Playing the poems as a journey
Patty Larkin

Playing the poems as a journey

Patty Larkin, who performs in Putney on June 10, speaks about the intersections of poetry and song with her 14th album, ‘Bird in a Cage’

PUTNEY — When reached by phone recently at her studio on Cape Cod, singer/songwriter/guitarist Patty Larkin, who will perform at Next Stage Arts on Friday, June 10, reminisced about a tour she did more than 30 years ago with Windham County entertainment icons Will Ackerman and Tom Bodett.

“In 1991, Will and Anne Robinson signed me to the Windham Hill label as a singer/songwriter, and in 1992 Will and I toured with Tom Bodett. It was a hoot!” she said.

She explained that Bodett - humorist, storyteller, and most recently the founder of HatchSpace community woodworking shop in Brattleboro - wowed audiences with a long story that he had written on index cards. He'd ask the audience where they'd like him to start - at the beginning, middle, or end - which got a lot of laughs.

The three performed in San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif.; Seattle; Boulder; Cleveland; and Boston.

“Patty Larkin is someone I worked with in another lifetime...Really, it seems a million years ago,” Ackerman said recently, calling her “one of the most talented people I've ever worked with and a consummate performer.”

Bodett looks back on the tour and recalls that he was “always the middle act, while they took turns opening and closing.”

“I could never decide which one I dreaded following more,” he said. “Patty is an awesome entertainer. Will is legend. I was that guy in the middle, talking.”

Larkin, he said, “has stayed true to her work and true to her fans through decades of plying her craft. Windham County is lucky to have her back.”

With a career spanning over five decades, 11 studio albums and two live recordings under her belt, Larkin, age 70, plays acoustic and electric guitar and sings. As described on her website, she “mines the intersections of poetry and song” with her groundbreaking 14th album, Bird in a Cage, released by her own record label, Road Narrows Records, in March 2020.

The album melds Larkin's love for language and lyrics by putting to song poems from 10 notable poets to song, including U.S. Poets Laureate William Carlos Williams, Stanley Kunitz, Kay Ryan, Robert Pinsky, and Billy Collins.

Larkin's concert will feature a few numbers from Bird in a Cage, but many others from over her long career.

The Commons recently interviewed Patty Larkin. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

* * *

Victoria Chertok: Your new album, Bird in a Cage, is ingenious - putting poetry to music. How did you select the poems you would use to make this album?

Patty Larkin: I started my record label in 1999, and this is the first thing I've done on my own. I had been teaching at the Fine Arts Work Center on Cape Cod and taught a workshop, “Lyric,” during Poetry Week. There I met poets Robert Pinsky, Nick Flynn, and Natalie Diaz. I was also associating with and getting inspired by Marie Howe. We did a live performance together which was memorable.

In 2013 I had a poem by Kay Ryan that I set to song: “Green Behind the Ears.” I started singing and playing the poem as a journey, as a story, to follow someone else's path lyrically, just to see what they do with words. Ryan's poems struck me as song lyrics.

Then I met Joshua Prager, who [with graphic designer Milton Glaser] compiled 100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers on Every Year of Your Life which celebrated every age from birth to 100 with quotes, poems, and short stories.

I met him for coffee, we had friends in common. It was so inspiring and so fresh. He challenged me to write 100 songs to the poems and pieces in the book. I chose one by Stanley Kunitz. That's how I started Bird in a Cage.

V.C.: At the time, you were reading poetry as a morning ritual. What did you like about that way to start your day?

P.L.: It gives you a sense of inspiration and jump starts your brain. They don't think in tidy boxes, these poets. The sentences run on, there is no verse/chorus/verse/chorus. In terms of subject matter, they are fearless. I have thought about the impact that had on me.

V.C.: You received a B.A. in English literature from University of Oregon and then studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. What was Berklee like in those days?

P.L.: I studied jazz guitar and composition and as a songwriter it was really inspiring. It got me fired up to be a musician. I had no idea where I'd fit in.

I realized at one point that to be a jazz guitarist wasn't my voice. I started to deconstruct what I studied into my own songwriting. I was an artist in residence at Berklee a few years ago in the Songwriting Department, and there is so much talent there now. It's really awesome to witness.

V.C.: You come from a family of musicians. Both of your grandmothers were musical, and your two sisters are both musicians. What was your childhood like?

P.L.: I come from an Irish Catholic family. One of my grandmothers was a church organist and choir director, and the other played for silent movies in Chicago. We would stand around and sing. There was so much support for music.

I started piano in second grade and didn't like the teacher. I wrote my first song at age 5 and played it for my younger sister, and she said it sounded like something she'd already heard.

In junior high school, I picked up the guitar and started writing for myself and played my songs for my younger sister. She became my critic and confidant. I always found the words harder to get to because they are difficult to get right and not sound trite.

What is interesting to me is that as I age I'm listening to music more deeply, even if it's something I've listened to for years.

V.C.: The COVID-19 pandemic ended live performances in March 2020. What is it like for you to play live again?

P.L.: It is everything. The reason I do what I do is to perform the music and share that. At its best, there is nothing that compares to a live performance. The audience is in it with you. It's a blessed moment that you share with other people.

I did some livestreams, and it wasn't my cup of tea. It's remarkable to come back and play live. When I started playing the two years of cancelled shows again, I cried every night. I had a lot of joy being there and showing up and playing again.

V.C.: Do you think audiences have changed since live music returned?

P.L.: I could sense the emotion from the audience. It's like, OMG, we're back again. The energy in the room was through the roof when we started up again - a real sense of joy and shared experience. And for the most part the audiences were masked, being careful, respecting Covid protocols.

The pandemic is a shared experience, a common bond; no one could have foreseen how long it has run and how deadly it has been. We're all grieving and continue to. That bond is a heavy one, and it's close knit. It's still tough out there.

V.C.: What gives you hope?

P.L.: I have two daughters, aged 18 and 21. I think back to when the younger one was 4 or 5 and I was getting coffee when she said “Mommy, what is war?” And I thought, “Oh, god.” I said, “War happens when people don't agree and they don't talk and they start fighting.”

When the older one found out about global warming and asked me about it, I thought, “It's so epic and can take you down.” I am hoping that my older daughter - a scientist - can work on a cure for what ails us and that my younger daughter keeps asking the hard questions.

I believe that we have a soul. We can access that soul with other people or for ourselves and in a way that is healing. We move with good intentions. That is the only thing we can do.

I keep writing and saying I'm speechless, but I'm finding my voice. There so much to do, and we have to keep doing it.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates