Central Ohio’s Griffin House found his calling as a songwriter at a later age than perhaps most of our modern day troubadours, but once he got into his groove it was a permanent attraction. He’s produced three full-length studio albums in the last six years along with a series of EPs marketed online directly to his fans, and on his most recent, The Learner, House seems to be settling into his own distinct niche in the world of indie songwriters, though he’s not afraid to let his influences in, including the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams.
House sat down to speak with Stereo Subversion about his continued efforts to impart meaning in his music, touching on his own development as a songwriter and where he feels the music world may be heading in the next decade.
SSv: What makes music “meaningful” in your mind?
Griffin House: I’ve gone through a lot of stages when writing songs, but I think what I’ve always been trying to shoot for is that I’ve always wanted to be able to put a song on and it has that magic that just gives you goosebumps. There’s just something you can’t put your finger on about it. I think there are a lot of people writing music for a lot of different reasons, and goosebumps aren’t always in the equation for them. But for me I really want people to be moved by the music. And that doesn’t mean you can’t have funny songs, but it should inspire a meaningful reaction in the listener, knowing that the person who wrote the song really cares about what he’s doing.
SSv: That makes me think about your new single, “She Likes Girls.” I wondered if you’d thought about the different songs which have come before on the subject of gay relationships that poked fun on that subject. Were you trying to do something different with that song?
Griffin: I think that song’s been a love or hate song with a lot of my friends, and it’s kind of not the single anymore. In the beginning the people who were helping us at radio, we all agreed that was probably the one song that had the best shot of being instantly remembered, but I think what happened with it is you hear it and you either laugh at it or not, or you remember it but it loses its luster.
SSv: And then everybody ties it in with Katy Perry?
Griffin: Yeah, everyone ties it in with her and I think for me that song is that I was trying to write a rock and roll song, first of all, but I was also trying to write a song that was simply well written. And I think that song, as a songwriter’s song, it took all my skills I’ve been learning over the last decade to write it. Somebody will look at songs of mine like “The Guy Who Says Goodbye To You Is Out Of His Mind,” and they’ll say that song’s lyrically good, and at the same time they’ll say I’m just being stupid with “She Likes Girls.”
It took just as much skill to write the latter song as it did the former. The song’s deeper than a lot of people want to give it credit for, they just say “he just wants to talk about lesbians,” when really I had a friend I actually liked who I thought liked girls, and I was trying to make light of the situation. People just got the wrong idea.
SSv: What song have you decided to promote ahead of it?
Griffin: I really just want to put the record out there as a whole and just see. In the past, everybody in my audience has just decided what songs they liked. When I wrote “The Guy Who Says Goodbye To You Is Out Of His Mind,” no producer I ever played it for wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. No one would ever have thought that was a radio track. But that song wound up being, by ten times, my most popular song while touring for at least two years.
SSv: Many of your songs build in a slow burn, like “Amsterdam,” which opens with that great two minute intro, not introducing the full band, drums and guttural yells until near the end of the song. Do you feel that kind of songcraft ever gets lost in the constant search for radio hooks?
Griffin: I’m really interested in taking non-viable songs and making them commercial somehow, rather than just plugging a song into the formula. When I was younger I didn’t even have to think about keeping peoples’ attention with my songs, since the people I was listening to were the ones writing the concise songs that got to the chorus really quickly.
Now I think I’m through worrying about that kind of style. I’ve already written a new album I’m working on now that I think I’ll just go and record raw, not having it polished at all. I just want to move people.
SSv: You sing on “If You Want To” of wanting to be “Tom Petty enough” to write a great song. Have you ever reached that level in your mind? Or is it still a struggle to live up to that ideal?
Griffin: I think I just want to be me. I was listening to some records the other day and some of the songs had been my ideals for what I used to think of as “the bar,” and it had been four or five years since I’d listened to them and over the course of those years I realized I’ve grown enough in my own songwriting that I started thinking I actually have a few songs which measure up to that ideal. I never really knew it, it’s just happened over time.
SSv: Flying Upside Down was called your masterpiece by a number of critics. Did you have trouble writing a series of songs that could live up to that level of praise?
Griffin: I don’t know, I never really thought it got good reviews. I don’t really read reviews, but I know some of my closest friends tell me they don’t really like that record, but I think it’s more a personal thing. I had gone out to California and recorded that album with a new producer and some members of the Heartbreakers, and there are some songs on that album I wish I could change as a recording, because they’re still better live. We’re still learning how to do that.
SSv: It all depends on how you are in the studio. Some people want the studio feeling to be completely different from the live experience, since you can change the live versions, but the studio recording has to be permanent. It’s all a matter of getting that changing feeling in the permanent setting.
Griffin: Yeah, I’ve got this new song called “Head For The Hills” that I wrote about the oil spill and the flood in Nashville. I just recorded it, because I wrote it only a couple weeks ago. After we recorded it, we went down to the Gulf and shot a video for it right away. We put it out right away and it wound up on Larry King’s blog. That’s one where I felt like I had to rush it out the door because of the timeliness of the topic. Now it’s getting a huge reaction live, and I worry that the recording might not achieve the level of magic you get from it live.
SSv: You once said in a 2005 interview with Way Cool Music that you don’t always write well on the road because you can’t find time to be alone. Is writing still a process of self-isolation? What do you have to do to put yourself in the frame of mind to write?
Griffin: It’s changing for me. I think part of the reason I couldn’t write on the road was because I was spending most of my time either drinking or playing shows. Now I’m writing all the time, and I’m finding it a lot easier to write. I just joined this songwriting group with Bob Schneider and some other writers – right now Sarah and Sean from Nickel Creek are in it – and we all get together and write, sending in a song every week based on a prompt we’re given.
SSv: You mean songwriting homework?
Griffin: Yeah, we have to turn one in every week, it keeps us going. I’ve written my entire new record from that process. I’ve been amazed just how much having a prompt, an assignment, can help keep you focused.
SSv: Do you ever think about posting that music online and getting direct input from your fans?
Griffin: For me there’s a part of that I resist. I feel that’s like a painter sitting in his room and letting the entire town watch his process and asking, “is it good yet? Is it good yet? Do you like it? Do you like it?” I don’t want that. I want to be able to sit in my room and finish something that I think is really great and then put it out, rather than saying “please validate what I’m doing.” I want to make sure it’s good first and then if people don’t get it . . .
SSv: So you’re the gatekeeper.
Griffin: For sure! There’s just something so great about the unveiling of a work that you know someone’s been toiling on. But if you’re there to see the whole thing go down, it’s just not so spectacular anymore.
SSv: “River City Lights” really brought me back to Ryan Adams’ “Desire,” and I had to wonder about the number of times that subject has come up in your lyrics. Have you found what you really desire in your music yet, or is it an ongoing struggle?
Griffin: I feel like I’m getting closer. This record, The Learner, has left me more pleased, satisfied, with a lot if it than I’ve ever been with a record. Perfection is unattainable, from my perspective, and that song in particular was one we weren’t even going to record, we just ran out of songs to include. My friend said “what about that one?” and I didn’t want to sing it because it had a girl’s name in it from my past, and I didn’t want to sing about her and make my wife mad. But the guys talked me into it, we recorded it, and Alison Krauss ended up singing on it. Now it’s the song most people are talking about the most. So that’s interesting.
SSv: You frequently are compared with artists like Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen, but some critics have suggested you have yet to create a sound that is truly “Griffin House.” Do you ever feel your influences taking too big a role in your sound? How do you fight that as an artist, or can you?
Griffin: I think my influences, especially on my first record, were definitely worn on my sleeve. Even when Bill Flannigan did a nice piece on Lost and Found and gave it a lot of praise on CBS Sunday Morning, he brought that up and said it didn’t bother him. I think he said I was “a young man with young man’s influences.” But that’s been something I’ve been conscious of, and I think every record I have made as I’ve gone forward has gotten me closer to having my own sound. And when I hear myself sing on The Learner I do not feel like I’m sounding as though I’m imitating any other singer. I just sing naturally and don’t think about anybody else.
But there are so many recordings where, when I was younger, I thought Tom Petty was sounding like Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen you can tell he got all his traditions from Woody Guthrie. That’s what we’re doing as artists, as songwriters. We’re carrying on the torch of these traditions, so of course I’m going to have that in my music. To suggest that you’re not a unique artist because you’re using your influences just completely denies what that music is in the first place. That’s what rock and roll is – a bundle of influences coming together.
SSv: What’s exciting to you about the music world as we know it in 2010? Where would you like to see music taken in the new decade?
Griffin: I’d like to see what’s already happening naturally – it’s become easier for people to make music and get it out there, which I think is a really good thing. But the music “business” itself is starting to weed out people who maybe were doing music for the wrong reasons. Maybe wrong’s not right, but perhaps “less noble” reasons. I think you really have to want to do it.
You know how back in the day the guys who played baseball in the ’30s and ’40s were just playing because they loved it, and in the winter they had other jobs? I hope maybe music is heading in that direction. You can’t just make a demo tape, walk into Atlantic Records and have some guy slide a check across the table for $2 million.
That doesn’t happen anymore just because they think you’re cool or the next hot thing. You have to go grind it out on the road or at least be doing something that gets a response from a lot of people for a reason. I think that’s a good thing. And it’s exciting for me because I still really like making music that’s meaningful in the ways we talked about earlier.
SSv: What do you wish someone would ask you about but they never do?
Griffin: I’m really interested when people’s put a little thought into the questions. This conversation that we’re having seems really authentic, we’re talking about things that matter. But I hate it when people just ask the normal things, like how would I classify the music I play? I hate those questions.
SSv: I know that got Vampire Weekend into trouble, their lead singer made the joke about being “Upper North Side Soweto,” and that’s been following him around for years because he got bored and tried to make a joke.
Griffin: Yeah, exactly. I used to really not even want to say the words “singer-songwriter,” or especially to say “Americana,” so anything that goes near that I just can’t take. And I think that’s where “She Likes Girls” comes in for me. I just don’t want to be branded as “the folkie guy,” or any of that. I listen to the Clash in my spare time, and Cyndi Lauper, I love ’80s one-hit wonder music. And if people don’t like that, I don’t care. I think that’s maybe the one thing I love talking about, because I was born in 1980. I was born right at the cusp where 1985 seemed like the coolest time.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.