Gretchen Peters recently released ‘Blackbirds’, which is widely perceived as one of her best albums to date. We interviewed Gretchen on her recent UK tour and you can see her at Cambridge Folk Festival 2015. I began by asking about the way the new album questions a lot of the things we face as we grow older, how we react to them and how you’ve reacted to them, it is a really refreshing angle to take.
I am in a position to maybe take that kind of risk, where some other artists have more to lose, maybe than I do, I don’t know, maybe that’s just my outlook.. it’s hard for me to know .. I kind of felt the same way about the last album “Hello Cruel World” I thought well I’m in a position to examine these things, self doubt, the reality versus being tied up with a pretty bow fantasy. I guess the bottom line is that’s what I am interested in writing about, you can think about the risks you might or might not be taking artistically, but at the end of the day the songs are going to win out and if that’s what’s on your mind and that’s what’s in the room with you that’s what you are going to write about so.. I almost feel like perhaps it’s risky but on the other hand I don’t feel like I have much choice
There must always be a tension between what you can write as an artist and what you can make a living from commercially as a song writer?
That’s right, I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is I’ve never had the massive commercial success as an artist that would ever make me feel like I had that much to lose?. And I say that as a positive thing really.
I have had a slow growing career and in hindsight that looks like the best kind of career to have. If I had had huge success with a single, I would have felt as if I were standing of some sort of precipice and if I made the wrong move I would fall off and rather than that I have just climbed slowly and done pretty much what I wanted to do the whole time. So the people that have come along for the ride are sort of there for the right reasons. They seem very much willing to go with me wherever I go and that really is the best kind of career to have.. for me at least.
Being inducted into the national song writers hall of fame must have been a great affirmation of your career.
It was, it was so moving. I felt that night that I had done so much of the work that had got me there in isolation, so to have your peers validate you in such a public way, when they really had no vested interest in what I did, was really very pure. It was like ‘We’ve seen what you’ve done, well done’. And that really means a lot to me because although I did kind of go my own way most of my time in Nashville, it is still a community, which really means a lot to me.
You see a lot of younger artists suddenly propelled to fame who are defined by ‘a hit’ that seems to define them for ever more and they can’t escape it. So I think you’ve probably done really well in NOT being tied down to that!
At times I have actively fought that, at times it would have been easy for me to have been the person who wrote independence day, but I always had something different in my sights, in terms of my own goals, which were really simple; I just wanted to make records. In certain circles I had to fight against the perception that thought of me as a ‘Nashville’ song writer, writing songs for other people,
Nashville is huge, almost genre of its own isn’t it?
It’s a machine yeah. People over here won’t appreciate that and in some ways Brits will just judge you on your merits
That’s what I found when I first came over almost twenty years ago. At the time that was a huge relief to me because I had just put out a record in the States, my first record and it was being marketed as a mainstream country record and it did terribly. I knew in my bones that it was the wrong approach, I was being put in the wrong box, but when someone presumably knows more than you do, you know ‘yeah we can make this work’ then you try it and go for it! But over here I didn’t run into that preconceived idea about who I was, I just found people who liked the music and I went on from there and kept coming back and built my career over here and somehow seemed to work organically right from the start.
It’s interesting I guess as we don’t have those preconceptions here.
Yeah you know you also have wonderful presenters on radio who simply play the music that they think is worthy, taste makers whose opinions matter to other people and it’s not just all focus grouped, that’s huge to me, that’s how radio was to me when I was growing up and that’s so important, it’s important to people who love music to have people who can help them find it.
So what is the most enjoyable part of all this is for you? Is it the writing of the songs? the arranging? the performing? Or seeing the songs develop and grow as you play them live?
That’s tough! It’s not the writing, it’s definitely not the writing, the writing is extremely rewarding, but enjoyable is not a word I would choose!
So it can be kind of raw can it?
I find it kind of excruciating! I don’t even know why? It’s something I never feel like doing, but it’s something I never feel good unless I’ve done it? If you know what I mean? I LOVE making records, I really really love it, I love being in the bubble of the studio, with a bunch of great musicians and this record in particular because there’s a bigger group of great musicians, on one of the two tracking days when we tracked this album seven of us playing all at once, it was the biggest band I have ever tracked with and that was just such a joy!
How much rehearsal did you do for that? did you get everyone together a lot before hand ?
We didn’t get any rehearsal before at all! I learned from the previous album to leave a lot more up to chance, than I previously might have been comfortable with; I leaned to trust that these are great great musicians and some things can happen spontaneously, you can beat the daylights out of them with too much rehearsal. So we didn’t do any at all, and I did the two versions of Blackbirds I went in and asked my co producers Barry and Doug, which version shall we do? I’m torn I really love both of these for different reasons and Doug said well let’s do both of them and see what happens and so we ended up with the sort of bookend thing on the record.
It must be…
Yeah you’re just in there with yourself, when its going well it’s wonderful, but when it’s not (which is most of the time) its pretty excruciating!
Well you’ve touched on a lot of themes with the songs on this album, which are big issues aren’t they?For me our mortality the big issue, I mean what have you got love and death that’s pretty much the two big stories?If you’re lucky
Exactly and you know like I said that’s what was in the room, I am of an age where I have started to lose some friends, I have very elderly parents, I see things from that perspective, that’s what’s on my mind and it’s interesting to me as I have said before. Watching certain male singer songwriters I very much admire Leonard Cohen, but there are quite a few who deal with ageing and deal with it in their art, I just think it’s an incomplete picture of the world without a woman’s point of view.
It is fascinating the way you can illuminate the different angles of aging, maturing and coming to terms with the realities of life. That’s what stood out for me on the album, I lost my parents a few years ago and I think that is one defining moment when you actually become an adult, not in the sense of being responsible, but in accepting your own mortality.
Yes when you become the eldest generation, Rodney Crowell married Barry and me four years ago and we asked him to sing his song ‘I Know Love is all I Need’ and the song actually starts out with him talking about his parents, seeing his parents in a dream as they’ve both gone now, that verse was extremely meaningful to us, getting married in our middle age. Both of us had lost our fathers very recently, that is absolutely a defining moment of middle age and there is just an unhealthy taboo about what you can talk about, but I find that the people I end up playing for every night are hungry to hear someone tell the truth about those things.
Even just one line in a song can encapsulate feelings, emotions, despair, so many different things, almost the way a picture or painting can. Do you find particular lines or choruses that resonate with the audience? Are they always the things that are meaningful to you or are there other parts of it?
Sometimes I’m surprised and I think that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about live performance and also its part of the journey of the song happens when you are playing it live..if it’s a good song it almost continues to be written as you sing it. I end up finding things in my own songs that I didn’t even realise were there and that is a gift given to me by the audience because they’re finding them and we are sort of finding them together. A lot of song writing to me is not self expression, its self discovery, so, I can write a song and hear a line two years later, that I wrote and sort of surprise myself, because I didn’t really know that was in there. So very definitely there are many opportunities for an audience to show me what is important to them and that is one of the things I would so miss if I was sitting in a room, I don’t know what my motivation to write would be frankly? If I didn’t get a chance to go out and experience it.
The best songs, seem to keep growing, there a few songs that I have written, maybe a handful, that I have never stopped singing, because I keep finding new places to go within them and they don’t all survive that, but I think the best ones do for sure and it is tough, what the people don’t really see (and you don’t really want them to see) is how physically brutal it is, it’s really demanding on your body and exhaustion really takes its toll and I was pretty much spent after a year of touring with Hello Cruel World and had to take about six months and just really take care of myself, I was fully and completely spent, but you know I really can’t complain, I get to do exactly what I want in life and I know most people can’t get to say that!
How agonising is it coming up with a set list? Because it strikes me …
Are reading my mail?! Because I’m having trouble … and it is a bit agonising… last time out with ‘Hello Cruel World’ we performed the whole album, in sequence and I think it worked really really well, there were very few people that were a bit disappointed that wanted more of the older songs, although we did do four or five of those at the end of the show and having done that I don’t want to do that again. So its kinda crossed that bridge, but of course we want to play the new songs and we’re going to play a very healthy dose. but I think with the whole hall of fame induction something happened that made me internalise my earlier success and made it feel more incorporated into my overall career if that makes sense. I am able to own more of those earlier songs in a way that I just haven’t. As you can tell it’s really hard for me to verbalise
I guess those songs are set in time aren’t they?
Yeah I have sort of come to terms with it in a way? That sounds as though that were a negative thing, but I guess I am willing to… I see all the work I have done since then and I think other people see it and so I am more willing to go back to those older songs and say ‘yeah lets listen to this for a minute’.
So it’s allowed you to be more objective about your work then?
I guess the bottom line is that I don’t feel I have a lot to prove. And that’s a great place to be! It’s a really REALLY nice place to be! And so we’ll do a lot of the new songs because that’s what we are kind of here for and we’ll go back and revisit some of the old ones because, why not?
Do you vary your performance through the tour, tweak the set list around a little bit?
There’s always some tweaking that happens, partly because we are coming with the biggest band I have ever brought for this tour, you know I really want to take advantage of that, let everyone stretch out to their fullest extent so I’m sure on earlier dates we’ll find what’s really a sweet spot and we’ll play with that and we’ll work on that, those discussions usually happen in the van after the gig over a bottle of wine! ..”hey you guys you know what we should do!” is kind of how it works then by the end of the tour we think we’ve really got it tweaked perfectly so can we go back and do it all again?