little surprise that as a listener Larkin would favor melodic singer-songwriters, being one of the best of the breed herself.

But Larkin’s musical taste goes beyond her fellow pop-influenced singer-songwriters. She also admits to listening to contemporary alternative-rock favorite Beck and the classic-rockers of all time, the Beatles.

“I went back to the Beatles and listened to them, and it’s pretty amazing how they bounced around stylewise -- and no one complained about it,” said Larkin, who performs on Friday night at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield in the first of two concerts this weekend in the “Originals in Song” series. Fellow new-folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown follows Larkin at the museum on Saturday night. Both concerts are at 8; for reservations call 443-7171, ext. 10.

Larkin sees a connection between the freewheeling musical sensibility of the Beatles and Beck’s eclectic musical palette. “The freedom that they gave us,” she said of the Beatles, “people are able to take it. People are very active listeners looking to be surprised a little bit.”

Larkin herself continues to surprise, as she undoubtedly will surprise some when they hear “Red=Luck.” Although the recording sits comfortably alongside previous efforts like “Regrooving the Dream,” “Perishable Fruit” and “Strangers World,” it pushes Larkin beyond her previous efforts in the strength of her songwriting and in her meticulous use of cutting-edge techniques like looping and sampling.

“It’s all what inspires me and what I’ve been listening to between albums,” said Larkin, explaining how she derives the sound and sensibility of each of her recordings. “So if I’m listening to Beck a lot, that’s going to wind its way into the personality of the recording. It’s also a touchstone, contemporary culture saying hello a little bit.

“They’re still acoustically-oriented, even though I delve into other things. The hope is they’ll stand up even though I’m doing stuff like that. I’m eclectic, and there are one or two songs on the new album with a lot of that looping or sampling, but also some with just only acoustic guitar.”

Like Greg Brown, Larkin is a native of Iowa, although she grew up in Milwaukee. But she has called Massachusetts home for a long time, and she worked her way up to her position as the queen of the nation’s new-folk scene in the 1980s in Boston, where she attended Berklee College of Music and where she began her recording career for Cambridge-based Rounder Records.

A perennial headliner at folk festivals like Newport and nearby Falcon Ridge, Larkin has scored crossover successes in film, having placed versions of her songs in movies including Ivan Reitman’s “Evolution” and Sidney Pollack’s “Random Hearts.” Perhaps her greatest commercial success came when Cher recorded the song “Angels Running” for her hit album, “It’s a Man’s World.”

Larkin is almost noted as much for her strong technique on guitar as she is for her taut songwriting and humorous stage presence. Lately, she’s expanded her instrumental reach, and on “Red=Luck,” which she co-produced with Bette Warner and Ben Wittman, she’s a multiple threat on acoustic and electric guitars – including 12-string, baritone and six-string – as well as slide guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, lap steel, accordion, piano and harmonica.

Is she trying to become the Stevie Wonder or Prince of folk music?

“I’m not even going to attempt the drums,” said Larkin with a laugh. “I think part of it is an interest and the challenge of seeing what I could come up with at first on my own. So I bring myself in as the session player, and then we bring the big guns in.”

After laying down the initial tracks herself, Larkin invited guest musicians including guitarists Duke Levine, Marc Shulman and Jeff Lang, bassists Richard Gates and Mike Rivard, Pioneer Valley cellist Gideon Freudmann to contribute to the album. Members of Irish band Solas lent their authentic Celtic stamp on mandolin, fiddle and accordion. Willy Porter, Merrie Amsterberg, Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball also helped out with vocal support.

There’s a hint of post-9/11 angst in the first line of the opening track, “All That Innocence,” in which Larkin sings, “Hey, a change is gonna come/April told me so/East is east and west is west/There’s nowhere else to go.”

Besides paraphrasing or referencing Sam Cooke, T.S. Eliot and Rudyard Kipling all in one verse, did Larkin intentionally address the current global situation in the song?

“Actually, I might have written that before 9/11,” she said. “But it is an intertwining of personal and political in a way. It certainly fit what was happening.

“I’m at a point in my life and career where you do look back and go ‘wow,’ not necessarily ‘if I knew then what I know now,’ but how tender certain periods or points are. We think we’re so callous at a young age, but we’re still fairly innocent in some ways. And you think you’ve seen it all. I think the same thing holds true in a world sense.”

If Larkin is arguably the queen of new-folk, then Greg Brown, with whom she has shared many a festival stage and a round-robin song-swap, could well be the king. Few are probably as qualified as Larkin to talk about Brown from her unique perspective as fellow folk royalty.

“He’s a cool dresser, first of all, and secondly, he’s one of the people on the circuit where music just seems to emanate from his soul,” she said.

“His songs seem timeless and his melodies seem timeless. It’s like you think you’ve heard the song before. He’s a dynamic, great performer. The thing I hate about him is he makes it look so easy.

“He’s the Robert DeNiro of folk music.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 16, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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