How much of songwriter Gretchen Peters’ new record, Hello Cruel World, is autobiographical?
All of it — and none of it.
All of it in that Hello Cruel World is Peters’ response to a year’s worth of upheaval — from environmental events like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that found its way to the doorstep of her cabin in Florida, where she does most of her writing; to the flood of downtown Nashville, her adopted home; to the tragedy of a dear friend’s suicide; to the intensely personal dichotomy of her marriage to longtime musical partner Barry Walsh and the revelation by her son that he is transgender.
Peters shares these personal stories to provide context for the songs, “to tell people that there is this art that came out of it.”
“But,” she continued, “I didn’t want to write songs about specific events. It was more of a response to an emotional earthquake and take the results, the fruits, of that and make this manifesto of the heart.”
Which brings us to none of it.
Peters is also a collector of sorts — of characters that she encounters, either real or that come into her imagination. She said she likes to inhabit those characters, to imagine their own life stories.
“You can’t help but draw on your own experiences, so a part of the characters is me but part is other people I know or just what I found interesting about that character.
“It’s not necessary that people know what comes from me,” she added. “The truth of the song comes in terms of its authenticity. To some extent, you write a song and turn it loose in the world and it’s not your any more. And that’s the way it should be.”
Peters has professional background in turning songs over to others, even before they reach an audience. Her career was jumpstarted in 1995 when Martina McBride scored a hit with Peters’ Independence Day, after which she was in demand as a songwriter.
“There is no qualitative difference,” when writing a song for someone else to sing, Peters explained. She said she has simply followed the natural trajectory of a songwriter, by which “the things you strive for in a song change.”
She said her fans are cognizant of her “hits” but they are more likely to request material from her half-dozen solo albums.
“Some of those older songs are still living and breathing, so I continue to do them,” she said. “But I won’t do a song if I can’t bring something fresh to it.
“By and large, the people coming to see us play are beyond” the obligatory hit songs in her set, she said.
On her current tour, she said, she has been playing the entire Hello Cruel World record, which leaves precious little time for catalog material —which suits Peters just fine for now.
“It felt like a manifesto to me,” Peters told The Beat. “So much of what happened was so dramatic, I was stripped bare emotionally. These songs are evidence of my survival of those events.”