In a music industry obsessed with youth and image, twice Grammy nominated Gretchen Peters’ work shines with the intangible and transcendent glow of organic music-making honed through soulful life experience as well as long-term musical practice. Perhaps that is what Disney teenybopper, Miley Cyrus, heard last year when she tweeted: “Wow. The Matador by Gretchen Peters blows me away. She was touched by GOD. Her voice and soul is pure light” and “Looking up @ the stars w/ Gretchen Peters on. What a soul. Her love & pain inspires me to be a better songwriter. Glory thru my headphones”. Starting out as a songwriter in Nashville, 55-year-old Gretchen Peters has become more prominent as most singer-songwriters her age struggle to remain fresh. As she toured her way through the UK and Europe recently with her 2012 album Hello Cruel World, we caught up with her to talk careers, songwriting and being a woman in the music industry.
Where did you get your inspiration to become a singer-songwriter?
I started playing guitar at seven. All I wanted to do was play Bob Dylan songs. I had written short stories and poems every chance that I could get but I didn’t put the two things together for a long time. When I did, I started to have a vision of this being something that I could do. I was living in Colorado when I was in my teens and I submerged myself in the vibrant music scene. I was too young to get into the clubs that had my favourite bands every night. So I went to a club on the campus of the university and just asked them if I could play and threw myself into it. I learned how you create a set, how to make people listen to you, how to have something to say, how not to waste their time, that kind of thing. That was a ten-year learning curve. It’s a shame that these days more people don’t have the opportunity to have that long education. People get record deals having never really played in a club or in front of an audience before. It boggles my mind because I did it for at least ten years, before I entered the studio.
Have you ever felt you were treated differently because you were a woman?
When I moved to Nashville, there was and still is to some extent a real good old boys system in place. When I got my big publishing deal after I’d had a hit or two, I asked the head of the publishing company – who was a woman which was really unusual – why she wanted me and she said ‘we need more women writers’. I remember thinking ‘am I ever just going to be a writer, not a woman writer?’ No one ever talks about men writers. But I accepted that and thought that’s why they think they want me, but I will prove to them why they really want me. There was definitely the reality that female artists are far more judged on the way they look than male artists are especially back when I first got my record deal (in 1995). There were a lot of male artists that were being signed to record labels then that looked like the guy who worked on your dad’s farm. They were not pretty boys but that was not a factor. But for female artists it was different. Shortly after my first record came out, Shania Twain blew the whole country scene open, and it shifted even more towards that ethic. It’s a shame, it’s the most pervasive thing that female artists have to face: that they are going to be judged that way and not on their songs, singing or performance.
How have you dealt with that?
Well, I put it in the same basket as everything else about the music industry that I was uncomfortable with. Having someone at the record label telling you that you shouldn’t put that song on that record because of whatever-the-reason, grated on me as much as anything else. Being an artist under a major label feels like being a sheep led to slaughter. It’s like they put a noose around your neck and say: ‘We love you and now we’re going to take you over here and change everything about you.’ So my way of dealing with all of it was to become independent really early on. I was lucky enough to get the ownership of my first record back and I never looked back.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming female musicians?
If you are on the verge of giving something away, understand what it is you are giving away. Also, be very honest about what part of the music business you want to be in. If you want to be famous and a big pop star, and that’s your be all and end all, why not sign everything away? Then the life span of your career will be five to ten years if you are lucky. But if you regard it as your art, then go down the independent route. For artists, it is the only way. If you are going to do that you are going to have to be as savvy about the business as you are about the art. That sounds dry… there are lots of things about the business that I wish I could do without but there’s a lot about it that’s creative. I have a knack for things like social media. The fans I interact with know they are interacting with me and it’s not coming from some assistant. I enjoy that. With more success, you learn how to divide, conquer and delegate. If you don’t like putting your tour dates on your website, hire someone to do it. Learn how to be this mini mogul of your own world so you can keep your sanity and have time to concentrate on the most important thing – the music.
You started off your career writing songs that were covered by country music luminaries such as Martina McBride, Patty Loveless and Faith Hill. What do you think attracted these artists to your songs?
Writing from a female perspective. It makes what my publisher said make more sense to me. I look back at the songs I wrote…one was called Independence Day and was about a woman who was abused and the song was sung from the daughter’s perspective. There was one called Let that Pony Run which was an early hit for Pam Tillis that was written from the point of view of a woman whose husband tells her he is leaving her after many years of marriage. I was writing songs from a woman’s viewpoint and there weren’t that many songs like that. Back at that time there was preponderance on finding – and the slang makes me sick – “a female attitude” song. This is some kind of skin-deep, sassy independent female but it is not even scratching the surface of what independence really is, what it means and what it costs – those songs are primarily written by men. I think Martina and Faith are intelligent women and artists, and I guess they saw more depth in the women [of my songs] and were attracted to them for those reasons.
What are young people not getting in music these days that made Miley Cyrus tweet about your song?
People in their twenties are not ageist the way my generation was. When I was that age I would never have listened to music that my parents grew up listening to. But my son has Connie Francis records, Led Zeppelin records and Patsy Cline …they don’t care and I love that. That is such a better thing than the way we were…we had to be cool. I missed out on understanding why Elvis was great because to me, he was just corny and weird. From what I can tell, [these kids] are listening to the music and responding to it on an honest level. I am always very flattered when somebody in their twenties comes to a show. Taking that time and effort of coming to a show because there’s something they are responding to. It’s such a deeply engrained thing in humans to be told a story. I always joke that the oldest words in any language have to be ‘tell me a story’. Everybody wants to be told a compelling story that makes us feel we are a part of something. It’s as important to us as air and water and food. So when you can do that honestly and simply…age fades away and it becomes about the story, characters, our collective humanity and I guess, that’s as close as I can tell why my record translates to someone like Miley Cyrus. We all have those basic emotions of love and loss.
For further information about Gretchen’s tour dates in the U.S. and Ireland for 2013, click here.
Herpreet Kaur Grewal