It seems that she’s hardly been back in Nashville a few weeks, but American singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters is set to return to the UK – her ‘second home’ – next month for a rather special, potentially one-off tour.
This time, the Queen of Country Noir, with 12 studio albums to her name, and her regular band – led by her other half and long-time musical partner, Barry Walsh – will be joined by The Southern Fried String Quartet, their Strings Attached tour promising to be another winner from an artist whose star has certainly been in the ascendency in recent years.
Following two American Music Association Awards for 2015’s rightly-lauded Blackbirds (including Best International Album), her 2018 release, Dancing With the Beast, marked another career high, blending shades of country-rock, indie-folk and Southern gothic, all cut through with that smokily-honeyed voice.
And this, her latest all-theatre tour, will feature selections from those albums and several other greatest hits, all performed with strings, as first heard as part of the Celtic Connections festival earlier this year.
You may recently have spotted Gretchen – who has written for the likes of Neil Diamond and Shania Twain, and co-written and performed with Bryan Adams before now – and her band feature in a BBC Scotland broadcast filmed at a Celtic Connections show in Glasgow.
There were also dates on that early-year visit with the Transatlantic Sessions Band, her fellow artistes including Cara Dillon, Tim O’Brien, Molly Tuttle, Paul McKenna, Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and Danny Thompson. Those dates started at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall and also took in London’s The Barbican, Gateshead’s The Sage, Cambridge’s Corn Exchange, and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
When we spoke, she was between Manchester and that evening’s show at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, talking from the tour bus, that night followed by a mini-tour finale at Derry’s Millennium Forum (‘what a way to go out’ she told me). And how was the Bridgewater Hall?
“I think it was my favourite night of the tour so far, really lovely – a stunning venue, an incredible crowd, and so much fun.”
The televised Celtic Connections show (from the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow’s West End) looked interesting, from the brief highlights I saw.
“Yeah, we did a really lovely venue – an old, converted church. I didn’t actually know that when I chose the songs, but one we chose was ‘Say Grace’, and in that setting it was just so perfect.”
I found the Transatlantic Sessions TV series compulsive viewing. Although I have comparatively little Irish heritage I know about (a few per cent of my DNA), my punk beginnings with The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers and early appreciation of Thin Lizzy led to a wider trawl that took me in time to catch on to Van Morrison, The Pogues, and so much more.
I also recall a joint BBC and RTE series on TV here in 1991 called Bringing It All Back Home which truly resonated, featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, The Everly Brothers, Hothouse Flowers, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Mary Coughlan, The Waterboys, and so on. Then there was 1996’s Common Ground compilation, involving the likes of Tim and Neil Finn, Kate Bush, Christy Moore, and so on. I guess what I’m saying is that so much of what I love is shot through with those Celtic connections.
“Well, the thing is that all the threads are inter-connected, and I think you realise that when you delve into that type of music you’re brought up on. It’s kind of the same thing from me growing up in the northern United States. I never heard country music, but when I did hear it, I knew it was a close relative to folk music, which I grew up with. And that’s the thing that’s beautiful about the Transatlantic Sessions. It’s a sort of living representation of that on stage every night.”
How about your own heritage? You were born in New York and raised in Boulder, Colorado. How far back does that US link go with your family roots?
“Actually, they come back to England. My father’s side of the family was in America before it was the United States, in the 1600s, but I can trace his side directly back to England – pretty much 100 per cent. And on my Mum’s side there’s the usual mixture you get with Americans – a little bit English, a little bit German, a little bit French.
“But my father always had a really strong emotional tie to England. He was stationed near Peterborough during the war, and all his life he loved England, came here a lot, so I always felt there was some kind of ancestral pull.”
So when you played Cambridge’s Corn Exchange on this tour, you weren’t so far off.
“No, and on a previous tour I had enough time to go to the airfield where my Dad was stationed, and I found that an absolutely haunting experience. He was near a little town called Oundle (RAF Polebrook, which was designated USAAF 110), and I went to the pub and to the church, where there was a little section devoted to the American guys who were stationed there.
“My Dad was shot down on his 13th mission, so standing there on that airfield – which is now abandoned – and imagining him taking off in his B-17, to be shot down over the North Sea …
“That was his last mission. He was rescued, and they took him off active duty after that. He went back to the States and was training pilots, but that was a central event of his life, and I wrote a song about that, called ‘The Aviator’s Song’.”
That’s on 2004’s Halcyon. and well worth checking out. And did Gretchen get a proper chance to talk to him about all those experiences? Or did he shut it all away, as was so often the case with veterans?
“I did. He was not like a lot of men of his generation that wouldn’t talk about it. He would if you asked him, and in fact I had the presence of mind to interview him on video for the grandkids, and presumably for their kids, so we could preserve his story.”
So you’re busy for a couple of months back home and then you’re back with us again. And I reckon you must have your own private room on standby at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (where I caught Gretchen in May 2018, as reviewed here) by now.
“Ha ha! Well, that would be nice!”
The Strings Attached itinerary is billed as a unique, one-off tour, reprising the Celtic Connections appearance in Glasgow, with your regular band plus The Southern Fried String Quartet. Tell me more.
“Well, we did a show with these four wonderful Scottish women who play in a string quartet – two violins, cello and viola. And the first time we did it was at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth in July. And it was so much fun and people loved it so much that we thought immediately we had to do this again.
“So we’ve put a tour together and we’re doing it with the string quartet and my band, and the lovely thing about the strings part of it – aside from the fact that it deepens the music so much with the sound they make – is that we play a real cross-section of my entire song catalogue, all the way back to the beginning to right now. We have 10 songs which we have string charts written for, and they stand the entire 23 years. Whereas most of the time in recent years I’ve been touring a new album and doing lots of new songs, this is going to be much more of a cross-section of everything.”
And might there be a live album to tie in with all this?
“We’re hoping so, and we’re going to try and record some of the shows. We’ll certainly be hoping we get some great results. It’s really a whole different dimension when you add a string quartet.”
So do you manage to be creative on the road after all this time, making the most of that spare time you have between shows?
“I do, but I have to say it’s still not that easy. It’s not even so much the time management. What you’re doing when you’re touring is all sort of outward directed, And when I’m trying to write is so much about going inwards that it’s really hard to turn on a dime like that.
“I try and take care of myself on the road – that’s really the most important thing. I never seem to get enough rest. But it seems to have worked out. My writing output has stayed basically the same since I started, and whether I was writing daily or I did what I call binge writing – having a few weeks off and writing every day – I still end up writing the same amount of songs.”
Are you a note scribbler when it comes to new songs, or is it a case of a strum and a chord sequence, or a tinkling with Barry’s piano (so to speak)?
“Ha! I’m more about, when I get the first inkling of an idea, I’m generally more about a title or a line or even a concept. It usually starts with words for me.”
So are there new songs in the can from this first mini-tour of the year, ready to be honed in the studio on your return?
“Just little glimmers – they’re little fireflies in a jar at this point. They’re not real songs. The thing I do on the road that I am able to do is catch ideas and write them down and squirrel them away. The thing I’m not able to do is flesh them out, finish and edit them. That’s really a kind of hammer and nails aspect of it, and that’s the thing that really requires that downtime.”
Gretchen Peters’ Strings Attached tour this April takes in visits to Durham Gala Theatre (13th), Whitby Pavilion (14th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (16th), Sheffield City Hall Ballroom (17th), Bristol St George’s Hall (19th), London Cadogan Hall (20th), Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (22nd), and Bury St Edmunds The Apex (23rd). That will be followed by seven European dates, then a UK finale at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on May 5th. For more details head to her website and follow her via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.