BIG INTERVIEW: US singer-songwriter Gretchen Peter

US singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters is set for a UK tour and two North West dates promoting new LP Blackbirds. MALCOLM WYATT talked Nashville and more with the ‘country noir’ star.

Saturday, 21st February 2015, 12:00 pm
US singer-songwriter Gretchen Peter
US singer-songwriter Gretchen Peter

Gretchen Peters is on the crest of a wave, and after two decades perfecting her songwriting craft, critics and peers alike seem to be finally sitting up and taking notice.

The 57-year-old’s last LP, Hello Cruel World, was hailed as her ‘career best’ back home in America, but it seems to me her new album has even bettered that.

Last week Gretchen was on promo business in London before her mid-March return to these shores, including two North-West dates.

And that visit coincided nicely with a wealth of praise on both sides of the pond for her wonderfully-earthy new 10-track opus Blackbirds.

From the dark matter of the title track and single When All You Got Is A Hammer to the beguiling Pretty Things and Everything Falls Away, there’s plenty of depth.

It’s an album that flits around the US with its locations and themes, from the leafy New York suburbia where she grew up to her adopted country capital hometown.

She doesn’t pull punches, her subjects ranging from domestic abuse and self-loathing to a war vet re-adapting to civilian life and a grieving widower coping with the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

And those familiar with the alt country, folk-rock and Americana of Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Neil Young will be far from disappointed.

So what does she make of the early reaction?

“It’s been fantastic on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m so thrilled.

“It makes me think maybe I’m a late bloomer, which is fine with me. This whole past year has been really remarkable and eye-opening for me.

That included a momentous night last October when she was inducted into Nashville’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, quite an accolade for a NY state-born ‘carpet-bagger’ who only moved to Tennessee after a spell in Colorado.

But while she’s truly been accepted by her country peers, she continues to plough her own furrow on the folk side of Americana.

“It’s a wonderful position to be in, getting that validation at a point in your life where you feel you’re still doing your strongest work.

“It would have been easy to feel happy and honoured but worry ‘now what?’ Instead I felt I had so much forward motion and was so focused on this album, and I’m happy to be in that position.”

Blackbirds is already a hit in the UK download country charts, her Circus Girl best of also selling well. But is this the album that will see her go ‘mainstream’?

“We’ll see. It’s certainly far ahead of where Hello Cruel World ever was.”

For those of us who’ve only caught up with her catalogue recently, should we go from the start or head backwards across those seven studio albums and two live LPs?

“I think you go backwards. One of the albums I’m still proud of yet didn’t get heard as much was Burnt Toast and Offerings, which I jokingly but not so jokingly refer to as my divorce album.

“To me that was a turning point, paving the way for these last two albums.”

The Secret of Life from 1996 was her first solo album. So what led to that decision to go it alone?

“I was always my own entity. I had bands when I was coming up in Colorado in my 20s, but always under my own name.

“I was too head-strong to work in a democracy! I was so directed as a songwriter, and knew I wanted to sing my own songs and that was the path for me.”

She’d been in Nashville a few years by 1996. Did she already know her husband, pianist Barry Walsh, an acclaimed artist in his own right, by then?

“Yes, he’d been playing on my demos a few years at that point, including my second set of demos. I never called another piano player after that – he had such an affinity for my songs.”

After all the tours over the years, has she got to properly know the UK?

“Considering my sense of geography is terrible, I know it better than some people who live here!”

That’s included memorable appearances at the Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and Cambridge Folk festivals, while BBC Radio 2 broadcasters Bob Harris and Terry Wogan are big fans, and this week she’s recorded for Jools Holland’s radio show too.

“They’ve been very supportive and helpful. You’re so lucky here to have people like that who champion music they personally love.

“It’s not everywhere you go that presenters can share what really moves them musically.

“I’ve founds an audience so willing to embrace me, because I’m a bit of a hybrid.

“I’m a bit of a mutt, coming from a lot of different musical places – that didn’t seem to work for me as well in the States in 1996 as it did here.

“All the qualities that ensured I wasn’t a mainstream country artist there work for me in the UK.”

Gretchen and Barry will be back with a four-piece band next month, completed by Canadian electric guitar, lap steel guitar and drummer Christine Bougie, and Belfast’s Conor McCreanor on bass.

“It’s really the biggest band I’ve brought over here, and I’m excited about that.”

Will it be a set based around Blackbirds, Hello Cruel World, and a few old favourites?

“That’s pretty much the size of it. When we toured Hello Cruel World we played that whole album in sequence – real fun, but I don’t want to repeat that.

“There will be a healthy amount of songs from the new album and a lot of others. I’m in a mood to revisit some older songs, definitely some from Hello Cruel World.”

How does your Songwriters Hall of Fame accolade compare to your other awards over the years? You’re among hallowed company.

“It’s at the very top, really, an acknowledgement of a lifetime of work rather than any particular work - which is remarkable.

“The list of who’s in that Hall of Fame is mind-boggling, an acknowledgement from my peers for work I did primarily by myself in a room.

“I didn’t have a lot of co-writers, and wasn’t the typical Nashville writer. To be voted in was strictly a way of saying ‘well done’, and that means so much to me.”

Gretchen mentioned how she’d got to know kindred spirits like Nancy Griffiths and Steve Earle en route, and sometimes wears her influences on her sleeves, not least Emmylou Harris.

“She’s a beacon! I don’t know if Americana music would exist without her. I came to her via Gram Parsons, through their collaborations then her records.

“They deeply affected me. When I started in clubs aged 18 and 19 I was singing her songs, and when I started to write I wrote like those I admired and those on her albums, like Rodney Crowell.

“It’s a big continuum and she’s definitely the centre-piece.”

After a 2008 album with Tom Russell, recent co-writing with Ben Glover, a song with Jimmy LaFave on this album and Rodney Crowell last time, is there a chance of a duet album?

“I’d love that! Duet singing is one of my absolute favourite things in the world, again going back to Gram and Emmylou.

“Because of the songs they sang, I went back to The Delmore Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, The Everly Brothers, all that great duet singing.

“You may have just planted a seed. I love duet and harmony singing better than singing lead really. It’s a deep joy to me to do that … what a great idea!”

Many of Gretchen’s songs have been covered by other artists. What’s her current favourite of those?

“It’s hard to pick a favourite, but one that meant the most was Etta James recording Love’s Been Rough On Me.

“She had one of the great voices of our time. To hear my words and melody in her voice was just tremendous.

“And if I had a so-called bucket list, I’d love to have a song recorded by Emmylou … speaking of icons.”

Gretchen’s more gritty recent material brings to mind Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, something she’s happy about.

“I embrace that darker musical direction, concurrently with the darker lyrical direction, and felt the music should reflect that.

“I learned a lot and picked up a lot from one of my co-producers, Doug Lancio, who has a very natural propensity towards that grit.

“I knew I wanted that and felt I needed some of that, and drew on him for a lot.

“I also thought of this album as an American folk-rock album, in the sense of Neil Young plus Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel.

“I’d consider all that as the bedrock. I heard so much music in my house – jazz, rock, everything - but if there was a bedrock for me it would be that American folk-rock.

“It was hugely influential, in my DNA, so I was very consciously channelling a lot of that sound.”

Rumour has it you’ve just toppled Taylor Swift from the top of the UK country charts with Blackbirds.

“I can’t even believe that’s true!”

It seems to be, but I’m not knocking Taylor - it’s a breath of fresh air to see an artist doing well who writes her own material.

“Well, I’m always rooting for the singer-songwriters. That’s the music I came up on, and means the most to me.

“There’s a place for everything, but especially young women in the mainstream country world like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves. I’m excited to see them do well.

“Although I don’t really intersect with that world much anymore, I did at one point, and really love to see these women kicking down some walls, writing more lyrically-pointed songs.”

Gretchen said she’s recently been drawn to artists courageous enough to face ageing and mortality in their work, like Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Lowe. Does this album prove women can write hard-hitting songs too?

“I think they’re writing some of the most interesting music in country at the moment. The men seem to be writing about beer and pick-up trucks. That’s fine, but there’s a lot more to life.”

Martina McBride’s recording of Gretchen’s Independence Day made a real impact in America.

“It did, in a huge way. It was one of those songs you only realise with hindsight what an impact it had. Twenty years later it still has, and I still play it.”

Gretchen’s also big on story songs, full of characters, like On A Bus To St Cloud. Was that the first great song she wrote?

“I feel that was a real personal milestone. There were others here and there, like Souvenirs, where I felt I’d found who I was, but On A Bus to St Cloud was the first where I really felt I wouldn’t change anything.

“I still love singing it, and still find new things in it, which is very rare in a song.”

I’m guessing after Blackbirds, there’s more co-written songs with Ben Glover. But he’s not touring with her.

“He’s working on his own album now, doing his own thing, becoming a headliner, as he should be.

“I love Ben and what he’s about as an artist. For someone like me not particularly comfortable with co-writing, writing with him was just dreamy.”

The only song on the album she didn’t co-write was Nashville. It’s a great song, but why choose that?

“That song’s been in my life for 10 years, and brought me to David Mead, who wrote it. We ended up writing and singing a song together on Burnt Toast and Offerings.

“I’ve wanted to record Nashville since I first heard it, but David’s version is so beautiful I was put off, wondering how I could improve on it.

“Eventually I just thought I wanted to sing it, and felt it belonged on this album.”

Now she’s been officially accepted in Nashville, it could also be a love letter to her adopted home city.

“Maybe there’s a little of that. This is perhaps a wonderful way to express that.”

Gretchen’s UK tour’s 16 dates include two North-West shows. Has she any particular memories of past visits?

“With Manchester I go back to maybe 1996 or 1997 playing, with lots of good memories.

“With Liverpool, I think it’s only since 2013, but we’re playing the same venue this time, the Epstein Theatre, and I fell in love with that.

“Liverpool looms large in musical mythology for us Americans. It’s like making a pilgrimage.

“And on this tour I believe we have a day off there, and have been invited for a little tour of John Lennon’s home. I’m pretty excited about that.”

Gretchen Peters plays Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on March 29 (0844 888 4411, and Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music on April 2 (0161 907 5200