Beyond The F-Word

She May Be Listed Under "folk," But Patty Larkin's Music Can't Be Easily Classified.

If you weren't familiar with Patty Larkin's work, and happened to be exposed to the enduring Boston singer-songwriter via her last solo album, '03's Red=Luck, you might be pretty confused to discover that the woman behind that offering's spacey, evocative, often beat-driven pop is usually described as a folkie.

"I listen to all kinds of music, and sometimes I wonder if I'd just kept playing electric [guitar], what that would've done to my bin placement," Larkin muses. "But I do love the acoustic guitar, and I like the freedom that being in this niche holds for me. I can produce these albums that go where they will."

Over the course of 20 years and 10 albums, Larkin certainly hasn't been hampered or hemmed in by the folk assignation, at least not when it comes to her music. A formidable combination of adventurous curiosity and instrumental talent (she's an alumna of Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music) has made Larkin's back catalog an impressively disparate one. Always looking to challenge herself as both a player and writer, she's experimented with everything from classic singer-songwriter fare to elements of jazz and Celtic styles to the modern, somewhat deconstructed fare of Red=Luck.

She says the vagueness inherent in a label like "folk" or "contemporary folk" has allowed her much more freedom than some others might get.

"It's such a broad term now, it just refers to any acoustic-based music," she says.

Larkin also praises the fans that the genre seems to attract; while generally less numerous than those drawn to more visible mainstream pop styles, they tend to be more loyal, and more accepting of an artist's need to evolve.

"If you continue to put out quality material and keep growing, I think you can hang on to your audience, and keep growing it," she reasons. "They give me that freedom."

Of course, the situation has its limitations, like any other. In exchange for artistic freedom and a supportive fanbase, Larkin and others can find themselves faced with a glass ceiling of sorts. There's little room on contemporary commercial radio (unless you were big in the '60s or '70s, or you're dead), and basically none on youth- and trend-driven music video networks, for anything even remotely associated with the f-word. Even outlets that posture as nurturers of every musical style, like Billboard magazine and the Grammys, pay little more than token attention — a few towering names aside, folk is given about the same scant consideration reserved for New Age or whatever contemporary jazz hasn't managed to hitch itself to the jam-scene gravy train.

"It's a 'you can't get no respect' kind of thing, and I've gotten in trouble for saying so before," Larkin allows. "I think the challenge is to find your audience in a grassroots, under-the-radar setting, even more so in this decade than the last one. Ten years ago, it was much easier to get commercial radio airplay than it is now.

"But there's the Internet, there's NPR and community radio — those are our sources now for new music and information, because it's not gonna happen in People magazine."

Larkin is among the artists who feel that the legitimization of grassroots touring and word-of-mouth, along with technologies like the World Wide Web, are having a leveling effect on a music industry formerly dominated by a handful of remote monolithic corporations.

"The good news is that the majors are becoming the minors," she says. "Everybody is having to get hungry, having to work harder, and maybe that makes for a healthier music scene ultimately."

A vibrant music scene is every bit as important to Larkin as her own solo career. The singer-songwriter is an outspoken proponent of musical education and includes clinics and school appearances in her touring schedule. While it's been two years since her last solo LP, Larkin hasn't fretted about keeping her own name out there. Instead, she and peer Bette Warner curated La Guitara: Gender Bending Strings, an anthology showcasing 14 female guitarists (including a track by Larkin) that was released this past November. In addition, they've been taking as many of the featured artists as possible on the road. Originally conceived as a spotlight for female folk talent, the end result incorporates many different styles and boasts talent both familiar (former "shred" goddess Jennifer Batten, acoustic blues master Rory Block) and obscure (jazz player Mimi Fox, young folk up-and-comer Kaki King).

"Occasionally I'll put an instrumental on an album, and I'm a very guitar-driven songwriter, and I'd get these questions [from fans on tour]," says Larkin. "'How come there aren't any great female guitar players?' We were going to start with singer-songwriters, but we just decided to make the case for, 'Let's hear some really fine players.'"

There's a second La Guitara tour leg coming up soon — and in keeping with Larkin's commitment to music education, it will feature a performance at Berklee as well as some post-concert Q&A sessions — but Larkin has also begun to look toward the follow-up to Red=Luck.

"I'm just starting to write for it, and I don't want to hold myself up — I thought it was going to be much more guitar-driven, but it may not be, after all this La Guitara stuff," she says. "I always say the next album is going to be something different, but it always ends up sounding like me, so I won't say that this time."

And if, upon its release, it finds its way into the "Folk" bin?

"As long as people find me there," Larkin says, "that's OK with me."

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