Griffin House: A Folksinger’s Journey From Ohio to Nashville

BCC Voice Interviews (Spring 2016)

By Louis Do

    A lone singing voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar recalls a simpler time, of campfires and frontier homesteads. In 2016, Nashville-based folksinger and songwriter Griffin House carries on these traditions with touches of modernity thrown in. House’s music can best be described as dynamic, for his subject matters can range from themes about wartime, to failed relationships, to reflections about the past. Sometimes these songs are sung in their natural acoustic state, but other times, House is backed by a band to give extra emphasis and spice up the mood. On Sunday, April 17th, 2016, Louis Do of The BCC Voice spoke to Griffin House about his childhood, the intoxicating nectar of fame, his new record, and his opinion on the music industry today.

    House grew up in Springfield, Ohio, in a working class family. His father worked in a tire shop, while his mother worked with foster youth. House was the first person in his family to embrace the arts. This came about in high school when he saw the play, “Fiddler on the Roof.” “There was this guy named Alex Beekman, and he was really talented. I think he went to Broadway to live in New York and try out for plays after high school, but great singer, great actor, really talented. He just inspired me when I saw him. He played Teveye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Something about that made me want to try for theater. It looked really exciting.” House acted on this desire and tried out for a one-act play, “Where Have All the Lightning Bugs Gone.” He discovered that he liked performing, and proceeded to audition for “Oklahoma.” “I got cast with the singing part, even though I’d never sang anywhere in my life before. I had to practice with a tape and learn how to sing. I couldn’t, didn’t know I could sing.”

    House started teaching himself guitar at the age of 18, when he was in college. He described the challenges of learning an instrument as an adult, “I bought a guitar, it was called an Oscar Schmitt. I bought it for 100 dollars off of a friend. I lived in an art dorm, and a lot of guys in the art dorm played guitar. I learned from those guys, but I had to work really hard to even get okay at guitar. I hadn’t learned it previously, so it was tough getting started.” During his experience of teaching himself guitar and observing his college roommates, House realized that he had a passion for playing music, “I remember one night I took my guitar out, and I just decided that I was going to stay up all night long and practice, so I walked around campus in the dark and played my guitar all night. I think I slept on a park bench or something, but I wasn’t allowed to go home or go to bed until I practiced all night. I guess that was just to prove that I was serious.”

    House received recognition with his 2004 release, “Lost and Found.” his sound was still in the process of refinement, and he recalls receiving praise from Bill Flanagan on the CBS Sunday Morning. “I got on the CBS Sunday Morning Show. This guy, Bill Flanagan was talking about me and he had written a book about U2. I read the book when I was a kid, and I think one of the things he said was that he’s a young man with a young man’s influences. His songs remind me of early Wilco, U2 and Ryan Adams. But then he said, he has the potential to join their company.”

    Receiving such praise was a heavy experience for a 24-year-old emerging artist. “It made me feel that I must have been doing the right thing and that there must be something really good about what I’m doing, or there must be a reason for why I’m doing what I’m doing. I have these dreams, and I really want to do this for some reason, and now it feels like it’s supposed to be some kind of destiny.” However, destiny is not without its negatives. “Now looking back on it though, I think to receive that kind of praise at 24 is almost like saying, all right, here is what you have to live up to. I think subconsciously that kind of thing can put a lot of pressure on somebody. It can almost make it sound like, look at how special this person is, rather than this person worked really hard and it paid off, so keep working hard.” As House discovered, it is all too easy to be enwrapped in the tendrils of success and its distortion of the artist’s perceptions. “With anything in life, I think that’s sort of the danger, to think, oh I’m really special or I’m more talented than other people. I have not found that to be true in life. I think we reap what we sow in terms of you work hard and sometimes the complete underdog can make something beautiful. Sometimes the least expecting person could write the most amazing song.” This is the true meaning of folk music, music that is unadulterated and written by industrious people for the pure purpose of expression. House describes the nuanced balancing act between talent and hard work, “Not that talent doesn’t play into it, because I’m saying it certainly does, but I think a lot of people just want to be rewarded for their talent rather than their hard work, and I think it’s better when people are rewarded and praised for working hard.”

    House has overcome the sense that he is in a race and he must make it to the success finish line, to settling into a comfortable and rewarding relationship with music. “It’s who I am, it’s what I do. I don’t know what else I would do. I definitely still feel inspired by music. I am probably more proud and haven’t had as much fun making this last record than any of my other records, and I’m also exploring music with fresh eyes and ears and feelings, because I haven’t been sober for all that long. For the first 10 years I played music, it was music accompanied by massive amounts of alcohol. Now that I don’t have that, it’s almost like being a different person and a different artist.”

    House’s new record, “So On and So Forth,” released on March 4th, 2016, represents a milestone, both in his personal life and professional music career. “What’s cool about this record is that it does deal a lot with sobriety, but it’s not talking about, oh it sucks getting sober, or how hard it is. It’s not that. It’s more, here is the kind of growth that I’m going through. Here are the things I’m observing in my own life, and here are the things I’m learning through this process.”

    The first track, “Yesterday Lies,” is a representation of House’s growth and evolution, and of House’s deeper connection with his audience. “I had somebody come up to me the other day, and they said they had almost a year sober, and when they heard Yesterday Lies they knew exactly what that was about. It made me feel good that that struck a chord because that song is specifically about having this euphoric recall about the old days being better, and kind of wishing you could go back there, but the real truth is that it really wasn’t the way you remember it.”

    House acknowledges his family for their role in shaping the person he is today. “I give my wife a lot of credit and my family a lot of credit for helping me understand that the way I was living was not really sustainable. I was going on the road and playing 200 shows a year. I was gone 300 days a year, and drinking every day and every night, burning the candle at both ends. And then I got married and my wife helped me see how unsustainable that was. Slowly over time it has become less and less about me every day and more about everybody else.”

    Ever since his start in music, House has been selling his CDs for around $10, and they still cost the same price today. However, the popularity of streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, pose a significant threat to the livelihood of House and other musicians. “I tour a lot, so I still sell a lot of records on the road, but I think every artist will tell you that they are seeing downloads go way down and people are doing streaming. There was kind of a sweet spot in there for a while.” Emerging artists may not have access to the resources necessary to make and distribute their records to a physical music store. “When you’re an artist who can put your album on iTunes, then the whole world can buy it. People can choose to buy one track or two tracks, and they have to pay a fair price. It’s a dollar a song. I think that’s pretty easy. It’s cheap for the customer but the artist is still getting paid. Then Apple went to Apple Music and streaming, and now there’s Spotify and everything else. Downloading is falling off and streaming is the future of music, at least for the time being. The royalty rates on some of these places are like .00001 cent. There’s one streaming service where I had a million and a half plays for a song and my payout was 80 dollars. These are companies that wouldn’t exist without the use of this music, so they have to figure a way to make it fair for everybody and not just an artist getting free promotion.”

    Despite this bleak time for musicians, House is still determined to pursue his passion. “For the time being I’m playing shows and people are coming to my shows, and they’ve been coming to my shows for years now. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I have no reason to think that it’s just going to stop tomorrow, so my plan is to keep going and if they keep showing up then I’ll keep coming and playing. If they stop showing up then I’ll find something else to do.”

    To keep current on tour dates, new music, and buy Griffin House’s latest album, “So on and So Forth,” visit: http://www.griffinhousemusic.com

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