After a recent Q&A I did for a music blog, someone said to me that if they’d been doing the interview, they’d have asked different questions. I thought it was a fun idea, so I mentioned on social media and in my newsletter that if anyone had any burning questions they’d like answered, I’d compile them in a Q&A, to be published in my monthly newsletter. Not only did I receive some great questions – there were a LOT. Too many to put into one newsletter. For those of you who aren’t signed up for my newsletter (why not? You get free music every month!), I thought I’d post them here. This is Part One of a two-part Q&A, to be continued in my May newsletter.
I love the song ‘Ghost’ from your Burnt Toast collection and there are subtle references to ghosts in some of your other songs. Do you believe in ghosts and if so have you ever seen one?
– Andy Green
I do believe spirit is a real thing and we don’t really know where it goes when not embodied. As with most things of that nature I try to leave my mind open – both the intuitive and rational sides! I live in a 150 year old home and there is supposedly a ghost who lives here. She’s a prostitute who was killed right here on the porch (now a room) of this house. Former residents say they heard her walking in high heels at night. She appears to be at rest now or perhaps she’s moved on, because we’ve never heard her. We did have a repairman who saw something so scary in our attic that he startled and fell partially through the ceiling. Maybe she’s living up there now.
We all love to hear you singing your own songs & after all, because you wrote them they are all suited to your own voice & are relevant to you in the first instance. However, is there anyone living or dead, that you would really love to have either written a song for or hear them sing/record one you have already written?
I would love to hear Emmylou Harris sing one of my songs. She has been one of, if not the most influential artist for most of us “girls with guitars”, and her song choices, of course, have always been impeccable. Luckily she’s still recording so there’s hope!
Love the song If Heaven. I can find it on Youtube but find the sound quality a bit off. Would like share the song with music groups I follow on Facebook. is there any way I could find it elsewhere or would you consider bringing it out on Youtube? I love your music so much Gretchen. If people would have the courage to follow this song and make it a part of their lives the world would change for the better. Thanks for what you do.
Thank you! I’m working on digitizing a lot of old video (actually my son is working on it, I’m just looking forward to seeing the results) and I hope to be able to post a lot of fun stuff on my YouTube channel soon. Hopefully there’ll be a good quality performance of “If Heaven”. You can find me on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters
How many songs did you write before you had the success that made you decide you just might be able to do this for a living….?
It’s impossible to know, but I probably had written 30 or 40 songs when I decided that I needed to move to Nashville and give this singer/songwriter thing a real chance. I hadn’t had any success at that point (unless you consider playing in countless bars and honky-tonks a success, and I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t) but I had a burning desire to do it. It may sound strange but I didn’t really concentrate much on writing songs before moving to Nashville – I was too busy working on other things like singing, performing, keeping a band together, learning how to handle a rowdy crowd on a Saturday night. It wasn’t until I moved to Nashville that I did my “postgraduate” work on songwriting. And it wasn’t until I’d been here a couple of years that I wrote good enough songs to get one cut.
Hi Gretchen – can you tell me how many of your songs are personal experiences, how many are observances and how many are your imagination? They all seem incredibly personal but can’t all be….right?
And do you use alternate tunings?
It’s a funny thing about songs – they can start out seeming as if they’re about someone else and suddenly – or gradually – you realize they’re about you. “Circus Girl” comes to mind. She was a character I dreamed up, but ,clearly, she became me, or I became her. I think all my songs are a mixture of personal experience and imagination. “Picasso And Me” is a good example – it’s about Picasso and his cat (the cat being the narrator and omniscient observer), but it gave me a vehicle to say things that I wanted to say about art and the artist’s life – things that might have sounded presumptuous or affected had I not had those two characters to speak for me.
That song and quite a few others of mine, especially on the Gretchen Peters album, are in alternate tunings – mostly Drop D, DADFAD, DADGAD or variations thereof.
I grew up on Long Island, born Nov. 15 ’57, as it happens. My dad worked for Lockheed at Idlewild when I was young, same time as the events in your blog post “50 Years On”. I live in Mississippi now, about 18 miles outside Jackson, not far at all from the Evers home. With the exception of four years I’ve lived in Mississippi since 1984. My family is mixed race, it’s complex and every one of the cousins has a different take on the whole thing, the South Carolina history, the New York history, the versions we each got.
Anyway my question – In the song, in Idlewild, you use the word nigger. As a songwriter how important did that inclusion feel to you, and how did it/does it feel to sing it? The way its written you really take ownership of it – you begin the phrase with “we” and my sense is that you are not taking writers license there and speaking as a character from the writing, but more as a literal one of the “we”, an American who lived in a through a cultural moment. Your vocal phrasing there is angry. Its a powerful moment and makes the song, to me. How often do you perform that song (ok, I snuck a second question in!).
Powerful stuff. I think your song is the perfect post-Dylan commentary on those times.
Thank you, Billy. You are exactly right that the “we” in that section of the song is really a collective American “we”. I think of the narrator in that song as the “omniscient child”, a point of view that I’ve written from before – I’m not sure why, but one thing it allows me to do is write with a certain amount of circumspection. Children are keen observers, almost little reporters, and they can tell the facts of a story without editorializing as much as adults naturally do. But at that point in “Idlewild”, the narrator switches to a bigger “we” – all of us who were there in the midst of the violence and anger and tumult that was the 1960s.
As for the n-word: I struggled with that for a long time. In the end it was the only correct choice, and I came to that conclusion after considering how the song would work without it – with some substitute that was less inflammatory. The answer was – not at all. The truth of what it was like to be alive in America in the 1960s is carried in the weight of its words, and that was the most prominent of them all. It was everywhere, and it carried the full weight of the hate and violence that infected this country.
I’ve been singing “Idlewild” at every show for the past two years, and I don’t think it will be out of the set list anytime soon. It’s a very personal and important song to me.
Does the well-deserved acclaim for “career-defining”Hello Cruel World” affect the standing of your previous very fine albums in any way? Do they get a bit lost it forgotten in some way? If so, is it just the nature of the beast for a song-writer if an album really takes off and it therefore doesn’t matter at all?
That may not be very well worded, but the thought initially occurred to me last year. Then recently someone said their gardening was a two album task so they needed new music to go with HCW, to which my instant thought was “why not take Burnt Toast or One To The Heart out in the garden with you as well?” 🙂
By the way, no criticism implied of the gardening fan, I’m just interested in whether a really brilliant last album changes perception of earlier work.
Thanks Ken – I think it’s the nature of an artist to love her most recent work the best, so that takes the sting out of it somewhat! I don’t go back and listen to my old albums much – really, ever – so I am sometimes surprised when I hear something from an early album. They sound, for the most part, pretty good to me. When I was putting together the Circus Girl compilation (which was not my idea – my record label felt it was time for a “Best Of”) I was very reluctant about combining songs from so many different records, because my experience of making those records varied so widely. In my mind, they all sound very different and reflect different levels of maturity, skill and ability. It was a big surprise to hear how well that compilation hung together. The common thread, of course, was me, which is what I had completely discounted. Just more proof that an artist isn’t the best judge of her work, at least after it’s been set free in the world.
Paul Simon has said that when he discovers a new chord voicing, time signature etc. he will find a way to write a song just to use that new chord. Have you ever done this and on which song(s)?
Absolutely! Any new element can be a jumping off point for a new song. When I’m writing I’m usually on the lookout for anything that veers off course from my well-traveled G/Em/C/D chords, or my usual 4/4 time signature, or any of the other ruts I can fall into. Although it’s a very simple song, “Saint Francis” is based upon a new voicing of a G chord (capo on 5th fret, drop-D tuning and a Gsus9 configuration) which gives it a distinctive sound. Anything new and novel, especially musically, is a great way of getting the creative juices flowing.
My question for Gretchen:
I’d love to know what tuning you use for St Francis – gorgeous song – and if you wouldn’t mind I’d like to cover it in my set.
I don’t mind at all, Fil – have at it! See above re: tuning. I would also recommend you check out the recent Couch-By-Couchwest video that Barry Walsh and I did for “Saint Francis” so you can have a look at the chord voicings I’m playing: http://couchbycouchwest.com/gretchen-peters-saint-francis/
Is there any possibility of a picture of the outside view of your home with Barry? Nothing too specific (I’m not stalking!), I’d just love to see what styles you like in design, landscaping, etc.
– Steve Du Lany
When you co-write with someone who lives far away, such as the UK, do you always meet “in person” or do you use technology (MP3’s, Skype, etc.)?
I’ve used Skype, the telephone, email and Dropbox to write songs. I love the fact that you can collaborate with someone halfway around the world while in your pajamas! I cowrote a number of songs with Bryan Adams in the ’90s and early 2000’s, though, and we wrote in some fantastic places – Jamaica, Paris, Cologne, London, Mustique… I do miss that. But I have enough jet lag in my life, so the technology is a blessing.
Have you ever taken the bus to St. Cloud, Minnesota? I suspect this question may have been asked before. Do you still have your first acoustic guitar, the guitar you learnt to play on? Is there one in particular you consider precious for sentimental
I have never taken a bus to St. Cloud, but I have driven through it – always in the sumer, so it doesn’t much resemble the St. Cloud in the song. I don’t have my first guitar, which was a Favilla that belonged to my older sister’s boyfriend (my parents bought it from him). I wish I still had every guitar I ever owned, but the ones that got away were sold to buy other guitars. I now have a collection that isn’t large but is very special to me. It includes an 1860s era parlor guitar which I played in the video for “The Matador”, a new Collings OM which was with me on the Hello Cruel World tour in 2012-13, my wonderful Gibson J-185 which I toured with in past years but retired because it’s so big it gave me tendinitis, and my latest acquisition, a 1957 Gibson J-45 which I found (with the help of Tom Russell) in the East Village in New York City last summer). I also have a Gretsch Silver Jet electric guitar which I love, seen here in this photo:
Thanks to everyone who submitted questions – stay tuned for Part Two in the May newsletter.