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Gretchen Peters, writer of some of the ‘90s biggest country songs and maker of quietly moving modern folk albums, is not one to send an interviewer away empty-handed. Ask her for self-analysis, and she’ll sift through thoughts and feelings until she arrives at something with some substance to it. One can approach a Gretchen Peters album expecting engrossing, character-driven narratives spun from her inner awareness, and her latest album, Hello Cruel World, is no exception.
You’ve gone through different phases in your career, from you country cut era to your big record label era to finding a warm welcome with the folk audience. Now you’ve added a satellite radio show and Huffington Post blog. Has your idea of what you do as a songwriting and communicator changed?
Well, obviously, yeah, especially with those things that you mentioned. I think that I’ve finally kind of accepted that I’m a writer, period, without a hyphen in front of it. The Huff Post blog, for instance, it was daunting to write that first one just from a writerly standpoint, you know, the essay form. I chose the form of songs for a reason, because that very small box really felt like my niche. And writing an essay, it felt so open-ended. Writing without the overlay of poetry felt very naked and a little bit daunting. But I also found pretty quickly that the same things apply to writing that piece that apply to writing the songs on this record and to anything else, which was I had to find my way to the heart of the matter and get there, and then everything went smoothly. …And the radio show is a secret fantasy I’ve had forever. I think every musician I know would secretly like to do this. At first I thought, ‘Well, am I going to run out of stuff to play?’ Then halfway into the second show I realized, ‘Never.’
On your blog, in interviews and in your bio you’ve shared what significant personal events were occurring in your life leading up writing and recording Hello Cruel World. But the songs on the album don’t necessarily present direct autobiographical parallels. How would you say the personal translated into these songs?
That’s a good and completely accurate observation, first of all. There’s no song, per se, about my son. There’s no literal translation or transcription of any of these events. This album, I really wrote almost the whole thing in basically two writing sessions. I mean, it really was written as a piece. And I felt like the starting point for me had to be the place that I felt I was at, where I felt almost like I’d been clarified or cleansed or stripped-clean by so much tumult. I don’t want to cast it in terms of negative or positive. The universe shows a lot of shit at you all at one time, and it gives you this great gift, which is the gift of clarity, and kind of emotional rawness, too, but that can be a good thing, or there are good aspects to that. I could feel that it was getting time for me to write about it, and I didn’t want to lose that sense of rawness and clarity. …I thought, ‘If I don’t use that, what a waste that would be, if I don’t use that sense of emotional vulnerability.’ It’s funny, because that vulnerability comes with more strength, too, at the same time. It’s almost paradoxical, but I felt stronger, like, ‘What else ya got?’ You know what I mean? So I guess the writer in me just said, ‘Use that.’
There are characters in the songs that confront the possibility that everything could crumble or everything could change.
And they are definitely people that have made choices and have some regrets about their choices, but it’s certainly not black and white. But they’re being realistic. They’re expressing doubt and all of that. The woman in [the song] “Five Minutes”, part of that is just her fear of aging. The title track, too. The normal stuff that happens to all of us, if we are so lucky as to get this far along. I have to say, that whole subject [of aging], I think, is still maybe a little bit taboo in popular music.
Especially for women to write about.
I’ve been really inspired by several men who have written so intelligently and well into their middle-age and beyond, sometimes directly about aging. Paul Simon is one of them, and Leonard Cohen is another one, and Rodney Crowell is another one, and I think Tom Russell is kind of at the top of his game right now. Those men have really inspired me. I guess one of the thoughts going through my head was, ‘Women need to have an honest dialogue about this.’ The other thing that was going through my head was ‘What the hell do I have to lose? Why not me?’ I think that’s one of the freedoms that you have when you’ve had a kind of weird, circuitous career like mine. There’s not some publicist in the wings going, ‘Oh-my-god, you can’t talk about that.’
You use so much storytelling in your songwriting and populate your songs with characters that aren’t meant to be interpreted autobiographically, at least not in a straightforward sense. What does that approach to writing offer you?
That goes back a really long way with me, to the beginning, really. While you were talking about that, I was thinking about Mickey Newbury. It’s partly the songs that I just completely fell in love with growing up. Townes Van Zandt. There are a lot of characters in those songs. The storytelling song, it’s an old folk and country form. And I love it. I think maybe the other thing that drew me to that is that I get to live lives and say things through these characters that are real for me. Certainly the emotions and what they’re going through, I mean, I couldn’t write about them if I didn’t completely identify and empathize with them. But sometimes you can put it in better, starker contrast with a fictitious character than you can framing it first-person. Sometimes, somehow a character gives you a kind of freedom to really frame a situation in a way that has such great emotional impact. Because it takes me out of the picture.
Character-driven songs don’t feel so insular. The listener can enter into them like they would a short story.
Yeah. I’m a movie nut and I’ve always been a visual person, and I tend to think of songs visually. I think there’s probably something to that, too. I mean, I fall in love with these characters the way I fall in love with characters I see in the movies. I really enjoy being in their heads. In a lot of ways, I think writing songs is a little bit like acting. What does this person think? What does their house look like when they go home at night? All that back story stuff that actors do. It’s kind of a similar process.
When I finished “Five Minutes”, I thought, ‘I’ve written a song about this woman from West Texas, and she’s a waitress, and we’ve got nothing in common.’ And I thought, ‘No, wait a minute. That’s not true that we have nothing in common.’ I actually wrote a series of essays on the songs on this album on my website, and when I came to that one, I realized that there were equal parts of me that pitied her and admired her, and the third part was that I was her, that I absolutely identified with her, even though she sprang forth in this completely different life with a completely different background. It’s kind of a surprise when that happens, but it’s a wonderful surprise.