Gretchen Peters: Personal Pain As Universal Truth
Country Music Award winner Gretchen Peters had an eventful 2010: The BP oil spill washed up on her doorstep, a good friend committed suicide, and her son announced that he's transgender. The last of those in particular, she says, got her thinking about personal conflict.
"[My son] had withheld a very basic and large truth about himself for a long, long time," Peters says. "And I thought, what's the difference here — except a difference of degree — between him and anyone else? I think all of us withhold truths about ourselves that we think would make other people like us less, or accept us less."
That sentiment and others formed the basis of a new album called Hello Cruel World, released last month. True to its title, the album opens on a down note: "Haven't done as well as I thought I would / I'm not dead, but I'm damaged goods / And it's getting late."
"I think that's something that every single one of us can relate to," she says. "I was craving the truth. And I wanted to tell the truth."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
On the subject of plots, here's a pretty complicated one. A woman watches the Gulf oil spill washing up on her doorstep. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, a flood threatens her hometown. Also, a friend of 30 years takes his own life and her child announces he's transgender, all in the course of one year. Now, that's no novel. It all actually happened to Gretchen Peters in 2010.
Some of us might crumble under the weight of so many life-changing events, but Peters was able to channel them. The two-time Grammy nominated songwriter put pen to paper and wrote the album of her career.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE WORLD")
GRETCHEN PETERS: (Singing) I'm a soldier back from war, too tired to care no more, too sad to put up any kind of fight.
KELLY: That's our music story for today. Gretchen Peters' new album is called "Hello Cruel World."
PETERS: I sort of approached the writing on the album not in terms of so much writing, you know, here's a song about this, here's a song about the flood, and here's a song about my son and so forth. It was more that the emotional earthquakes that were happening that year informed all of the songs. But I will say that I certainly felt sort of raw and clarified, in a way, by all of these events, as major life events will do to you.
I felt that I was craving the truth. And I wanted to tell the truth, and I wanted the truth to be, you know, brutally honest.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE WORLD")
PETERS: (Singing) I'll take what earthly comfort you can find.
KELLY: You mentioned that you don't tend to write a song about a specific event. It's more speaking to kind of the place where you were at the moment, but there is something in having a song on here called "Natural Disaster" written in a year when you had two literally wash up on your doorstep. Let's hear a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATURAL DISASTER")
PETERS: (Singing) Earthquake shook the California ground, took the freeway out and some buildings down. Well, I never felt the earth move under my heels but I got a pretty good idea how it feels.
KELLY: Describe for us what actually happened to you, how you were actually affected by these two disasters in Nashville and on the Gulf coast back in 2010.
PETERS: Well, I think what happens, you know, primarily, is a feeling of helplessness. And it's like a huge reminder from the universe that you're not in control of anything, really. And the flood in Nashville was devastating, but it was very fickle. I mean, Nashville is a hilly place, and you could walk down one street and it would look completely normal, such as our street where our house is and literally turn the corner and another street would be under 20 feet of water.
And that was just so profoundly disorienting and horrifying to see. And the oil spill, I'd hasten to say, was obviously not a natural disaster but a manmade one, but it was a similar feeling.
It was this feeling of utter helplessness, and it went on and on and on. And I think it really did, though, more than anything for me, just reinforce the fact that we are not in control of our natural world or really anything. And I wanted to explore that in these songs. And certainly, that was what was coming out of me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATURAL DISASTER")
PETERS: (Singing) Weatherman says no chance of rain. But I'm still waiting for that hurricane.
KELLY: We're speaking with singer and songwriter Gretchen Peters about her latest album. It's called "Hello Cruel World." Let me ask you some more about your son. You wrote quite eloquently about how he revealed to you that he was transgendered in a piece in the Huffington Post. Let me read just a little bit of that.
You wrote: This is the child to whom I gave a girl's name imbued with my own girlish hopes, nurtured the mother/daughter bond that I had with my own mother, a bond based, it seemed to me, on our common gender. What was my relationship with this person if he is my son?
What did you figure out was the answer to that question, because we should say this - he was 26 when you were having this conversation.
PETERS: Right. Well, the answer is I have a much more real relationship with my son now because my son is able to be real with me. There was a wall between us, essentially. The wall was built because he didn't feel that he could reveal his truth. And I would hasten to say that's through no fault of his own, but I guess, the world. It's profoundly disorienting at first.
And there are still occasionally times when I feel, sort of, wait, what just happened? Although not much. The thing that - about it that really struck me is when he told me there was a very big part of me that recognized that it was true instantly. And I think I wrote in the Huffington Post piece it was like I felt the tumblers in a lock just fall into place. Everything about his life and his childhood made sense to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARK ANGEL")
PETERS: (Singing) Your bleeding heart, your pilgrim soul, your wounded eyes that take their toll, your ragged voice like a broken bell, against the noise, my dark angel.
KELLY: Looking back now on that turbulent year, 2010, now you have a little bit of distance. What do you think you learned about yourself?
PETERS: I think that beyond the obvious, which is that I'm strong, clearly, I was able to get through things that I perhaps thought I wouldn't be able to get through. I think the other thing was that it softened me in some way. I think when you have these huge life-changing events, it sort of clarifies things and what you realize is what's truly important, which is your relationships with people that you love.
And as a writer, I think we've all been through a year like that. So it's a comforting thing in an odd way to hear it from someone else, to hear, yes, you know, I've been through this, and I've been through this, and I'm still here. And that survival, really, is the real heroism. It's not about jumping from building to building or, you know, rescuing puppies or whatever. It's that really the heroes in these songs are heroes because they survive.
KELLY: That's Gretchen Peters. Her latest album is called "Hello Cruel World." You can check out a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Gretchen Peters, thanks so much.
PETERS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO CRUEL WORLD")
PETERS: (Singing) I haven't done as well as I thought I would. I'm not dead but I'm damaged goods. And it's getting late. I'm a rusty hinge, a squeaky wheel, bad end of a shaky deal.
KELLY: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. We want to take a moment to say a big thank you to Tazneen Shama(ph) who leaves the show today. Taz, we wish you well. Guy Raz is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.