MUSIC Q&A: Gretchen Peters

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Grammy award nominated country folk singer Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011 where she joined music greats Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Her newly released eighth album Hello Cruel World, has been the singer’s most successful yet.

Are you looking forward to performing in London? What can audiences expect?

Very much so. The London show is always a big one for us, and the reception we got last year was so fantastic that the bar has been set pretty high. This one is bound to top it though; our guests will be Sadie and the Hotheads, Elizabeth McGovern’s (Downton Abbey) band. I was made aware of an interview she did where she cited one of my songs “Five Minutes” as her favourite. I was really flattered, of course, and the end result is that she and the band will join us at Queen Elizabeth Hall. I’m excited, it’s going to be a great night.

Your newest album is attracting a lot of attention: where did you draw inspiration from?

Hello Cruel World was really inspired by a year of what I suppose you could call “major life events”. I had one of those years where one thing after another happened; a friend’s suicide, a catastrophic flood in my home town, Nashville; my son’s heroic coming out as transgender, my own wedding (to my longtime musical partner, Barry Walsh) – all of these things and more telescoped into one year. It shook all my foundations, which was a very good thing. I wanted to write not about the specific events so much as about the epiphanies that followed, and the raw emotional state brought about by loss and change.

Did you start off as a songwriter before becoming a singer? Do you have a preference?

I started playing the guitar when I was seven. I played Bob Dylan songs, because they were easy and they were great. And they were what my big sister was listening to; she was very influential in my early musical education. It didn’t dawn on me that you could write real songs until I was a teenager – I don’t know why, except that the great songs (by Dylan, the Beatles, etc) seemed so elemental to me it was as if they’d always been there. Once I figured out that songwriting was really the marriage of my two favourite things – words and music – I was off and running. Although I still maintain that writing is the most difficult thing I do and I dread it as much as I enjoy having written.

How did you find your sound in the folk/country genre? Was it influenced by your move to Nashville? Do you think this genre is having a bit of a resurgence?

I was drawn to country music before I ever moved to Nashville. Having grown up in New York I almost felt like I was in the closet – it wasn’t cool to be a teenager and listen to George Jones and Dolly Parton. But it always seemed to me to be the close cousin to folk music, which is what I grew up with, and I was drawn to the storytelling and the emotion in country music. Still, I knew I wasn’t ever going to be a country artist in the sense that someone like Loretta Lynn is. I am a hybrid, a mutt. I loved rock and roll and jazz and folk and it all worked its way into my songs. I’m glad to see younger musicians (and fans) embracing country music without prejudice – just appreciating it for what it is.

You’ve been nominated for a Grammy, how did that feel?

Surreal. I was in the middle of making my first record, and it was a huge thrill to be nominated. I think though, that in some ways it solidified a perception of me as a “Nashville songwriter”, meaning someone who sits in an office and writes songs to order for other artists. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I felt like I had to overcome that perception. There are still times when I have to explain in an interview that I’ve made nine albums, and spent 180 days on the road last year – there isn’t time to sit in an office!

What’s on the schedule for you next: touring? Recording?

I thought that I’d be spending most of this year off the road and writing, but Hello Cruel World has had such momentum that we’re still touring the album more than a year later. That’s fine with me. I haven’t tired of singing these songs (and some of the older ones, too) for people, and I think everything goes in cycles. I’ll be ready for the next cycle – writing and making another album – when the right time comes. I’ve always relied on my own instincts, and they’ve served me pretty well over the years. No reason to stop now.

Gretchen is performing at the Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX on March 15 from 8pm. Admission: £17.50. Phone: 020 7960 4200. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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