NASHVILLE Songwriter Gretchen Peters is far from the picture of dissidence. The petite blonde delicately sips a Diet Coke, looking for all the world like your sister-in-law, best friend, or next-door neighbor.
But break rules she does. As one of Nashville's most sought-after songwriters, Peters rejected Nashville's de rigeur practice of co-writing, explaining that she's "just never been able to get comfortable with it." She then broke her own rule, establishing a fruitful writing collaboration with pop-rocker Bryan Adams, landing cuts on the pop charts as a result. She had seven co-writes with Adams on his 1998 A&M set, On a Day Like Today, and the two co-wrote "Rock Steady" for Bonnie Raitt and Adams' track "When You Love Someone" on the Hope Floats soundtrack.
As an artist, Peters, along with husband Green Daniel, spent a leisurely year in 2000 recording and producing her second release, Gretchen Peters, due out in the U.S. on February 13. (It is now available in the U.K. and Australia.)
In an almost unheard-of step, Peters also obtained ownership of the master to her critically lauded recording debut, The Secret of Life. She plans to re-release the album this year, with the original demo of her song "Independence Day" as a bonus track. Recorded by Martina McBride, the song (RealAudio excerpt) about revenge on a battering husband earned Peters a CMA Award and a Grammy nomination.
"I am one of the few artists in the world who was able to get my master back and own it," Peters said. "I happen to believe it's morally wrong for anybody but an artist to own their master. I know that it's the standard way of doing business, but it's wrong! The ownership of the thing is sacred and ought to be in the hands of the artist."
The Secret of Life was released in 1996 on Nashville's now-defunct Imprint Records, generating great excitement among critics and song lovers of all stripes. It included several Peters compositions since made famous by other artists: Faith Hill took "The Secret of Life" (RealAudio excerpt) to the top of the country charts, Trisha Yearwood recorded "On a Bus to St. Cloud" (RealAudio excerpt) and McBride included "This Uncivil War" on Emotion.
The fun part is hearing Peters' pared-down folk/pop performance of these familiar country songs. Indeed, hearing them produced in an adult contemporary vein, one is amazed that they were embraced as country records to begin with.
"I think a whole lot of my songs are like that," Peters agreed. "A lot of times, after I get done writing a song, I think, 'I really like this but this will never get cut! Nobody around here is going to want this on their records.'
"I'd like to think in my idealistic way that a song is a song is a song. You can treat it a number of different ways, but the basic elements that make it a good song are the same, no matter what you're doing."
Similarly, Gretchen Peters is "never going to be considered a country album by any stretch of the imagination," she noted, although the opening track "Souvenirs" (RealAudio excerpt), was recorded by Suzy Bogguss.
One of Peters' hallmarks is her lyrics. A Gretchen Peters song is usually a commentary on modern society, but its overriding message is always presented as subtext to the more classic story-song narrative. Peters' lyrics create vivid pictures no surprise, because her songs are often sparked by something visual. "Eddie's First Wife" (RealAudio excerpt), from Gretchen Peters, for instance, was inspired by an oil painting of the same name, depicting a too-perfect kitchen, circa 1962. From there, Peters' fertile imagination created the befuddled Eddie, left in the dust of the sexual revolution.
While performing and recording her material is important, Peters has no aspirations to a big-time artist's career. Both Gretchen Peters and The Secret of Life re-release will be handled by indie label Valley Entertainment.
"I don't feel a burning need to have a major label in fact, quite the opposite, I'd run!" she said, laughing. "What I want to do is what I do, and I have the wherewithal to do it myself. What I want from [my records], I guess, is for the people that are out there that will like them to be able to find them. That's basically it. I don't want to play arenas. I don't have any desire to do that."
Performing "is the urge that I have after I write," she explained. "The whole process doesn't really feel complete to me until I do both of those things. I guess because I grew up with singer/songwriters and I just saw that as a way their art was fully realized. Not just in the writing, but in how they sounded doing their song, what they did to their records, that kind of thing."
In January, Peters will tour Australia, where her new album has just been released. After that there will be Stateside gigs, plus new cuts of her songs by some country names ever superstitious, she declined to be more specific.