Gretchen Peters knows how to make you feel at home when you’re calling, in my case quickly dispelling my glamorous image of her adopted hometown, suggesting Nashville’s like any other city I might know.
“It’s looking a bit like England actually – it’s grey and raining right now. It’s a good day to get work done though.”
The Tennessee state capital is her nerve centre, but don’t get the wrong impression. We’re not talking Stetsons, cowboy boots and redneck country. Come to think of it, that’s probably more my perception than yours anyway. I always had a distrust of country, put off by the Grand Ole Opry, lingering notions of the Marlboro Man, and that bar in The Blues Brothers where they play both kinds of music – country and western.
For me it took Emmylou Harris’ winning 1995 Daniel Lanois-produced LP, Wrecking Ball, to realise there was plenty of good country around. That was my gateway album, this elder stateswoman of country on top form amid guest collaborations from the likes of Neil Young, Steve Earle, the McGarrigle sisters, and Lucinda Williams.
And she was a profound influence on Gretchen, a decade younger and still finding her feet in the recording world at the time. The following year she recorded her debut LP, The Secret of Life, including contributions from Ms Harris, Mr Earle, and the man who later became her husband, keyboard player Barry Walsh. Yet while that record was well thought of, she reckons her turning point came a decade later with her Burnt Toast and Offerings LP.
Born in Bronxville, New York, and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Gretchen re-settled in Nashville in the late ‘80s, composing hits for Bryan Adams, Neil Diamond, Etta James, Shania Twain, and Trisha Yearwood, among others. She was soon making her own records too, her reputation slowly growing via high-profile covers from the likes of Faith Hill and Martina McBride, Gretchen finally inducted to Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.
If 2015 album Blackbirds saw her reputation grow all the more outside America, she’s now proved that career high was no one-off on the strength of powerful new offering, Dancing with the Beast. So where does she tend to work these days – at home or in the studio?
“I work in the studio in spurts. If I’m on a recording project, I’m living there. But I go long periods without being in the studio. It’s one of my favourite places to be though. I feel there’s something magic about it. The world kind of melts away and you’re just in this little space making stuff with your friends.
“I love it, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately working on another project, but most of what I’m doing right now is getting ready for this album to come out and to go out on tour, doing all the things you need to do to make sure you can survive for a month or so away from home.”
“We don’t have tour dates so much as a lot of album promotions, including radio shows, Facebook live, and so on. The first time we really get a chance to stretch our legs is going to be when we get over there.”
That UK agenda starts with a date in Stamford Corn Exchange on May 19th, her itinerary including a return to my North-West patch for dates at The Atkinson in Southport (May 26th), and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (May 27th) en route to a tour finale at London’s Cadogan Hall on June 13th. And as it turns out, my Queen of Country Noir has been lined up for a few festival dates too, including ones in Beverley (June 15), Wadebridge and Shrewsbury in late August, plus three Irish dates in early September.
“That’s right. And I quite like that title, by the way – I may have to steal that from you!”
By all means. I did mention a similar handle on the strength of your last album, and now have no doubt as to your elevation to regal status.
“Well, I like it!”
When I caught up with Gretchen, I was barely two listens into Dancing with the Beast, driving around with it playing in my car, but already hooked. And subsequent plays have only made me love it all the more. She’s on great form again, I venture.
“Thank you so much. That makes me feel so great on a rainy day!”
“Well, I really appreciate that. One of the things about Blackbirds was that it was a wonderful thing but also a bit daunting to come back and make another record. But we must! So that’s wonderful to hear.”
I got the feeling your Blackbirds period marked recognition for a self-confessed late bloomer as a leading artist, and this LP suggests you remain there, the songs seemingly effortlessly good.
“Well, thank you for that, but they’re definitely not effortless! Nothing in the realm of writing for me has ever been effortless. I work really hard at it. But it’s a double-edge sword having success. Blackbirds felt like a big step forward. But having that kind of success did give me a sense of confidence, I guess, about what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.
“The other side to that coin is that you feel you’ve set the bar and have to reach there every time. But I think that’s just the way it goes in a creative career. You earn your craft a little more each time, the bar gets higher, and then you aim higher.”
‘Be home tomorrow evening if we fly, if the weather’s clear and the interstate stays dry.’ (The Show)
Three years ago, you mentioned to me how Burnt Toast and Offerings was a career turning point. Somehow that’s 11 years ago, to me suggesting you’ve been on that higher creative plane more than a decade now, hard as it must have been at times to keep up that heavy touring profile.
“Wow, 11 years ago? I quite agree with that though. I felt like I had a fire inside of me from that album on – to do better and better work and be a more and more honest and vulnerable in my songwriting, and to dig deeper, I guess.
“I look back at that 11-year period and it makes me a little dizzy, because there’s so much touring and so much work involved. But one of the things that my husband – my now-husband, because he wasn’t my husband at the time – said to me around that time when we made that album was that the way you get better is by doing it over and over and over again.
“I hadn’t really been touring regularly the way I have for the last 10 years, and there was so much wisdom in that. It was so true. A lot of it is just doing the thing over and over and over again, and I think I developed more confidence and more of a sense of knowing where I was going from constant touring rather than anything else.”
We’ve talked about Emmylou Harris’s influence before, and and there seem to be similar production qualities on this album to her Wrecking Ball outing with Daniel Lanois, thanks to yourself, the hubby, and Doug Lancio (who Gretchen has worked with since that Burnt Toast and Offerings LP).
“Yes, I think so. The thing I instinctively knew about Doug was that he’d push me slightly past my comfort zone. He does that, and continues to do that, and that’s why I love working with him. I know I need that and know it’s a very strong element of the production team Doug and Barry and I have put together. And Doug’s kind of a ‘vibe whisperer’ … much in the same way as Daniel Lanois, although I’ve never worked with him before in the studio.
“Doug is very unobtrusive. He never comes up and says, ‘Do this, do that.’ He’s more about creating the stage for magic things to happen. I just cannot overstate how much I love working with him.”
I guess what made me think of Daniel Lanois was the slow-build qualities of songs like the title track, Dancing with the Beast, and Lowlands, both of which have a kind of U2 feel. I could hear Bono tackle them.
“Yes, definitely. We really wanted to have that – no peaks and valleys, just one big build, and to have a bit of a menacing feel, because that’s really what’s in the lyrics. Doug really shines at that, with part of that coming from his guitar-centric play. There’s so much about tone and a lot of the guitar carries that. So yes, that’s absolutely what we were hoping for.”
‘Ever since he put that sticker on his bumper, I just turn out the lights and lock the doors.‘ (Lowlands)
For some, an out-and-out attack on the Trumps of this world would work, but the power in your work is in that more intricate attention to detail, on Lowlands and elsewhere, be it addressing disrespect of the individual, objectification of women, casual racism, any of that. And as things stand politically, perhaps it’s all the more important for someone with your strong character and sense of right and wrong to come over here and remind the world that the fella with the orange day-glo tan doesn’t represent the America we felt we knew and loved.
“I feel strongly about trying to impart that message. I know people in the UK know he doesn’t represent all of us, or even most of us, but after what happened in 2016 I just feel it’s not possible or not morally right to remain silent.
“I thought long and hard about this when I was writing the songs for this album, because I’m not a protest songwriter. I’m a storyteller. I talked to my friend Mary Gauthier at great lengths about how we write in this time, and came to the conclusion that if you’re a storyteller, the most effective thing you can do is tell very small stories about people, the hardships they face and the things they come up against, and how it’s affected in this world – how they’re affected by this kind of harsh and brutal world we’re living in. So that was what came out.”
‘And I’ll know them when they come, and I’ll rise above the neon above the trailer park, and fly like a truckstop angel with an arrow through my heart.‘ (Truckstop Angel)
Strong women are at the heart of this record, little vignettes of other people’s lives written so believably. Has that always been your stance, or are you getting more radical as the years pass, forced into confronting it all?
“Ha! Well, they say you either get more radical or you get more conservative. something’s gonna happen! I wasn’t so much radicalised as I was energised by what happened in the election, and as far as the women characters go, my approach to writing has never really changed.
“I listen for characters, I listen for voices, I listen for titles, and the voices that were the loudest in my head when I was writing these songs were these girls and women, so those were the stories I chose to write. But when I look back on it, I’ve been doing that for 25 to 30 years, going back to Independence Day and probably going back further.
“I think the reason I don’t really care to analyse it too much is that there’s a little bit of magic in that. But I think the basic reason is that those characters inspire me. They’re heroic. These women I’ve written about, some of them almost feel like my best friends, my guardian angels. They’re heroic in very quiet, almost stoic ways, but they capture my imagination. That’s why they stay in my head and that’s why their songs get written.”
Of course, none of the above would be worth listening to unless you knew how to write a great lyric and a cracking song too, and the imagery on this record is so sharp, from Arguing with Ghosts right through, not least on Wichita and Truckstop Angel. You have a skill for writing tales so personally. Is there a lot of you in the characters you sing about? Or are you just a seasoned people-watcher?
“I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think there’s more of me than I even want. But what it really boils down to and what I’m always trying to do is to find the empathy. If I’m writing a song, I have to find the empathy I have with that character.
“So it’s not so much about her being like me or that she is me, it’s that I’m finding that commonality, and I think the reason that works is that’s what songs do and I think that’s what art does – it holds up this mirror and says, ‘This person doesn’t look anything like you, but look – you’re alike, look how alike you are!’
“I think it’s a mixture of the things I’m feeling and thinking about coming out in those characters and there’s a bit of me in them. But there’s also just that empathy for another human being, and if you can feel that empathy as a songwriter, you can make your audience feel it too.”
You told me last time we spoke how much you enjoyed writing songs with Ben Glover, and he features a lot on this album too. There’s Matraca Berg too. Any closer to that dream duets album we’ve talked about before now?
“Oh, I would love that! I have another project in the works for next time, but maybe that should go after that. And I do love working with Ben. He’s one of the only co-writers I have, and he’s fantastic.”
‘I get lost in my hometown since they tore the drive-in down.’ (Arguing with Ghosts)
On the last album we had the wondrous Nashville, you covering David Mead’s song, with him guesting, and this time you’re back on the theme of your adopted hometown with Matraca and Ben, telling us you’re not quite recognising what they’re doing to the place on lead track, Arguing With Ghosts.
“That’s how that song started. Matraca is a Nashville native – and they’re very rare here. We were talking about how Nashville’s changed and she literally said, ‘I get lost in my hometown,’ and we all looked at each other and knew we had our opening line.
“But it’s changing so rapidly. I was driving with my husband a couple of days ago in town and we got completely disoriented and turned around, because we didn’t recognise where we were. That’s how crazy it is … and we both started singing that opening line!”
Speaking of Nashville, last time we spoke I hadn’t realised an indirect link, an old friend from my South of England hometown, talented ex-Ben Folds, Supermodel, Deep Season and Jim Jiminee drummer Lindsay Jamieson, based there quite some time now and in a band called Elle Macho with a certain David Mead.
“Wow. Well, David’s just such a creative genius and has done so many things. And it’s almost a truism nowadays that all roads lead to Nashville!”
‘I think I need to lay low for a while, stare at the Gulf of Mexico for a while.’ (Lay Low)
I get the impression from what you’ve spoken about so far regarding this album, that it came out of a hard place, and not just because of the current political landscape, but for personal reasons too, following a difficult period in your life. Is this the power of music as therapy?
“I think it is, but I don’t really want to reduce it to therapy. If it were just therapy, everyone would … From my own point of view, I was taking a year off which didn’t turn out to look anything like the year off I pictured in my head. I was picturing restoration, rest, sitting in a lotus position, and instead the election happened and I lost my mum about a month after that, then I lost two very dear friends, one of them being Jimmy LaFave.
“It was an onslaught. I’d really intended to not write or do anything, to just be, but about halfway through 2017 I was bathing in grief, wallowing in it, and just thought, ‘My way through this had always been to write, so dammit, I’m gonna write!’ And that was what I needed to do. I needed the downtime, I needed to get away from touring, as I’d worn myself out physically, but stopping being creative was not the answer, as hard as writing is for me.”
‘But there is love that makes a cup of tea, asks you how you’re doing and listens quietly; slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind, that’s the kind of love I hope you find.’ (Love That Makes a Cup of Tea)
I know I was feeling that while listening to the album on my way back up the motorway after my Mum’s funeral, most startlingly on Love That Makes a Cup of Tea, some of the words almost echoing the eulogy I wrote about her. That song’s clearly extremely personal to you, but translates perfectly to me and no doubt many others.
“She gave me the title in a dream! And I just thought, ‘I have to write that! I have no idea what it’ll mean to anyone else, but I have to write it.’ So I’m really heartened to hear that.”
It’s a perfect way to end the album. A little light at the end of the tunnel, you could say.
“Well, on my albums, we need that!”
And I guess there will always be those highs again if we can learn from the lows, right?
“Absolutely. It’s all shades of light and dark.”
‘So leave that ‘don’t disturb’ sign on the door, come lie beside your weary troubadour.’ (The Show)
Meanwhile, I understand that as well as truly appreciating the power of a good song, you’re a fan of the whole package, not least a continuing love for the vinyl long player.
“Oh, I’m so happy that vinyl has come back. I think one of the things that makes me happiest about it is that when we sell vinyl on the road, it’s no one particular group of people – it’s young people, it’s older people, it’s everybody. I love that. It’s not just a cool thing for kids. I think everybody misses that warm sonic hug you get from vinyl.”
For a link back to Gretchen Peters’ last writewyattuk interview, from February 2015, head here.
And to pre-order Dancing with the Beast, out on May 18th, visit this Proper Records link.
In 2015, I reviewed Gretchen’s Blackbirds album for this site, but this time happened to chance upon an album review by my friend Niall Brannigan for The Afterword, and felt he said much of what I wanted to add. Follow this link to find his online take on Dancing with the Beast.