Gretchen Peters is the writer behind some of Country music's biggest hits! For over 25 years this songstress has tackled some tough issues in her songs and had chart success with some of the most notable names in Country covering her songs. As well as writing for other people Gretchen has released 12 studio albums herself and had some minor chart success with songs such as When You Are Old and Hello Cruel World. She regularly teaches writing workshops to pass on her knowledge of the craft and industry to the next generation and tours the UK frequently! I was keen to catch up with her and find out her secret to success when it comes to longevity in the music industry!
First of all you’ve had a long and successful career as a songwriter and artist, was that always the plan to be an artist and write for other people?
No it wasn’t, growing up playing music I never really realised for a long time that there was a possibility of having a career as just a songwriter, I think because I patterned myself off singer-songwriters and it always seemed to me that the thing to do was to do all of it; sing them, write them, play them. It wasn’t until I came to Nashville the first couple of times that I realised there were people that just wrote songs. In my mind I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter and I never separated the writing from the performing or the recording really.
When you was growing up what did your parents play to you and what are you listening to now?
Growing up my parents played a lot of jazz around the house, they played things like Django Reinhardt and Ella Fitzgerald. I also had older siblings, especially one older sister who brought a lot of rock and roll into the house and folk music; Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell as well as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I took to folk music first because really as a seven year old kid learning how to play guitar it was the most accessible thing to play, it’s the easiest thing to learn to do. Later on in life when I discovered Country music, I always felt like it was a close cousin to folk music, the things they had in common was the lyrics, the stories, the simplicity of the music, the melody so it was not really a stretch to start delving into Country music at that point. I was a teenager by the time I discovered Country music because where I grew up it wasn’t around and it certainly wasn’t around in my house. And today I listen to all kinds of things, I listen to a lot of classical music, ambient music, things like Phillip glass, a lot of the time I like to listen to music that doesn’t have lyrics because it doesn’t get in my way creatively. Lyrics are very demanding to me I can’t listen to music with lyrics without giving them my full attention so if I’m listening to music around the house I will often listen to music without lyrics for that reason but I listen to everything. I listen to stuff my contemporaries are doing, the one thing I don’t listen to a lot is my own music in fact hardly ever.
In your own writing, where do you draw inspiration from lyrically, does it mainly come from personal experience?
I think personal experience comes out in every song that a writer writes but it’s not necessarily the inspiration, I mean I’m inspired by fictional characters a lot, I listen for characters that are talking to me in my head and in the course of me empathising with those characters a lot of me comes out in the lyrics. I think that’s what it is seeing yourself in someone else so the end result is, yes there’s my own personal stuff in the lyric but that’s not necessarily were the inspiration originally came from. I’m inspired by other peoples stories, travel inspires me, I’m a big film fan. So I’m interested and inspired by those things. I’m cautious to watch and read things that are good, I’m a believer that if you consume too much garbage it’s not good for a writer.
Can you tell me about your writing process, do you like to start with a title or melody or is it different every time?
It’s sort of different every time, I’m lyric orientated as a writer so often times for me a title or an opening line or even just a concept or a character that’s really got a hold of me and captured my imagination and often I don’t have anything other than that. Those kind of ideas tend to take a while to develop because you don’t have a melody, you don’t necessarily have words you just have a feeling, those kind of songs take time to write because of that.
Do you have favourite people that you like to collaborate with?
Well I’m not much of a co-writer. I love to collaborate musically with people, singing, playing together, that’s one of my great joys. But from a co-writing stand point I have written on the last two albums with Ben Glover and he’s my favourite co-writer, my only co-writer really at this point. We seem to really click together, I really love the songs we’ve written together so he’s an exception to the rule as far as writing. Collaborating musically is one of my joys, I love to sing harmonies, I really like touring with other musicians and my band because there’s lots of musical collaborations that go on there that keep it interesting every night, if I was left to my own devices, touring solo, I’d bore the hell out of myself every night, I wouldn’t enjoy touring as I do because to me on stage it’s all about the collaboration.
Two of my favourite songs have been written by you, Hello Cruel World and Independence Day which was a number 1 for Martina McBride, I wondered if you could tell us the stories behind those songs and a little about the writing process?
Sure, well Independence Day was a long time ago, it’s almost so far back in my memory it’s hard to remember, I know a couple of things that stick out to me whilst writing that song, one was that it took so long to write it, it took about a year and a half and that was because I was so afraid of the story that revealed itself to me, I felt like the ending of the story was so sad and I spent a lot of time trying to write another ending for it and realised I couldn’t, it didn’t work any other way. The irony of that all these years later is that the woman in the song she was in a situation where she probably looked for every other possible way to get out and couldn’t find it, it’s amazing that the writing of the song paralleled that. It was a hard thing to do to write that bleak ending but that was this family’s story and you have to tell it how it is. So the process was picking it up and putting it back down and picking it up again over the course of about 18 months until I finally said ok this is it. I really did not feel like the prospects of getting that recorded by someone were very good because of the dark ending but to my surprise it took on this whole life that it’s had over the past 25 years. Hello Cruel World kind of parallels that in some ways, fast forward twenty years, when I was writing that album that that song is on, I was at a point in my life, I’d gone through a hard year, a lot of things had happened that kind of shuck my foundations to the core and I knew going in to writing the whole album that the only thing I could do to challenge me and move on my writing to another level was to be brutally honest about my own feelings of self doubt, all the things that had shaken my foundations in the past year. I remember consciously vowing to say the things that occurred to me in the middle of the night. We all have those moments at 3am when we’re going over things in our minds, things we don’t necessarily share with people in the light of day and I thought those are the things I want to write about and it was a little scary to do that. But I found that the song really resonated with people because of that because everyone thinks those things at 3 in the morning and we don’t talk about them, I think it’s powerful when you can voice those worries and doubts for people because they instantly relate to it.
For an artist and a songwriter who has had such a long, successful career what has been the highlight for you so far?
Oh gosh, that’s so hard, can I name a couple? Haha! Definitely one of them was being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014 that was a huge honour and it’s something I still have to pinch myself over because all my heroes are in the Nashville songwriters Hall of Fame from Bob Dylan to Micky Newbury, Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton they’re all there so that was definitely a highlight. I would say, the arc of my touring in the UK has been a huge, huge gift to me for which I’m always grateful. I never play a show in the UK without thinking, look at this gift, from when I first came over and started touring in 96 and played for forty people in a room and now I can’t believe some of the beautiful halls I’m playing in and that happened because of some kind of connection between me and the audiences in the UK, people ask me how I account for that relationship and I really can’t tell you but I feel a real closeness and a bond with the audiences there, I’ve been coming over for 25 years and I see the same people who were in those early venues and hundreds more now so I’m never not grateful for that it’s been a huge highlight of my musical life.
A few silly questions now, what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever written a song about?
Haha that’s a good question I wrote a song once about Picasso’s cat so that would probably qualify!
That’s a good one! When you’re on stage are you completely focused or do you let your mind wander, we call it your mid-gig thoughts?
Well what I’m aiming for is to always be in the moment, that’s what live performance is about, that’s the magic of it, that’s what keeps it challenging because that’s easier said than done. I wont say there aren’t times when my mind wanders but I’m always trying to bring my mind back to the here and now, the goal to me is losing yourself in the music so the audience can lose itself in the music and we can convene in one place and not think about ourselves and just be in the music so it’s not unlike meditation. For me I think a lot, I’m in my head a lot so not only is it a challenge but it’s good for me to get out of my head for a little bit.
What advice do you have for myself and many of my readers who are aspiring songwriters?
Well I teach Songwriting workshops and I think if there’s one thing I want to convey to my students is that you have an inner voice, you have intuition and the only tool you’ll have for your entire life is that inner voice so you have to listen to it and trust it. People will give you all kinds of opinions on songs that you write, good, bad, whatever and when it comes to the opinions of those you trust it’s good to listen but the most important opinion to listen to is that inner voice and it’s like a muscle the more you listen the stronger it will get.
That’s great, thank you. So final question, what’s next for you?
Well after we get back from the UK we’ve got a bit of touring in the US but then I’ll be getting ready to come back to the UK for a tour that’s really near and dear to my heart and I’m excited about, it’s with my band and a string quartet, so we’re doing 8 dates in April all over the UK.