Welcome to an edition of Headliners,a new interview series here on Entertainment Vine. We strive to interview the very best in the world of music,books and music. The names might not be household names yet while others you may already know. The challenge is to go deeper with these wonderfully gifted talents and see the human side of them.
Gretchen Peters. Ever buy any of her albums? Turned on country radio and hear the personality announce her next huge single? Or turn the country video station on just to see her next blazing video? Most will say “No,I haven’t done any of that because I don’t know who Gretchen Peters is” Well,you couldn’t be more mistaken,Gretchen Peters is a legendary songwriter and quite a singer in her own right. She has won many awards during her long and very productive career,including the CMA for Song of the Year for “Independence Day”,which is Martina McBride’s biggest hit to date. Peters has written hit songs for a Who’s who…not only in country music(Trisha Yearwood,Faith Hill) but rock as well (Bryan Adams) and one of the blues singer in American history,Miss Etta James. Thats just a small sample of the artists she has written songs for…yet more people in the UK attend her shows then if she toured solo here in America. But thats always been the curse of American music,the truly great writers like Peters,John Doe,Barbara Manning and Dave Alvin always get overlooked by cookie cutter acts and tired “hat” acts pushed on the public by clueless record labels who have no idea of the talent they have.
Gretchen Peters was born in New York,not exactly Nashville. She found her way to Nashville in the late 80’s right when country’s last real singers were slowly being forced out by marketing groups and new blood that had no idea what real country music really was….she earned a record deal by 1996 but fell victim to a label that had no clue on how to promote her.
Gretchen continued to write,record and even tour….releasing CDs in Europe to critical acclaim.
Then after 23 years of marriage,Gretchen divorced her husband who also acted as her manager and booking agent. While this was a emotionally hard time for Gretchen,she channeled the experience into writing perhaps her finest CD to date,”Burnt Toast & Offerings” which was released here 9 August 2007. This is no country album,its far more deeper then mere country,this is a perfectly created and sung Americana and roots flavored effort,filled with bitterness,longing and an edginess that Peters has rarely expressed herself but has let others do it for her in various songs she has written. It takes courage and a certain bravery if you will,to open one’s soul to world no matter the cracks and crevices that might there.
I am a HUGE Gretchen Peter’s fan…and consider her one of the very best in American music history. Buy a CD or see a live performance and come tell me I’m wrong….I have a feeling I’ll be waiting for a LONG time!
And now…….Headliners with Gretchen Peters
EV This new album signals major life changes for you personally,how does one write music after such a trumatic event?
GP: The real question is how does one NOT? I had a brief interval where I asked myself if I was going to write about my divorce and all of the other things that were going on, but when you’re faced with arguably the most dramatic circumstances of your life, how can you not write about it? Not writing about it would be like not acknowledging the elephant in the room. I now look at it as a gift that I was given. I have told a lot of stories in my songs, but this one is my story.
EV: You clearly are one the most gifted songwriters alive today,how does it feel less gifted artists reap the benefits of your writing?
GP:Firstly, I don’t look at writing or singing or music in general as a competitive sport – all artists ought to be trying to find the thing that is uniquely “them” rather than competing. Some of us may write better, sing better – but isn’t that all really in the eye (or ear) of the beholder anyway? I don’t rank myself in terms of talent or anything, although I do judge myself all the time – am I writing as well as I can? am I singing/playing/emoting at the top of my ability? Am I learning? That’s the craft and the experience factor coming into play. But when another artist records one of my songs I’m, first and foremost, flattered. It means that they feel they can inhabit the character in the song – that they have found something in their own experience that resonates – and after all, that’s exactly what I’m hoping to do as a writer every time I sit down to write a song…
EV: The current country music scene seems really stale with cookie cutter acts like Sugarland and Taylor Swift,how can Nashville get its soul back? Why is so quick to abandon the artists that put it on the map?
GP: I think that to a great extent what’s happened in Nashville has happened overall in our culture. We live in a culture where celebrity is valued over artistry, where everything is for sale, where anything that can be packaged can and will be, and then marketed to the lowest common denominator. It’s unfortunate, it’s sad, but I don’t know that there’s much hope that the mainstream record labels will ever regain any real level of integrity. They are in the hands of accountants and lawyers. The halcyon days of the record business really happened before anyone realized that a lot of money could be made. The inmates were in charge of the asylum then – and it was a wildly creative, but very brief time in history. I’m talking about the late 60s and early 70s, primarily. Country music and pop music were really on parallel paths, at their zenith.
The bright side is that more and more artists are realizing that they can take matters into their own hands. I was lucky enough to be able to buy the master of my first album back, so that I own all of the rights and control my own destiny, artistically speaking. I never looked back. I am not what the major labels want – and they’re not what I want either.
EV: When did you know that you wanted to create music? What was the first song you ever wrote?
GP: I think I was five years old. I was on a car trip with my family and I was in the back seat with my big sister. I got an idea about “weeping willows”. Even then I was writing sad songs.
I learned the guitar at seven years old – at an arts camp where we put on plays, painted and made music, that sort of thing. I just gravitated towards it because it was a way of expressing myself. I also danced, painted, wrote poetry – I was just always trying to say something creatively. It didn’t really dawn on me that I could play music for a living until a high school boyfriend suggested it. It was like a lightbulb went on. I never really seriously entertained any other career aspirations after that.
EV: What is really great about you is you don’t forget your roots,what can songwriters do to stay true to their selves musically?
GP:I think you have to listen to your gut. Your instinct is probably the truest thing about you. I tell this to new songwriters all the time. Take advice, by all means – listen to critiques – but use your instincts above all. They will not steer you wrong. You can’t be something you’re not, much as you may admire it – and your gut will tell you when you’re trying to, if you’re willing to listen.
EV Take us thru the steps about writing this album,where were you when wrote each of the songs? Is songwriting a group thing or a private process for you?
GP:Songwriting is intensely private for me most of the time. I only co-wrote one song on the album, with David Mead. I love writing with David because he totally honors my need to go hide away with the lyric by myself, and work it out – he doesn’t need to write the song all in one sitting.
Most of these songs I wrote, or completed, down in Florida in a little house I have there. I like to go away by myself and work. I spend a week or so at a time down there and really don’t talk to anyone, just write and mess around with demos and things. It puts me in a completely different brain-space. But the ideas for the songs, of course, came at all different moments. During the tumultuous year when I left my husband, moved out and was going through quite a bit of drama, I was really only able to put down bits and pieces of ideas. I wasn’t able to process what I was going through – but I did catch bits of inspiration out of the air and squirrel them away… For instance, titles: Ghost, The Lady Of The House, Jezebel, Thirsty – these were all ideas that I had during that time. I knew I needed some time to go by – some perspective on the situation. I didn’t want this record to be bitter, or angry – I was interested in finding illumination, not recrimination. I wanted to tell my story, but I wanted to do it with some wisdom and insight.
EV: What is the biggest difference between touring Europe and the US?
GP: Things are closer together! It’s relatively easy to cover the whole of the UK in three weeks – it takes months to cover the US. The audiences are different, too. You can’t really generalize about Europe, though – depending on what country you’re in you’ll find a very different sort of audience. UK audiences, with whom I’m most familiar, are very knowledgeable about music, very informed. They love lyrics and can quote you lines from your own songs. They are great liner-notes readers. They tend to be quiet – sometimes you think you’re bombing up there but they’re just very restrained and polite. Then at the end of the show they’ll give you a standing ovation and you wonder what just happened. The Irish and Scottish audiences are more vocal, more like American audiences. I’ve played in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, too – both areas where English is widely spoken. That’s important if your lyrics are front and center like mine are. Overall the Europeans appreciate American music in a big way – I think sometimes more than Americans.
EV: Many artists write social-political songs…should commerical radio take sides or just play the music regardless of the issue?
GP:Everyone needs to remember that commercial radio is not in the music business, they’re in the advertising business. They will do whatever they need to do to sell advertising. First and foremost that means not pissing off either their clients or their audience. Commercial radio, therefore, is probably NOT the place to go to hear any meaningful commentary on the social or political state of the world…
EV: How the Nashville process work in terms of placing a song with a major act (in other words,how did Faith and Martina end up your songs?)
GP:I came to town in 1987 and looked for a publisher. A publisher goes out and plays your songs for artists, record companies, A&R people… I really wanted a publishing deal more as an avenue towards getting a record deal and because I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. I never envisioned being a “Nashville hit songwriter”. I was just a folkie who loved country music and couldn’t figure out where else to go but Nashville. They were signing Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle to record deals, so Nashville made a certain amount of sense to me. But my publisher was successful in pitching my songs to artists like Faith Hill and Martina McBride. I never had a direct hand in it; I can’t think of anything I’d rather less do than to pitch my own songs.
EV: Tell us one thing we DON’T know about Gretchen Peters.
GP:I am a complete techie. I love gadgets, love my Mac, just got a new iPhone – I love all of that stuff. I definitely have a left-brain side which keeps me fairly organized and probably explains my fondness for all things high-tech. I hate TV though – haven’t watched it for years and only just got a flat-screen for watching movies. I think TV sucks your brains right out of your head.
EV: Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
GP:It would have been great to recognize sooner that I had the ability be in control of my own destiny, artistically speaking. But I wouldn’t be the person I am, wouldn’t have made the record I just made had that journey been any easier. The hard-won epiphanies are the ones that stick with you. I’m very happy and satisfied where I am right now, and I wouldn’t give you two cents to go back.
EV:What would Gretchen Peters like her legacy to be?
GP: Just imagining that there is a legacy to be left is a bit mind-boggling. I would like to have made an impression on people’s hearts, the same way music has made an impression on mine. I would love to think that there might be some young girl out there with a guitar who is emboldened, engaged or inspired by something I did. That would be wonderful.
My thanks to Gretchen for her help and time.
To buy a copy of “Burnt Toast & Offerings” please go here
Review by Michael Sullivan