Patty Larkin built career on unique fingerpicking, pursuit of unexpected

Chris Bieri

It's tough to fit Patty Larkin into a musical box.

The Boston-based artist developed into a guitar virtuoso after studying jazz at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music. She's experimented with live track looping and even dipped her toe into hip-hop.

But at her essence, the 62-year-old Larkin is a singer-songwriter, spawned from the 1970s movement that brought Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson to popular culture.

"It's acoustic-based for the most part," she said. "It's coming out of that singer-songwriter school, pop writing with an acoustic bent. It's drawing from so many different genres and styles. Overall, I'm of the acoustic songwriter school."

That approach will be on display this week when Larkin plays shows in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Palmer.

Larkin grew up in a musical family in Milwaukee. She was "following her grandmothers to the piano" and studied classical music at age 7.

"I started writing songs in high school," she said. "I kept playing and learning more about folk music and traditional music."

After playing West Coast coffeehouses while studying at the University of Oregon, Larkin moved east. She studied at Berklee, where she was later awarded an honorary doctorate, developing a unique fingerpicking style.

Once in Boston, music became a clear career choice, despite Larkin's freshly minted English degree.

"There was a commitment I made pretty early and I wanted to do it as often as I could," she said. "For me, to be able to sing my songs and record, it's still a thrill. I really enjoy doing it."

While Larkin was molded by the '70s acoustic movement, it was her penchant for experimentation that started to set her apart from the prototypical singer-songwriter.

"I'm coming out of a traditional touchstone, but rooted more in the pop version of acoustic music," she said. "Brazilian music, Indian music, R&B -- I absorbed as much as I could."

That experimentation isn't limited to musical genres.

In 2010, Larkin released "25," celebrating a quarter-century in the music industry with 25 songs she recorded on vocals and guitar, which she then passed on to 25 guest artists.

From there, the guest artists -- Rosanne Cash, Bruce Cockburn and Shawn Colvin among them -- completed the tracks in any way they saw fit.

Larkin's recordings often feature elaborate arrangements, sometimes with unexpected instrument pairings, or just unexpected instruments.

Her 2008 record "Watch the Sky" included the sounds of a detuned lap steel guitar played with a drumstick and an electric baritone guitar played with a violin bow.

Despite embracing the offbeat, Larkin still believes the quality of the music comes down to the quality of the song.

As an artist in residence at Berklee, she now teaches songwriting, emphasizing creativity over cognizance.

"You basically open that door and walk into it," she said. "You can't let the critic walk in too soon. Pretend you're Bob Dylan and you're writing 30 verses. Don't mix the critic and the singer. Let the idea go as far as it can."

• Reach Chris Bieri at or 257-4200.

By Chris Bieri