Triple-A Poet

Patty Larkin is a literary songwriter. No, that's not some kiss-of-death label or backhanded compliment. It's a statement of admiration. In her songs, Larkin creates single expansive moments and single passionate explosions. She builds her tunes rapidly from mundane beginnings to powerfully dramatic conclusions. Best of all, Larkin sidesteps the whole self-absorbed confessional bog.

That's because Larkin thinks like a poet.

"Songs have a limited space and time span," she says. "Every line counts, like in a poem....I read a lot of short stories. The short stories I like are more like poems."

Good thing poetesses are en vogue. While Larkin has experienced some commercial success, she is one of the few contemporary singer-songwriters who hasn't had to bend to some big-label honcho's wishes. She writes whatever she feels and tailors songs to her muse. She's smart enough to know what works and what doesn't. Too bad the same can't be said for other, wanna-be intellectuals-with-guitars.

Like the stories of Pam Houston and Raymond Carver, two of Larkin's faves, Larkin's songs don't resolve themselves. For example, the emotional landscape in "River," a cut off Larkin's latest release, Regrooving the Dream (Vanguard), is painted in images that relentlessly add up to a crushing sense of loss and barrenness. A single line offsets these images: The female character lets her dog run free. This kind of dramatic interplay and lack of resolution are enjoyable and rare in contemporary song lyrics.

"I don't create things that tie up in a neat bow, because I don't think there's a meaning to everything we do," says Larkin. "I'm looking for an emotional response. But I've become aware about other ways of thinking about resolution."

Larkin's literary bent dates from her days at the University of Oregon, where she earned a degree in English literature. From there, she headed east to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Larkin launched her career by busking in Harvard Square. She developed her craft in the rich Boston folk scene and was rewarded with a contract from the Philo/ Rounder label, for which she recorded three albums. In 1991 Larkin moved to the High Street/Windham Hill label, where her lyrics began to be peopled with characters you don't usually see in pop music.

Looking at Larkin's nine albums, you can see certain themes running throughout her songs. There is, among other things, redemption. "I come from a strong Catholic upbringing," says Larkin. "For a long time, I tried to resolve what that meant for me. That was tied up in communicating with my family and going through the transition to where I could believe in myself." There's also humanity ("Burnin' Down," "Helen," "Justine") and, though not apparent on the recent album, humor ("At the Mall," "Me," "Today's a Holiday").

Another category would be Larkin's angst-ridden songs about modern life, including "Beg to Differ," "Anyway the Main Thing Is," "Wolf at the Door" and "Dear Diary." While Larkin occasionally flashes her angst on Regrooving, the album doesn't dwell on it. Sonically, there are tunes with Celtic overtones, particularly the instrumentals, "Hand Full of Water" and "The Closest Thing."

And there are the retro songs, like "Mink Coat," a piece that draws on older forms of American pop music. Or "Only One," which sounds something like a Brazilian samba with blues guitar and weird cello. Larkin claims she was thinking of Motown when she wrote the tune.

The problem for an artist who mines this sort of territory is audience, as in it's hard to attract one. Forget radio play, except on Triple-A formats. On the plus side, though, Larkin's deal with the resurgent Vanguard label appears to give her a home where she can follow her own particular muse. That would certainly appear to be the case with some other Vanguard artists, including singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who will soon release an acoustically driven album of blues-based originals titled Crossing Muddy Waters.

Extensive touring on the club circuit for nearly 20 years has established Larkin as a cult favorite and a musician good enough to be featured on the cover of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine. In concert, some of her strongest tunes are her instrumentals, played on her 1946 Martin D-18, her Fender Stratocaster and her octave mandolin.

"I really like performing," says Larkin. "It's the alpha state or runner's high, where your mind is working in a different state of rules, and you make those poetic connections. I want to connect with people, but I get a lot out of it myself. I get up in front of a group of people to sing, and two-thirds of the way through the show, I'm transformed myself."

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Aaron Howard