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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,"

she says.

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"

in 1990.

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

"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,"

she says.

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

Patty Larkin, Outta Sights & Sounds, Grace Norton Rogers

School, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. Opening act by Chris and Meredith

Thompson. $15. Saturday, March 13, 8 p.m.

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