Getting to Know Gretchen Peters
Gretchen Peters’ music is the kind that etches itself into your heart upon first listen. Her songs illustrate deep human emotions; she has an uncanny way to hit right to the core of the matter and leaves the listener spellbound. Gretchen’s no stranger on the country charts and her latest CD Blackbirds debuted at #1 in the UK Official Country Charts and was dubbed “an Americana tour de force” by The Sun. Gretchen Peters is a musical force to be reckoned with and is known as one of the best by her fellow Nashville writers and musicians.
To learn more about Gretchen and to hear more of her music, check out her website.
I’d love to learn more about your early years playing music. Is it true that you started out playing at clubs in Colorado? What kind of clubs did you play and what was the scene like?
I started playing in clubs in Boulder, Colorado when I was about 19. There was a really healthy and vibrant music scene there in the late 70’s and I had been following several local bands since my early teens, watching and learning. I played everything from fern bars to honky-tonks – anywhere I could get a gig. I played solo, as part of a duo, and with a full band. I think of it as my education in how to be on stage, how to be in front of an audience, how to pace a show, etc.
Who did you admire as musicians and songwriters when you were young? And have any of those musical heroes continued to inspire you over the course of your career?
The greats, for me, were Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and later on Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell. They all continue to inspire me. I think that Leonard Cohen was our greatest living lyricist, and I am drawn to his writing because of its mystery and power. There are so many lessons in a Leonard Cohen lyric.
Do you recall the first time you sat down to write a song?
I do – I went to see Dolly Parton in a small rock club in Denver (she was just starting to branch out of country music to reach a larger audience, and was touring these small rooms playing for much younger, more rock-oriented crowds) and I was so profoundly moved I went home and wrote what I consider my first serious song. I’d taken a few stabs at writing songs before but really I was more interested in singing other people’s songs up to that point. When I saw Dolly live I realized that her songs were very much a part of her being – there was something about it that really lit a fuse in me. It was like all the pieces of the puzzle came together – all the various things that I had always done – playing guitar, singing, writing poetry, self-expression – came together for me. I finished that song late that night, and I knew that it was a “real” song, not an imitation of the songs I’d heard on the radio. It came from a deeper place inside me. That was a real turning point.
Is songwriting an arduous task for you? Are you a disciplined writer? Or do you acquire bits and pieces of lyrics or melodies that you write down or sing into your phone and then go back and craft them into songs at a later date?
I don’t enjoy songwriting. I find it rather painful. It’s really the anticipation of writing that is the hardest. Once I get into a flow, of course, it’s great – but the thing about writing is that there is so much frustration you have to wade through before that state of flow happens. And sitting with the frustration is awful. It can make me cry, it can put me into a black mood. Once I even started smoking again during a particularly rough patch! I am quite disciplined although my writing habits have changed since I’ve been touring so much in the past 10 years. I don’t write every day; I write in binges. I’ll set aside a month or three just for writing. Sometimes I go hide out at my little place in Florida by myself and write all day every day for a week. But if I set aside time for writing, that’s what I do. I gather bits and pieces all the time, but I only write them down and come back to them when I’ve set aside time to write.
What was Nashville like when you first moved there? Did you do a lot of co-writing? Or did you write songs and pitch them to various artists or music management people?
Nashville was SO different when I moved here in the late 1980s. Music Row was just two streets of offices and studios which were all in little houses. No big corporate buildings. It was the kind of magical place where you could walk down 16th Avenue at 4pm on a Tuesday, and run into someone who’d then offer you a beer and next thing you know you’re inside someone’s office listening to the next Steve Earle album. I wrote at a little publishing company which also published Steve, and Gail and Ron Davies, and it was a magic time. I tried co-writing because everyone did it, but I never really warmed to it. I was lucky enough to have a wise and empathetic publisher who watched me struggle with it, and finally he told me to forget about co-writing and concentrate on solo writing. He said that the songs I wrote by myself were better, which I already knew, and that I should go with my strengths. Solo writing is slower – you don’t have a co-writer to hurry you up (which was one of the reasons I didn’t like it – I like to let a song gestate for a long while, sometimes months) – but my solo songs were deeper, more original and better.
You’ve always considered yourself a singer-songwriter rather than solely a songwriter. When your songs first came to the attention of some country stars in the late 80s and early 90s, did you envision how you would interpret these same songs on stage or on your own recordings?
Oddly enough, the songs that I wrote that were covered by other artists were never really the ones I wanted to sing myself, with a few exceptions. I was always drawn to my more quirky songs; I did have the ability to write “hits” somehow, but it was a mystery to me how that happened and I certainly couldn’t have done it on demand. Those songs that were hits just came out of me, and usually I felt that they weren’t right for me, as an artist. I can’t really explain why – I just always felt my path as an artist was going to be different. I think probably it was the fact that I started out as a folkie, and that was really at the core of who I was, so those big country hits just didn’t feel like me – although I dearly love country music and have a pretty considerable knowledge of it. I don’t have that kind of voice; I have the kind of voice that is best suited to telling you a story. One exception was “The Secret Of Life” – but I actually recorded that song on my first album before Faith Hill recorded it – she heard it on my album and loved it. That song was one I knew I wanted for myself, and it did turn out to be a hit song although not by me!
Once you achieved your first #! hit with George Strait’s rendition of “Chill of Early Fall” and your first Grammy nomination with Martina McBride’s version of “Independence Day,” did your life change considerably? Those are both two huge accomplishments — did you have any other music goals you wished for?
My life did change in many ways, especially after “Independence Day.” I felt that I’d found my voice as a writer, and the recognition from the music industry gave me confidence. A lot of doors opened for me; I signed with a record label shortly after that, and I began collaborating with Bryan Adams, who called me up out of the blue after hearing that song and asked me to come to Vancouver to write with him. He’s been my main exception to the no co-writing rule. I love him like a brother. But as much as I appreciated and was grateful for the awards and the recognition that those writing successes brought, my main goal was always to make records. I wanted to do what I’d always seen myself doing – which was all of it, from the writing of the song to making the record to going out and singing it for people. The whole continuum. That’s what had hooked me in my teens, and those artists I idolized – like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell – were writers, singers, performers. You didn’t separate the singing from the writing from the performing. It was just all part of the deal. That’s what I wanted to do.
Many of your songs have to do with everyday life — I am struck by the sadness in your songs. “Independence Day” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” are two powerful songs and depict the stories of women who feel unheard and disrespected. Do you create scenarios of characters when you write some songs? These songs feel like are short stories with a soundtrack to me… and I’m sure there are similar ones in your catalog.
I always approach songwriting like I’m creating a mini-movie. I’m a visual person, and I “see” my songs in my head. I think that’s why there are so many visual details in them, and that’s something I teach my students: show, don’t tell. I usually work hard on the back story of a character, to get to know her. I need to spend a lot of time with her so that I can understand how she thinks, what she feels. It’s very similar to what an actor does when preparing for a role. The real magic in songwriting, at least with story songs, only happens once the characters start talking to YOU. I do write a lot of sad songs, but I’m not a sad or depressed person – it’s more that I have a well of sorrow that I can always go to. It’s a familiar place for me, and I find the deepest songs there. I’ve always loved sad songs, since I was a very little girl. They make you feel something profound, they seem to lift a veil on the big mystery. As Leonard Cohen wrote: “the heart has got to open in a fundamental way.”
If you could name a song, an album, and a tour that you’re most proud of, what would they be?
Choosing a song is hard. But I think “Idlewild” and “The Matador” are two of the best songs I’ve written. As an album, Blackbirds is the best work I’ve ever done. I’m very proud of that record. Unusually, it was also the most successful album I’ve ever made – it won International Album and Song of the Year at the UK Americana awards and did better sales-wise than any album I’d made before. The 2 UK tours that we did in 2015 and 2016 were amazing. After 20 years of touring there, we found ourselves playing in some of the most beautiful venues in Great Britain, and selling them out. The London show this year at Union Chapel was probably the high point for me. We sold out the venue and played for 1000 people who just gave us back the most incredible energy. We (the band) felt like we were bulletproof. It was my favorite show out of many memorable ones.
When you’re not creating music, what do you do with your time?
I always have projects going. I have to, to be a happy person. I love photography (that visual thing again) and I do a lot of that. I love decorating (that visual thing – again!) and I’m always fussing with our house in Nashville – and it’s a very old house so there’s always something that needs attention. My husband Barry and I spend a lot of time in Seagrove, Florida, where we have a cottage – and we’ve just taken up kayaking which is amazing. I love to travel, but I mostly scratch that itch with all the touring we do. Photography and travel go very well together.
Gretchen Peters is playing at the me&thee coffeehouse in Marblehead, MA on December 9.