Gretchen Peters has just had time to grab something to eat but is happy to sit and talk. She’s warm and welcoming in person, mirroring her easy confidence on stage. It’s a confidence garnered from thousands of shows and a thick back catalogue, as well as an irresistibly honed series of her own albums that just get better and better with time.
Her latest release, Blackbirds (review here), is an exquisite Matryoshka doll, each song a layer of colour and depth that builds into a beautiful whole. The Cambridge audience heard many of the tracks from Blackbirds, as well as some old favourites and, it turns out, a few tracks purposefully chosen for the grandee of the UK’s folk festivals.
Aside from Blackbirds, Peters’ confidence extends to other aspects of her calling, including a healthy level of respect for that back catalogue and the hits for other artists that helped her make her name in Nashville. When she says ‘Are you going to tell me I’m not a real songwriter?’ the flame of pride rises quickly from within.
It’s lovely to see you Gretchen. I’ve just watched the set; how was it? It was our best one yet – I had a blast. I think it’s my third time. The first time we did not play the main stage; I think we played stage 2 and I can’t remember what year it was. Three years ago Barry and I played with Danny Thompson and that was pretty special. Danny’s just incredible – a wonderful human being, but this was the first time with a full band and it was so much fun. And you’ve made it to Stage One. There’s that thing where you feel like you have to better yourself, fill out the space, go one better. I love playing with this band so much. It was very comfortable up there.
Right from the first song you slipped into a groove – no nerves, no getting it together. I think that’s partly because these guys playing with me are so intuitive. Christine Bougie is one of the most intuitive musicians I’ve ever worked with, and Conor, who’s playing bass with us – same thing; he just zones in. How have you got it to click so well? It’s all based around my guitar, which is the opposite of how it’s done usually. Usually it’s the drummer who drives but I can’t do that. I guess I’m a classic singer-songwriter; I’m like ‘No, you gotta follow what I’m doing!’ And because they’re so intuitive they follow on. Of course, Barry and I have been making music for 25 years. – It’s not often you can see the sometimes subtle connections between two artists, but with Barry and yourself you can. Yeah, I often say that he and I play with one brain. That’s just because we’ve been doing it for so long, and partly because we’ve always had an affinity for each other’s playing and you don’t find that every time. It’s rare.
And many layered. It’s not just getting on, is it? There’s the musicality too. Well, I mean, we’re married, but that happened much much later. I often say music was our first language so really we started from a place where we could say to each other ‘This is what we do’ and so it hasn’t been the least bit problematic since adding a personal relationship into the mix. It’s great being married to your best friend and I think we’re both cut from the same cloth. We really love what we do.
Blackbird is your 7th album [not including live or covers album with Tom Russell]?
You know, I don’t even know. I’ve lost track. And do you count the best of’s and the live albums? How do go about choosing a 45-minute festival set with so much material to choose from? Well, a festival is an entirely different animal from a darkened theatre. You can’t do ballad after ballad after ballad without the risk of losing people. It’s light outside, you don’t get a dark room spotlight focus, it’s a different atmosphere and so I choose the ballads really really carefully and I also just go at the setlist for a festival in terms of what I feel we play the strongest. You know, pick nine or ten songs that feel absolutely right and go from there. And because this is Cambridge I feel like we have a little more leeway towards a song like Idlewild, for example.
It was a showstopper.
I think it’s a natural song for a folk audience, because it’s topical and I just felt very confident that they would get it, and they did.
You like the UK don’t you Gretchen? I adore it. They’ve been so, so good to me.
How does a Cambridge crowd compare to something like Telluride – are they different? Yes, I think UK audiences are different in general. One of the things I noticed when I first came here almost twenty years ago was that they’re less concerned with what box you fit in, and they seem to be more concerned with the lyrics. More tuned into the lyrics and you know, for a writer like me… I made a note during the set to the effect that the melodies hide some dark hearts, some deep bruises. People have to work to feel the benefit. You mentioned the emotional body count piling up on stage yourself. It’s just the way I’m made. Thank God there are people out there who like them. There are two kinds of listeners, right? People who find sad songs depressing, and us!
I love words. I really work hard on my lyrics and I work very very hard to try and only leave in the words that are absolutely essential to the song. When you play a festival for instance, there’s lots of distraction and you may miss something. If you miss a line in my song, you may miss the whole thing.
You love to play on words and structures too – a lot of your lyrics take the listener down a road that strongly suggests the last line of the verse is inevitable, only to pull the wheels from the car and spin that last line three-sixty. And that’s what I’m talking about! I think that’s key to why, for whatever reason, the UK just worked for me from word go. Because those tiny little audiences I was playing for 20 years ago, they were there to hear the words. And some of them were there today. No doubt. I still see faces from all that time ago.
I was going to ask you how it feels to have reached album number seven, but as I had to tell you that, we could skip it. [Gretchen laughs] You know, it’s a wonderful thing to be this far down the road… Does it feel like a career? I would use the word calling. First of all, it’s a wonderful thing to have my success come late, and be very steady and slow, which is rare these days. The success of Blackbirds took me by surprise. Did it? Well, yeah, it did. Hello Cruel World did well, didn’t it? It did, but Blackbirds has already superseded it. It’s just a wonderful thing because you don’t take anything for granted, not one little thing. To get to play to that crowd today, half the time I’m up there singing I’m thinking how great is this. It’s what I dreamed about when I was seventeen and it took a long damn time but nothing is lost on me in terms of gratitude.
It’s unusual for any artist to be given the room to breathe these days, for anyone holding the purse strings to wait patiently whilst a musician’s voice unfolds. Gretchen’s pre-solo period as a writer for artists other then herself has undoubtedly assisted in providing a base from which to grab some of that grace period, and she’s self-aware enough to acknowledge the journey she’s been on. When I got my first record deal twenty years ago I was almost paralysed by the sense of ‘Am I doing this right, am I doing well?’, this constant self-consciousness. As you get older and you just do it a lot, do 200 shows a year, you realise no one show is make or break. I guess there’s a lot to be said for seasoning!
I don’t worry so much what people think – I’m too busy now. I have a finite amount of time to write and sing the songs I want to and get out there on that stage and express them to people and I don’t have enough time to worry what they think. And that’s a blessing.
All the noise goes away. Yes, exactly.
I was introduced to your music via Halcyon. Songs like Imogene and Germantown were clear indicators that Peters could really write.
Yeah, 2004! That album seemed like a step forward for me, songwriting wise. As did Hello Cruel World; another step forward. When Hello Cruel World came out, it felt like my manifesto; if I could only say one thing to the world, then that was it. My goal is to try and write better and better songs. A note to younger artists; her goal isn’t seeking fame and fortune. In fact, as she confirms when I push a little about her earlier career, I was not heartbroken when my commercial success as a songwriter ended in Nashville. Honestly, although I’m very proud of those songs, I felt like I needed to write better. There were friends of mine who were not having success but writing brilliant songs. People like Jeff Black… even great artists like Guy Clark who were writing brilliant songs but not having success and I stood back and took stock and thought ‘I’m not writing well enough; if I was, I wouldn’t get any songs published’! It sounds backwards.
It doesn’t if you value songwriting over success. It’s a salient point given the ongoing discussions about what Nashville is these days. Talk to enough people in the industry about Nashville and two distinct noises rise to the fore. One is the machine, spitting out Bro Country and pop with banjos, the arcade, candy floss Nashville that’s come to be seen as the glossy smear across the city limits. The other remains the gritty heart of authentic Country music, its perception boosted by stars like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and that cadre of songwriters who eschew the machine for an approach that harks back to the DIY graft and slow-burn success of the 60s and 70s. It’s no wonder which side of the city Whispering Bob Harris chose to highlight in last year’s television travelogue, including, if you needed reminding, an extended piece at Peter’s home where Gretchen was joined by some of the artists who took the long road. What does Gretchen think about her home right now?
It’s an interesting thing. I was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame last year and initially, my discomfort with my earlier career as a songwriter and part of the machine made me wonder whether it was a good thing. There’s a tendency for people in Nashville to say ‘Oh, are you going to give the artist thing a shot now?’ and to me you’re either an artist or you’re not. The record label doesn’t tell you that you are, or give you the keys – you are or you’re not. So I used to respond to that question with an inward ‘ouch!’. In some sense, I distanced myself from the hits that I wrote but something happened when the Hall of Fame came knocking.
Any particular reason? I don’t know why, but I just internalised it all. Suddenly it was part of what I’ve done, even to the point where I can go out on a concert tour and play some of those old songs where I wouldn’t have before. I can’t tell you exactly what happened but I assimilated it all. There’s a strong argument to say you wouldn’t be able to do what you do now if it wasn’t for those hits. Exactly. There’s a dichotomy in Nashville. Are you on the dark side, the Music Row, hit making machine, or are you part of the ‘cool’ Nashville? And that was part of what was at work there. I finally said ’screw that’ – I wrote some really good songs that some really great artists turned into hits (Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood among them). I wrote for Bryan Adams, I did an animated movie with Dreamworks, I was nominated for a Golden Globe. Are you going to tell me I’m not a real songwriter?
I got right with all of it and it’s a much more comfortable place to be.
Just how comfortable was clear on Stage One. Her set is an easy one to slide into. Each of her songs is carefully pieced together; unhurried, carving out their own space, and those lyrics belying the grace of the melodies. She opens with When All You Got Is A Hammer, Blackbirds and Pretty Things, all of which receive a welcoming cheer of recognition from a crowd that gets involved with her and the band from the off.
The main accompaniment moves from piano to accordion for Black Ribbons, a co-write with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss about a major oil spill on the Louisiana coast. A cover of David Mead’s Nashville is a gentle nod to home, the song’s delicate tune barely moving the air in the tent but delivering ten times the force in content. She shows she can rock on Woman On The Wheel, forcing the tempo upwards. It’s also a brilliant example of the way she plays with words.
Hello Cruel World is superb, but the standout is the aforementioned Idlewild with its brutally beautiful message – ‘They think we’re driving / But I know we’re drifting’ and ‘We shoot our rockets, we shoot our presidents /We shoot the commies and the niggers and the Viet Cong /Everything changes, everything stays the same / And the moon hangs over Idlewild as the planes touch down’. It’s heartbreaking on record; live it just kills. The lyric may have their foundations in the unrest of the 60s, but the crowd responds to her claim that she’ll keep playing it until the sentiment is no longer relevant with the biggest cheer of the day.
A consummate performer then, and an engaging interviewee off stage, Gretchen Peters writes music that demands to be heard; literate, mature and beautiful. Go listen.
Review by: Paul Woodgate