Gretchen Peters’ ‘quiet heroes’ and matadors
Galway Advertiser, February 23, 2012.
By Charlie McBride
KELLY’S BAR on Bridge Street has been putting on some fine gigs of late and there is another excellent one coming up on Friday March 9 when acclaimed US singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters takes to the stage.
Peters’ new album, Hello Cruel World, released last month, has been garnering rave reviews – “Her songs combine swagger with sensitivity” (Uncut); “An affecting, beautifully measured, grown-up affair” (Q); “[her] lyrics pack an extraordinary amount of story-telling into five minutes” (Financial Times) – all of which attest to Peters’ remarkable attributes as both writer and performer.
Born in New York, Peters moved with her mother to Colorado after her parents’ divorce when she was eight. As a teenager she first began writing and performing. In 1988, she moved to Nashville where she started making a name for herself as a songwriter, providing material for George Strait, Randy Travis, George Jones, and Trisha Yearwood.
When ‘Independence Day’ proved a huge hit for Martina McBride in 1995 Peters finally landed a record deal of her own and she has not looked back.
“I guess it was frustrating and gratifying in equal parts,” she says of that Nashville apprenticeship. “It was frustrating in so far as I hadn’t moved to Nashville to just write songs for other people but because the singer-songwriters I admired wrote, made records, and toured. In Nashville I saw roots-oriented singer-songwriters like Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle who were getting record deals and I thought I could make a place for myself there also.
“So it was a little bit bewildering when I got there to find there was this division of labour, that there was this concept of people who just wrote songs for other people. For me that was a pretty foreign concept. I also realised pretty early on that if I was going to record my own material I would have to prove myself as a writer, in any event so in that sense getting recognition as a songwriter was really a gift. When I did finally sign my first record deal there wasn’t anyone questioning whether I’d be able to write my own songs.”
Peters’ father was a journalist and if his writerly skills forms part of her songwriting DNA did she inherit any other musical traits from her family?
“My folks were not musicians but were big music fans, there was always music playing in the house,” she replies. “They were big jazz fans, I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Django Reinhardt. My father also made me aware of protest music really early on in my childhood, he had Pete Seeger records and we learned a lot of Woody Guthrie songs on car journeys. I also had an older sister who started bringing home Bob Dylan and Beatles’ records. Music was a big part of our lives for as long as I can remember.”
That childhood exposure to Ella, Django, et al, can perhaps be traced in the occasional jazzy touches that grace the songs on Hello Cruel World. Those songs largely emerged from a year of great upheaval – both good and ill – for Peters; her adopted hometown of Nashville had its worst flood in history, a close friend of many years committed suicide, she married her longtime piano accompanist Barry Walsh, and also discovered that her son was transgender.
While these experiences all inform the songs on Hello Cruel World, she doesn’t address them explicitly.
“I didn’t want to go and write a song about the flood or a song about my son, or the other events,” she explains. “That didn’t feel organic or right and yet I knew all of the things I had in my mind and in my heart were going to influence the songs on this record but I wanted them more to be like that creative well that I was going to draw from.
“And not just in a lyrical sense but sonically too, I had an idea of how I wanted the record to sound and that informed the songwriting too. There are a lot of minor key songs, at one point I counted them and there were five and I’ve never written so much in a minor key before but that had everything to do with the emotional palette of the record just as much as the lyrics did.”
Many of the songs offer compelling portraits of women who have been around the block a time or two, like the narrator of ‘Hello Cruel World’, who says: “I haven’t done as well as I thought I would/I’m not dead but I’m damaged goods”, or the diner waitress on a cigarette break in ‘Five Minutes’ musing about past love and realising: “Somehow I’ve let myself go gently down the stream/A fine example I have set.”
If their lives are not perfect there is still a great stoicism about these characters as they face up to their circumstances.
“If you get far enough along in life you start to see that survival is the heroism,” Peters observes. “Heroism is less about daring acts than it is about enduring and keeping on. You get to a certain age and you realise that. I think of those characters in a lot of these songs, like the woman in ‘Five Minutes’, all of them really, as quiet heroes.
“While they’re very honest about their shortcomings and their doubts they just hung in there and survived which is its own heroism. It was something I felt really compelled to write about, because of what had transpired in my own life in the year that I was writing the songs for this record. I was doing a lot of thinking about that.”
Love song ‘The Matador’ describes the love of a woman for a bullfighter, who also serves as a metaphor for the artist – “I love as only a woman can/A very complicated man” she sings.
“When I was writing ‘The Matador’ I had this man very clearly in my mind, this creative force and to me his creative force is inextricably intertwined with his masculine energy and I was fascinated with that idea.” Peters reveals. “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Hemingway and Picasso and I would put both of those in the same category as the man in this song in that their creative forces are tied up with their masculinity.
“I can relate to the artist in that song and to the woman so I have been on both sides of that equation. I was fascinated with exploring the relationship of the woman with this artist who is so consumed with their creative force that in some sense she will never have as much of him as he has of her.”
While Peters has played in Ireland several times over the past few years this is only her second time in Galway and she’s keenly looking forward to this return visit.
“I played in Galway once and I loved it, it was about 10 years ago and we never went back and I’ve been onto my booking agent for ever to get us back there. I’m so glad to be coming back, it’s been too long!”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 – 569777 and www.tht.ie