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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: GRETCHEN PETERS

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: GRETCHEN PETERS

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

In 2014 it became official...Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, re-confirming, for all familiar with her music, her place in that elite fraternity, with the greatest songwriters of our time. And it didn't take that long back in 88' when she moved to Nashville, with demos 'in-hand', for the industry to realize what had just arrived.

Before signing on with Sony for a 20 yr stint in 91, Peters had already struck pay-dirt with her first pub deal with the Oak Ridge Boys Publishing Company.

Gretchen Peters
Gretchen Peters

Gretchen's first cut was Traveler's Prayer, a George Jones cut, on a duets album, with the Sweet Hearts of The Rodeo. Subsequently, within a year, Peters had cuts with Highway 101, whose drummer Cactus Moser, was Gretchen's old drummer in Colorado, the title cut on Randy Travis's HIGH LONESOME album and George Strait recorded Chill Of An Early Fall, which went to number one, and opened the flood gates.

Gretchen Peters: One of the meetings that I had was a publisher who didn't make any promises to me, but basically let me know that if I were serious about this and I were to move to Nashville he'd want to give me a publishing deal. A very entrance level deal, you know. Well, he was a wonderful man by the name of Noel Fox, he's since passed away. And he ran the Oak Ridge Boys Publishing Company which was called Silverline/Goldline. They had Steve Earle and Gail Davies, great roster. He and his wife became some of my best friends. He was a remarkable publisher. He was so important to me in terms of being someone who recognized that I didn't fit in, in some ways. He recognized that I was very uncomfortable with co-writing and he gave me permission to not do it. He just gave me permission in a lot of ways. He basically said, "I like what you do, and I like what you do alone even better. This isn't a job where you come in and spend eight hours here. If you need to get on the car and drive to the beach go do that. Whatever you need to do to write, that's what I want you to do." I'd never heard anything like that before.

Amidst over 120 cuts since, with other iconic artists including Etta James, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Anne Murray, Neil Diamond and The Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt recorded Peters' Rock Steady, on ROAD TESTED, which she co-wrote with Bryan Adams, just to name a few. In 1995, Gretchen received a Grammy nomination and CMA Song Of The Year Award for Martina McBride's Independence Day, another Grammy nomination and an ACM nomination for Patty Loveless' You Don't Even Know Who I Am in 1996, a 1996 "Nammy" (Nashville Music Award) for Best Songwriter and a 2003 Golden Globes nomination for her song Here I Am, from the Dreamworks film "Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron".

In addition, Peters has released seven studio albums of her own and the title track of her 1996 debut album THE SECRET OF LIFE on Imprint Records was later recorded by Faith Hill, in 1999. Her self-titled sophomore effort was issued five years later. The impressive BURNT TOAST & OFFERINGS appeared in 2007. She released a seasonal offering called NORTHERN LIGHTS, which featured non-traditional material of her own as well as covers. In 2009, she collaborated with Tom Russell on ONE TO THE HEART, ONE TO THE HEAD, and released a best-of collection entitled CIRCUS GIRL — all while touring incessantly. 2011 saw the release of the live DVD WINE, WOMEN & SONG with pals Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg. Peters released a studio album of her own new material in January, 2012 entitled HELLO CRUEL WORLD.

But although, all evidence to the contrary, Gretchen should never be referred to, as an overnight success. Back in Boulder, Colorado where it all began at the age of thirteen, after her parents divorced, young Peters was honing her vocal chops singing covers, dissecting great songs, recording every chance she got and payin' her dues, for 17 years before she made the move to Music City.

Peters: I started playing guitar when I was seven. My parents sent me to an art camp which was heaven for a kid like me. I didn't start writing until I was in my late teens. As weird as it sounds, the songs that I started learning when I was little, you know, when I started playing the guitar seemed so elemental to me: Bob Dylan songs and Beatles songs and so forth. It didn't even occur to me that I could write my own. They just seemed so big and important and part of the architecture of my world that I didn't even think about writing my own songs until I started playing in bands and clubs and I saw that other people were doing original music. I thought, I can combine two things that I love, which are writing and music, by writing songs. I'd been writing other things my whole life: poetry, short stories, anything, anything but songs, basically.

The Producer's Chair: What was the difference, when you stepped on stage and started singing some of your own material for the first time?

Peters: You know, I loved singing covers, because I was singing music that I loved. I wasn't a very astute band leader in those days. I should have been doing the urban cowboy songs that were really popular. That's probably why my band never did very well. I was doing covers that I loved. I was doing songs by Rodney Crowell and Gram Parsons. I did notice that people just seemed to become quiet when I sang my own songs. It seemed like I was able to get their attention somehow in a different kind of way, but I don't really think I put my finger on what that was about or what it was that I was doing.

I liked the feeling a lot. Although, I have to say, my band was a pretty hard rocking band. I didn't really have the voice or songs to carry it off, but it was such a good training ground for me to do that. I did it for a good ten years. Even though the songs that I was writing were much more on the gentle, acoustic side and I was maybe playing three or four of them a night in a club. I wasn't really cultivating that side of my music yet, but I think both things were equally valuable in a way. I think all the experience that I had knocking around in clubs was really good for me. You're learning the DNA of a great song, you know?

Gretchen Peters will be honored on 'Poets and Profits' at the Country Music Hall of Fame on Jan. 24 and you can join Gretchen for her 'BLACKBIRDS' CD Release party on Feb. 27th at the Franklin Theater after which, it's a five night run on the east coast and off on her UK Tour.

The Producer's Chair: When did you come to the conclusion that co-writing was not the answer, for you?

Peters: During a lot of those initial meetings I had, where I was just trying to get people to listen to my songs, I'd heard two things a lot. Number one was, "You need to co-write." Nobody ever really says why. They just say that you need to. The other thing that I heard was, "Do you want to be a singer or do you want to be a songwriter?" I heard equal opinions on either side as to which I should try to do. I was utterly baffled by that because to me every single artist that I loved was a singer and a songwriter. I wouldn't have separated the two things in my mind in a million years. It's like I always say—think about Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell. Are they singers or songwriters? Well, you can't separate that. The co-writing thing was thrown out to me often, but without any real explanation as to why it was so important to do that. I think after a couple fairly disastrous attempts at co-writing with people just because they were having some success, you know, there was no really organic reason to be in a room with them except that somebody sort of pushed me in that direction. I found that I just froze. I just froze, because I think that the way I naturally write is, you know, it feels like a very private act to me for the most part.

I recognized it pretty early on because of this wonderful publisher that I had who also recognized it. That was within probably three years of moving here. And it didn't hurt that I started having success with songs that I'd written by myself, and those were the ones that started getting attention. That was validating.

The Producer's Chair: When you signed with Sony you were about 35 years old, and released your first album on Imprint in '96 at 38. Did you ever have a sense at any point that you arrived too late?

Peters: I was aware of that, but there is something in me that refuses to ask permission. I just always felt like, this is what I'm going to do and if you can help me, I welcome and appreciate your help and if you can't, get out of my way.

The Producer's Chair: When did you produce your first full-blown session?

Peters: I think I was producing long before I knew that's what I was doing. I think that part of me thought, some of these other people around me, who really are producers, they have secrets that I don't know, therefore I'm not a producer. So there really wasn't a moment. I think it was a very slow development of my own confidence. And there's an element of being a woman in the studio that was an extra obstacle. I mean, I remember one of my very first demo sessions, before I started playing guitar on my own demos, which I have done basically, almost since the beginning. But we had another guitar player because that's what you did, you hired a full band and you got a guy who had perfect timing and played rhythm guitar perfectly. And he was dismissive of my abilities and I think he had a problem being told what to do, or even have suggestions made by a woman. It was quite unpleasant and I think, even though I realized that even in terms of technical skills, maybe I couldn't keep perfect time and maybe I didn't read charts as quickly or whatever, but by God, when I played guitar on my own songs, the rest of the band members would follow my lead and the song ended up sounding more like me. You could say, that was a moment, as much as any other, when I took the bull by the horns and started thinking, maybe I do know what I'm doing. I would have been in my mid-30s. But you know, I never felt like I was really producing until I made the record BURNT TOAST AND OFFERINGS. I really felt like at that point, I owned my abilities.

The Producer's Chair: Was there ever a point in time when you could see yourself producing other artists down the road?

Peters: Yes, I remember distinctly hearing a singer/songwriter that I just loved, up in Canada, and feeling like, it was a very gut-level, instinctive kind-of thing, I could produce a really good album on this guy. And I would really love to do that. Unfortunately, that happened at about the same time as my touring career really started taking off and I was releasing albums with much more frequency and things just started happening and the problem of course would be finding the time. He was the first. I would love to do it. For me it's a lot like co-writing in that it really has to be the right person.

The Producer's Chair: When you demoed Independence Day, did you sing the demo or someone else?

Peters: I played it and sang it. The track was more along the lines of Springsteen or Steve Earle with more of a straight-ahead rock feel. I had two cuts on that album by Martina, the other was MY BABY LOVES ME, and I loved it when Paul Worley brought me into his office to play me both cuts - I couldn't tell from the intro, which song was which, cause they were so different...which is not the usual thing. A lot of the time, the record is very close to my demo, but not in those cases.

I actually sang all my own demos unless it was obviously a song for a man to sing. I had certain favorite demo singers but, I even sang some of those songs and it was very, very late in my career, when somebody said to me; "You know, male artists don't like to listen to demos that are sung by females. Your voice is so feminine and you might want to consider maybe having a guy re-sing some of these songs." And I was floored. I mean really? A male artist just can't imagine singing a song, just because it's being sung by a woman?

I think it's just evidence of my basic stubbornness. One of the main reasons I was singing my own demos was because, I was really in my heart and soul and mind, practicing making records, that whole time. It was an opportunity to be in the studio and see what you could make. I didn't want to get into the assembly line of just writing songs and then plugging-in whoever the hot demo singer of the day was, because it would rob me of an opportunity to go in there and learn something.

The Producer's Chair: How many times do you think you've been in the studio?

Peters: My God, that's hard for me to even imagine. I guess it would have to be near the thousands. You know I'm not as prolific as a lot of people, in terms of my songwriting output. For the many years that I was at Sony and many years before, I was writing 12-15 songs a year, but I was writing them all by myself, when a lot of people were writing 50 songs a year. But I had a high batting average. I edited myself to point where, only the pretty good ones got out. So, of those 12-15 songs a year, I had a lot of success with many of them. There was a demo session where I did 4 songs and 3 of them became hits at some point. I look at the cassette now and think, God...that was a good day! So my actual output is not as high as people may think.

The Producer's Chair: How do you get the best vocal performance out of yourself?

Peters: For me the most important thing is to get out of the way of the words. You can't ever forget that you're telling a story. When I'm performing live, and especially if I'm having any kind of vocal problems, my mantra is 'let the song sing itself'. That never fails me. You can deliver a song in a whisper if you are focused on the lyrics. I think a lot of young singers who are gifted with great vocal ability have a hurdle to overcome in that they have to learn not to love the sound of their own voice, not to sing all the licks just because they can. The voice is a delivery system for the song. It's a conduit to the emotion inside you.

The Producer's Chair: Your husband/co-producer and long-time piano player Barry Walsh said, of  his third solo effort, SILENCIO. "The whole idea, for this recording, was to find the space between the notes." How has working with that level of musician affected your music?

Peters: His sense of space was what made me fall in love with his playing 25 years ago. I think he played on my second or third demo session around 1990, and I never called another piano player after that. He knew what NOT to play. And when we played together live, we had this intuitive, unspoken thing, where we would just create a big hole and let the audience sort of fall into it - that's the power of space. If you know when not to play, it draws people in. Our sense of dynamics together is one of our greatest strengths - and it's not something you find with every musician you play with. We play together as if we're breathing together. It's magic.

The Producer's Chair: What is the most important advice you give to un-signed songwriters today, about 'HOW' to approach publishers?

Peters: I don't know what advice to give songwriters about publishers, or commerciality, or radio, or any of that stuff. I do believe that young songwriters need someone to advocate for them, to encourage them to be themselves, to resist the urge to conform because they think they'll find success that way. I'm talking about artists here - not artists in the music business sense, but artists in the sense of people who make art. Those kind of songwriters. I don't have any advice for people who want to write hits - I don't know how you do that. For me it was an accident every single time. It was a by-product of my need to write. I want to encourage and advocate for young writers who are trying to achieve some kind of greatness beyond tallying up hits. I believe songs can be so much more than entertainment - I know they can because there are songs that have literally changed my life. For the young writers who aspire to write those kind of songs, I would say keep going, put your nose down, work hard and follow your instincts. Listen to great songs, and then listen to your gut.

The Producer's Chair: Do you put pressure on yourself to write about subjects that haven't been written about?

Peters: I try not to put any pressure on myself from an editorial point of view, when I'm in the beginning stages of writing. You can kill a song by over-intellectualizing it. You have to leave the internal editor out of the room for awhile. And besides, there are always new ways to write about old subjects. Shakespeare supposedly said there are only seven stories. We've been telling those seven stories over and over again for thousands of years. The key is not to tell a new story but to tell your truth, which will always be someone else's truth because we are all suffering from the same condition - humanity. The only pressure I put on myself is to let the song tell me what it wants to be, and to be honest, uncomfortably honest, if possible. I know when I feel a twinge that I'm on to something, because if it feels slightly uncomfortable that means, I'm getting close to the bone. Having said that, there are ways to tell an old story, from a new point of view. I just heard a David Olney song about the Titanic. God knows how many songs there must be about the Titanic - but David Olney's song is from the point of view of the iceberg. That's never been written about, to my knowledge.

The Producer's Chair: On A Bus to St. Cloud has been cut by several artists. Have their interpretations unveiled emotions that you didn't have when you wrote it?

Peters: I have that epiphany all the time - with "On A Bus to St. Cloud", Jimmy LaFave's version in particular was a revelation to me - the freedoms he took with the song, the emotional cast of it. I even have that experience singing one of my own songs - I actually think that it's a measure of the quality of a song, how much you can discover within it and for how long. In the case of "St. Cloud" I have never gotten tired of singing it, even after 20 years. I still find new things in the lyric. Not all songs can stand up to that treatment. The best ones can.

The Producer's Chair: How did your UK market un-fold?

Peters: I started touring the UK just after my first album came out in 1996. A friend of mine, who played with Nanci Griffith (who had a large following in the UK and Ireland) told me to go. He said "they'll get you". And he was right. I was invited to come over by my record label there because my first album had done surprisingly well - unlike over here in the US. I did a brief tour, maybe four shows, and I felt a connection with audiences there instantly. So I kept coming back. That was key - a lot of artists go over and tour the UK and then don't come back, and they wonder why they're not playing bigger venues. But it's a market like any other - you have to nurture it. I owe a great deal to the audiences in the UK because they sustained me at times when I had little else going on. They saw me the same way I saw myself - as a singer-songwriter. They didn't care so much about the hits I'd written - although they were happy to hear those - as much as who I was as an artist. When "Hello Cruel World" came out in 2012, it did extremely well; we stepped up another level and started playing much bigger venues. That growth has continued with this upcoming tour. But you have to keep in mind this is probably my 15 or 16th UK tour - I've worked at this for a long time and my core audience has been with me for quite awhile.

The Producer's Chair: What song have you yet to write, that has been haunting you the longest?

Peters: Yeah, it's very odd that you would ask because the day just passed...there's a song that I have been writing for ten years, called The Last Day Of The Year and for the last 7 or 8 years, I only look at it on New Year's Eve. I pick it up on Dec. 31st and I work on it a little bit and it may be only one note or a word or something and I haven't been able to finish it, but one of these years it will be finished.

The Producer's Chair: If you had it all to do over, what would you do differently?

Peters: There are things that I wish I had known earlier. I wish that I'd had more confidence in myself and my own convictions earlier and not thought that everybody knew more than I did. But in the end, I'm not so sure that really matters. There's a certain amount of wisdom that I have that, I couldn't have acquired any other way.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tony Brown

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Forest Glen Whitehead

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Scott Hendricks

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