Music Q&A: Gretchen Peters

One of Nashville’s greatest talents, she has just been announced as headline act for the Beverley Folk Festival main concert on 15 June

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What informs your music and songwriting?
I guess the short answer is people. The long answer: novels, films, art, stories, storytelling, the struggle of people to be seen and heard. I think all writers are outsiders to some extent; that’s what creates good observational skills. But observation without empathy doesn’t get you anywhere. Empathy is my true north. I know that I’m on the right trail when I find a character I empathise with – one that is so authentic and real that she starts to talk to me, to tell me where the song is going. Many times you think you’re writing about one thing only to find out you’re really just using that as a navigational point to get to the real story. Your guide is the character. She will never steer you wrong.

How have you evolved as an artist over the years?
If I’ve learned anything in nearly 25 years of recording and touring, it’s that it’s OK – in fact, essential – to bring whatever I have at the moment to the studio or the stage. Putting on a happy face or being something you’re not does no one any good. If I allow myself to sink into what is, I’m always going to be more in tune with the music, the audience, everything. One of the reasons that I’ve always found live performance so fascinating is that it demands that you live in the moment. I’ve never been particularly great at that, so it’s a challenge, but one that keeps me engaged. I know that I need it. And I know that I’ll never stop learning from it. In 2017, as I was writing songs for my new album, I was distraught, angry, sad, grieving on so many levels – from personal loss to the loss of the country I thought I lived in. There’s no way to paint over that. You have to bring it to the songs, to the studio, to the stage. Make use of it – give it to the audience as a gift. If there’s any service that artists can do it’s to help people access their own emotions. I want to offer some moments of clarity to what is a very upsetting and bewildering time for all of us.

What are you up to at the moment artistically?
I’m about to release Dancing With The Beast, my ninth studio album. After the album is done and in the can, there’s still a lot of learning and exploring of the songs to be done. They’re still developing, in a way, and will continue to evolve on the stage. I’ve really come to look forward to this process, to feel the songs deepen with time and repeated performances. The audience plays a part in deepening them too – in some way the songs become theirs. So I’m looking forward to our UK tour and to playing these songs with my band, who’ll add their own magic to them.

What’s on your rider?
Nothing very exciting. The most exotic thing on our rider is kombucha, which doesn’t seem to have widespread acceptance in the UK yet. We have it on the rider but promoters are seldom able to find it. Other that that it’s a bottle of red, a bottle of white, some veggies, the usual deli tray and a full length mirror – have to have the full length mirror. It’s amazing how many dressing rooms are set up with only guys in mind so I always specify.

Tell us your most embarrassing or surreal experience.
The first thing that comes to mind in the embarrassing category was back when I was playing in the bars in Colorado. We were playing in one of the big, fancy Urban Cowboy bars in Denver, and the only exit from the stage was right off the front, onto the dance floor. I finished my set, walked off the stage, caught my boot heel on something and took a spectacular fall in front of the entire audience. What can you do but get up, dust yourself off and take a bow?

What song do you wish you’d written?
Joan of Arc, by Leonard Cohen. If I had written only the verse “She said I’m tired of the war/I want the kind of work I had before/A wedding dress, or something white/To wear upon my swollen appetite”, I could die happy.

What’s your worst lyric?
There are a few moments from my early albums that I wish I could take back and rewrite, but they were mostly an honest picture of who I was at the time. But if you’re looking for me to give you a really cringeworthy couple of lines, I’m not gonna do it! Those end up in the dustbin, hopefully!

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