Griffin House is on tour to promote his highly anticipated new album, Rising Star, and is delighted to be visiting Minneapolis this week at the Cedar Cultural Center on May 2. I had a chance to discuss his project and a forthcoming documentary film about his music career.
MIM: So, your new album Rising Star is coming out soon. Tell me about that journey. It has a great variety of style. How did that become the title?
GH: The first title was “Imaginary Friend.” I was pretty sure I was going to go with that, but then we had the idea to do a video of me dressed in drag for “Natural Man.” We shot the video but it’s not out yet. So, the cover was then going to be me in drag with the album title Natural Man.
Although I liked all these ideas, something changed when I re-recorded the song “Rising Star.” It’s just an acoustic version from my kitchen and it opens the whole album. That kind of forced to me to re-order the whole album and it just felt different after that, and the Natural Man title with the drag photo didn’t feel quite right anymore.
We had this beautiful photo of a merry go round at night during Christmas time in my hometown of Springfield, Ohio that we picked for the album cover and Rising Star just seemed to fit better with the picture and with it now being the opening track. Rising Star is also the name of the film/music documentary we just made that will also be out this year.
MIM: What’s the story here, and how did this become a project you decided to commit to?
GH: The film came about in a rather serendipitous way. I wasn’t looking to make a film. However, I had the idea of doing a musical theatre production for my new record. When I investigated that possibility, it didn’t seem very feasible both logistically and financially. But then I got a call to do this film featuring a lot of the new music and telling a story about the last 15 years of my life as a musician and that was even better.
The film maker’s name is Shane Drake. We met in LA a couple years ago by chance through my high school friend Ben Poston who is a reporter for the LA Times. Shane and I had one of those instant connections that doesn’t happen very often. The day we met, he texted me and told me that he didn’t put two and two together at the time but that he knew my music and was a fan.
He had bought Lost and Found at Amoeba records in LA when it came out, but he always thought that Griffin House was a band. It dawned on him after meeting me that Griffin House was not a band, but a guy that he had just met. He became interested in doing a music video for me (that’s what his main gig is) and the more new music I sent him, the more he started thinking bigger than a music video. He called me with the idea of doing a movie.
It was like the answer I’d been looking for, not a play or musical, but a movie. We were very fortunate that I only had to make one phone call to a guy I knew in St Louis, John Lynch, who I thought just might be interested in partnering with Shane and myself and providing a budget for us to make the film. I called him and was 5 minutes into my pitch and he said “I’m in.”
MIM: Congratulations! That sounds amazing. Drake is top shelf in the music video world, having a number of A-list projects under his belt.
GH: Yeah. So Shane came on the road with me two weeks later and we started shooting. We filmed 13 shows and did extensive interviews with friends and family and shot 90 hours of footage. Two months later Shane edited it all together and made this amazing film called Rising Star.
MIM: Sounds incredible. Looking forward to its release. So, how much of the album will Minneapolis hear on Thursday at the Cedar? Some new, some old?
GH: I will definitely play at least 4-5 songs from the new record mixed in with songs from my previous albums.
MIM: Can you tell us a poignant story about how one of the songs came about, such as your collaboration on “Change” with Joy Williams. You guys blend well together.
GH: I co-wrote this song with Joy Williams (formerly of the “Civil Wars”). We sat in front of the fireplace at her home in Nashville and I remember showing her the idea for the verse. We worked on the words for an hour or two, and then out of nowhere she sang this beautiful chorus. We broke for lunch and came back and finished it that afternoon. It was one of those songs that took years to live and only one short day to write. Joy’s voice is magic. Really fun doing a duet with her and having her featured on the new record.
MIM: Are those your little girls Emma and Clara on your song “Mighty Good Friend?” It’s humorous how that ends. Are they old enough now to show an interest in music?
GH: Yep, those are my girls. We set up mics in the studio control room and recorded some background noises because we wanted the song to feel like a party. The girls seemed to really not mind lending their voices. I think they were as excited as I was to be in the studio. My oldest Emma is a great singer, but they can both carry a tune. Emma sings a lot, as long as she thinks no one is listening and she is also taking piano lessons. In fact, she has a recital on Sunday.
MIM: What’s your history with Paul Moak and Ian Fitchuk and how did they help with your new album?
GH: Paul and Ian were in the original band that recorded my first record Lost and Found. That was in 2003. So, we’ve known each other a long time. Ian and I have made several records together, but this was really special because we haven’t worked on a record together since Lost and Found. It was a special reunion with the original crew making this album. It meant a lot to me to make the album with these guys. We all met when I first moved to Nashville and cut our teeth in the music business together and it’s been incredible to watch my friends do such amazing things. (Ian just won a Grammy this year for his production on Kacey Musgrave’s Album of the Year, Golden Hour).
MIM: That’s pretty remarkable. So, you’ve got a whirlwind tour going on to push the new record, covering the entire US. What do you like best about being out there?
GH: Playing the shows for the people that come out always makes me feel good. That’s the best part for sure. The travel is hard and being away from home is hard, but it’s a really rewarding job each and every night when I get to meet the people who share a love for the music I make. I feel so appreciative and grateful that I get to do what I do.
MIM: I remember your visit to Minnesota last year, also at the Cedar Cultural Center. That tells me you enjoy coming back to your Minneapolis base. Are there other favorite performance venues?
GH: Yes! Can’t wait to be back in Minnesota! I remember having so much fun with the crowd there last time. One of my favorites? I play a show every summer in the park for my hometown in Ohio and at least a few thousand people usually show up. The night starts as the sun is going down and by the end it gets dark and playing outside for the folks in my hometown is always really special.
MIM: So, you’re on the Nettwerk Music Group label. Is that current? Their website describes you as a punk/folk artist from Nashville. Does that sound about right? My impression of punk doesn’t align with your style.
GH: You don’t think “Natural Man” is punk? (Laughter). I put a couple records out with Nettwerk but am no longer with the label. I think the punk thing comes from a certain careless rebellious type of singing that happens at shows, like during the chorus of “The Way I Was Made.” It’s fast and the crowd is screaming. I wrote a lot of folk songs, but they weren’t all soft folksy songs. They seem to have more spunk and I think that’s where the punk comes from.
MIM: Do you have any concern for the way streaming services are paying songwriters? I see your music is available on Spotify, Amazon Music, and others. Many songwriters are revolting.
GH: Some of my musician friends that have more power and influence than I do are going to Washington and trying to change things. I’m behind them 100% and all for musicians being paid fairly. We are basically giving our music away these days. That needs to change. What’s happened for a lot of artists is kind of like if you went to a hotel owner and told them they could no longer make any money off of the rooms, but now they had to survive solely on minibar sales and movie rentals. How long do you think those hotels would stay in business? Something needs to change, and musicians need to be paid fairly for people hearing their music so we can keep doing what we are doing.
MIM: When you perform locally in Nashville, where can people find you if they’re visiting Music City?
GH: Over Thanksgiving weekend I play the City Winery and once in a while I play the Bluebird. But I only play Nash a few times a year.
MIM: One last thing. I’m a proponent of higher education. I remember reading that you majored in creative writing at Miami of Ohio. That obviously plays a role in how you write lyrics, yes?
MIM: Did you ever consider leaving school, because of a burn to leap into music full-time?
GH: No, I wasn’t ready for that at the time. It was really only by the time I graduated that I realized that I could give music a try. Or had become good enough to consider pursuing it as a way to make a living. The timing worked out well that way.
MIM: What suggestion do you have for an artist/musician bent on performing, but considering leaving college before finishing?
GH: Tough to say. If I was at the level of song writing at 18 that I was at 22 after college, I may just say, go for it. If you are going to school to truly study something, then that’s invaluable, I think. But I think a lot of kids go to school to find a partner and party and be social. In that case, I’d say, save the money and focus on your music and your passion. Education is so important, and if college is providing that for you, great! If not, look elsewhere!