“This should definitely not be left on the radiator: It’s ready to be eaten now.”
New England singer/songwriter Patty Larkin isn’t talking about a candy bar, but a rather more delicate morsel — her much-celebrated CD, Perishable Fruit (Windham Hill, 1997).
Considered the singer’s most innovative and heartfelt work to date, Perishable Fruit (her latest work) was recorded solely in Larkin’s Cape Cod home. And though her voice burns in a distinctly deeper register than that of the average chanteuse, the album feels like a whisper. Its unbuffed immediacy was her ultimate goal, says Larkin.
“[Recording as I usually do] in San Francisco gives me access to certain musicians and certain equipment that I wouldn’t have at home, but I chose to do this record at home,” she revealed in a recent phone interview. A deficit of high-tech equipment required Larkin and her personally-selected players to tap into less-dependable resources — their own imaginations, for instance — an experience for which they were ultimately grateful.
“There was so much [equipment and technology] we didn’t end up using,” Larkin notes. “We used that [additional] time to figure out what the songs really needed. It allowed for playtime, and it turned out to be a very creative process. It was a great experience.”
The most remarkable inspiration that ripened in the making of Perishable Fruit was Larkin’s gutsy commitment to recording the work with no traditional percussion whatsoever. A risky endeavor, to be sure — but Larkin and Co. made their unsuspecting string instruments work so hard that the omission is barely noticeable.
“Part of that came from wanting to make [the record] with a different — a sort of refreshing and exploratory — approach,” she explains. “I was looking for inspiration, a way to really get into [the recording process], be enthusiastic about it by breaking out of what I had done in the past.”
On Perishable Fruit, the beat is kept by the plucking of de-tuned lap-steel guitars, the slapping of slackened bass strings, and a few more startling methods: “We did a lot of vocal percussion … [which was] essential in getting an acoustic percussive feel.”
When stringed instruments are forced into the role of percussive ones, the resulting anarchy holds no givens, she notes. “A lot of what happened was unexpected,” she reveals. “You get a very different landscape of sound.”
Even in lighter moments, Larkin seems determined to relinquish the keenest edge of her art to the unknown. In “The Book I’m Not Reading,” one of the record’s cleverest offerings, the singer ruminates on the infinite possibilities of a neglected tome.
“We were traveling, talking about the books we were reading,” recalls the singer; but her growing preoccupation with the book she didn’t have time to read was what inspired the tongue-in-cheek lament: “The book I’m not reading is on the Internet/The book I’m not reading is a brand new movie/The book I’m not reading isn’t out yet/It’s all new to me.”
In songs like “The Road” and “Heart,” however, Larkin lets her moody guitar work convey just as much emotional nuance as her lyrics. Termed “drop-dead brilliant” by Performing Songwriter magazine, Larkin’s highly personal acoustic style is even used as a teaching tool — in a video called, simply, “The Guitar Techniques of Patty Larkin.”
So popular in her home state that Boston’s mayor recently declared a “Patty Larkin Appreciation Day,” the musician has collected an unprecedented 11 Boston Music Awards. But whether it’s natural modesty or simple New England reticence, she’s inclined to downplay her own abilities (“I’m [still] interested in exploring what the guitar can do”), while speaking passionately of the next generation of women guitarists.
“I happen to love [playing guitar] and get a lot out of it, and I would love it if that had some impact on young [female] players,” she notes. “Not to get super-heavy about it, but it’s really a sociological thing, a cultural thing: It took awhile for the barriers to come down. Now it’s not that uncommon to see a female guitarist, but it didn’t start out that way.”
What all new musicians have to realize, she says, is that “it takes years of being bad, and playing loud badly, to become [proficient]. … I think it’s important to bring young kids to concerts. For them, it’s a different way of paying attention. It may be all a blur at first, but out of that, something may stick to the wall like spaghetti.” She mentions a guitar workshop for kids that Bonnie Raitt offers, wherein each participant receives a free guitar.
“If only two female players came out of that program, what a great thing that would be,” she enthuses. “That would make me happy.”