Interview: Gretchen Peters Emerges From ‘Season of Grief’ With New Album
"I don't know why I have this attraction to characters who've seen a lot of s--t," Gretchen Peters tells The Boot. She's speaking to media in advance of her new album, Dancing With the Beast, a project that grapples with themes of darkness, death and female characters who -- particularly as they age -- go unheard and unseen.
That darkness is familiar territory for Peters, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who has released an impressive array of studio projects, collaborations and compilations over the course of her over 30-year career (and penned hits for country artists such as Shania Twain, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride). In "Independence Day," which has arguably become a signature song for both Peters and McBride, the lyrics come from the point of view of a young girl telling the story of her mother burning down the family house to fight back against domestic violence. Even Peters' merchandise features a line of T-shirts emblazoned with what might as well be her songwriting motto: "Sad Songs Make Me Happy."
"I sort of approach [songs] as an actor approaches a role," Peters explains of her songwriting process. "I feel that if a character starts to appear and talk to me, I have to live with them long enough to let them start really talking. I don't think you can make characters do things in songs; I think you have to let them hang out with you long enough to tell their story."
In the case of "Disappearing Act," Dancing With the Beast's kick-off single, the central character of the song is a world-weary old woman who has suffered more than her share of loss in life, but still approaches each day with the sort of gritty bravado that translates into minor-key swagger and flat honesty in the song.
"In retrospect, I think there's a lot of my mother in there," Peters reflects. "My mom died in late 2016, when she was 93 years old. She was a no-bulls--t person. By the time she was into her '90s, she had kind of seen it all. And [the character in that song] is one of my favorite characters."
In fact, Peters adds, characters sometimes recur for her at later points in their lives, and the woman in "Disappearing Act" could well be an example: "I mean, she could easily be an older version of the woman in "Five Minutes,"" she explains. "I think all writers go back and pick at the same old wounds, whatever those are. I think we all have places and characters and situations that we go back to and visit."
While "Disappearing Act" features an older character, Peters explains that "The Boy From Rye," one of her favorite songs on her new album, tells the story of a character who is, in many ways, on the opposite end of life: "It's about girls who are on the brink of adolescence and starting to realize that they are being judged externally, and that all their worth is being put into this one basket," she continues.
"Girls get judged and they get sexualized. I remember really wanting to write a song that gets that feeling of tentativeness," Peters says. "It's an exciting time, but it's also about feeling the ground shifting underneath your feet and not being captain of your own ship anymore."
"Part of what an artist does is tap into the things that are bubbling under the surface of their culture. They're kind of canaries in the coal mine, in that way."
While she doesn't identify herself as a political artist, Peters has never been one to shy away from expressing an opinion, and she wrote the songs for Dancing With the Beast during a particularly poignant time in her life, both politically and personally: after the 2016 presidential election.
"A month after the election, I lost my mom, and I also lost a couple of friends during that time," Peters shares. "It was just a season of grief and loss. I sat in it for a while, and then, in 2017, I decided it was time to start writing again.
"But how do you write in this time that we're in? You can't not write about it; it's everywhere, it's pervasive," she continues. "I'm not a political writer; I'm a storyteller. I knew I wasn't going to write an album of protest songs, so how do I express the anxiety and grief and anger that I'm feeling and still do it in a meaningful way?
"After sitting with that for a while, I realized that I was going to do the same thing I always do: Tell stories. One little story at a time. And that's when all these girls and women started to appear [as characters for songs]," Peters adds. "It's not that surprising, because part of what an artist does is tap into the things that are bubbling under the surface of their culture. They're kind of canaries in the coal mine, in that way."
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