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Patty Larkin: Jazz Chanteuse
This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
For singer-songwriter Patty Larkin, putting on a show
is much more than a matter of driving to the gig, doing a soundcheck,
and getting paid at night’s end. For Larkin, performing is an emotional
and spiritual release, a deliverance, if you will. For her, performing
is a Zen-like pursuit.
"I consider my work therapy," she says from her home on Cape
Cod. "It’s a challenge to be able to connect with my music and
my audience and just get out of my own head and get out of my own
Through the course of a show, Larkin’s guitar playing and singing
combines the drive and rhythm of rock ‘n roll, the soulfulness of
blues and classic R&B, with the intricacies of jazz. And the fact
that she has been writing her own poetry since she was in her teens
makes her one of the more well-respected folksingers on the coffeehouse
and folk festival circuit.
Raised in Milwaukee, Larkin is one of three daughters of a businessman
father and an artist mother. She and her sisters began taking piano
lessons at a young age. She switched from piano to guitar at 13, and
by the time she was in high school she was writing her own songs.
Larkin names among her early influences Paul Simon, Tom Paxton, Joni
Mitchell, and Bonnie Raitt.
"I started writing my own — pretty bad — songs in high
school. A few years later, I began playing them for people. It was
something I did as a hobby since we didn’t really have a sports program
in my high school and I also had two sisters who were piano players,"
she says. "I realized I could never be as good as they were with
piano," she adds. (Today, one sister is a music therapist in Milwaukee
and another is a psychologist.)
Larkin attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz guitar.
"I was a songwriter all through junior high, high school, and
college, and I figured I’d be much better off if I at least had the
background to play pop or jazz music and work in someone else’s band,"
After attending Berklee for just a semester, she studied privately
with several teachers around Boston. "I ended up meeting so many
people who were part of the music scene in Boston, that I ended up
staying." Larkin eventually attended the University of Oregon
and graduated with a degree in English.
"Part of my college studies included folklore, and so I got more
into traditional music and blues at that point. Later, after I’d moved
back to Boston, I got heavily into Irish music," she explains.
After making a name for herself around the coffee houses in New England,
Larkin was signed to a record deal, and she recorded "Step Into
the Light," her debut for the Philo/Rounder label, in 1987. Solidifying
her newfound acceptance on college and public radio folk music shows
around the country, she quickly followed up with two more albums for
Philo, "I’m Fine" in 1988, and "Live In The Square"
Asked how living on Cape Cod shapes her songwriting, Larkin notes
that she lives in a remote area of the peninsula, and two-thirds of
her town is a designated national seashore. "It gives me a real
sense of distance and view and beauty and it’s a luxury, really, to
live out here," she says. "The lower Cape, especially, is
an arts community, and I’m inspired by the painters and other musicians
who are out here. All of my friends are artists, either part-time
or full-time, and they’re all doing something artistic with their
More recently, Larkin ended a long relationship with the High Street/Windham
Hill Record label. "Perishable Fruit," her last album for
High Street, was released in 1997. It was recorded entirely with strings
— guitar, mandolin, bass, cello, and hammered dulcimer, with percussion
accomplished by thumping on guitar backs and slapping bass strings.
Larkin’s other albums for High Street, which was consolidated under
ownership by the Bertelsmann Music Group, include "Strangers World"
(1995), "Angels Running" (1993), and "Tango" (1991).
Larkin’s music has also attracted attention in Hollywood.
In the Miramax film, "Sliding Doors," she can be heard performing
"Coming Up for Air" (from "Perishable Fruit") and
"Tenderness on the Block" (by Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne).
These days, even without a new release to promote, Larkin performs
about 120 live shows a year through the United States and Canada.
She also maintains a website, with recorded sound, at www.pattylarkin.com.
"Most of my songs are written at home on Cape Cod," she says,
but adds that she finds herself writing on the road just as much as
she does at home. "Wherever I can find that half hour between
my nap and my shower — wherever — I just keep working on things."
"I carry a journal and a songbook, and I had been carrying a tape
deck as well until it died recently. It seems like I write more around
sound check time, because that’s where the energy gets going again."
"Sometimes when I’m home and have access to more time I’m not
as productive as I can be with that 20 or 30 minutes after sound check,"
she says. "Lately, at home I’ve been playing a lot of electric
guitar. At home I find I have more time to write really bad stuff,"
she adds, laughing.
Several years ago, when the "Triple A" (acronym for "adult
album alternative") radio format began to emerge, Larkin was happy
at the prospects it promised for herself and legions of her fellow
singer-songwriters, people like John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, and Christine
Lavin. Now, she says, the radio format has changed, and it isn’t as
risk-taking as it was before with newer artists, who more often than
not get signed to smaller record companies.
"Basically, much of triple A radio has become a springboard for
the major labels to introduce new artists, but I still think the regional
aspect of it is nice," she adds. For example, KGSR-FM in Austin
will play a fair amount of Austin-area musicians, and WXPN-FM in Philadelphia
will play local, up-and-coming artists as well. "I think the major
labels found out they can move Springsteen and John Hiatt and these
other artists with Triple A, and that’s okay, except now we’re competing
with Bruce Springsteen in this format, which wasn’t the case before,"
Still, Larkin owes much of her success to commercial Triple A stations,
as well as National Public Radio and college radio outlets. She’s
able to custom-tailor her tour schedule to set up performances in
places she and her management knows she’s getting airplay. "I
can see in my tour schedule which markets have the radio support and
I can see the impact at my shows in those areas," she says, "and
they can’t get to the shows if they don’t know what I do."
For an audience unfamiliar with Larkin, at her live shows, she’s equal
parts guitarist, comedienne, storyteller, and vocalist. "People
who don’t know me can expect ultimately a fun show that crosses the
borders between folk and pop and jazz. I like to leave my audiences
feeling up, even though I inevitably will go into my introspective
singer-songwriter place. But the ultimate feeling I want for my audience
is up, because they’re the ones who are paying the bill."
— Richard J. Skelly
School, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. Opening act by Chris and Meredith
Thompson. $15. Saturday, March 13, 8 p.m.
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