The songs on the aptly titled "Hello Cruel World" (Scarlet Letter), the new disc by singer/songwriter Gretchen Peters are the result of a difficult period that she experienced firsthand. Death and destruction balanced by love and family. From the title track through "Saint Francis," "Camille" and "Idlewild," to name a few, Peters takes us on an emotionally wrenching, but ultimately worthwhile, musical journey. The mother of a transgendered son, Peters has also developed a devoted readership on The Huffington Post via her blogs on the subject, which have also earned her praise from Mary Gauthier and Rosanne Cash. I spoke with Peters shortly before the release of the album. (Gretchen Peters performs at SPACE in Evanston on Sept. 4.)
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) As someone who began her professional career writing songs that were recorded by others, became hits and won awards, was it easy for you to take the steps necessary to sing and record your own compositions?
GP: (Gretchen Peters) When I moved to Nashville in the late ‘80s, I was coming there because the singer/songwriters that I admired and patterned myself after were coming there. People such as Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and people like that. I didn't get that there was this factory [laughs] of people who sat in rooms writing songs for other people. It was kind of a foreign idea to me because I was raised on singer/songwriter music. I actually feel like it was the other way around. I felt like I had to fight my way out of that and prove that I could both write and record my own stuff. When I first got to Nashville, a lot of people asked what I wanted to do; if I wanted to sing or write. I felt like that was a weird question. If you want to be a songwriter in Brill Building sense of the word, Nashville is really one of the last places where that happens. You're just as likely to have the person checking you out at the supermarket tell you that they are a songwriter as a singer. There're a lot of both. I never saw the demarcation. My heroes were all people such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. I never thought of them as singers, per se, or songwriters, per se, but as singer/songwriters.
GS: Those are great heroes, by the way.
GP: Thank you!
GS: How would you say that you've evolved as a songwriter over the years?
GP: I will say that there was something about moving to a place with so many great songwriters that sharpens your ear. It's like I got it about every word and every line counting. You can't just write something that approximates a song, you have to write a real song. There was a last little piece of the equation that I needed to learn and moving to a place like Nashville, that lesson came home to me. I think beyond that, once I started to have success, the thing that I felt I was reaching for all the time was to try to write deeper and deeper. Scratch another layer off the surface and try to get down to even more honest lyrical content. Not that I was dishonest, but I think it's something that goes hand in hand with doing it a long time. You write some songs and you go, "I need this next batch of songs to hurt a little bit more, I need to get in farther." I think that's consistently been my journey for the last 20 years. I definitely feel like the songs that I wrote for this album go a layer or two deeper than anything else I've written.
GS: In terms of making every word count, the songs on "Hello Cruel World" strike a lovely balance between the personal, the universal and both at once, in songs such as "Idlewild," "Five Minutes" and "Woman on the Wheel."
GP: I think that the personal and the specific is how you get to the universal. If you give somebody a general platitude, it may be true, but it doesn't reach anybody, it doesn't affect or touch them. If you give them a detail, a minute and perhaps poignant detail, that's how you get to the universal. It's almost like a needle. You can get in deeper with something very small. That woman in "Five Minutes," for instance, she's not me. She's not most people. But we all have those three in the morning feelings, wondering, "Oh, my God, half my life has gone by and what have I done?" My job was to frame those stories emotionally so I could feel them and hence so that hopefully listeners can feel them, too. I always think of myself as the first member of my audience. If I can affect myself emotionally, then there's a chance that I can get to the listener too.
GS: There is religious imagery in songs such as "Saint Francis," "Dark Angel" and "Paradise Found," which show both sides of the coin. It isn't all one-sided. Would you say that that is an example of your spiritual side and your questioning side?
GP: I think that's a pretty good assessment [laughs]. I joke, but it's really true, I say that I was raised by wolves. I was raised by agnostic parents who really insisted that we question everything. I think that was a great way to be raised. But the flip side of that coin is as a kid I was really fascinated by religion, because we didn't have any. I think that people have a craving for ritual and mystery and consistency and structure and a lot of the things that religion provides. Unfortunately, I also think that it can be horrendously corrupt and corrupting because it's in the hands of humans and that's how we are. We're innately fallible. I think that's where my fascination comes in. For instance, I used to be jealous of my Catholic friends because they had all these amazing rituals and candles and Latin and mass and all that. We had none of that. There was a deep craving in me for something like that that was mysterious and beautiful. I think that's why I keep grappling with the issue of religion; because I was raised to be a doubter. I do recognize the soul for the need for that.
GS: In "Dark Angel" and "Natural Disaster," you make reference to disasters, beautiful and natural. Do you think disasters have the potential to inspire great art?
GP: Absolutely. I think that if the events, both in my own life and in the world, in the year or so preceding the writing of these songs, if they hadn't happened, it would have been a completely different record. There's something about extreme invents your life that clarifies everything very quickly. The effect on me was that I had a real sense of certainty and I felt very brave after the events of the year, 18 months, preceding these. You just have this clarity because the stuff that doesn't matter falls away.
GS: Among those events is your relationship with your son. You've written thoughtfully and lovingly on The Huffington Post about being the mother of a transgender son. It made me think about how after Belinda Carlisle's son, James Duke Mason, came out as a gay man, she became outspoken on the subject of LGBT right. Would you agree that the family bond makes unlikely activists?
GP: I think in general, probably so. But I have to say that I don't think I'm the unlikeliest of activists. Because, again, I was raised, especially by a mother who…well, she would have disowned me [laughs] had I not been an advocate. My mother had so many gay friends, friends that I knew growing up. Had I had a problem with that I probably would have been disowned [laughs]. I think it makes an activist out of you for obvious and natural reasons. This is your child and you see how hard the world is for a young person who is transgender or gay or lesbian. The ridiculous things that they have fight about and think about and overcome everyday. There's nothing that puts the fighting mad in me more than somebody telling me or my child that they can't do something because he's transgender. It's ridiculous. You could blithely go your way and not even think about it until it touches your life or your family in that personal kind of way. The truth is, before my son came out to me, I didn't completely understand what it means to be transgender. I don't think I completely got it. There are a lot of people who can't get their head around it. Now I feel like, where and when I can, I would like to clarify that for people. I have friends who, when I told them about my son, said, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand. How does it work?" I think that I'm probably a good advocate in that I'm fairly non-threatening and I don't think I'm somebody that people think of as being militantly anything. I make a good advocate because I can demystify it without politicizing it maybe.
GS: Do you also think that the visibility of Chaz Bono has had a positive impact?
GP: I absolutely do. I read Chaz's book and I think Chaz is incredibly patient. He's been so patient explaining himself. I know that one of the things with my son, there are times when he just gets tired trying to explain himself. I think Chaz has been a great advocate. He's got a great sense of humor. He's incredibly patient and tolerant. I also admire him because he had no choice but to come out completely in public and that's a big thing. One of the things that's patently and innately unfair about all this is that what seems like such a private thing has to be so public because it has to do with how the world sees you. Chaz had no choice in that. I'm a fan, definitely.
GS: Being a songwriter, have you had the inclination to address the subject in song?
GP: I have and I've thought about it and I've made a few attempts. Some of the songs on "Hello Cruel World" touch on my son, but not in the sense that, "here's a song about James." It's not that pointed or overt. Those kinds of things, like any other subject matter, I tend to just wait until it comes out, and it will. The subject will come up and there will be a song one of these days that's maybe more overtly and obviously about that. I try not to direct that kind of thing because I can't really write that way. What comes out comes out. But he weaves himself in and out of these songs on this album. There's a lot of him in "Dark Angel."
GS: I'm so glad that you mentioned that song because Rodney Crowell, who sings on "Dark Angel," produced out country artist Chely Wright's most recent album. Steve Earle, whom you mentioned, produced the latest album by out lesbian singer/songwriter Ana Egge. Do you think that indicates changing attitudes in Nashville?
GP: Yes and no [laughs]. Rodney and Steve cast a much longer shadow than Nashville. It depends on which Nashville you're talking about, too. The Nashville of Americana music, the one that claims John Prine and Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller, yes. But that part of Nashville has always been pretty accepting. Mainstream Nashville, I don't know. I would to say that Chely didn't sell a lot of records (post- coming out), that it hurt her career. I think she would say that coming out hurt her mainstream country music career because there is intolerance. Rodney and Steve producing albums by people who identify as gay or lesbian doesn't surprise me at all and it wouldn't have surprised me 15 or 20 years ago either. They're both pretty evolved guys.