Gretchen Peters returns to the UK this month to mark the release of new LP, Dancing with the Beast. MALCOLM WYATT tracked down the Queen of Country Noir to Nashville, filling in the gaps since 2015 critical success, Blackbirds
Gretchen Peters knows how to make you feel at home in conversation, in my case quickly dispelling the implied glamour of her adopted hometown, Nashville, suggesting it’s just like any other city.
“It’s looking a bit like England
today – grey and raining. A good day to get work done, though.”
The Tennessee state capital’s her nerve centre, but we’re not talking Stetsons, cowboy boots or redneck country. Things have moved on.
For me, it took Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball LP to realise it didn’t have to be about that, the glamorous elder stateswoman of country on form with guests like Neil Young, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams.
Emmylou also had a profound effect on Gretchen, a decade younger and still finding her feet at the time of that 1995 release, the following year recording debut LP, The Secret of Life, with contributions from Emmylou, Steve Earle, and the keyboard player she later married, Barry Walsh.
Yet while well-received, Gretchen reckons her turning point came a decade later, on 2007’s Burnt Toast & Offerings album. Raised in Boulder, Colorado, she moved to Nashville in the late ’80s, composing hits for Bryan Adams, Neil Diamond, Etta James and Shania Twain, among others, her reputation slowly growing via high-profile covers, Gretchen finally being inducted into Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.
The next year my Queen of Country Noir (“I like that title. I may have to steal that from you!”) won acclaim beyond the US with Blackbirds. And now Dancing with the Beast proves that was no one-off.
“That makes me feel so great on a rainy day! After Blackbirds, it was daunting to make another record. That gave me a sense of confidence about what I’ve been doing these last 20 years, but you feel you’ve set the bar and have to reach it every time. The bar gets higher, you aim higher.
“I felt I had a fire inside me from Burnt Toast & Offerings on – to do better and better work, be more and more honest and vulnerable in my songwriting, dig deeper. I look back and it makes me a little dizzy – so much touring and work. But my husband said the way you get better is by doing it over and over, and there’s so much wisdom in those words.”
I tell her I see production parallels between Emmylou’s work with Daniel Lanois and hers with Doug Lancio.
“I knew he’d push me slightly past my comfort zone. He continues to, and I love working with him. I need that. Doug never says, ‘Do this, do that.’ He’s more about creating a stage for magic to happen.”
There’s a prime example on Lowlands, Gretchen railing against President Trump’s USA. Is this her reminding the world about a more inclusive, progressive, welcoming America?
“I feel strongly about trying to impart that message. People in the UK know he doesn’t represent all of us, or even most of us, but after what happened in 2016 I feel it’s not morally right to remain silent.
“I’m not a protest songwriter. As a storyteller, the most effective thing you can do is tell stories about people, the hardships they face and how they’re affected by this harsh and brutal world we’re living in.”
Strong female characters are at the heart of this LP. Is Gretchen getting more radical as the years pass?
“They say you either get more radical or more conservative. I wasn’t so much radicalised as energised by what happened in the election. As far as the women characters go, my
approach never really changed. I
listen for characters, voices, titles, and the loudest voices in my head were these girls and women. But I’ve been doing that back to Independence Day (1994), probably further.
“I don’t really care to analyse it too much, as there’s a little magic in that. But those characters inspire me, capturing my imagination. What I’m always trying to do is find the empathy and commonality.”
On Blackbirds, you covered David Mead’s Nashville, celebrating your adopted hometown. This time, Arguing With Ghosts (written with Matraca Berg and Ben Glover) is about hardly recognising the place.
“Matraca’s a Nashville native – very rare here – and literally said, ‘I get lost in my hometown.’ We looked at each other, knowing we had our opening line. It’s changing so rapidly.
“Driving a couple of days ago, we got disoriented, turning around, not recognising where we were, both singing that line!”
You suggested this album came out of a difficult period in your life. Is this music as therapy?
“I think it is, but don’t really want to reduce it to therapy. I was taking a year off which didn’t turn out anything like the year off I pictured – restoration, rest, sitting in a lotus position.
“Instead, the election happened, I lost my mum, then two very dear friends. It was an onslaught. I intended to not write anything, but halfway through 2017 I was bathing in grief. I thought, my way through this had always been to write, so dammit, I’m gonna write!”
And you end with a tribute to your Mum, Love That Makes a Cup of Tea.
“She gave me the title in a dream – I had no idea what it’d mean to anyone else, but had to write it.”
It’s a perfect finale – a little light from darkness.
“Well, on my albums, we need that!”
Gretchen Peters’ 2018 UK tour includes dates, supported by Kim Richey, at Southport The Atkinson (Saturday, May 26, 01704 533 333, https://www.theatkinson.co.uk/) and Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music (Sunday, May 27, 0161 907 5200, https://www.rncm.ac.uk/).
To pre-order Dancing with the Beast, visit http://www.proper-records.co.uk/2018/03/new-release-gretchen-peters-dancing-with-the-beast/