Griffin House | Live to be Free

prof griffin-house_75"I feel like I’m done hiding out."



When I first asked Griffin House for an interview, he asked if we could do it via e-mail because he was a better writer than a speaker. I politely (I hope) declined, and assured him that the phone interview would be painless—but I wanted to get him as unfiltered as possible. I had cause for this. House’s songs range in topic from lost love to social justice to faith, and I was interested to see how all of this came together in one person. I’ve been listening to his music since late 2006 when I saw him open for Mat Kearney at Blueberry Hill. I had been unaware of him until then, but I left with the two most recent CDs he’d released, so powerful was his performance. With that in mind, I knew he was a good writer—I’d seen enough evidence of that—but I wanted to see what he’d say if not given a chance to edit himself.

The biggest surprise to me when speaking with House was how easygoing he was. His music is intense at times—and I’m sure he is himself, occasionally—but he seemed relaxed and responded well to the barrage of questions. Perhaps his manner is due to giving up a lot of his vices, such as smoking, or maybe becoming a father in November of last year. It could, of course, be his remaining vice: milkshakes. Despite weighing 20 pounds less than he did in his 20s, now at 31 he says he consumes the equivalent of six or seven scoops of ice cream a night. With that amount of sugar running through his veins, I suppose it’s little wonder he comes across as quite congenial.

Our conversation ranged from milkshakes to his relationship with his music, his relationship with his fans, and how things have changed since he turned down a golf scholarship to Ohio Universityto attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. It’s been over a decade but House doesn’t sound as though he’s got any plans to stop creating and performing music. “I think I’m enjoying playing now more than ever,” he tells me, and he sounds genuinely excited to get back to touring. However, when I asked him if there had ever been a time he’d wondered if he might be done with music, he told me that, “It got pretty close last year, for a little while.” Thankfully, House realized what he needed was some time away and to slow down a little. The fans he’d acquired prior to that seem to harbor no ill will toward him for this, as many shows on a recent East Coast run sold out and the Midwestern dates are beginning to do the same.

As for his relationship with his music and if it was improved by his time off, he says, “I’m just in a healthier spot with it.” Of course, he now has to balance his career with a home life that includes his wife and daughter, which was not quite the case a few years ago, let alone when he was in his early 20s. The change is all for the best, really. “I feel comfortable enough to just get up and enjoy people’s company for the night and play them the songs I’m really proud of.” He does sound at peace but not complacent, which is probably the best place for him to be right now as he prepares to head back out on the road.

That said, things aren’t always peaceful in his music—in fact, at times they are incredibly sad—but House handles tricky subjects with wit and grace, and you still feel better off for having heard his musical thoughts, whatever the subject. At that first show there were two songs that fell under that banner, though neither had been released at the time. Both still remain potent and lost none of the power behind them when House released actual recordings. The first song, “I Remember (It’s Happening Again),” came out the year following that concert on the album Flying Upside Down. The song is occasionally called a war protest by others but House doesn’t see it that way, and it wasn’t written for that purpose. “I always wanted it to be more of a memorial of the integrity of what we’ve done as a country,” he tells me, though not without a bit of defiance at the way things have been handled in his lifetime. “Are the wars we’re fighting as worthwhile as the ones my grandpa fought in? I don’t think so.” He doesn’t say this with venom or anger—just an observation from a man whose maternal grandfather George Griffin would regale the family dinner table with stories from World War II.

The second song that drew me in that night, and stays with me to this day, was “Murder in the First Degree,” which was released in 2009 as part of a collection of B-sides and commentary called 42 and a Half Minutes with Griffin House. When I heard him perform the song in 2006, he explained that it was about a close childhood friend from his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, that was currently (and remains) on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California. In the commentary for the song on the album, he says that he resisted releasing it at first out of respect for the man’s family, but adds, “I wrote this song with good intentions, and thought I was in a unique position to ask some hard questions with the song.” He does ask hard questions with it, though he never implies that that the murder of a police officer in the name of revolution was not a horrific act. House reminds us, though, that the young man who is guilty of the crime is still a young man—someone’s son—who thought he was doing the right thing. It doesn’t justify his actions and House doesn’t claim that it does, but he brings up that everyone is praying for the victim and his family, but wonders if anyone is praying for his friend Andy in hopes that Andy will understand what he did.

Despite the intensity of those songs and the questions they bring forth, House has a sense of humor. His most recent album, 2010’s The Learner, contains a song called “She Likes Girls” about falling for a woman he couldn’t possibly have, and more than one of his albums contain a version of the song “The Guy Who Says Goodbye to You Is Out of His Mind.” The song, as House has explained it, was written for a young woman who promised to marry him if he wrote her a song. He wrote the song—and never even got a kiss. The song is sweet and funny in equal measures, claiming, “Enough about me and more about you/ ‘cause that’d be the gentlemanly thing to do/ I hope you like your man sweet and polite.” 

House is sweet and polite—and incredibly talented. He’s ready to show that off, as he told me, “I feel like I’m done hiding out.” We can be thankful for that and glad that St. Louis has been included as a tour stop on this run, where House is co-headlining with Elephant Revival. It will be interesting to see what music comes from the recent changes in House’s life and from the time off he took, but we can be assured it will be intelligent, heartfelt, and above all else, honest. It’s what struck me about House’s performance six years ago, and remains a mainstay in his music. | Teresa Montgomery


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