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Patty Larkin
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published April 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

Patty Larkin
It's not what Patty Larkin says in her songs, it's how she says it. As one of the first generation of acoustic singer songwriters who lead the new "folk" music charge out of the Northeast, Larkin has maintained a style that separates her from many of her fellow trend setters. Her songs rely on sharp musical images, jazz-tinged arrangements, fluid guitar lines and a breathy vocal style rather than lyrics for distinction. That's not to say she isn't astute, lyrical, political, or emotional in her own reflective way. Her songs are just as crisp, insightful and entertaining as anything by John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, or Cheryl Wheeler. Rather, Larkin goes down best in a category by herself—part new age, part pop, part folk, part comedy, and part jazz. Larkin's music is dynamically unique at best, unclassifiable at worst and musically refined above all.

Defying classification nonetheless, has its rewards, says Larkin in a recent interview from her home on the Cape. " I like the idea that I can keep some distance from the larger music industry and stay out of the mainstream. I can develop a following, a cult, and if I can survive, well then that's great. There is a certain joy to being able to survive outside the mainstream," she continues. "There is nothing predictable about it. It is more like watching a foreign film that appeals to people, but on a much smaller basis."

Like a cottage industry, her attitude flies in the face of the star-maker machinery that equates success with album sales, magazine covers, and arena tours. Ironically, that aspect is the most satisfying to Larkin. "Most artists would not say that," she admits. "Most people want to make it big. What I want is what's best for my type of songwriting and that comes from being honest in my own search for the truth. I try to write from that perspective."

That outlook is one that encompasses a wide variety of topics. Patty is equally proficient at writing about the joys of caffeine or strolling through the mall, as she is about the bitter reality of AIDS or the environmental crimes of corporate America. " Anything that moves me will cause me to write," she offers. "When I am feeling pent-up and dissatisfied with the way things are happening in this society, those things tend to pop up in my songs. It is a real feeling place for me." Witness on one hand, "Metal Drums" from her Tango album which tells the story of children stricken with cancer at the negligence of a chemical company, or her nudge at middle America in the characterization of an off-beat hybrid including Ethel Merman, Marlene Deitrich and Carmen Miranda in her trademark song, "At The Mall."

Musically her latest songs often have a spacey ambiance due to the production tastes of Windham Hill Record founder/new age music pioneer Will Ackerman and the jazz tunings she has chosen. Michael Manring's fretless bass, Darol Anger's violin, and Patty's limited, albeit effective, vocal range further color the music and define her sound while reflecting a set of diverse influences. Citing The Police, The Pretenders, Joan Armatrading, British guitarist John Renborn and folk-icon Richard Thompson as influences, Patty concedes her tastes are eclectic, but sees them as a trigger for songs. "Just about anything can inspire me," she admits. "But other musicians spark me on the most. They create a friendly competition and that is good for my creativity."

Drawing a dedicated audience comfortable with her niche, Patty survives by touring the coffeehouses and small venues across the country. She also receives the support of Triple A (adult acoustic album ) radio airplay and an occasional video. "The Triple A radio formats are not as restricted as to what they can play," she relates. "They can play a lot of roots music and that's where I belong." Accessible but not mainstream, Larkin thrives within roots music—that ever-widening category lingering just beneath the surface of pop that includes jazz, blues, folk, and other genres.

Ironically, American popular music often has little room for artists on the fringe, a fact that amazes Larkin. "One of the strangest things about our culture is that some of the most talented and most trained musicians in this country receive the least amount of recognition," she vents. While studying jazz at Berkeley School of Music, Larkin came to understand the paradox of popular music. "What jazz musicians have to put into their music versus what they get out is totally out of whack. It is totally amazing that these musicians can continue to work for so little. These are people who kind of sell their souls for musical truth."

Searching for the truth, be it comical, personal, spiritual, or musical is also Patty's goal as a writer and musician. "When I used to read more," she concludes, "I was struck by what Hemingway said about how you have to write the truth. Otherwise, your work comes out lopsided, like throwing a piece of clay on a potter's wheel; it kind of wobbles and spins off-center. In the end you have to be truthful."

Chris Flisher

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