After taking some time off to battle breast cancer, Patty Griffin is back with new music.
The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is set to release her eponymous 10th studio album on Mar. 8 — and PEOPLE is exclusively premiering the first song off of the new project called, “River.”
“It’s one of the last songs I wrote for this record,” Griffin, 54, tells PEOPLE. “We recorded it over about a year’s time. I had been spending a lot of time with this song that Leon Russell wrote and Donnie Hathaway recorded in the ’70s called ‘A Song For You.’ I actually covered that song at a show, and I thought it would be great to have my own — which is kind of a high order. There’s something about that particular song that made me feel like it’s an aerial view of a moment in life. The emotion of that song inspired me.”
“River” is just a preview of Griffin’s deeply personal new 13-track album. As she sings the lyrics, “Takes an army just to bend her/Be careful where you send her/‘Cause you can’t hold her back for long/A river is just too strong/And she’s a river,” one can’t help but guess she’s singing about her own life story after recently battling — and defeating — breast cancer, but Griffin says she hasn’t thought about it that way.
“There isn’t really much of a thought process beyond playing the notes, hopefully, in a fashion that can be understood,” she says. “But when I sit back and I listen back to it and sing it now, I can feel this is sort of an expansive understanding of life. I’m older, I’m about to be double nickels – 55 – [in March], and you’re closer to death when you’re my age and you kind of turn that corner where that’s the next fantastic place you’re going to go. You have this understanding of continuity that grows out of that feeling.”
Prior to recording the new album — which is her first since 2015’s Servant of Love— Griffin spent some time out of the spotlight after receiving her breast cancer diagnosis two years ago.
“I think life comes in different packages, and I had the cancer package for a little while that I had to get myself through,” she says. “I had some physical disabilities that really impaired my ability to do my work for a while, and I had a lot to get myself through in order to, with some great difficulty, do what I used to do very easily and naturally.”
“But it also brought about these great, new places that I found out about while I was struggling along,” she continues. “I think that has been true of all the work I’ve ever done, but this was the more recent phase of that and maybe a little more struggle than before.”
Before being diagnosed, Griffin says she “felt like sh— for a long time.”
“I was sick a lot,” she says. “Being on the road a lot is a good way to get sick anyway, and I was sick more than usual. So I was already feeling like, ‘There’s something really wrong.’ Then I got the diagnosis.”
When Griffin’s doctors first revealed to her that she had breast cancer, she says she initially went through a phase of “panic.”
“You go through the big panic, which is not a bad thing to experience if you’re lucky enough to get out on the other side and get another shot at life,” she says. “Around the same time, I had a friend who had been diagnosed with very serious stage 4 [cancer] in several different places so [my diagnosis] just never seemed extremely serious.”
Griffin says she “wasn’t afraid of passing away” thanks to having a great team of doctors and that the most difficult part of what she went through was being “physically impaired” for a while.
“It was having to reset the way I thought about everything and even my identity about myself,” she says. “I always thought of myself as somebody who could sing really well, and to lose all of that is quite something. When you’re a singer, you’re an athlete and that just stays true for as long as you decide to be a singer. Your body is your instrument, so there was a lot of work to do there.”
Since Griffin couldn’t perform like she used to, she says she had to let it go for some time while she recuperated. At one point, she even thought to herself, “Is it time for me to move on from this and actually do something else?”
“Then I realized that I was going to have to deal with what I had [in order] to keep working because that’s what I really wanted to do,” she says. “There’s an old tree in my backyard that I spent a lot of time sitting and looking at when I was not feeling very good. It’s got all these little warts on it that have grown over the years and it’s probably over 100 years old, but there’s a lot of beauty in it. I think that is true for all things that change and grow and age.”
These days, Griffin says she is cancer-free and doing “really well” as she focuses on the number one thing her doctor prescribed — “No stress.”
“For somebody like me who really has liked everything to be lined up in a certain way, that has been an interesting practice,” she says. “But I’m trying to have more fun in my life and really enjoy. I think the colors are brighter for me right now, and I don’t get as worked up about the same stuff I used to. I think that would happen anyway with getting old, and that was sort of my transition into that point in my life.”
In this new phase of life, Griffin describes herself as “pretty boring” — which she’s totally okay with! — and spends her days off taking art classes at a local school near her home in Austin, Texas, which is a welcome change of pace from her younger years.
“The old days of eating whatever I wanted to and staying out late and all that crap are gone for good,” she says. “Fortunately, I don’t want to do all that crap. I’m just keeping it simple as much as possible.”
“That stuff just happens without me knowing about it and somebody who is watching that show will call me up and say, ‘Hey I heard your song!'” she says with a laugh. “I haven’t watched the show, I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t like it because I don’t like scary shows.”
Next, Griffin — who admits she has always had “the travel bug” — will hit the road for a headlining tour across the U.S. and Canada kicking off on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.
“I remember years back, I was wiping down the tables at 1 o’clock in the morning and thinking, ‘I wonder what Montana looks like. I got to get there!'” she says. “So it’s really my ticket to travel and meet people in those places.”
She adds: “It’s a really good life.”