Griffin House puts his nose to the grindstone in everything he does with a sharp focus on what works for him, building a consistent and loyal fan base since 2003’s Upland and continuing through this last year’s Griffin House Live from Prison EP. He visits Birmingham quite often from his adopted home of Nashville, and will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 29.
Weld: When you started playing professionally, there was a resurgence of the singer-songwriter movement from artists such as yourself, Matt Wertz, Denison Witmer, Matthew Perryman Jones, etc. Now, music listeners seem to gravitate towards pop, EDM, etc. With the cycle of genre trends, how do you keep your creative intentions and values while expanding your fan base?
Griffin House: Was there a resurgence of the singer-songwriter movement? Maybe there was, I’m not sure. I never saw myself completely in that genre.
I started guitar when I was 18 and I was listening to people like Jeff Buckley and U2 and the Clash and Johnny Cash; although they are all singers and songwriters, they didn’t seem to fit in that sort of “genre,” they just were who they were. When I started out, I shied away from doing things that could label me too Americana, too folk or singer-songwriter. I’m not sure if that was a good move or not, because I think it’s harder to find your niche in some ways if you refuse to let yourself be “branded.” But I thought all of those labels were really limiting on what an artist should be able to do and I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into a specific category.
I wasn’t thinking about a trend when I started making music. I am not even up enough on what the trends are to be able to do it if I wanted to.
I’ve just written songs that came out of sitting down with a guitar and piece of paper. Being a singer-songwriter just kind of happened as a result of me making music, but not out of intentionally choosing to be in a specific genre.
Trends have already changed by the time someone figures out what they are, it seems to me. I didn’t attempt to tailor what I’m doing based on what I think people think is trendy. That didn’t even occur to me. I just put out music that I think has value and artistic integrity. I just tried to make the kind of music that I like.
Weld: Speaking of singer/songwriters, I saw you had on a song on the Jackson Browne tribute album. How has he impacted your music?
GH: Well, he sets the bar pretty darn high with his wonderful songs. It is definitely artists like him that have inspired me to try to make great recordings.
“Barricades” was a really special song to sing. I talked about it a bit in the liner notes of the tribute record, but that song had some really significant meaning in my life 12 years before I was even invited to play the cover for the tribute album.
Weld: Derek Webb introduced the idea of a middle-class musician when he was putting Noisetrade together. Do you consider yourself in that group, and do you think that will continue to be a sustainable way of life for musicians?
GH: No. I was not even aware there was such a thing as a middle-class musician. I think doing music for a living is sustainable for people who really want to do it. When I first started playing music, it had nothing to do with “making a living” or having a “career.” And I certainly didn’t even give a thought to whether I would be lower, upper or middle class. I felt like a baseball player in the ‘20s or ‘30s, like Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams. I would have played for food stamps.
I feel lucky that I have been able to make it as far as I have and I try to never take any of it for granted. I consider myself lucky. If I could leave any kind of legacy behind, it wouldn’t have anything to do with popularity or money or social status; I would want it to be based on durability and perseverance and gracefulness. Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse of baseball; I guess I’d kind of like to be a bit like him and just try to keep plugging away.
Weld: Your recent release, Songs for a Prisoner, was recorded at an actual prison. Besides a possible Johnny Cash influence, what inspired you to embark on this project and how did it affect your view of those currently in the penal system?
GH: I was invited by my friend/cancer survivor Jordan Lawhead, who founded an organization called YouInspire. I was hesitant to do the prison performance because I didn’t know if they’d enjoy my style of music. I wasn’t operating under the illusion that my performance would feel anything like Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom. I thought, Times have changed, and whatever genre of music these guys like nowadays, it’s not mine.
It surprised me though, because it turned out to be a little more like a Live at Folsom vibe than I thought was possible. They were hooping and hollering and carrying on, and it was really fun to spend the afternoon with them. A smile from one of the prisoners felt like 1,000 smiles. I felt really appreciated by them because I knew they wouldn’t BS me if they didn’t like it. We had a great time together that afternoon and it’s fantastic to hear them on the recording.
Weld: Do you have any other projects on the horizon for 2015? If so, what can you tell us?
GH: Not yet, but I’m writing and will most likely record a new record in 2015.
Weld: How did being a creative writing major affect your songwriting?
GH: I learned that the one rule and first step to writing is “Apply Ass to Chair.” I learned that from my professor, Steven Bauer. It’s a valuable rule.
Weld: You’ve come to Birmingham numerous times over your career. What keeps you coming back?
GH: I love the city. It feels similar to Cincinnati in ways to me — lots of nooks and crannies and cool neighborhoods tucked away. But I keep coming back because people seem to want me to. So I’ll keep coming as long as they’ll have me.
Weld: It’s easy to see the cons of streaming services like Spotify, but how has the internet and streaming positively impacted your career?
GH: I think lots of folks learn about my music on Spotify and Pandora stations from more well-known artists, like Mumford and Sons, Ray Lamontagne and Bon Iver, for instance. So it’s good for exposure, at least.
Weld: And finally, what are five albums you can listen to from start to finish at any point?
GH: Too many to just narrow it down to 5. If I start listening to a record in my car, I listen to the whole thing, but these albums had a big impact and have been played a lot in my car over the years:
David Gray — White Ladder
U2 — particularly Joshua Tree, Zooropa, Achtung Baby, Pop, Rattle and Hum
Jeff Buckley — Grace
The Clash — Live on Broadway
Mermaid Avenue Vol. One and Two
Ryan Adams — Heartbreaker
It’s guys like Ryan Adams and David Gray (who are a little older than me, but close to my generation) who really inspired me to feel like I could pick up a guitar and write and sing songs, and make records and play shows.
And Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue Volumes One and Two had the biggest impact on me getting started and inspiring me to get out there and sing, in terms of modern music having an influence. Also Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne.
Tickets for this 18-and-up show are $15 in advance and $18 day of show. For more information, visit workplay.com.