Show and Tell
by Owen Bailey
I begin my interview with Gretchen Peters on a congratulatory note. She has just scooped International Album and Song of the year (2015) at the inaugural UK Americana Awards in London. Back in 1995, she won best song of the year at the Country Music Associations with "Independence Day." So twenty years on, with ten albums to her name and a multitude of UK tours, Peters is still producing quality lyrics and arrangements. Maybe, just maybe, Peters is gaining the recognition and accolades her music deserves.
"Yes the award means a great deal to me. I guess it was a validation of what we were trying to achieve with the album. We were invited to play at the awards show, be part of the evening. But I'd no idea we would win two awards. Very special evening, delighted to have received the accolades," explains Peters.
We are chatting in her dressing room before showtime in High Wycombe with a welcome cup of tea. "I've spent that much time in the UK over the years tea has become my preferred drink," she tells me.
Peters career began writing songs, strumming her guitar from bar to bar in Colorado for a decade or so. In 1996, she moved to Nashville (where she still lives). "Something had to change, we'd kind of reached the ceiling. I wanted to take my songwriting and ideas in general to another level" She soon found out that was easier said than done. "Record companies and publishers wanted me to concentrate on co-writes, or change my style, fit in with the format which offered commercial success. The whole process made me miserable I wanted to find my own voice, my own performing style."
She continues: "Thankfully, I found someone who believed in me and I was given a record deal. They liked what I did on my own. He said don't do this, or that, just go your own direction, which by the way has always been the best and happiest route for me."
And so, her recording career began. "When I released my first album Secret of Life in 1996, it failed to register, anywhere. In terms of record sales in the U.S., it was a failure. For many years, I was to many people a songwriter. Being an artist in my own right didn't come easy. It took at least three albums before I started to get any type of acceptance. My music started to find a platform when I began touring the UK. I played to audiences who didn't have any expectations. They accepted me for who I was. I wasn't carrying any baggage. They either liked me, or not."
The UK public did like Peters and she accepted the requests to come back and tour, again and again. Progress, success and notoriety was a slow burn.
Some of her initial audiences were 40/50 people, in some cases less she recalls with a wry smile. Those days are gone, when the 20th anniversary tour was announced, tickets sold quickly. Her broader public and media profile resulted in the 2015 album Blackbirds charting as number one on the UK Official Country Artists Album Chart. Uncut described her as "one of the greatest talents of the past two decades" While Rolling Stone dubbed "Blackbirds" "as one of the most affecting murder ballads since Springsteen's "Nebraska."
One of the questions up and coming singer songwriters always seem to be asking of themselves or others "How do you fast track to success?" Peters offers her thoughts. "This business is a long hard road, it's not for the faint hearted. I believe we have an inner compass which needs to be understood and listened too. Listen to what it's telling you, what is right for you. More importantly get out and play in front of an audience. Get your music heard. If there are good artists out there, someone will find them. I like Ben Glover- he's gifted, talented he's serious about his career. From a personal point of view, it's hard work which has took me to where I am today."
To coincide with the tour The Essential Gretchen Peters was released early February. Peters explains, "the 27 tracks combine career defining tracks, outtakes, demos and B-sides. These are the tracks which span my career."
Some of tonight's audience have grown up with Peters and her music. Specific songs relate to a timeline or event in their life. At tonight's gig, the atmosphere is reverential, respectful. The gathered throng have come to the church of Gretchen Peters. As the lights dim, Peters along with husband Barry Walsh take to the stage. Their reception has a decibel level usually held back for encores. Relief she is back amongst the capacity audience is tangible.
She opens with "The Secret of Life," gliding into a rhythm and pace which will be held throughout the evening. Peters has a surprising depth and richness to her vocal range. Walsh provides an easy relaxed aura with his skilled accompaniment on piano and accordion. Award winning song "Blackbirds," a gothic murder song par excellence written with Ben Glover, is a first live rendition for new converts. "Uneasy lies the head, unfaithful is the heart, ungrateful and unlucky and untrue." Great song, great performance.
For the iconic "Independence Day," Peters goes solo, swapping guitar for piano as accompaniment. The lyrics and driving piano chords to this powerful ballad reverberate around the theatre. "Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong," she pleads. It's as though she has released a bird in flight, swooping, diving, climbing as the tale unfolds.
"When You Love Someone," co-written with Michael Kamen and Bryan Adams (who went on to make it a worldwide hit), is one of Peters better known compositions. However an audience favourite, I'm sure for some of the congregation it's the one they've been waiting for: "On a Bus to St. Cloud." It's such a tender love story, a moment in time when a lost love is seen on a passing bus. "You chase me like a shadow, you chase me live a ghost." A message of goodbye, or lover unwilling to let go? Enough ambiguity in amongst pain and longing to make the song personal and private to each listener. We both accept "on a bus to High Wycombe" doesn't hold the same tension and poignancy.
Whilst touring the sad news of BBC presenter Terry Wogan's sudden and unexpected passing is announced. "When You Are Old" penned by Peters in 1991 was amongst his Desert Island Discs. She pays tribute to "El Tel" explaining how he was supportive of her career, playing her music on numerous occasions during his time on BBC radio 2. It's theme, a promise to be with the other person until the end. No matter of age or infirmity is tough one to remain dry eyed though. Under these circumstance it's nigh on impossible, tears are flowing as much rustling of tissues and handkerchiefs confirm.
Other favourites in the set included "When All You Got Is a Hammer" exploring a soldier who has been taught one skill, to fight, hence the title.
"Five Minutes" is a masterclass in how Peters lyrics can capture longing, memories, a life gone by. The diner waitress taking a five minute cigarette break. Enough time to recall "Back when you were Romeo and I was Juliet West Texas Capulet and Montague." Still pretending she doesn't think about what could have been. Her cigarette break saying otherwise. What an evocative ballad she's constructed in storytale format.
Peters closes off the evening with a driving, prolonged honky tonk encore, smiles abound both on and off stage. The audience on mass stand to applaud Peters, she reciprocates with warm applause back, mouthing "Thank You's."
Judging by the queue waiting to meet with Peters after the show, it looks like a long night ahead, which I sure will be welcomed by artist and audience members alike. It is said "Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration." One thing for sure Gretchen Peters found her own recipe for success. A career built on perseverance and a huge slug of talent.
See more about Gretchen Peters at her website
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