Griffin House On Letting Go
Years ago when singer-songwriter Griffin House first left for college, he shocked his family by abandoning a sports scholarship and focusing on music. That proved to be a good move as House, who now lives in Nashville, went on to become a successful musician who has toured extensively and opened for artists such as Ron Sexsmith, Patti Scialfa, Josh Ritter, John Mellencamp, Mat Kearney and the Cranberries. House’s latest album, So On and So Forth, features mid-tempo rock tunes such as the Jackson Browne-inspired “Yesterday Lies” and the grinding ballad “Easy Come Easy Go.” He spoke to us via phone from his Nashville home where he was having a “quiet morning” because his kids were at preschool for the day.
What inspired the decision to turn down a sports scholarship to focus on music?
It wasn’t really to focus on music; it just kind of happened that way. It was a combination of things that I followed my gut on. Golf was what I had the most promise and talent in as a kid. I won some tournaments and was player of the year in a league in Southwest Ohio. I had some success and attention at that. I was disappointed in myself for not qualifying for the state tournament. You had to qualify out of sectionals and then go to districts. You had one day and if you missed the cut by a couple of shots, you were out for the season. I held the state tournament up as the end all and be all. If I couldn’t make it there, I just thought I wasn’t worth a shit. I never made it. I got frustrated. I was a freshman playing with seniors who had been to state. They had a really good team. When they left, our team wasn’t quite good enough to go as a team. I burned out a little bit and missed the cut by a couple of shots. My senior year, I didn’t make it out of sectionals. I had a bad day there and missed the last shot or something, so I doubled up my efforts and worked with this teacher who said I could be a pro golfer if I wanted to.
Did you think about playing in college?
I went to Ohio University and interviewed with the people there. They let me know for sure that if I was an NCAA athlete, my time in school wouldn’t be my own. I would be expected to be where they wanted me to be and what they wanted me to be. If I believed I could have a great life and go on to be a pro and I could improve my performance, I would have gone that route, but I wanted to go to Miami University. I loved the campus there. My aunt had gone there and going to Europe for a year sounded exciting. They had a great exchange program. I wanted four years to be this adventure into the unknown and explore who I was as a person. I did that and put behind me any preconceived notions I had about golf.
So what was college like?
I moved into an arts dorm. I had been a little on the musical path because I had tried out for theater in high school and had a natural knack for being on stage and being in front of people. I really didn’t pick up the guitar until I bought a guitar for $100. It was an Oscar Schmidt. I never really learned to play it. When I got to college, I had more time on my hands than I realized. You don’t have to go to class from 8 to 3. I could practice and before I knew it I was learning songs and my roommate was a really good guitar player. He was a friend from high school who was also in theater. I picked stuff up from other people and one thing led to another. I was around a lot of musicians and changed my major to creative writing. I was falling behind in my other classes because of the work I was choosing to do on my own. I thought I should try to get credit for all that work. I switched midstream. I never liked the word “career” because it wasn’t about making money. I found a love and passion for music that I wanted to explore. I took a song into a class one day. I wanted to show how the meter of poetry was different than with a song. Poetry was a little more rigid. With music, you can bend it around and make two accents be one or vice versa. I sang a song in class and the teacher said, “Maybe you should do that.”
When you moved to Nashville in 2003, what was the experience like?
It was a really cool experience for me. It was still very small feeling here. I moved here with two friends. They were musical guys. I moved to Philadelphia first because I got a production deal. There were five artists on this production deal, including me and John Legend. We were both from Springfield. He was a year ahead of me in theater. It’s funny we both went to the same high school and it was right before he took off. He was trying to do a solo career and then he got something going. The production deal didn’t work out for either of us. I moved to Nashville and got a couple of odd jobs down here. I was getting calls from New York and L.A., and it kept going. I got signed and got in the business. I’m almost back to square one in a way because I make my own records and I manage myself. I’m not with a record company. I fly to my shows and drive to my shows myself. I try to manage being a family man and a traveling solo music business man.
“Easy Come Easy Go” is one of my favorite songs on the new album. How did it come together?
That song came together on my front porch really fast. It was one of those five-minute songs. I spent some time arranging it but it was mostly done really fast. Another song like that is “Yesterday Lies.” I had that around for years. I had the bulk of it around and it was a little idea I was trying to stretch into a song and turn into something. The other ones, they all came over a period of a couple of years. I’m part of a songwriting group that Bob Schneider down in Austin put together. The guy from Bushwalla and Jason Mraz and Bob and me and some people I am forgetting are in it. The group rotates in and out and you get eliminated if you don’t turn in a song one week. A lot of times, it’s last minute. I turn my recorder on and do something just to stay in the game. It was a way of staying on task. Some songs were born out of that and were ideas that I came up over the last year or two. I used to feel like I wrote 100 or 200 songs a year. Now, it’s like 50. Sometimes, they get left behind and I revisit them and put them on a record later.
I can’t believe you have a song called “A Painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”
I thought that was a cool title. That is born out of being able to go overseas and experience artists like that and see their paintings in museums. I did an interview with Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on their Outlaw Country station the other day. There’s a lyric about drinking something green and evil in Prague. They said they didn’t think anyone had ever written about absinthe before. Hieronymus Bosch influenced the album artwork on my last record. The cover was this surreal stuff.
The album seems like a big production. I can hear organ and slide guitar on some of the tunes and some songs make it sound like you have 10 musicians backing you up. What was the recording experience like?
It was one of the interesting things about this record. It’s the least produced record I’ve done in a long time. There aren’t very many overdubs. It’s just five guys in a room playing. I went to New Jersey to play with five guys I never met before. We went into the studio. I played them the songs and then we cut them. It was weird to meet these guys I’ve never played with before. I didn’t know how it was going to go. It was a fun experience not having any personal baggage with anybody. There weren’t any personalities in the way. We just went and played the songs. It was a basic way to record and not done that way very often. A lot of the vocals and most of the performances are all live.
Would you do the next record that way too?
I would in the sense that it was one of the most positive recording experiences I’ve had. It was stress and drama free. It was very positive. Usually I spend all this time getting a song to sound as good as it can and put all these extra parts on them and then I play them in a stripped down setting. Maybe I don’t need to have a big budget. Maybe it’s better if I accept the fact that I’m more of an acoustic singer-songwriter. Once of the things I hear all the time is that people like the “live from prison” record and just enjoy that. It’s a good and bad thing. They tell me I’m better live. It’s just me and my guitar, but there’s an energy in the room. I have plans about doing a live record to capture that so people can hear what it’s really like to be at the show. That’s what I’m thinking for a future recording: maybe a live record or a more stripped down thing. With 11 albums, I could do some kind of compilation too.
Photo Credit: McConville Studio