Gretchen Peters Paints a Visceral Picture in Blackbirds

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Within the last year, Gretchen Peters has crossed off some whopping entries from her to-do list. “I don’t think there’s anything left,” she chuckles, perched on a conference room couch at ASCAP’s Nashville headquarters and awaiting the cup of coffee her publicist has gone to fetch.

Just over four months ago, Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in January she joined an even more elite group of writers who’ve been selected as honorees in the Poets & Prophets interview and performance series at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“You’re very aware of both of those things,” she reflects, “that you really just need to breathe it in and enjoy this, because this happens once. … With the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the build-up to it is so big and it’s such a big deal. My whole family was here and everything. If I didn’t have something to focus on in the future, afterwards I might have felt like, ‘What happens now?’”

Even as Peters was savoring those moments of career recognition, she was ramping up to release her new album, Blackbirds, a visceral folk-rock set that paints meticulous portraits of aging, mortality and other forms of human loss with guest appearances from Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and others. She’s on the nonstop promotional treadmill right now, which is why she needs the caffeine. Discussing heavy material can take a lot out of a singer-songwriter.

CMT Edge: During the Poets & Prophets event, you jokingly asked, “What happens now? Do they put me in the old folks’ home?” I wondered what it was like receiving what are often late-career honors while you were in the midst of preparing to release new songs.

Peters: That’s like the saving grace to me. Personally, I feel like the last record [Hello Cruel World] and this one are the two strongest I’ve ever made. I’m grateful that I feel that way, because I don’t have any lingering feelings of, “Oh, they’re putting me out to pasture.” I guess what I’m saying is I think it’s a great place to be, if you’re getting public validation for what you’ve done in the past, but you’re also feeling like you’re doing your best work.

You were inducted into the Songwriters Hall in the songwriter’s category with Tom Douglas, as opposed to the songwriter-artist category with John Anderson. So you were being recognized for the hits you wrote for Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood and others in the ‘90s, not your own albums.

Definitely. It had this weird effect that I didn’t expect. Something happened inside of me after this Hall of Fame thing happened where I just let it all be part of one thing. … I’m really proud of that part of my career, although it wasn’t where I was ultimately going. But I felt like, “OK, yeah. I did that.” I owned it in a way that I didn’t feel like I did before. It felt great; it felt full-circle.

You were involved in a significant era in country music, when it made room for modern, sophisticated female vantage points in the ‘90s.

Right. And you can’t really know that until you’re like 20 years down the road. I mean, you can’t know it the way that we know it now. … That night [at the induction] I was really so happy to have Trisha and Brandy [Clark performing], because Trisha represented the whole era that I was a part of and Brandy, to me, represents the potential of that happening again in a whole new way. She represents what I hope is the future. That was really special to me, to feel like I had something to do with the reason Brandy’s here.

How did the content of the new songs shape your aesthetic choices, instrumentation, and all that?

There was a very conscious choice of a pretty aggressive rhythm section. It’s more of a rock record than I’ve ever made and I wanted a rock rhythm section, drummer especially. … There’s a lot more collaboration on this record. There’s more co-writing. There were more guests. I felt like I wanted to lean in on my friends for the musical part of it.

All that work that I did in the ‘90s, I was pretty much alone in a room. That was one of the reasons that Hall of Fame thing maybe even had an extra dollop more impact for me, because I did all that work by myself. You walk in the room [at the awards banquet] and you’re like, “These people voted for you. They didn’t have any vested interest.” They’re friends and everything, but it wasn’t like these were all my co-writers. I was pretty much a lone wolf. My collaborations and deep friendships kinda came late. As such, I cherish them so much. I wanted to kinda lean in on that.

You’ve talked about admiring the way songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Nick Lowe deal with aging and mortality in their work, and pointed out that it’s much rarer to hear female perspectives on those topics. What would you say the difference is?

I think it’s easier for a man to be open about it to some extent. I think it’s just culturally easier. Women are supposed to try to look and be young as long as they can. I think for female artists, we know instinctively from day one that our value’s tied up in our youth and sexuality. It just is what it is. And I think that inhibits [expression]. I mean, it’s hard as a female to talk as honestly about aging and mortality and all that stuff in the same way that a man can. Because he’s not devalued, necessarily, in the same ways. I guess maybe that’s part of it.

It’s one of those cart-before-the-horse things, though. In saying that I really wanted to talk about that, it sort of makes it sound like, “I think I’ll write a whole album of songs about this.” And it’s more the other way around. The songs came out, and I thought, “Huh, this seems to be what’s on my mind.”

You’ve talked about coming from a family background where taking a social stand was valued, and you’ve also talked about cutting your teeth in a Music Row songwriting context, where you were advised not to say or write anything that might alienate people. You must’ve taken on the former attitude more than the latter.

Definitely. That’s part of my DNA. What doesn’t sit well with me is reacting or acting in a creative way out of fear. I mean, you just can’t. You can’t be creative when there’s fear present. … And I have found more reward artistically going right for the thing that I’m afraid of. I’ve also found that it really resonates with people, because they kinda wake up and go, “God, someone’s saying that. That’s how I feel.” I know that those people are out there because I have found them. That’s kind of my audience. … They’d like to hear about somebody else’s fears and self-doubt. There’s been reward for me in doing that.

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