Interview

Vanessa Peters on "The Burden of Unshakeable Proof" and More

Photo courtesy of Carissa Byers

Vanessa Peters' The Burden of Unshakeable Proof  was recorded, produced, and mixed by Rip Rowan (Old 97's, Rhett Miller) in their recently completed home studio in Dallas, Texas. A lazier writer would simply list several women singer-songwriters to whom Peters might compare, and leave it at that. (No, this is not a dig at women singer-songwriters.) But Peters' metaphor-rich songs remind me of Josh Ritter, perhaps not in sound or style, but in the depth and substance of her skillfully crafted  lyrics.  

The Burden of Unshakeable Proof  finds Peters, backed by a full band, exploring matters of the head and heart in ten indie-pop-flavored folk-rock tunes that are often melancholy but from a reflective rather than gloomy perspective. Then again, lyrics alone don't make a great album and Peters is equally skilled at setting her words to hook-filled melodies, which she delivers with restrained yet crystal clear vocals. 

Hal Bogerd: How and when did you get into songwriting?

Vanessa Peters: I studied creative writing and was planning to be a novelist or write short stories. When I graduated from university, I was considering enrolling in a Masters of Fine Arts program. I graduated when I was 20 and I decided I wasn’t quite ready to go to grad school that young. I took a year off to travel and I went back to Italy, which was a place I was already familiar with. One thing led to another and I ended up staying there for a long time.

The first year that I was living there, I taught myself to play guitar. I decided that maybe what I wanted to do was write songs instead of books, and that changed my path entirely. I still do write for myself but I’ve never tried to publish anything other than songs. I’ve toyed with the idea of a short story collection, but honestly I’m so out of practice. I find the process of writing anything longer than a song pretty daunting at the moment.[laughs]

Could you pick a track or two from The Burden of Unshakeable Proof as an intro to your music for someone unfamiliar with it?

"All of These Years" was almost the title track, and then that mantle almost passed to "206 Bones," and either would have been more manageable. But ultimately I decided The Burden of Unshakeable Proof was more encompassing for me. Both of those other titles, at the end of the day, would have made those songs "title tracks," and I wasn't sure if I wanted to assign that weight to either. 

The title, which is taken from a verse in "All of These Years," is about those truths [or] proofs that you search for with a certain amount of dread. You know that, upon proving your suspicions or fears to be correct, you're now going to have to bear the weight of that heavy truth.  Ignorance is, if not bliss, sometimes easier to deal with.

"206 Bones" was inspired by the book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony F. Marra.

I get the impression that you’re a happy person writing sad songs.

That’s what everybody says. [laughs] I guess that’s true. I do consider myself to be a pretty happy person. Like everyone, I’ve definitely gone through some times that were pretty dark.

I haven’t gone through a real divorce, although my last relationship ending was pretty close to a divorce. It involved the band breaking up and me and the guitar player ending our relationship. I’ve had a few things that brought me down, but generally speaking, I guess I am pretty happy. I’m pretty optimistic. We’ll put it that way. In general, I don’t usually stay down for too long, but when I am down I usually try to channel it and write songs. Writing songs is a pretty good outlet for those feelings.

Could you tell the story about your nephew, you, and Aimee Mann?

My nephew loves music. He’s four.  I got my sister into Aimee Mann years ago and so she has a big Aimee Mann collection just like I do. They were here for the holidays and whenever they are here I usually play guitar with him a little bit, but he’s never seen me at a show. He does know my music, because whenever my sister puts on one of my albums he always says “This is Aunt Nessie.”

On the way home she popped in an Aimee Mann record, I don’t know which one,  and as soon as  she started singing he asked “Mommy, Mommy is this Aunt Nessie’s new record?” because we’ve been talking about it over Christmas. She just cracked up and said, “No, it is another singer,” and my nephew said, “It sure does sound like Aunt Nessie.” I just thought that was hilarious.

You can’t ask for a more honest critic than a four year-old.

I love Aimee Mann and I love her writing style. I never really thought that our voices sound that similar, but I’ve been told that they do by many people. I know none of us are a good judge of the way that we sound to everybody else. I guess we do sound more alike than I would have ever thought, if a four year-old can make that leap immediately.

I read that you and Rip built a studio [Electrofonic] at your house. If you’re not paying for studio time, do you find yourself tempted to go for multiple takes? Or are you the type that wants to go in and get it done?

On all my other records, I was in a studio under the clock and watching the budget. This time we wanted to do the opposite and give ourselves as much time and space as possible to work on the record. Rip has been a co-owner in a different studio for years, so he’s used to working in a more relaxed fashion. He’s an engineer who does the mixing of the record, so he gets to do that on his own time on his own schedule. 

I was much more accustomed to working on the clock and he wanted me to have the experience of being able to do it slowly and at our own pace. I’m a nervous studio person. Some people love to get in the studio and can’t wait to do a whole bunch of takes. I tend to get a little bit frustrated because I’m so much of a perfectionist, and if I don’t nail it by the third take I’m sort of down about it. [I worry,] "Why can’t I get this!?”

We did have to do the first half of the record, not on the clock but pretty quickly because Daniele Fiaschi, who played guitar on the record, came over from Italy. He’s a friend of ours and he was only in Texas for about ten days. We cranked out a ton of guitar tracks with him and we didn’t do any of the vocals until after he left.

We did the first mixes and then we took them with us on a tour we did last fall. We lived with them for a while and then, when we came back, we were able to make the changes that we wanted to make and get it mixed and sent off. It’s amazing to have this space that we can come out to in the morning or afternoon and work on our own schedule.

I read that you recorded over 25 tracks for the record.

We thought about doing a double album. We considered doing some four- or five-song EPs. Ultimately we decided that it was just getting too complicated, trying to think of all the different permutations. We chose the ten songs we felt lived best together and now we have a whole other batch to continue working on.

I saw your TED talk,  Making Music in the Age of Free, about the changes in the music industry, album sales, Spotify, and  crowdfunding...

I hate public speaking. [laughs] It is impossible to condense a topic like that into 15 minutes. There were about eight million things I wanted to say and not enough time to say it all.

I know it is not an ideal system with crowdfunding, but hopefully there is a real reward in having a true, loyal fan base.

Yes. Even though I don’t tour as much as I used to, I still have that core fan base that I made when I was on the road a lot. I’ve found that most of them have stuck with me, which has really been amazing. It would have been financially impossible to make not only this record but the others too.

All my records have been crowdfunded except my very first one. I still had a regular 9 to 5 job then, and poured all of my money into it. I’ve been doing crowdfunding for all of my records since 2004, long before Kickstarter. I just did it with PayPal systems. I’d make an order page on my website and direct people there. 

It’s amazing how people are willing to help you make your music by paying up front and knowing many months may pass before they actually get their CD or T-shirt.

You said you’re not touring as much but you’ve spent a lot of time touring in Italy in the past. Could you comment on touring in Italy and the rest of Europe?

It’s a complicated relationship, since I did live in Italy for so long, I’m fluent in Italian, and my previous band was three Italian guys. When I first started booking shows over there, I won’t say there were no booking agents that spoke English, but usually if you contacted a venue or a booking agent and you didn’t get a reply, it wasn’t necessarily because they weren’t interested. It was literally a language barrier. It’s one of those countries where it definitely helps to speak the language. You can find yourself lost in a small Tuscan hill town and no GPS is going to save you when you dead end on the road where the GPS says the venue is, and it turns out you’re 30 kilometers from where you are supposed to be, and there is just one little old lady who is trying to tell you how to get there. When I’ve brought my American band with me, they were like “Man, if you didn’t speak Italian, what we would have done?”

In the Netherlands and Germany, where for the most part they speak English extremely well, they can follow the lyrics and they’re really into American singer-songwriters. I guess ... because I was from Texas, there was probably some appeal, whereas here in Texas I am one of hundreds, if not thousands, of singer-songwriters. But most of them don’t make the journey over [to Europe].

One of the things I find to be different over there, compared to here, is that a very small town in Texas doesn’t often have a little cultural club that might host international touring artists once a month. [But] in the Netherlands, there are tiny tiny towns that probably don’t have 50 or 60 people that live in them, but every third Sunday they have someone come through. Sometimes the money gets raised by ticket sales, sometimes those places are nonprofits that get grant money. But the point is they host these things. Not only do they host them but they get a huge turnout because everyone in the village comes out. Here in Dallas, we sometimes struggle to get 20 or 30 people to a show unless we promote the hell out of it. Over there, we’ll have 20 or 30 people show up in a town of 50 people. It never ceases to amaze me that these people are so passionate about it. 

People from the Netherlands are extremely blunt. They will walk right up to you and tell you, “We've never heard of you but you were the monthly thing this month, so here we are and we are glad we came.” Or they will tell you, “You sound exactly like X, Y, or Z.” They make no bones about telling you whatever is on their mind. 

It is a totally different world and there are pluses and minuses ... but I really do enjoy playing over there. It is getting harder to tour over there just like here, because gas prices have not come down there and a lot of the places have lost their funding. Like everywhere, art grants are getting smaller. It is tough but it is fun whenever we can make it work.

Really enjoyable interview Hal..."All of These Years" is a fine track...the trials and tribulations of the independent artist these days, illustrated yet again...