Interview with Gretchen Peters
After her recent sell out concert, Gretchen Peters was gracious enough to spend some time with Folk and Tumble and have a chat about her career, songwriting and her fans.
FT: Fantastic gig in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. A standing ovation is always good. You seem to really enjoy playing in Ireland.
GP: Oh yeah, and especially in Belfast because, well partly because I have a long history here, and the audiences here are just so with you.
FT: I remember seeing you play the Errigle Inn years ago, and as you said last night, you were playing small crowds when you first played here, and now you’re selling out the Lyric Theatre, which is no mean feat.
GP: Yeah, I still can’t really get my head around it. I mean, a parallel thing has been happening in England and Scotland. On one hand, I feel that we have been coming over here so much, and we worked so hard to get here, but on the other hand, I’m still kinda amazed that when we walk into the venues I think, wow, we sold this out! When I started, it was like 30 or 40 people.
FT: Talking about Ireland and local talent, moves us nicely on to a favourite of Folk and Tumble and a co-writer on quite a few of your songs now, Ben Glover. How did you meet up?
GP: I’m good friends with Mary Gauthier and Mary had met Ben through, I think, Mickey Raphael (harmonica player for Willie Nelson). She had toured with him over here. I had done a few tours where they just found some support that I had no relationship with that had been just added to the bill. So I just thought why don’t I pick my own support act.
So I got familiar with his material and I really loved what I heard. I asked Mary what’s this Ben Glover like? She said you’ll love him. So, I met him and listened to him and had him and his wife over for dinner, and I asked would he want to support on that tour and he said yes.
By the end of the tour, I did something that I never ever do which was ask him if he would co-write with me. I’m not a co-writer by nature. It’s never been that comfortable and Ben is really the only person I write with at all. I still get anxiety writing with someone in the same room, because you feel they may have an expectation that you’ll come up with something right on the spot, and I don’t write that way at all.
It can take a long time for a song to gestate with me. The thing about Ben is that I think he operates the same way as me and he’s very intuitive and there’s a way of being in the room and not being in the room when he doesn’t need to be. It’s very easy for us to kinda slide into a groove, where we write just thinking, and we don’t have to talk. He’s a really deeply soulful guy and very spiritual.
FT: On the new album ‘Dancing With The Beast’, there are a lot of dark themes and issues. Talking about America at the moment, it would be a lot easier to just compose a defamatory song like so many others, but you’ve chosen a different way; a more subtle approach perhaps but no least disparaging.
GP: You know I’m not an overtly political writer or a protest writer. I’m not a Steve Earle or an Eliza Gilkinson or a Woody Guthrie. I’m a storyteller. After the election, I felt, yes I’m not that kind of songwriter but I can’t ignore what is happening. We’re breathing it, we’re drinking it, and eating it, and it’s very toxic.
I talked to a lot of songwriting friends and asked how are you dealing with this? How are you writing in this climate? Everything is so chaotic and changing every five minutes. At one point I just wrote on my blackboard in my writing room, “tell one little story”, and I went at it that way.
So, the characters appear and they manifest themselves and they talk against the backdrop, the scenery for their lives is Trump’s America. I kind of think, in a way, that’s more of an emotionally effective way of opening people’s empathy channels rather than beating them over the heads with a political diatribe. That’s why ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ was so effective. You got inside Tom Joad’s skin and felt what it was like like to be him.
FT: It’s interesting to hear you say you’re not a political writer yet you raise consciousnesses about the veterans, the “me too” movement, mental health issues… That surely is political writing?
GP: But really just through inhabiting those people. I know I can’t write a character until I can empathise with them. A listener is not going to invest any emotion in a song unless they have empathy so the first thing you have to do is create empathy. To do that you have to be emotionally honest about who the characters are; good, bad, and everything in between.
FT: On the latest album, you created 9 or 10 different characters; female characters, some strong, some struggling with the hand they’ve been dealt. How much of you is in those characters, and how much is your song craft?
GP: It’s like asking if a song autobiographical or not. Well, it’s not and it is. The facts and the details are not my life, but that of the woman or the girl. There is some part that’s pulled at me for some reason. Do you know what I mean?
There are certain characters that really speak to you and appeal to you for different reasons and that certainly has something to do with who you are so it’s almost impossible to answer. I think it was interesting that the voices that emerged for this particular album given this particular climate were all women but I don’t think it’s surprising because I’ve been telling women’s stories pretty much all of my career.
The “me too” movement was just taking off at the time and I don’t think it was a coincidence that that was what I was writing about. I think that’s part of what an artist does. They sense what is happening under the surface and just pull it up.
FT: Has there been a change in the tone or timbre of your writing?
GP: Yeah, I mean I can pinpoint it. At some point, maybe around the start of ‘Hello Cruel World’, I really felt like I wasn’t digging deep enough. I felt dissatisfied. I felt, I knew I could write deeper. I could write truer, and I had coincidentally been through things in my life that forced me to be honest, and to be real.
I went through some really tough things around the time of that album, and I thought, I am just gonna be brutally honest. I’m gonna say the things that I thought about at 4 o’clock in the morning, that I think, and maybe others think, and I’m gonna say them. I gonna write them, and the thing that’s amazing about that is, when you sing those songs to people, they are not looking to you, they are looking to themselves.
It’s like holding up a big mirror to them. Then I lost my fear about it and I realised what a powerful thing it is to be really open about your own doubts and insecurities and it opened a whole new vein. I think my early writing, there was a lot of skill there, but it was about presenting the answers whereas the last few albums have been asking questions and searching for the answers.
FT: Do you find those songs difficult to sing because there is so much of you in those songs?
GP: No. The opposite actually. Even just this last year with this album coming out, I feel like I have such a great pool of songs to choose from to play live, and the audiences seem to like them. I can feel the audiences going on such an emotional journey with us from the first song to the end of the night, and that’s deeply satisfying.
My whole focus as a performer or songwriter is to take the audience on some sort of journey. I don’t want to just present a list of songs. I know there are old songs that are people’s favourites but we have to move. We did a gig in Perth and the first half was audience requests and the second half was the newer songs.
The most requested song was always ‘St. Cloud’, yet the most requested song at that gig was ‘Five Minutes’, a much newer song. That’s one of the things that’s so marvellous about audiences this side of the pond, and that’s they are willing to go along with me, and they don’t just want a re-hashing of their old favourites, but they are so game and loyal, it’s great.
FT: Because the songs resonate with them?
GP: I’ve had people come up to me after a gig in tears and that’s such a huge honour that they feel that open with me, and they’ll share the reasons why they were so moved with me. We’ve all got some dark stories and some of the songs do hit and connect.
FT: People take their meaning out of the songs too. There’s a line in ‘Arguing With Ghosts’ where you sing; “some days are like years, some years are like days, and I don’t know which one I hate the most”. I have heard people interpret this as a fight against depression, an abusive relationship, even watch a loved one drift into the abyss of dementia. I’m sure that’s not what the song was originally written about, but folks find solace in the words. Three lines, yet you encapsulate what people feel and are unable to articulate.
GP: Well, thank you. That song has connected with people in a lot of different ways. It’s touched a nerve much more than I anticipated. I think the dementia angle, while not intended, most of us have relations and been touched by it. I love that people take their own meaning out of my songs.
A song like ‘Dancing With The Beast’, people think it’s about addiction, women having an abusive partner or it’s about depression. I mean, they can take their own beast and find solace in the song. That’s great. Ben and I wrote it about depression, self-doubt, loss of self-esteem, and the voice inside you that says: “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough”.
FT: Thank you for taking the time to talk to Folk and Tumble. Hopefully we’ll see you again soon in Belfast.
GP: I hope so. Thanks for having me.