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Interview with Gretchen Peters (Includes interview)

Gretchen Peters released her debut album, The Secret of Life, nearly 20 years ago. A resident of Nashville since the late 1980s, the Colorado-raised musician initially achieved recognition as a songwriter, most memorably for Martina McBride, who took her moving composition “Independence Day” to number 12 in the country charts way back in 1994. The song later came in at number 50 when CMT counted down their 100 Greatest Songs of Country Music in 2003.

I spoke to the gifted songbird the day before she flew to London to promote her new long-playing release, Blackbirds. “The title for the album comes from the title song, which is a track that I actually have two versions of,” she explains. “The first track and the last track are two different versions of the same song…

“It’s a murder ballad. It seemed like it wanted to be the title of the album, I think, because when I stood and looked at the songs that I had, they all seemed to have a little darkness to them. I thought that in some sense they were all ‘little blackbirds’ – they were all little small vignettes but all with a common darkness to them.”

“I think in some ways it may be the darkest album I’ve made,” she continues. “It’s a lot of other things as well; it’s also maybe the most raw and rock-leaning record that I’ve made, but yes it’s quite dark, no question about it – no apologies either!”

The well-travelled fifty-something filled me in on the idea behind the album, an idea that originated, or so I had read, from a week where she attended three memorial services and one wedding. “I don’t know that the idea for the album came that way,” she muses, “but I think it hit me like a ton of bricks when that happened…

“Over the course of the time that I was writing the record, the ideas about mortality and all that were sort of in the room with me, and I think that it was a combination of factors. I think it’s kind of a natural thing as you get older – it’s something you think about more.

“During the first summer that I was writing songs for this record, that happened. I was invited to a wedding of one of my co-writers on the album and as it happened, that same week I went to three memorial services and it really hit me that the older you get, this is what happens.

“This is the way it is – the ratio starts to shift and it’s just a fact of life. I think it even validated, for me, the idea of writing about this subject. I thought, ‘This is reality. This is what it is to be in your 50s and I think there must be other people that want to hear about this.’ I know I do…

“I think that music and songs can embrace any theme or any idea that you can think of, just like literature and art can. I don’t think there should be any taboo subjects.”

Ms. Peters worked with some pretty big name on the album – Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave and Suzy Bogguss, to name four – and I wondered how these collaborations came about.

“Well they’re all my friends… On this album, I really wanted to surround myself with friends. I think the more I do this – and I’ve been doing this for many years now – the more I realise that one of the great joys that I get out of music is the collaborative part of it.

“I love singing with other singers and I love playing with other musicians and it’s really what I started out to do. I mean I always said, even when I was a teenager, that I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t think about wanting to be a singer or a songwriter or a star. What I wanted to be was a musician and that meant playing with other musicians.”

Gretchen wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 11 tracks (Track Nine, “Nashville,” is from the trusty pen of David Mead) and I asked about one of the songs that deals with the infamous Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill in 2010.

“Yeah, it’s called ‘Black Ribbons’ and that’s a song I wrote with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss… I think they all kind of revolve around people going through critical moments in their lives, going through darkness – perhaps working their way through it, perhaps succumbing to it.

“But that particular song grew out of some stories that I heard when the BP Oil Spill happened in the Gulf in 2010. There were some really heart-wrenching stories about people who had made their livelihood for their whole lives on the Gulf of Mexico and suddenly were faced with having that taken away from them, and there were suicides that happened because of that.

“The death toll from the oil spill wasn’t just the people who died in the explosion. There was a bigger toll and that was what really stuck with me – those kinds of stories about people not being able to go on because of situations like that.

“It all sounds very dark, but I think there are moments of light that come through and what I try to do always – not just on this album but in general when I’m writing – is come from a place of empathy for the characters in my songs, whether they’re me or someone else, so that even when you’re exploring a dark subject it’s with a lot of empathy and humanity.”

I finished up by asking Gretchen about her induction, in October last year, into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. “Yes, it was an incredible day,” she recalls. “It’s a huge honour and it’s something I’m still sort of processing a little bit.

“Almost all my heroes are there. Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, great songwriters like Bob McDill and Harlan Howard, Mickey Newbury, who’s one of my favourite country songwriters ever.

“And it’s not just country music… I think that’s the other thing I love about the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. It’s people who had an influence here and that includes people like Dylan. I can’t quite believe I’m in there, frankly.

“But the other element of it for me that was so heartening and so humbling was that the work I think I was primarily being honoured for, I did mostly all by myself in a room. To walk out and get that kind of public validation from my peers, it was as if they were saying, ‘Good work, well done’ and that meant so much to me.

“Despite the fact that I’ve, more often than not, gone my own way in this town, it’s also a community that I really, really wanted to be a part of – always. Belonging to this community really means a lot to me.”

Blackbirds is out today.

For more information, visit Gretchen Peters’ official website.

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