Interview: Gretchen Peters on Human-Centric Storytelling and the Power of Sad Songs

Interviews

When Gretchen Peters called me on the phone, I was running to put a cricket outside, a harbinger of fall that was inside and chirping under my desk. She said that she was on Long Island for a mini vacation, and she told me something I did not know: crickets are considered good luck. And so our conversation began.

Peters released an album recently, Dancing With the Beast (Proper Records) and in her words, it’s “heavily loaded.” She started writing it around the women’s march and the most recent inauguration, and the album tells stories, about female characters who struggle. The album contains characters who are suffering from abuse, depression, Alzheimer’s, and there’s even one song called “Truck Stop Angel.”  “It’s human centric,” I remarked. Peters responded: “I’m glad to hear you say that, because some of the most rewarding feedback about the album has come from men who’ve said these are human stories. I have a problem with the whole idea of things like “women’s literature” and I don’t think of myself as addressing an audience of just one gender. Female characters ought to interest everybody.”

This sparked a discussion of the fact that feminism isn’t just one set of definitions and perspectives. There are multiple subcategories of and ways to define feminism. On this topic, Peters said: “we’ve certainly gone through multiple iterations. I’m a person who came of age with the first copy of Ms. magazine, so I became aware of it with the first wave. Although I’ll also say that through all the iterations I’ve never not thought of myself as a feminist.”

The album’s stories highlight women in difficult situations. Acknowledging this led into a consideration of the way music itself might effect change—how can music create change, or impact people?  Peters remarked: “One of the most powerful things about music, and we probably don’t talk about this enough, is that it gets at you. It reaches you in a completely different part of your brain from the rational part. Hand in hand with that is the fact that music is emotional shorthand. Like some of the other senses—like certain smells can take you right back to a place, a melody can do that too. My belief about the power of music is that it opens up your empathy channels.”

“So if you’re a songwriter like I am and you are telling a story about a character, then the music provides the emotional backdrop to that story. Music can convey tenderness toward that character.   For instance if I’m telling a hard tale about someone who’s having a hard life, the music can provide the emotional backdrop to that.   Saying that makes it sound calculated, but the way it works from a songwriter’s perspective is that it’s much more instinctive than that sounds. It’s not like I set out to write a really tender melody, it’s more like I’m guided downstream by my feelings for the character.”

I commented that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that we are mainly functioning according to instinct, and then we categorize our behaviors and experiences rationally after the fact. Peters said “yes that’s exactly it, you can look at it analytically after the fact but you it does nothing but harm to take songs apart analytically while you’re in the middle of them.”

“What’s your songwriting process? Is it completely intuitive and spontaneous, or is there some structure to it?” I asked her. “Well, I do have to set aside space and time, and to what I call ‘assume the position’ so that’s the element of discipline,” she said.  “If I didn’t have that I’d forever be organizing my closet, or moving a cricket outside. (laughs) But aside from the time I’ve set aside, I don’t impose specific daily structured goals.”

“Because songs are so delicate, in their early stages I look at them as though they are lightning in a bottle.   You shouldn’t over handle them, you could really kill a song by over handling it. I don’t force myself to finish anything before it’s ready to be finished; I keep 8 or 10 songs going at a time so I can go from one to another, because, like you said, the good stuff comes from your subconscious, and you can’t force your subconscious to say what it’s not ready to say yet.”

“It’s going to happen in its own time when it’s ready to happen. Sometimes it’s months, sometimes it’s days, sometimes it’s literally years.”

I noted that each song on Dancing With the Beast tells a very different story about a very different character. The first song, “Arguing With Ghosts“ takes on Alzheimers. I was saying that song is so sad, because the woman doesn’t know for sure if those are even her kids in the picture on the wall.  Peters said, “I think of that song as being about disorientation. So there’s the first level, that you just mentioned, about the Alzheimer’s. But there’s the second level, which is just purely about getting older. It’s about looking in the mirror and not recognizing yourself. We’ve all experienced some of that sense of disembodiment, waking up one day and looking in the mirror and thinking: “this is me?” So I think on that level there are a lot of people who can relate to it personally.”

“And granted it is a sad song, but the thing I always come back to is that I love sad songs. I admit it. The thing that’s sadder to me, though, would be not talking about that stuff. Because what is cathartic to me, is saying the thing that people are afraid to say but are thinking about it all the time.   Saying the thing that I’m afraid to say but I’m thinking about it all the time. It’s incredibly cathartic to say it, and to have people say they feel it too, or they think about it too. To me, the saddest thing is the isolation that comes with thinking it and not talking about it.   So I find these characters incredibly cathartic and wonderful, I think they are heroic. There’s a lot of heroism in their stories.”

“I sell a t-shirt at my shows that says “Sad Songs Make Me Happy,” and I tell the audience there are two kinds of people in this world, those who find sad songs depressing, and then there’s us!   We’re a tribe and we have to stick together and we know that the really healing and cleansing part of music is the part that’s cathartic, and that lets you know you’re not alone.”

“Wichita” is a story of an abused young girl who takes a gun to her abuser.   “Was that based on one event, or is it a prototype?” I asked. She replied “That story is based on an archetypal story I keep seem to be trying to tell, about a child in an adult world where adults are doing adult things and bad things, and she is trying to wrest some kind of control over the situation. I can’t tell you why that’s a theme for me, but when the world seems to be coming apart when you’re a child, you feel so powerless over all of it. And there’s something powerful about telling a story from the perspective a of child because children are truth tellers and they don’t editorialize, they just tell you their story. So they make wonderful narrators. And there’s something about a strong-minded child telling that story that feels important. The rest of it comes from my imagination but the DNA that’s in that song is the same DNA that’s in other songs of mine, like “Independence Day.”   I’ve been writing this song my whole life.”

“Truckstop Angel,” is a song with unbelievable metaphorical phrases, in particular one line where the main character “swallows.”   I congratulated Peters on that line, and she said “Thank you, I was really proud of that line, I felt like I had to be graphic but I also felt like I had to say something beyond being graphic just for shock value. And, the question is, what is she really swallowing?   What is she really taking? That line meant a lot to me.”

“It’s funny, the ones you feel are really, really good are so few and far between in your life, that I tell my songwriting students all the time: the lines that I feel are my best, I never remember writing them. They come from the subconscious. Meanwhile the lines that I worked my ass off trying to get right, I have lots of memory of that, but those are not the ones that are the great ones.”

“Where are your workshops held?” I asked. “I teach workshops in Nashville, and sometimes other places, while I’m touring. For example, I’m doing one in Scotland in a few weeks. I do the ones in Nashville in association with Performing Songwriter Magazine. My students tend to be people who are writers for whom life may have gotten in the way of them progressing as writers and it’s a gift they give themselves. It’s kind of a stunning experience to see people take that very scary step towards really acknowledging to themselves that they are writers and need to take it seriously. It’s the biggest surprise of my career that I would be so enthusiastic about teaching. I’m so inspired by the bravery of these writers and it’s quite something to witness.”

Finally, we considered the album’s title track: “Dancing With the Beast.” Peters said “It’s funny I wrote that song with Ben Glover, and he blurted out the title and I knew immediately that it was a great title, and I knew the concept of “beast” had meaning on many, many levels. When he was talking about it, he was talking about self doubt and self esteem, and he said ‘I’ve been dancing with the beast a bit lately myself’ and I said ‘we need to write about that.’ But as I thought about it, the question arose: what if we animate the beast? What if the beast is a real person? What would that look like, and immediately I realized that of course it would look like an abuser. So on a very literal level, you can take that song as it’s written, but also when you think about it, depression, self-doubt, self-esteem issues – they all treat you like an abuser would treat you, They try to isolate you from friends and family, they tell you you’re not good enough, they nag you with thoughts like: ‘who do you think you are? you can’t do it’. So this song works on all these levels.”

“And it’s fascinating to get feedback from people, since the record’s been out and we’ve been touring it. People see their own experiences reflected in the lines. I find that people who’ve been in abusive relationships “get it” one way, and people who’ve been addicted are sure it’s about addiction, people with depression are sure it’s about depression. And I love that, that’s what I consider to be success, is when you can write a song that can speak to people on so many levels, and to different people on different levels.”

What’s coming next for Peters? “I’m going to Canada and then over to Europe for a month, the UK, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands. Then back to the U.S. to tour in support of the album Dancing With the Beast, beginning at the end of September.” Find more details, here.  http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

 

 

 

 

 

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