Road Rules

Guitarist Patty Larkin is a tour de force.

Patty Larkin is sitting in a hotel room in Grand Junction. It's cold there, she says, but not any colder than it gets on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she lives and, when she can, records in her home studio. The hotel of the moment is pretty typical of those she's seen and lived in during her career: It has a bed, a TV, a small couch and a coffeepot. On a good day, her rooms come equipped with a refrigerator and an ironing board, maybe some free stationery in the dresser or pastries in the lobby. In the almost fifteen years that have passed since she released Step Into the Lighton the Philo/Rounder label in 1985, rooms like these have been the rule and not the exception to her domestic life. Still, like most working musicians, Larkin is an artist first and a traveler second. Nights of endless gigging necessitate a certain adaptiveness so that those rare chances to take a walk or a nap or to just hole up and bang out the chords of a song that rattled around her brain during hours of restless Interstate sleep don't vanish like roadside towns in the rearview mirror.

Larkin doesn't want to grumble about the rigors of the road, because she's comfortable with where it's taking her -- to yet another stage, another audience. In the past few years, since her seventh album, 1997's Perishable Fruit(High Street/Windham Hill) received critical acclaim and a modicum of commercial success, her name and her music have become more familiar to fans around the country. Praise for the album was unanimous. It was a challenging, fluid work that established Larkin as not just competent, but as a creative and resourceful songwriter. The album was recorded without any live drums and featured percussionist Ben Wittman and others using mallets and various implements, including fingers and the palms of their hands, to work percussive sounds out of the bodies of guitars, mandolins and other stringed instruments. Many of those emanations were then sampled into loops, which Larkin played over. It was her first embrace of the sampling technology and computer effects that are popular with pop, hip-hop and electronic artists but that many makers of "adult" music have been slow to incorporate.

Though she's been compared ad nauseam to every female musician from Bonnie to Lucinda to Tori (at least she has an instrument -- the guitar -- in common with Raitt and Williams), more apt comparisons place her in the company of Bruce Cockburn, Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin. Yet Larkin has yet to rise to the profile of any of those artists, maybe because it takes time -- lots of it -- to be discovered by fans who aren't content to extract bits of meaning or talent from more commercial ho-hummers (Jewel springs to mind). Larkin's the kind of player whom people often describe as a "musician's musician," which is either wonderful praise or a backhanded compliment. "It probably means that I'm not famous, but I know how to play a guitar," she laughs. "But I think it also means that I'm meticulous, that I'm always working on technique and trying to improve. I think that there might be a depth or a breadth to the music, which is something that other musicians appreciate."

Today the halls and theaters where she plays are bigger, the audiences are composed of more and more new faces. More important, she says, the challenge of performing nightly has had a profound effect on her musicianship. Her guitar work has become more exacting, her vocals stronger, her instincts more fine-tuned.

"I try to learn something new about the music every night," Larkin says. "I recall reading about a famous cellist who said he never picked up his instrument without completely concentrating on it. He didn't just pick it up absentmindedly, while watching TV or something. I've tried to do the same thing. When I'm playing, I'm as musical as possible. I try not to be distracted by anything, not even the fact that I'm performing."

Larkin's approach to her live performances was captured recently on à gogo, a fourteen-track live album compiled from a nation's worth of shows in 1997, which was released last fall on the Vanguard label. The album features what Larkin considered to be the best samples of a 25-city tour in which she performed solo and recorded every moment of every show straight to ADAT. Listening to the disc, it's clear that while Larkin may not be distracted by her crowds, she's certainly attentive to them. There are occasional jokes made (and laughed at, heartily), pieces of stories told (and listened to, quietly), and songs performed, expertly. Throughout, à gogo encapsulates the unique and symbiotic relationship that exists between an audience and a performer and vice versa. You hear an acoustical echo here and there, the raw sound of a finger sliding down a guitar string, an occasional cough -- and you're reminded of what it's like to witness a performer trying to connect with strangers.

That vulnerability scares many players away from making live albums, and it might have frightened Larkin, too, if it weren't for one little fact: She's damn good and she knows it. So good, in fact, that, over the years, she's won eleven Boston Music Awards -- more than Aerosmith or any other area musician ever has. In 1995, Boston's mayor called for Patty Larkin Day, which she spent singing the National Anthem at Fenway Park ("with my nostrils up there on the huge scoreboard screen"), performing a benefit concert for AIDS research and musing on the early days when she busked in Harvard Square for the benefit of anyone who would listen or maybe drop a dime in her guitar case.

In a way, she's still busking for the audiences who applaud on à gogo. The album paints Larkin as saucy, playful and confident as hell, tackling guitar styles with a dexterity that at times creates the illusion that she's being backed by a full band, or at least another guitarist. "Wolf at the Door" is a bluesy number colored by the metallic warble of a slide guitar that would probably make Ani DiFranco wish she'd had Larkin as a babysitter, and "Banish Misfortune/Open Hand" is an instrumental, classically styled piece that doesn't suffer from a lack of vocals. The album includes quiet pronouncements (the meditative "Don't," in which Larkin manages to work in a statement about girls on guitars -- they can play, already -- and a Fabio reference); melodic soulfulness ("Dear Diary"); a rocking narrative ("Who Holds Your Hand"); and moments where Larkin diverges from the stringent singer-songwriter mold to include looped vocal samples ("The Book I'm Not Reading").

Beyond serving as an introduction to Larkin's larger body of work (she's released four recordings on the High Street/Windham Hill label and three for Philo/Rounder), à gogois like an auditory scrapbook, a nod to the troubadour's lifestyle. The seamless way in which a track from a show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sits next to one from Brunswick, Maine, is a reminder that each of those shows had a life of its own, and that almost as soon as the lights dimmed on one stage, they were ready to come up on another. As with the tour that wound up being chronicled on à gogo, the extensive promotional tour that followed it and the limited one she's on now with fellow guitarist Willy Porter, the distances that lie between shows are filled with plenty of musical fodder. Larkin is close to finishing production on a new, as-yet-untitled studio album to be released in July, and she says many of the tunes were inspired by people and places she encountered while touring.

"My songs, for the most part, do start out on the road," she says. "I usually finish them when I get home, if I have an extended period of three weeks or so when I'll be there. I'll see something -- a person, maybe, a snippet of a relationship -- and it will stick with me."

Larkin, who holds an undergraduate degree in English as well as graduate and post-graduate degrees from Boston's Berklee College of Music, has upheld a reputation as a gifted singer and lyricist as well as a songwriter. Her voice is that of a storyteller's, elastic enough to meet the emotional demands of each individual piece. It is feminine and tough; a growl in the appropriate place or a well-placed whisper in another prevents it from being merely pretty. And though the lyrical themes Larkin broaches may not be new -- introspection, loss, the craving for authenticity, the craving for love -- she explores them through an associative narrative style that reminds us why even the best writers always seem to relay the same old stories: because they're true.

"The new album is definitely full of story songs," she says. "In the past, I've been kind of using this stream-of-consciousness style to write my lyrics, but I've tried to be a lot more disciplined this time around. The lyrics are tighter. That kind of goes along with the whole new album. In many ways, it's more tailored."

Larkin recorded the forthcoming album in her Cape Cod studio with the help of co-producer Bette Warner (who also assisted on Perishable Fruit) and Wittman. Though the recording will take some more traditional approaches to instrumentation -- drum sound, for example, will be live and real -- it also features more experiments with samples, looping and computers, subtle as they may be. "When we were recording, we kept saying, 'What would Beck do?'" she says, laughing. "I really like what he did on Odelay, though I think it's pretty different from what I do. I have a friend who's a sax player, and I wound up sampling one of her recordings. It gives a new vibe to the sounds, which is exciting. If it turns into the kind of electronic machine that it can be, I'm not interested. But if it can maintain some organic character, it's just another tool for music.

"I could see it going too far, though," she adds. "At some point I'll probably want to sing into a tin can and record it and loop it. Then I will know that it's time to go out into a field and just sing."

And though Larkin's style is often characterized by a fairly familiar approach that lends itself to bluesy, folk categorizations, strands of worldliness have often entered the equation. Jazz flourishes (by-products of her emphasis on the genre in school), rootsy touches and even Celtic flavors can be heard in the shadows of her more straightforward stylings. The recent deluge of Grammy awards bestowed on artists with cross-cultural sounds is a good indicator that the world might be ready for a girl from Wisconsin to wail on sounds that aren't limited to North American borders. It seems like perfect timing for what she describes as an eclectic new album.

"I felt like it was fitting that I closed out the '90s with a live album of older material, because this new record is a tribute to other writing styles," she says. "There's an Appalachian-style song I do on a Stratocaster -- that's like my Roy Orbison song. And there's also some '60s-style samba stuff, and jazz and R&B. Ben [Wittman] got really into playing his lap-steel guitar with mallets and stuff, and he's really into world music, so some of the record even has a Middle Eastern vibe. It might seem like it's a little bit all over the place, but it's all me. Sometimes I feel like I'm taking these huge left turns -- playing samba, for instance. But then I go back and listen, and it's just, well, me doing samba. I've always been into different styles of music, so it just seemed like after reading a lot and listening to a lot of music, this is just what was next for me."

Along with more traveling, touring, taping -- and then repeating. More hotel rooms and gigs and strings of telephone conversations where she explains it all again. And glimpses of lives in lobbies, at the foot of stages, at gas stations and in diners stuck plumb down in the middle of nowhere. And the flicker of ideas, and the notes that surely follow.

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