Nashville based Singer Songwriter Gretchen Peters has become something of an overnight sensation in the UK of late, despite touring here for almost 20 years. Her ninth album, Hello Cruel World, has garnered much critical acclaim and her latest solo tour is selling out venues all over the country. We caught up with her in London to find out more.
MTTM: You’ve become known more as a songwriter than a recording artist, even though you’ve released so many albums, do you ever regret the path that your career took in that respect? Was it ever difficult to hear other people performing your songs and having so much success when your albums weren’t necessarily getting so much recognition?
GP: I think that regretting the path you’ve taken is so pointless as to be moot. I think that I ended up in the right place. But having said that, sometimes – yes. Sometimes it’s been frustrating. Funnily enough, less so in the UK for me than in America. In America, for a long time, I was even more so known as a songwriter. At least in the UK I had a touring career early on and so I felt like I had dual identities here as a performing artist and also as a songwriter. But I wouldn’t say I regret it. For one thing, I knew early on when I moved to Nashville that I had to establish myself as a songwriter because otherwise if I were to have gotten a record deal they probably wouldn’t have believed in my songwriting ability. In that sense, I had to do that and beyond that it’s just the way it happened. The other thing is that some of those songs really opened huge doors for me and also enabled me financially to decide what I wanted to do next. It put me in a much more comfortable position to say I want to start my own record label, I don’t want to be with a major label anymore. So regretting it would be a really slippery slope. Who knows what would’ve happened!
MTTM: How did those people pick up on your songwriting? How did they end up recording your songs in the first place? You started from nothing, how did you end up with these massive people singing your songs?
GP: Early on, when I first moved to town, I found a publishing deal. I found a publisher who believed in me and I got a few little songs cut by big artists. My very first recording was by George Jones. It wasn’t a hit but it was George Jones. We sort of built on that over a couple of years, and then I had a hit, and then I had another hit. At that point, artists are very savvy and if your name keeps coming up then they really start looking for you and going to the publisher and saying oh well what else have you got by her.
MTTM: The public don’t always see that side of it. I think a lot of people would know who was singing the song but they wouldn’t necessarily always find out who was actually writing it. You always hear about the root of how the artist ended up as a recording artist, but you don’t always hear the other side of it, of how the songwriter ended up writing the song.
GP: Right. And Nashville’s very different from pretty much any other place on earth in that the songwriter is elevated much more, and known much more than anywhere else. But at some point, in the music industry anyway, people started to know who I was and that made it much easier of course. Then, what I noticed, because at the same time I was making records too, a lot of artists started just picking up on songs that I had written because they had my records. My records in some sense became the best advertisement for my songs. The Secret Of Life, On A Bus to St Cloud, Over Africa was recorded by the Neville Brothers, This Uncivil War was recorded by Martina McBride. There were probably five or six songs off the first album.
MTTM: But a lot of those artists weren’t particularly big over here in the UK as they were in America, so I suppose that gave you more notoriety there but a little bit more freedom here because people don’t necessarily know those big artists. You could say Martina McBride to a lot of people here and they probably wouldn’t know who she was.
GP: That was true, but also I started touring here when my first record came out in 1996, so I started building an audience here way back then, 16 years ago. I think the other thing about the UK, which worked for me and felt very comfortable for me, is there is much less of a sharply defined box that they put you in. You can say a country artist over here and you could be talking about me or you could even be talking about Sheryl Crow on certain records.
MTTM: Country obviously has a lot more connotation in the US than it does in the UK. You don’t get all the heritage attached to it because people don’t necessarily know or didn’t experience the history.
GP: For me that was a blessing. My first record came out in the US and was roundly rejected by country radio and didn’t work as a country record. I wasn’t Shania Twain which is where they were going. Over here I found an audience that didn’t seem to care about that. Radio didn’t seem to be so concerned about who you are and where you fit. That was enough to keep me coming back year after year and keep touring here.
MTTM: Did you ever consider modifying your style so that you could fit in more or were you dead set that you wouldn’t change yourself to potentially become more popular?
GP: It wouldn’t be easy for me. I look at that the same way I look at songwriting. I could’ve been probably more successful as a songwriter if I’d written some things that maybe catered to what was on the radio, but I’m not made of that and the fact is I don’t do it well anyway. Even if I tried to do that I don’t think I’d be very good at it and I think the same thing is true when it comes to making records. I actually think if I’d tried to cater more to what ‘they’ wanted, whoever ‘they’ are, I probably would’ve fallen flat on my face. Aside of that, I’m not constitutionally made of that. I don’t think I could’ve lived with my records or been proud of them had I taken that approach. I’m happy to go my own way. It’s tough sometimes when you feel like you don’t fit anywhere, and I’ve spent most of my career feeling that way. I’m not really a folk artist, I’m not really a country artist, maybe I’m Americana. But the only tag I’ve ever felt completely comfortable with is Singer-Songwriter. It’s the home of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Randy Newman. What’s their genre? I don’t really know. When I was a struggling musician my day job was working in a record store and we had to put the records in bins in sections in the store and I used to argue with the manager, where do you put Joni Mitchell? Does she go in jazz, does she go in folk, does she go in pop? She could go in any of those bins and you could make an argument for it. I wish the record store was alphabetical.
MTTM: All of your music before has really been about life experiences and stories. How do you see the new album being different to that?
GP: More than any other record it was written as an album. Most of the songs were written in two writing sessions. It was written to be a record. I felt a sense of direction about it. There’s always a point when you’re making an album when you write some songs and there’s this sort of full chrome moment when you realise these are the themes, this is where it’s going, this is how it feels, this is how it sounds to me. It starts to take on a shape. That certainly happened with this album but I think it happened earlier and it was very clear what that shape and what that sound was going to be. As well, I knew that all the songs, although they weren’t linear, there were so many events that happened in such a short time in my life that informed the songs here, although I didn’t write a song about this and a song about that, it gave it a point and an edge that I think felt new. In some senses I almost felt like I was writing a manifesto, and I knew that I felt raw, and I wanted to transfer that rawness onto tape.
MTTM: Some people will say they write the music first and then the lyrics, and other say they will write the lyrics and then try and find a way to set that to music.
GP: I tend to get a lyrical idea first but I don’t usually go too far with lyrics until music starts happening in my head. I may have a title or a line, or sometimes just a concept. But I won’t go too far, I’ll sit down with a guitar or at the piano and start feeling around. Then it’s kind of concurrent at that point. It helps at some point to get a musical framework and then write the rest of the lyrics. There’s a lot of editing. A lot of writing to me is taking away. I’m very good at writing 12 verses.
MTTM: But actually the songs that come out are quite succinct.
GP: Well that’s because that’s after the subtraction part. I can write a lot of words, but it’s the taking away that’s the really critical part. I’m very very picky and purposeful about every ‘a’ and ‘the’ and ‘it’. At the very last stage of writing a song I’m picking out two letter words. I grew up as the daughter of a writer. We talked about language at the dinner table so much, and I paid a lot of attention to it. I have a life long fascination with words. As a musician I feel my way in the dark, as a lyricist I’m much more aware of what I’m doing.
MTTM: We saw you last year on the Wine, Women and Song tour, and you’re just about to start a UK tour solo, which do you prefer doing? Does it make much of a difference?
GP: They’re two different things. Doing the Wine, Women and Song tour is almost like a long extended party. It’s fun to be with my girl friends and we have a ball. There’s not a lot of pressure on any one of us. It’s easy and really effortless to do that. On the other hand, I feel an incredible sense of purpose and excitement doing this tour because we’re playing the album from start to finish. It’s the first time I’ve ever made a record where we’ve played every song on the record and there’s an ease, they feel so comfortable to me. I really love doing the Wine, Women and Song thing but this is what I really do.
MTTM: Will there be anything off of the old albums?
GP: There’s a few songs that people won’t let me get away with.
MTTM: How has coming over with this album been different?
GP: There’s just been a lot more interest.
MTTM: Why do you think that is?
GP: I think it’s the best album I’ve ever made. Not to put too finer point on it. I just felt the energy from it coming back from me in a different way. Even before it came out I was feeling that it was resonating with people, deeply. You can’t really attribute that to anything other than it’s the right album at the right place at the right time. It just hit a nerve with people. Maybe it’s the state of the world, or the emotional content of the record, I don’t know.
MTTM: How’s it gone down in the US?
MTTM: The album cover for Hello Cruel World is quite dark. How do you go about choosing what’s going to be on the cover?
GP: I chose it. I have this relationship with the artist who did my photos and the design. She and I were very much on the same page. First of all she listens to the music. Then we sit down and we talk about how that feels visually. I’m a very visual person, so it’s a huge part of the process for me. We start talking about everything from the palette of colours that we’re thinking about. My initial idea, which ended up I think somewhere in the package but not on the cover, was this very dark, bleak vibe but I wanted to be holding this huge bouquet of flowers and for that to be coming out of this darkness. We did the photo shoot partly at my house, and I happen to have that globe that’s on the front cover. I just grabbed it and I held it out and she said that’s good, let’s do that. We did a series of photos with the globe and those were the ones. It’s just like producing a record. Part of it you envisage, and you go in with these ideas. Part of it is serendipity. This album is the first and only album that I’ve ever made that’s coming out in vinyl. I’m so thrilled, because first of all I’ve never had one. Second of all, to have this record and have that artwork in the big format which I grew up with and I just love… I’m very excited.