Moving to Nashville from Boulder, Colorado in the late ‘80s, New Yorker Gretchen Peters has carved a career as one of the city’s most respected songwriters and recording artists. As well as her own studio albums, Gretchen has had her songs recorded by the likes of Martina McBride ( the CMA award winning “ Independence Day) and Patti Loveless ( Grammy nominated “ You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” ) and regularly runs songwriting workshops on both sides of the pond.
Her 8th studio album, “ Dancing With The Beast’ ( co-produced by Peters, her husband and musical collaborator Barry Waish and Doug Lanco) was released just a couple of weeks ago, and I think “ The Tennessean” sums it up perfectly as “ 50 minutes of exquisite-sounding emotional devastation, depression, murder and heartbreak”. Yep, Gretchen isn’t renown for happy, clappy songs ( her latest march logo is “ Sad Songs Make Me Happy!” ) but thankfully that is not to say that there isn’t a lot of hope in her writing .
I caught up with Gretchen on her current UK tour and she kindly agreed to this interview, where she talks about her songwriting process, the new album and her love for the UK. Enjoy!
1. LH Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy tour schedule to answer my questions!
Can I start by asking where you are right now please, so we can set the scene?
GP I’m in Bristol at the moment, just had a walk around the street market and bought an antique hunting horn!
2.LH I was thrilled to find out you were touring the new album in the UK before doing so back home. You’ve always had strong and loyal support from UK audiences haven’t you?
GP There was a point when the audiences in the UK really kept my career going. I’ve toured here more consistently than anywhere, and it’s become my home base, in a strange way. I owe a lot to our UK fans, and I never forget it.
3. LH Stories and characters are always to the fore in your songwriting, you paint pictures so well, and this collection is no exception. And once again the stories you tell here aren’t always pretty….what is it the attracts you to flawed characters and desperate situations?
GP I find these characters heroic. They persist, despite having been dealt a bad hand. If there’s anything beautiful and admirable about humans (and we’ve certainly been tested in the past few years to find it), it’s the ability to maintain their humanity in inhumane situations. The girls and women on Dancing With The Beast are, as my coproducer Doug Lancio said to me, “wrapped in a ramshackle kind of elegance” – I love that, because it elevates them the way I see them – as heroines, with a certain dignity and grace.
4 LH I’ve heard you say how you “ live” with each character for a while before you start to write…..a bit like a method actor approaches a role i assume. Is this deeply personal approach partly why you prefer solo writing ?
GP I think it’s tied to my preference for writing alone, definitely. I identify very strongly with the method acting approach to songwriting. I think you have to get inside your characters’ skin before you can write truthfully about them, and that takes some time. Most co-writers don’t have the patience to write with me. I’m very lucky that the handful of folks I do write with understand that’s just how I work.
5.LH Looking specifically at a few of the album’s tracks now, and the dark title track was, I understand, written about depression but “ the beast” is being interpreted in many different ways it seems. I take it that this this ambiguity was intentional?
GP I love songs that work on several levels. When Ben Glover and I wrote it, we thought it would be interesting to write a song about depression, but anthropomorphize it, give it its own character. When you think about depression, or addiction, or self-doubt, or any of the various “beasts” we live with, they are that abusive, misleading, punitive voice in your head – the one that tells you you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not ‘whatever’ enough. Like an abusive partner would. Of course, it works on a completely literal level too – as a song about an abusive relationship.
6. LH The body count on your albums over the years is impressive, you are the queen of the murder ballad for sure, but your current single “ Wichita” is one of the album’s more uptempo, infectious tracks despite its subject matter isn’t it? Did you hear it like that from the outset or did it develop that way during the writing and/or production process?
GP It was always uptempo and kind of sharp-edged, musically speaking. I did have a few lines that I brought to the writing session with Ben (Glover) and they really implied that tempo and melody. It’s not often you can marry a dark lyric like that to an uptempo melody, but it’s so great when it works. People are sort of bouncing along to it and suddenly realize they’re tapping their toes to murder and mayhem!
7.LH I love the way you slip social and political commentary into many of your songs, and in “ Lowlands” ( which is one of my album favourites ) this is definitely the case! Do you feel it to be part of your job as a songwriter ? Or is it maybe because your characters can’t/don’t exist in a vacuum?
GP I think the political landscape is always part of the bigger landscape of a song – so no, these characters can’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve always made more or less oblique references (and sometimes more direct ones) to social or political issues, because I believe that those things shape us, and certainly shape our decisions and our lives. Specifically, on Dancing With The Beast, I wrestled with the idea of how I was going to deal with the American election of 2016. It seemed disingenuous to ignore it, but I didn’t want to superficially apply some sort of political filter on my songs, either. What I ultimately realized is that I am a storyteller. So my job in Trump’s America circa 2017 was to tell stories – one character at a time – about their lives in this strange, bewildering, hostile new world. For very natural, organic reasons, the characters who spoke the loudest were girls and women. I think I’ve always been telling women’s stories – it goes back to “Independence Day” and beyond – but the events of 2016/7 gave me a new sense of urgency about telling those stories.
8.LH You’ve been out on the road for a couple of weeks now, playing these songs live for the first time……are there any that you are particularly enjoying, or any which are getting an especially good reaction at the shows?
GP I love the evolution that happens to a song once you air it out on stage. They start changing – they almost keep being written, in a sense. Someone once said “the last person to collaborate on a song is the audience”, and I really believe that. That said, I’m really finding a lot of new places to explore on “The Boy From Rye”, “Arguing With Ghosts”, “Lowlands”… “Disappearing Act” and “Wichita” seem to be very popular. And at the end of each show, I’ve been coming out into the audience and singing “Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea”, which is a lovely way to end the evening and seems to really be a sort of balm to the audience after an evening of very emotional songs. The reaction to that song reminds me a little of the reaction I got to “When You Are Old” way back in 1996.
9.LH And you continue to take time to speak to the audience after your performances, when many artists would rather save their voice and energy! I take it that this is something you genuinely enjoy and that is important to you?
GP It’s absolutely important to me – they want to have a moment to express whatever they felt during the show, and I get that. I really feel like our shows are a sort of communion – our fans are there to have an emotional experience with the songs – I’m just the conduit. And so there’s a natural desire to make contact afterwards. I value it at least as much as they do.
10.LH You have achieved so much over the years, do you have a career highlight to date, maybe something you are particularly proud of ?
GP Aside from the work itself, which truly is the greatest reward, there are a couple of things that stand out for me. One was being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014. It’s still surreal to me, to be in the company of Bob Dylan, and Dolly Parton, and Mickey Newbury, and Kris Kristofferson. And the other moment that really meant a lot me was winning the International Album and Song of the Year at the AMA-UK awards in 2016. Grammy nominations and CMA awards aside, the AMA-UK awards were for my work as an artist, not just a songwriter, and it came after 20 years of making records. Those things are much sweeter when you’ve worked so long and hard.
Thank again for this interview, Gretchen, safe travels and enjoy the rest of the tour!
There are still a few chances to catch one of Gretchen’s beautiful shows while she’s over here, and she returns to play a few festivals later in the year. For more details and to purchase “ Dancing With The Beast” visit gretchenpeters.com
Interview conducted by Lesley Hastings (twitter.com/lesleyhastings)