GRETCHEN PETERS: Be True to Yourself

Prolific creativity comes many times in the form of a song. And one of the most prolific modern songwriters is none other than Gretchen Peters.

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Anyone who spends any amount of time listening to country music has, more than likely, heard many of her gems including Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” Pam Tillis’s “Let That Pony Run,” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.”

Prolific creativity comes many times in the form of a song. And one of the most prolific modern songwriters is none other than Gretchen Peters.

Anyone who spends any amount of time listening to country music has, more than likely, heard many of her gems including Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” Pam Tillis’s “Let That Pony Run,” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.”

One can tell, when one listens to any of the pieces, that Gretchen is not your everyday, typical lyricist. She possesses a God-given talent for understanding not only life, but the feelings behind life. She will tell you there is nothing unusual about her ability.

AmericanSongwriter: When did you first discover your musical gifts?

Gretchen Peters: I found that I was pretty good at a lot of things. I was pretty good in school. I was good at writing. But music, in some ways, was the most challenging thing. The thing that I wasn’t really sure I was that good at. In that sense, it was much more intriguing by things that you’re not sure you can master. I guess I never really looked at myself as being particularly musically talented. I’d been writing short stories and poems and things my whole life – you know, since before I could really write. When I finally made that connection in my teenage years, that there was such a thing as writing songs, too – that there was a way of writing words with my total involvement in music, that’s when I started to realize that maybe music was something I could use all those abilities in – the words, the music, and everything. That is, I think, when the bug really bit me.

AS: You mentioned that you were a teenager when you first started writing songs. Do you remember what your first song was?

GP: I do, actually. It was my first really serious attempt at a song. I’d been fooling around with writing a little bit. Some friends of mine that were in a band had started writing their own stuff. It made me realize somebody had to write these songs. So I just started fooling around with it a little bit. I was a convert to country music. I hadn’t been raised on it. I went to see Dolly Parton one night at a club in Denver. I saw her do her show, and I was completely knocked out by the fact that she was, quite obviously, the only person that could have written those songs. They hadn’t been manufactured for her. They were so much a part of her identity and her personality. That night, I went home and wrote my first really serious song.

AS: When you write a song, how does it make you feel. Do you know when it’s right – how it’s supposed to be?

GP: Yeah, I think you have an inner compass that says, “This is right,” when it is right. I really am a big, big believer in trusting your instincts. This has happened to me a lot of times. You have a line in a song that doesn’t quite make literal sense – and you think, ‘Well, maybe people won’t understand what I mean there. I’m not even sure I understand what I mean.” That kind of thing. But when your instinct says that it’s right, you listen to that and then you go with that. I’ve never gone wrong relying on that. I don’t think you can go wrong.

And being done with a song – relieved is really the best word I can think of to describe it. I’m always mystified when I hear people say writing songs is fun. I’ve heard people say that “Oh, it’s so much fun. I like it.” Fun is not the way I would describe it. I mean, it’s sort of, to me, like breathing. Breathing is not fun, but you have to do it in order to stay alive. That’s kind of how I feel about writing. It’s often-times not fun. It’s often-times really frustrating. You tend to wonder, “Will I ever write anything worthwhile again?” You have all kinds of scary thoughts. But it’s a necessary thing. And when I finally get something out that I feel really proud of, it’s an immense sense of relief. Unfortunately, that relief only last for a few days, and then I have to turn around and do it again.

AS: You have written many songs that have become big country hits. One of your most famous is “Independence Day.” How did this come about?

GP: That was really a gift – that song. I don’t, to this day, know exactly where it came from or why I really wrote it. The words of the chorus just kind of came out. I was literally just fooling around with my guitar, and the words came out. It took me a very long time to finish the song, partly because I couldn’t understand what the chorus was really saying. I mean, if you listen to just the chorus of the song, it doesn’t tell much of a story or give much of an indication what’s going on in the song. So I had to wait a long time for the rest of the song to come, to try and figure out what it was trying to be, if you will. And when I finally hit on the whole story-line, with the woman in the house and the daughter and everything, I was really kind of scared of it. I really thought, “This is a little too dark. Maybe I shouldn’t go this way.” But, again, instinct won out. I kept going back to that same story. I found it pretty compelling. In the end, I just said, “Well, you know, maybe it’s dark; but this is the way this song goes. This is the way this song is meant to go. And whether anybody records it or not, I’m going to finish writing it this way, because it’s right.” And, lo and behold, the first artist that heard it, Martina McBride, is the one that cut it. She was very adamant about recording it. She knew that she wanted it and knew that she wanted to sing it. I think it took a lot of guts for her to do that, because it was not an obvious radio song.

AS: How does the songwriting process usually go for you?

GP: It can vary immensely. I mean, “Independence Day” took me a year and a half to write. Not that I was working on it all that time. But it took me a year and a half to get all the pieces together and figure out where the song was going. Sometimes I have written a song in an afternoon. “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” was written in an afternoon. Those are really rare for me. More often, it takes me several months to finish something. I always have eight or nine or ten things going at one time. I usually sort of slide around from one thing to the next, depending on what captures my mood or what I’m feeling determined to finish. For me, and I really stress for me, because I think it’s different for every writer, it just seems to work better if I don’t force it, if I wait around until the powers that be tell me it’s all right to finish the song. I think a lot of the work that you do when you’re writing is very subconscious. It’s very hard to remember that when you’re staring at the walls, not getting an idea, not knowing whether you’re writing or wanting to take a nap, the fact is, you’re still working internally.

AS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a musical career in this way?

GP: Well, I guess, there’s a lot of practical advice out there. I’d say it’s very good to follow all that – advice about business and so forth. But I would say the one thing that maybe new writers and new artists don’t hear enough of is to stick to their guns and be true to themselves. I think that people, in their anxiousness to get into the business and get a record deal or get a publishing deal, think “If I can just write like what I hear on the radio, if I can just become more like Artist A who’s successful, then maybe I’ll be successful, too.” I think that not only is that not really healthy in terms of your work, but it’s also probably not a very successful strategy. I think the only way that you can really be unique – and stick out from the crowd – is to be yourself and listen to your own instinct. Take advice for what it’s worth; but internalize it, and, in the end, make your own decisions and go with what feels right to you. Because I really think, at least in my experience, that’s the thing that’s always brought me success. I’ve never really had success trying to conform to what radio’s playing or anything else like that. It has never worked for me.

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