Songwriter Spotlight: Gretchen Peters


Gretchen Peters is an accomplished recording artist, having released seven studio albums, including her most recent, “Hello Cruel World,” a masterpiece that tells brilliant stories in Gretchen’s stunning sultry-strong, Rickie Lee Jones meets Bonnie Raitt tone. In addition to being a recording artist, Peters has signifiant success as a songwriter, having been nominated for Grammy Awards in 1995 and ’96 for Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” respectively. She has also had songs recorded by Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, and George Strait, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best original song in 2003. Most recently, Peters was inducted this year into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Peters chatted with us in part one of a two-part interview about her songwriting. 

Congratulations on your recent Hall of Fame induction!

Thank you!

What was that experience like?

Well, it’s sort of an out of body experience, frankly. It was amazing. It’s hard to absorb it, really, ‘cuz that event particularly I’ve been going to pretty much every year, at least if I haven’t been on the road, I’ve been there, since I moved to Nashville, and it’s really my favorite event of that sort that happens here. I guess because it’s really all about songwriters and it’s very kind of – I guess because it’s not televised, and there’s nothing commercialized about it, it really ends up being all about the songwriters and it feels very sort of inside. And I just love it. It’s such a great event. To be honored there was a little bit beyond my comprehension, to tell you the truth. But it was fantastic and I had 14 family members there and just had a dreamy weekend.

That’s fantastic! Let’s talk about your songwriting – storytelling is particular central to your writing. When you’re sitting down to write, do you start with a story? Where does that process begin?

You know actually, more often than that scenario is the scenario where I’ve grabbed hold of a story or the tail of it at least without really knowing it, and the song eventually tells me what the story is. I don’t often come to a song with a whole scenario in mind, or what the story even is, and I can think to songs even going back as far as “Independence Day” where that was the case, where I had the tail end of a comment, kind of, and eventually if you live with little bits and pieces of the story, they’re sort of like clues really, if you live with it long enough it starts to tell you what it wants to be. And that has been my experience more often than coming with a full story. I hope this doesn’t sound too woo-woo, but if you come in with your linear thoughts all laid out, you’re sort of shooting yourself in the foot for the magic part of the process to happen, which is that if you live with the scenario and the characters or whatever it is you’ve got a hold of long enough, they start to talk to you. And that was true of pretty much every song on “Hello Cruel Wold” – the one I’m thinking of most is “Five Minutes” where again, that woman has just sort of slowly revealed herself, and once you live with the character long enough you start recognizing the false lines, the things that that person wouldn’t say or think or all of that, so her story kind of revealed itself bit by bit, as do most stories in my songs.

Each song is own character, or does the same character tend to recur?

Well I mean, I think one thing that happens with I think every writer has sort of like old wounds that they return to, themes that keep cropping up. I was talking to Lori McKenna about this the other day and she was talking about how certain words pop up in her songs, and one of them is ‘kitchen,’ she just keeps going back to the kitchen. And I think we all have those things. And for me one of the things that keeps popping up is a point of view thing and I’ve written a lot of songs from the point of view of a child, and a lot of times it’s what I’d call an omniscient child, is sort of an observer and sort of sees everything going on and is able to really grasp it in a way that the adults around him or her can’t. I don’t know why and I don’t actually care why, I’m not that interested in why I keep going back to that – you could assign all sort of psychological reasons or whatever, I don’t like to look too closely at that sort of thing – but to answer your question, I do repeat and revisit those things, definitely. And someone else pointed out to me that a lot of the characters in my stories seem to be trying to figure their way out of difficulties, sort of trying to get out of difficult or heartbreaking situations. And again, I don’t know why that is, but it seems to be the particular kind of scar that I keep coming back to and re-investigating.

When you sit down to write, are you typically writing for yourself as a recording artist, or with other artists in mind? How does that work?

I really try to keep all the artists out of my mind, including myself. I really find that the writing goes better if I don’t get the cart before the horse and start thinking about what’s the ultimate outlet for the song. I think you just get in your way when you do that too much, even when the artist in question is you. And sometimes I’ll get onto writing something that I’m excited about, that I’m loving, and I’ll finish it, I’ll get to the end and it’s just like I love this song but it’s not mine, it’s not for me. So I just kind of keep that out of the room as much as I can. I’ve also found, I mean I’m not really in the belly of the beast in terms of the mainstream song pitching Music Row world the way I was at one time years ago, when I would’ve thought more in terms of who could we pitch this song to, because frankly I don’t think that my songs these days are pitchable to much of anyone in that world anymore, and that’s a function of both what I’m writing but also what’s going on in that world, but even when I was sort of in the middle of it –  for instance, “Independence Day” – I never tried to think about who would record that song – actually I didn’t think anybody would record it – but I think if I had thought about an artist or kept an artist in mind it would’ve paralyzed me. It’s hard enough to write a song the way it wants to be written, then to put all these parameters around it of some artist that you have in mind, what you think they might want to say, which is generally erroneous anyway, so I try to forget about that as much as I can.

Do you write every day? Where’s the best writing spot for you?

You know, I kind of haven’t really had the daily writing habit really since I started recording, since it’s just not possible. And I did have that habit pretty well ingrained early on, and I think it was really good, but having said that, I don’t think my writing has really suffered. I think possibly my output maybe has suffered a little bit, but on balance I think it’s been a good thing. But what I do nowadays is what I call binge writing, where I just block out time, maybe a month, when I know that I’m writing, and what’s actually going on during all the time when I seem to be not writing is I’m collecting bits and pieces of ideas, maybe titles, all those little things that sort of come to you when you’re in the middle of something else, I sort of collect them, and I think subconsciously I sort of work on them in the sense that they just sort of go in and stew, you know, and then my actual hands on writing time tends to be more in blocks and then I did a lot of that. For instance, in 2013 and this year, we’re getting ready to write an new album, I just blocked out a month or two at a time and just went in the whole. And as far as where, I have really cute places where I write – I for a long time, many years, had a little place in Florida where I loved to go to write because I get down there, I’m isolated, I’m by myself, and there are no distractions, and I just kind of, it’s been an incredibly productive spot for me, but I also recently built myself a writing room back behind my house, it’s just a room above the garage, and it’s a perfect spot, and I’ve written most of the songs for my new album there. I’ve done a lot of co-writing there too, I’ve written a bunch of songs with Mary Gauthier and with an Irish songwriter named Ben Glover, so that’s been a good spot for me too.

You’ve written many of your songs – and many hits – by yourself. Have you ever felt pressure from Nashville to co-write?

Oh yeah, when i first moved there everybody said you should co-write, it was just assumed that you would do that. And I did, I tried really hard, and mostly to disastrous effect. I was so so lucky to have a very observant and empathetic and understanding publisher when I first started out here, who finally just took me aside one day and said why are you punishing yourself like this, I like the songs you’re writing by yourself better, don’t do it. And he just sort of gave me permission to stop, and so for the most part I did stop. And I think what I’ve really figured out only just very recently is you know, it always seemed to me like the co-written songs, they never felt, they weren’t my favorite songs, I sort of liked by myself better too, and I think what I figured out recently is some of the songs that I’ve written with Mary and with Ben go deeper because those are co-writers that are willing to go deep, they have no qualms about that. We’re kind of all sort of on the same page about that, like you can’t get dark enough, you can’t get deep enough, for Mary, and there was a safety that I felt writing with both of them actually, that allowed me to sort of get closer to the process than I had when I’m writing by myself. And the result was better songs, I think. For whatever reason, I’m much more comfortable with it now. But it has to be with someone like that. I couldn’t walk into an office on music row with a current, you know, someone who’s hot, say, and be expected to write a hit. I mean, that was never me anyway, but I just couldn’t do it. And I wouldn’t do it.

What’re you working on currently?

I have a record coming out on February 10th, called Blackbirds, so I’m sort of gearing up for the release believe it or not right now, it’s amazing how much there is to do four months out. So I’m gearing up for that and the tour, the touring will start in earnest sort of mid-February and go through the rest of 2015. So it’s a lot of touring and right now a lot of just talking to people about the album and trying to get the word out, which is a battle in itself.

Career bucket list things – are there things you’re still waiting to cross off?

Well, I’ve crossed off quite a few of ’em lately! *laughs* I mean, the Hall of Fame thing wasn’t even on a list because you can’t even imagine, i mean, I didn’t come to town thinking yeah, I wanna get into the hall of fame, it’s not something that you even imagine. I mean there are always things and you know it’s funny when you said that, the first thing that pops into my mind is collaborations with other artists, it’s working with people. To me the bucket list thing is all revolves around people that I admire that I would love to work with or collaborate with on some level or even if it’s just to the point of having them sing one of my songs or playing a show with them or like I said we hit quite a few of those like we did a show with John Prine and that was a huge big deal for me, I’m a gigantic fan, I have been since I was about 13, but they kind of all revolve around collaborative stuff because I just think that’s one of the beautiful things about doing this is that you end up a lot of times you can end up working with your heroes. And that’s huge. So I sort of look… I don’t lay those things out like they’re gold, but I really really treasure them when they do come around. Things like, last year we played John Prine and Guy Clark.. things like that, when they do come around, they do not go unappreciated by me because that’s.. that’s the best stuff.

Check back next week for part two of our interview with Peters, in which she discusses her experiences within the music industry and her views on the current country music climate.

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