Tennessee titan Gretchen on her darkly brilliant new album
Nashville-based Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters has released a fantastic new album that has been described as a “career-defining” recording. Ahead of four Irish dates, she talks to Brian Campbell
GRETCHEN Peters has been showered with deserved praise for her dark but brilliant new album Blackbirds. With its murder ballads, musings on mortality and a stunning song about war (When All You Got Is A Hammer), Blackbirds is a serious affair but it is seriously good.
Peters was born in upstate New York but has been based in Nashville for the best part of 30 years now and has become one of Music City USA’s most talented and important singer-songwriters.
She is pleased with how Blackbirds has been received, with some reviewers comparing it to Springsteen’s classic Nebraska album.
“As dark as this record is, the audiences have responded so strongly to it and I’m so grateful for that,” she says.
Peters plays four Irish dates this month – Dublin, Belfast, Rathfriland and Letterkenny – and she has high praise for Co Antrim man Ben Glover, who co-wrote three songs on Blackbirds.
“I’m not a very frequent or eager co-writer – I can find it a little awkward and uncomfortable – but Ben is so easy to be with and he’s such a friendly sweet guy,” she says of Glover, who is himself a Nashville resident these days.
“We were on the road and he was opening shows for us in 2013, so we got to know each other really well and I was very comfortable with him. I thought, `Yeah, I could sit in a room and write songs with this guy’ and it worked out.
“I’ve written a couple of songs with him very recently, so I believe one of them is going to be on his next album. It’s a song I really love and I hope it does see the light of day. I think Ben is great; he’s a wonderful talent.”
Back in 2009, Peters supported Co Derry singer Cara Dillon on a run of Irish dates.
“It was just amazing to hear that gorgeous voice of Cara’s every night. We did a tour a couple of years later where we went back to some of the places we went to with Cara," she says.
“I’m ready to get back to Ireland for these shows. Everybody knows that the audiences in Ireland are more musical than they are anywhere else. People in the States that haven’t played in Ireland sometimes ask me, 'What IS it about Ireland’ and I say, `It seems like everybody has music in them’.
“My history with Ireland goes back to the mid-90s and it was a revelation to me how much attention people pay to the lyrics.”
The singer’s upcoming Belfast gig is a Real Music Club show in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, so the lines, “Sing holy holy, hallelujah I am free / Come on down and join the jubilee” might take on added resonance in the church setting.
There’s more spiritual reflection of a sort on the poignant The Cure For The Pain, written after Peters spent a weekend with a loved one in hospital: “Bless these pills, bless these sheets/ Bless this food that you can’t eat/ Bless the damned who walk these halls/ And God have mercy on us all...”
“I haven’t played there before, so I’m looking forward to it,” she says of Fitzroy. “I’ve played in Belfast quite a few times, but this will be a new venue for us. I can’t wait.”
One song she’ll be doing live is the fantastic David Mead tune Nashville, which she covers on Blackbirds.
“I’ve loved that song for years. I was hesitant about recording it but I wanted to sing it every night and it came out so lovely that I had to put it on the record,” she says. “I’m so far along in my career now that I have this wonderful problem of having more songs that I want to play than I have time to play, but we still do the occasional cover.
“Blackbirds is so unrelentingly dark that I think it’s nice to throw something in that’s a little unexpected and that maybe cheers people up,” she laughs.
Peters plays live with a band, with her partner Barry Walsh a key member of the set-up. “Music was our first language; that’s how we got to know each other. I hired Barry to play piano on my second or third set of demos and I never hired another piano player after that. It is second nature at this point; it’s like we play with one brain.”
She says the new songs have been going down well so far. “When All You Got Is A Hammer has been really popular and it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people. Pretty Things has really taken off too. Those two songs got played on BBC Radio Two, so a lot of people heard them. And people really respond to the title track.”
Twenty years ago Peters got a Grammy nomination for her powerful song Independence Day, written about a woman who fights back against her abusive husband. It was a hit for Martina McBride and then, in 2008, the then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin used the song (taking it to be a patriotic American anthem) without permission in her campaign.
Peters called Palin out for what she did and ended up getting lots of criticism from Republican supporters for daring to set the record straight. She says now that she stopped performing the song for a while but has brought it back into the set.
“I almost lost the plot in terms of where I was and how I felt when I wrote it, so I put the song down for a while. It was so ubiquitous and it almost overpowered my career in a weird way,” she says.
“I missed it and people missed it and asked for it, so I brought it back and really changed it. I play it at the piano now and that put me right back in touch with the lyrics again.
“Now it’s a moment in the show that I really love. I’m back in touch with the song, so that’ll definitely be in the setlist."
:: Gretchen Peters plays Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Friday October 16 (ticketsource.co.uk/realmusicclub) and the Bronte Music Club in Rathfriland (BronteMusicClub.com) on Saturday October 17. Blackbirds is out now.