by Gregg Shapiro
Musicians have found a variety of ways to commemorate musical anniversaries, including massive concert tours and expanded reissues of hit albums. Out singer/songwriter Patty Larkin (and Milwaukee native) has taken a fascinating and rewarding approach with 25 (Signature Sounds), a double-disc set on which she revisits 25 love songs from the course of her prolific career. What sets the songs apart is that they were made with the help of 25 different friends—including queer musicians such as Catie Curtis, Janis Ian, Erin McKeown, and Cheryl Wheeler, as well as Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Dar Williams, Suzanne Vega, Jonatha Brooke, Martin Sexton, Peter Mulvey, and Mary Chapin Carpenter—whose contributions to their respective tunes are both sublime and celebratory. I spoke with Patty prior to the release of 25.
Gregg Shapiro: You are representing 25 years of music on two discs on the 25 album. What was involved in the song selection process, considering that there was so much material to choose from?
Patty Larkin: Before we chose the songs, we decided on the theme, so that helped. [Laughs] When I first started thinking about doing something for this year, I thought I would do unplugged versions of these songs that I’d recorded through the years. I just assumed that I would do a little bit of everything. Then 2009 was such a crummy year in many ways. There was illness in my family and my mom passed away in September, so it just seemed really appropriate to choose the love songs to do, as a thank-you to everybody who has been with me through the years—the listeners and the people who show up at shows, and the people who have supported me and booked me. So it was a big, mushy moment, I think.
How did you go about selecting the friends?
Well, I began with people that I have toured with through the years and recorded with through the years, and that kind of made sense—to get hold of people like Rosanne Cash and John Gorka and Bruce Cockburn. Dar Williams lives around the corner from me in the summer. It was kind of organic in the beginning. Then people all said yes, and it was like, Okay, let’s ask a couple more people. And then they said yes, and then the next few said yes, so it just snowballed into, “We’re on our way to 25. [Laughs] What’s to stop us?” And it seemed like a really cool concept. I always like to have these themes for the records, as a focus for the album. It’s unbelievable that we pulled it off. That these incredibly busy, talented people who I have worked with over the years—from both sides of the aisle, as they say—people who have opened for me or I have opened for them, and they came through in such a beautiful way. They accepted this assignment. [Laughs] They said yes!
There are also people such as Jonatha [Brooke], [Mary] Chapin [Carpenter], and Jennifer [Kimball] who’ve also previously appeared with you on records as well.
Yes, that is definitely the case. I always call myself a “shy ham.” I love performing, but I’m sort of a shy person until I’m not. So with some of these people, I thought, “Do I dare ask Chapin again?” First of all, if we can find her, the worst she can do is say, “No, I can’t, I’m too busy.”
It’s an interesting time in the business, too, where I think people are interested in reaching out and combining shows or efforts, in a way, because it’s a challenging time. [With almost] every single one of these artists, the word that we were getting back was that this sounds like a really cool idea. [Even with] things being what they are in the world—the economy, the business—they said, “Let’s do it. That would be great.” More often than not, that was where people were coming from on this.
Did you first choose the songs and then the “friends,” or vice versa? How did you pair them up?
Before my mom died, I was playing songs for her and talking about this project, saying, “I’m going to ask a few friends.” I knew who I was going to call and who I was going to begin with, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to have them sing on, other than Bruce Cockburn, who had already recorded “Open Arms.” So we thought it might be interesting for him to just come on back for an encore [laughs] with that song. We’ve done it live, and we’ve done it in a couple of different recordings.
Other than that, it was really [a matter of] going through the songs and suggesting songs to people. Some people had a song or two that they really wanted to do. Dar wanted to do “Good Thing” or “You and Me.” Peter Mulvey pretty much knew he wanted to do “Booth of Glass.” [But with the others,] we would suggest two or three options.
With Suzanne Vega, I just said, “I really hear you on this, so here’s an mp3 of what we did. Check it out.” She really liked it, and then I had to go record the song. That was what was interesting. It was all happening at the same time. I was like this little machine that was FedExing the material to people, because everybody was elsewhere except for Cheryl Wheeler—and then waiting for them to get the time in their schedules to record it and get it back to me [so we could] mix it. It was tight, but we did it.
Did you solicit fan input at all in the process?
No, not at all. I think part of it, too, was how quickly we were working. It was an emotional period for me as well, and I think that it was enough to get the music down, you know? [Laughs] The other thing, too, is that starting up, I hadn’t been playing much over the summer. Then you say, “Okay, I’m going to do 25 songs”—even though they are paired down, unplugged, it’s still a lot of material to get through and be happy with. I found a little bit of “Oh gosh, we’re at 17 [laughs], we only have eight more to go.” When the mixer was doing it, he said, “We were going to do five a day and just churn through it, and then come back to it.”
In making the record with the addition of the friends, did any of the songs reveal something to you that you didn’t expect, that you hadn’t heard the first time?
Yes, definitely. I cried more than once [when I heard] just how beautiful it was or how much care they took. Like what Jonatha did with “Only One” or Martin [Sexton]—just all of them. [David] Wilcox was the first one in, and I just started crying, thinking, “Oh my God, this is gorgeous.” He took that much time and he sang so beautifully on it, and he played an instrument that works really well. I think the beauty of working with someone else and collaborating is that you get that extra shot of insight [hearing them go] where you would never go. For instance, with Jonatha Brooke’s harmony on “Only One,” I never would have gone there, never would have gone up with the harmony. When I recorded it, I just followed the vocals and played sort of a blues lead guitar on it. She makes it into the heavenly, minimalist piece.
I was thinking, too, about “Beautiful” and Erin [McKeown]. It has this sort of Ani DiFranco kind of call-and-response thing going on. That was a revelation, too.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s really fun. And the fact that she plays organ and keyboards and piano on it—I didn’t even know she plays those. [Laughs] And to hear her phrasing in comparison to my phrasing, and hearing her attitude come through; it’s just perfect.
“Lost & Found” is performed by The She-las, which consists of you, your sister Sheila, Catherine David, and Merrie Amsterburg. Do you think that there may be a She-las record down the line?
[Laughs] That was the name of a group that I wanted to form that was going to be a vocally charged group, and I asked my sister if I could use her name. It turns out that there is a group called The Sheilas; it’s this girl group, a hot rock group. [Laughs] So we had to spell it differently.
I think probably [there won’t be a She-las record], but you never know. My sister had a stroke after surgery about a year ago. She’s a jazz piano player, music therapist, and grade-school counselor. It’s been a tough year for her coming back from that, and to have her on was like this victory lap. You’re on your way back—it’s a different life, but we survived. I don’t think we’ll do any gigs, but it was a dream of mine to have a band called the She-las and to have Sheila in it.
I know that you were limited in the number of songs—25 for your 25th anniversary—but there are some surprising omissions, including “The Book I’m Not Reading.” Was that song ever in the running for inclusion?
Yeah, it was, and it’s a cornerstone of my live show. We just thought it didn’t have enough to do with love, although there are one or two that have that same issue. I think I did do “Book I’m Not Reading” and recorded it and “Me and That Train,” and we just held off. I don’t know, there are a couple from the first album, too, that I recorded and just didn’t like the way they turned out. But “Book I’m Not Reading” was there for a while. [Laughs] I’m sorry it didn’t make it in.
Now you are embarking on a tour that takes you all the way through December. Will any of your friends from 25 be joining you on stage when you perform in their respective cities?
I sure hope so. I mean, they better. [Laughs] I know Erin, she’s always really easy to work with. I’m hoping Suzanne will sing with me. Peter Mulvey and I have sung together before, and Dar and I. John Gorka and I are going to California next week, and we will definitely be singing. Janis Ian—I’m working with her and Catie Curtis down in Florida, and they are always into collaborating on stuff. Wilcox and I, Bruce and I, it’s all good. I think that unless it’s a festival, which is always . . . people get crazy and they come and go quickly—it’s hard to catch up with them. But for the co-bill situation, I am going to offer [them the chance to] come in and sit with me.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.