Miles From The Mainstream: A Chat With Gretchen Peters

“I’m sorry I’m eating dinner while I’m talking to you,” Gretchen Peters said after a not-so-long lull in the conversation, “I don’t normally do that when I’m giving an interview, but I’ve just taken a few bites.” The Grammy-nominated songwriter had just gotten off a plane from Ohio, taking a pit stop from touring at her home in Nashville.

Peters moved there 30 years ago to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. “I basically patterned myself after all the people I’ve idolized and copied while I was young [like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell]. I came here with that in mind – that’s what I wanted to do.” Her initial publishing deal was merely an effort to “prove that I could write songs, then and if I got a record deal, I could insist on singing my own songs.”

Lyrics and melodies made for Faith Hill, Etta James, Neil Diamond, and “personal hero” Bonnie Raitt landed Peters in the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 2014. No matter how bright the star, though, she’s always flattered when “anyone wants to” sing a song she wrote. “If it’s really popular with fans, they have to be on board to sing it for the rest of their careers, and you have to really feel like you can be invested in a song to do that.”

Peters knows that feeling well, battling with her own big hit, “Independence Day.” Peters’ version for Martina McBride is “almost monolithic, you can’t really do anything with it except go through the motions.” Now live, she switched from guitar to piano to provide a “fresh” ballad and show her original version to the world. “When you hear a song a lot you stop really listening to the words. My way of dealing with that was to slow it way down…so that people would focus on the lyrics all over again.”

Words are Peters’ livelihood after all, but they start as a scene. “You have to have to be able to see the movie so to speak before you can really write the song,” she said, “I spin them out based on ideas I catch in the course of everyday living.” For “Boy from Rye,” what she considers the defining track on her new record Dancing With The Beast, the springboard was the title itself.

Despite it’s name, the song is about the “fragile, fraught time for girls” hitting puberty, and was “a song that only a female writer could’ve written.” From Peters’ biggest hits to songs for herself, this is a common theme, as women of all ages “are the characters I’m really drawn to and interested in.” She quickly corrected my common misconception, however, that while only a woman can write Peters’ songs, everyone can appreciate them.

“It’s a voice coming at you saying ‘I feel this way too.’ I don’t find that depressing at all, I find it hopeful and reassuring and beautiful.”

Gretchen on why sad songs rule

“Maybe they didn’t necessarily know or could have written it, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them,” she said of men who comment on “Boy From Rye” after her performances. “One of the great things songs can do is kind of let you live in somebody else’s skin for 5 minutes; at the heart of it, what songs really do is open up our empathy channels.”

A lack of empathy in the “wasteland” of current mainstream country accelerated the focus on Peters’ singing career. “When I turn on the radio – which is rarely – but when I do it just seems like it’s just pure testosterone. Honestly, one thing I think we all have to remember is people programming commercial stations are not selling music, they’re not selling songs; they’re selling tires, deodorant, whatever they’re running ads for.”

All the good songwriters are hiding in female-saturated, counter-culture Americana, Peters claimed. “I started to feel like there was no room for the types of songs I wrote. I could hear it, it doesn’t take a genius to listen to the radio and figure out things are going east and you’re going west.” Welcoming these songs would make the radio “more diverse, more varied, just by the nature of [women’s] own experiences.”

However, she said “we’re the victim of our own technology,” with shortened attention spans proven in test audiences and focus groups that record labels rely on more than ever to churn out singles. “People may respond to an up-tempo, happy happy song about beers and trucks in the first 15 seconds, but a 5-min story song, you got to hear it all the way through before you even know how it affects us.”

While she’s grateful for her “accidental” success, she’s not a slave to it. “I always have really written what I feel like I need to say. I never really consciously wrote songs for other people.” Peters’ seems okay with stepping out of the songwriting spotlight and into her own, finally singing her sad songs for herself and anyone who can relate.

“From the time I started loving and playing music, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, the most cathartic experience was lying on my floor in the dark listening to a really sad song and feeling it deeply,” she said passionately, “you’re listening to someone across a great distance singing something to you, letting you know you’re not alone… it’s a voice coming at you saying ‘I feel this way too.’ I don’t find that depressing at all, I find it hopeful and reassuring and beautiful. Even crying when hearing a sad song and feeling better, that’s kind of what I hope to create whenever I’m playing live, that moment people can feel like they’re with other people and sharing that emotional experience. To me, that’s as good as it gets.”