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Dream House

Patty Larkin enjoys the subtle benefits of being almost famous.


On her 1985 debut, Step Into the Light, Patty Larkin hinted at the wit that would flower on subsequent albums with a song called "Caffeine." A few years later, the mortgage attorney she met to hammer out her home purchase offered her coffee, asking whether she'd had enough caffeine. It took Larkin a moment to understand that he was slyly -- at least for a mortgage attorney -- referring to her song.

"I don't usually know if someone has recognized me," Larkin says from a tour stop in Denver. "If someone is looking my way, I just figure I must look particularly good that day." The woman selling the house that attorney brokered also knew Larkin on sight. "When she said she knew me, I just thought, 'I hope she likes my music,'" Larkin says, laughing. "I'm not hugely famous, but I get all kinds of perks the ordinary citizen might not be afforded. They're all very subtle."

That Larkin's idea of celebrity's benefits seems to favor recognition by the local bar association over the local bar is typical of the singer's grounded outlook. "Being a musician is a cross between a mortgage and a grant," Larkin says. "Lots of musicians I know have to teach or otherwise earn a living to have a family. I get a sum of money every couple of years to go make a record. I learned early on, watching [former labelmate] Nancy Griffith, the value of momentum, even if it's all in your mind. She would take two years, tops, between albums. I've done two over the past year, which is too fast."

Larkin's first release arrived on Philo/Rounder at the height of a synth-crazy decade. There were artists making earthier, more rugged sounds than she, but Larkin couldn't have come along at a worse time. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in English literature, then went to Berklee College of Music in Boston to refine her guitar playing, eventually refitting her ticklish jazz chordings to a folk-based approach. This means that she can -- and does -- play electric guitar with the same certainty she brings to her acoustic models (and her octave mandolin). Writing in only one style is something she refuses to do. Her recently released Regrooving the Dream spins 180 degrees from her 1999 solo live disc, layering harmony vocals, churning guitar parts and hopscotch rhythms on top of Larkin's confident voice. In the span of nine albums and more than fifteen years, Larkin has come to appreciate the shelter of recording technology, if not its gimmicks.

"Now that geeks are cool, I wish I could calm down and spend more time teaching myself the equipment," Larkin says. "I hope to be a geek." Making an instructional videotape for guitar players reminded her that being a member of the A/V club has its privileges. Although she says this was the easiest, or at least the fastest, of several projects she undertook in 1999 to underscore the release of her live disc, Larkin was conscious that she had become used to controlling all parts of her creative process. On a small set laboriously retracing the steps of her most complex songs, it was no longer Larkin deciding when to start and stop, what to do and how long to do it. "It had been a while since I'd done anything that long," she admits. The shoot lasted almost ten hours, with Larkin playing or on camera for more than eight. She shooed away the photographer who had come to take her picture after the session, when Larkin was tired and sweaty.

"You're not sure when you do something like that how it will come across or how you look," she says. "I wasn't producing it, so I had to get over the feeling of not having control. I've worked with some fabulous producers. The last couple of albums I've produced with Bette [Warner, Larkin's manager]. What's changed as I'm more in control is that I'm still writing up to the production of the album. I have a block in my head about having to finish everything before preproduction. But I have the luxury of using my own recording facility, so on this next one I want to do more preproduction and ensemble work."

Larkin demos her material at home, inviting her longtime rhythm section to join her as writing progresses. "Going solo to a band situation is hard, but I've been able the last few years to gather people I trust," Larkin says. She plans to begin demoing new songs in May or June. "I used to think I had to write something and then immediately go play it live," she says. "One theory is that you shouldn't record something too close to when you wrote it. It has a whole feeling that won't go away, and you start thinking about it too much. But the other theory is that you're just rehearsing anyway."

As much as she tours, Larkin isn't necessarily one to revisit her songs for fun. While compiling songs for her live disc, she discovered that the monitor settings and recording levels varied dramatically from one concert to the next, hamstringing the continuity she sought. "It's painful sometimes but really helpful to listen to the tape," she says. "Bette's theory is that you hear with your eyes first. You're watching a performance and waiting to find out if what you hear is the same as what you see. There were some performances where I came out and had a great show, but the tape says I was having such a good time that I played too fast. I was trying to get a feeling that we just had rolled tape and that I wasn't conscious of it, but that wasn't possible. Yet I don't really analyze it."

At the same time, Larkin was assembling her video and a songbook. "I wanted to get it all out at once," she explains. "Shooting the video made me very self-conscious. To take my mind off it ahead of time, I started writing down the tablatures, trying to think of the overview and technique of each. I went into great detail. Then I found out that they were writing everything out for me. I don't know that [video distributor] Homespun had had anyone go quite that deep before.

"With the songbook, we had the video there, and they had played each of the records to get the transcriptions," she continues. "I had chosen the hardest guitar parts for the book. I figured that's what people would most want. Having played them for so long outside the context of the originals, I'd read what they had and said, 'This isn't what I did.' Then I'd play the disc and say, 'Oh yeah, that is what I did.'"

That reaction -- yes, I did that -- more or less sums up the flurry of 1999 work Larkin completed. Having signed to revered folk label Vanguard prior to the live album, Larkin used that disc to present her old songs in a stripped-down setting before using the label switch to launch her more sonically detailed, eclectic material. For an artist who just gave a three-pronged (video, book, CD) course in how to be her, it's the perfect time for Larkin to decide who she will be next and to release the kind of album that suggests she knows the answer.

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