Singer/songwriter Gretchen Peters has had quite a year. Following the universally praised release of Blackbirds in February, she has toured the U.S. and abroad almost non-stop — with another 2016 tour slated to mark the 20th anniversary of her debut album, The Secret of Life. In the here and now, as 2015 tip-toes toward a close, Peters looks back on her very busy and very fulfilling year.
You’ve had quite a ride this year with Blackbirds. How’s that feeling and how do you follow it up?
It was quite unexpected and I’m really thrilled. Everyone was saying, “How will you follow up Hello Cruel World?” and I got to the point where I just didn’t want to hear that any more. You can’t keep trying to top yourself; you can only do the work that’s in front of you the best you know how. As far as following this album, it’s a little too early for me to think about just yet. There are a couple of side projects that I’m really interested in doing — maybe one of those will be my next thing. I have about a month of touring left before I get a good rest. We’ve been hitting the road pretty hard for over a year now, and I’m going to recharge my batteries before I do anything.
Its success is a testament to the fact that listeners are up for a challenging, somewhat unsettling musical experience — so long as it’s crafted well. Which cuts seem to be fan favorites? And what are your favorites still to play after touring this thing all year?
“When All You Got Is a Hammer” worked well live from day one. The sleeper on the record was “The Cure for the Pain” — it turned out to be much more dramatic live than I every thought it would, and it seems to affect people strongly. The other song that’s really evolved live is “Everything Falls Away,” which now has an extended ending. We sometimes end our shows with it. My favorites to play are probably that one and “Nashville,” which I just adore singing. I love how these songs keep evolving as we play them.
You wrote a review of the recent Rickie Lee Jones release that she responded to, and then you had lunch with her in New Orleans. That must’ve been a double bucket list check-off. Are you still riding that high?
Rickie Lee had such a profound influence on me as a 20-year-old that I was pinching myself the whole time we were at lunch. Even though we talked about music a lot, we also talked about lots of other things — dogs, quantum physics, the freedom that comes with being a certain age… I truly loved her latest album. She did impart some wisdom to me regarding performing — she came to our show in New Orleans two nights prior to our lunch, and stayed all night — but that little gem I am going to keep to myself.
Though you’ve had several releases in between, what are the biggest differences you’ve encountered — in yourself and in the fans — working this record versus The Secret of Life?
I made The Secret of Life 20 years ago. It feels like a lifetime. I mostly remember feeling so self-conscious, and like I was trying to please people whom I knew would never be pleased — radio consultants, music programmers, mainstream commercial country fans. I was such an odd duck. I got a lot of feedback from radio like, “She’s too smart for the room” or “My wife loves this, but we’re not gonna play it.” What does that even mean?
But I knew in my bones there was a different path for me, and I’ve never regretted taking it. I got my masters back and started my own label in 2000, way before most people were doing it. I just couldn’t bear the thought of not being in control of my own artistic output. As far as fans, some of them have been with me since 1996 — the faithful — but most have come along in the past 10 years or so, which is when I feel I really hit my stride as far as record-making goes. The big difference between now and then is that I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin.
As we approach year’s end, there’s a pretty decent chance Blackbirds will land on some “Best of 2015” lists. What would that mean to you and for you?
Artists don’t make these records in a vacuum. We make them for people to listen to. So, of course I’m thrilled and happy when an album I’ve made ends up on some of these lists, because it means more people will ultimately listen to it. And it means someone found it worthy of praise. Everyone loves validation, and I’m no different. I celebrate the victories and I try to let the losses roll off me. At the end of the day, though, I know when I’ve done good work, and I know when I’ve fallen short. I’m really proud of Blackbirds and I wouldn’t change anything, even if it weren’t getting so much recognition. But I’m awfully glad it is. I feel like, thematically and sonically, it’s one of the strongest — if not the strongest — record I’ve ever made.