Songwriter Interviews

Gretchen Peters (Independence Day)

by Shawna Ortega

Share this post

Gretchen is a little different. A successful recording artist, she's also written hits for many country stars. Her songs are a little "frayed around the edges," allowing for a bit of interpretation, as Trisha Yearwood found out.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): Here's what I'd like to do, I have a list of some of your songs that I would like to ask you about, and you can maybe take me through them. Would that work?

Gretchen Peters: Sure.

Songfacts: Okay. The first one on my list is "Imogene."

Gretchen: Oh, that's unexpected.

Songfacts: I'm sorry.

Gretchen: Oh no, no, that's a good thing. It's just typically, "Let's go with 'Independence Day.'" It's like that kind of thing.

Songfacts: That is on my list, but "Imogene" is first.

Gretchen: That's great. I don't know that I've ever actually been asked about that song. It's really popular live, when we do it people really respond to it live. She's really a figment of my imagination, but I guess when you go all the way down to the heart of it, she's every girl that – and I'm including myself in this – that wasn't part of a clique in high school. She's kind of every girl that sort of didn't peak in high school, let me put it that way. It's one of the few songs I've ever written from a drum track, a loop. I just had this drum loop that I really, really liked, and I wanted to use it somehow. I didn't quite know how to use it or what to use it on, and I started with the verses, just talking the verses, which are spoken, they're not really sung. There's no actual melody for the verses. And this sort of little character started to develop, and I loved her, because she was one of those people that was sort of a wallflower in high school, and ended up peaking a little bit later, which is I think how it really works for a lot of us.

She's just sort of an every-girl, the one that's not the homecoming queen, the one that's not the cheerleader, the one that was just sort of invisible in high school. And I guess that's why I loved her so much, because I related to her. I think all of us that didn't feel like we were in that crowd felt like we were invisible. And of course at that point you think that's the way it's going to be for the rest of your life. But then you look back 20 years later and you realize those people peaked in high school and we're just getting started.

And oh yes, revenge. But it was fun to write that, because she kind of gets a revenge on the cute guy, football player in the end. So it sort of holds a little bit of a revenge fantasy at the same time. A mild revenge fantasy. Mild. She doesn't murder him or anything. Put it that way.

Songfacts: So it's one of those kind that we can feel good about.

Gretchen: Exactly.

Songfacts: Oh, good. Okay, the next one I would like to ask you about is "Aviator Song." And my question specifically is this: did you know somebody who was an aviator, or was that just a metaphor?

Gretchen: Well, it is a metaphor, but it was written about my dad, who was a bomber pilot in World War II. And he was shot down over the North Sea on one of his bombing runs, and he and his crew went down with the plane, and they lost one guy, and the rest of them survived. And they were in the North Sea for about eight hours, and were rescued. And this was a seminal story in my childhood. All us kids knew it. We knew it was a central event in his life, but he really didn't talk about it that much. And I guess the motivation for me in writing it was partly that it was such a part of the background, such a part of the family mythology, that I never really thought of the reality of that event, how that must have felt for a 21-year-old to be shot down out of the sky like that. I mean, it just never really sunk in, because I had always heard the story and I just sort of accepted it and didn't really think about it too much. So that was my starting point for the song, the whole first verse is that episode in his life, which was such a turning point, and such a central episode in his life. And then the subsequent verses are about him as well, although at different points in his life, later. The second verse is his middle age. Then at that point the flying does become a metaphor. Then of course at the end, the last verse about his death is a metaphor. But it started with a real episode, with a real story.

Songfacts: And the line where he fell out of life when he was 43, did he just go on to marry maybe a second woman?

Gretchen: He left my mom and us, yeah, and went on and had a second marriage. And that was a central event in all of our lives, that particular episode.

Songfacts: All right. "If Heaven." Andy Griggs recorded that, am I right?

Gretchen: Right.

Songfacts: It was just recently I heard that on the radio for the first time, it's probably not even a year ago. And it pretty much stopped me cold. I actually don't know how old that is, but it stopped me cold, and I just thought, Wow, that actually makes it sound kinda nice.

Gretchen: Funny that you brought that up. I played that at a funeral yesterday.

Songfacts: Oh no.

Gretchen: Yeah. It's a very fitting song for that, obviously. That was really a case of I was trying to write songs for my album Halcyon, which was about 2003, 2004, somewhere around there. And I really just had some images about the town I grew up in, which was a little suburb of New York. But it was a little town. It felt to me, at least growing up, like a little town, even though we were right next to Manhattan. It was very safe and simple and a good place to grow up. I felt good there, I felt safe and protected, and I knew my neighborhood. It felt small in the midst of a very big place. And I just was sort of playing with the images that came up for me about that, about childhood and that town, and had the verses pretty much written for a long, long time before, and then struggled a lot with the chorus. These verses were very much just a folk song, just a simple folk song. And for a while, I thought, well, if it's a folk song maybe it doesn't need a chorus. Maybe it's just this. And I just struggled with the chorus for a long time. And finally it came to me that it was just as simple as saying if that's what Heaven's made of, I'm not afraid to die. There wasn't anything more to it.

Songfacts: Did you have anyone in your life that was suffering or sick at that time?

Gretchen: No. I mean, you get to a certain age and you've been through that. You can't live on this planet without going through that at some point. But it wasn't anything in particular, it was just a sort of a memory, or a lot of memories, of what that idyllic time was like for me, and I felt, well, that's Heaven. That's what it ought to be like.

In this part of the interview, Gretchen digs into what makes her songwriting tick. Stephen King's advice comes in handy as she crafts her characters - then has to kill them.
Songfacts: Can we talk about "On A Bus To St. Cloud"?

Gretchen: Uh-huh. Again, that was a sort of a gathering of a lot of different images and ideas. I had a few lines about different cities, different places. And I think this all came about because I had been planning a road trip and I was looking at maps. And I can just get lost in a map, very easily. The place names is the thing. There are so many wonderful, evocative place names. And for a songwriter it's kind of like a fresh new well, looking at a map. And I was looking at a map, and I saw the name St. Cloud. Obviously I was planning a road trip out West, or through the upper Midwest, towards the West. Thinking about going up that way, and I saw the name St. Cloud, and I just thought, What an evocative name. I had really no particular image of what that place would be like, except I knew it was in Minnesota, so it must be snowy. But I hadn't been there. I really just started with that name. And I remember really well the day I started it and got the main bulk of that song. It was snowing in Nashville, and that I'm sure was responsible for a couple of the lines, like "with the snow falling down around you like a silent prayer," that line, and those sorts of things.

The emotional gist of the song, for me, I envisioned it being about someone talking about someone who committed suicide. But in order to dig your teeth in, to get to the emotional space that you need to be, I don't think that that necessarily means that you have to be explicit, or put every detail in. In fact, I think songs are better when they are a little bit more murky, or fuzzy around the edges. Let the listener participate, too, in other words. Let them put their story in. And I didn't feel it was good songwriting, frankly, to put that in there in sort of a blatant way, so the only reference to it in the whole song is "I wept in the arms of Jesus for the choice you made." But of course that choice could have been anything. It was just really something I did for me in order to get emotionally down deep into it, envisioning that scenario. I didn't feel it needed to be an explicit part of the song. And indeed, you know the first person that cut that song was Trisha Yearwood, and she was completely surprised when I told her that. She didn't look at it that way at all, which is fine. I think that's the way it's supposed to be. She sort of overlaid her own story on that. Because it really can be about any sort of a scenario where you've lost someone.

Songfacts: When you start with a song like that, and you start with, Oh, St. Cloud sounds great, I'm going to write a song around this, at what point do you sort of figure out, Okay, this is going to be about this, this is going to be about somebody who committed suicide?

Gretchen: It's not the beginning. That's a good question. I wish it was that linear. But unfortunately, for me anyway, what happens usually is, there's that period in songwriting, the wonderful, early magic period when lines just come to you. And they seem full of possibility and they evoke certain things, and they point you in certain directions, and they seem to come fully formed. And they're sort of miraculous. And there were a lot of lines like that in that song, and I just sort of had them all sitting there. Then the sort of second half of writing a song for me normally is okay, I'm looking at all these different lines, what is this telling me? What is this story? What does this song want to say? And then it's almost like following clues, really, and changing things. It's sort of then your intellect kicks in, and then you have to go, Okay, well, I have to tighten this up, and this doesn't agree with this, this thought doesn't agree with that thought, and then you have to do the part that Stephen King in his book on writing calls "kill your darlings." You have to take lines that you love and say, "Well, that's not going to work here." Take it out. But at the beginning, I really believe that the best thing that you can do is leave the door open for those wonderful magic ideas to pop in for as long as you can, because those are the lines inevitably that are the best ones in the song. The ones that just come fully formed like that.

Songfacts: Your writing is very concise. It's almost like you take the least words that you need to make a really eloquent statement.

Gretchen: Thank you. That's quite a compliment. I appreciate that, because one of the things about the song form is that it is very small, it's just three minutes, or three-and-a-half minutes. And it's almost like haiku, you have to really, really tear things down.

Songfacts: And still have the impact that you would normally have.

Gretchen: But to put the shoe on the other foot for a minute, writing a novel would absolutely cow me. I wouldn't know what to do – too many pages. I find safety and shelter in a concise type form. A novel, or even a short story, it's like too many words – I don't know what to do.

Songfacts: I completely understand that. Okay, "Waiting For Amelia."

Gretchen: You're picking all my favorites. I love it. I was just under the impression this was sort of more, "here's the hits," and I find that I've talked about them so many times, it's more fun to talk about the other ones. Go ahead, I didn't mean to interrupt…

Songfacts: I could be completely wrong on this, but is that kind of about Amelia Earhart, by any chance?

Gretchen: Well, it is. But I've really sort of used her as a metaphor, once again. I have all these flying metaphors, now that I think about it.

Songfacts: I wondered about that.

Gretchen: Yeah, she's obviously a very romantic evocative figure, for obvious reasons. I mean, she disappeared, she was strong, she was beautiful, she did what she wanted to do. She was independent. She was a very interesting figure. And what a metaphor she makes. The thing that interested me about her was that nobody knows what happened to her. Of course, we assume that she died, but the idea that this woman goes off doing this incredibly adventurous independent thing that she does, and we don't know what became of her, means that we can't answer the story, we can't make easy platitudes about what that means for a woman to do that. We can't say, "Well, she died because she wasn't experienced enough." We don't know; we literally don't know. And I found that really, really irresistible. And I guess for me, the metaphor of the song really was something I was trying to examine inside myself, which was to what end will you go to follow your own internal compass. How far will you go? How much risk will you take? And she just seemed to be the perfect metaphor for that. The part in the bridge, "Maybe she lost her way, maybe she just didn't want to come home," spoke a lot to me about a lot of women's predicaments or lives, that there may be a part of them that wants to fly and maybe not come home.

Songfacts: Fly in different ways. I don't know a single woman that hasn't wanted to do that at some point in their life.

Gretchen: Right. So I guess, as a woman, I really identified with that. Of course, the probability is Amelia died in bad weather and her plane went down. But maybe she just didn't want to come home. Maybe she really escaped. I just thought it was an irresistible, a beautiful sort of thought. And emblematic of what a lot of women, at least momentarily, think about.

Songfacts: Absolutely. "New Year's Eve 1999."

Gretchen: (laughs) First of all, it was written long before 1999. That may be the only song I think I've ever written with a sell-by date. God, it was probably written in 1993 or something, I'm guessing. It was just a little song that I guess just one day it occurred to me that wow, the millennium is going to come in 8 or 9 years, or whatever it was I wrote it. It might have even been maybe 10 years away at that point. At any rate, it was far enough off that I remember thinking, What a nice idea to think about projecting into the future that far, between two people. Two people talking to each other and projecting into the future. So it was sort of a little playful kind of way of projecting pretty far into the future. Kind of like this is where we'll be. A very certain sweet little vision of this is who we'll be and this is where we'll be at the turn of the century. Well, I know that of course the turn of the century came, and luckily we got it out. I recorded it with Randy Owen from Alabama as a duet, and it was in '99, actually. And so it got out and had its life before the millennium happened.

Songfacts: Do you still perform that on stage?

Gretchen: I haven't, no. I mean, if somebody asked for it, I could probably remember it. But I haven't for quite a while.

Songfacts: That'd be interesting. Okay, let's get to "Independence Day" now.

Gretchen: Okay.

Songfacts: Talk me through that, and then I had a couple of other pointed questions about it.

Gretchen: Okay. It was another one of those songs that took a long time to tell me how it wanted to end, how it was going to end. The chorus idea is what happened for me first. And really, the chorus doesn't tell you a whole lot, it was just a series of images, and there wasn't much narrative there. So for a while I sort of struggled with, well, what is this about? What is this? The whole idea of independence on a more personal level for one person, for a woman, that sort of became clear to me. And a woman that is in a dire situation. And when I got a handle on that, I was off and running with the verses. Except for the fact that I couldn't end it. I couldn't figure out how it was supposed to end. People ask me all the time, "Do you have any experience with this? Is this part of your history? Was there abuse in your family?" All that. And there was none of that. That wasn't anything that I had any familiarity with except for the outrage that anybody ought to feel knowing that it exists. But I did notice something after I wrote it, and I didn't notice this while I was doing it, but I wrote it from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl, and I think not coincidentally that was how old I was when my parents split up. And so I did kind of have some kind of emotional grounding to understand at least how it feels from a child's point of view to have their world just come apart like that, and feel that things are out of control, and they're just in the way. I had some understanding of that. And I think that I did that subconsciously, but very purposefully, so that I could dig my teeth into it. Because I could understand that.

The ending was really problematic for me. I think I knew in my bones how it was going to end. I was struggling with that, because I was trying to find another way out, other than her burning the house down. And in the end, I just thought, Nope, this is what happens in this particular story. And the whole idea of that, I guess, was compelling for people probably because there was no pat ending, there was no "it worked out all right." It didn't work out all right. It's a terrible, terrible, tragic thing. And I found it ironic, really, that I struggled so long with that ending trying to find another way out. Afterwards I thought, Well, it's kind of like the character in the song, I'm sure she looked for a way out, every other possible way, before she made that choice.

Songfacts: This might be a question you don't even know the answer to, but in the end, when she burns up the house, is it your intention that she dies in the fire, too? Or just him?

Gretchen: It was in my mind. But again, this is another one of those things like "On A Bus To St. Cloud," I didn't feel like that was necessary. That was for me. That little piece of information was for me. It's kind of like, I look at that like how actors talk about how they get a script and they read about the character, and sometimes they'll write an entire outline of this character's life with details that you never hear about in the movie, ultimately. But they need that for them. And I needed that for me in this case. In "Independence Day" she sacrificed herself, as well. But I didn't need it to be in the song. I needed it for me just simply to go all the way inside emotionally. Again, it's been interpreted both ways.

Songfacts: Subconsciously, do you think, or did you even ever read that book "The Burning Bed"? Do you think that entered in there anywhere at all?

Gretchen: I never read it. I knew about it, obviously. Wasn't it a movie? I didn't know it was a book.

Songfacts: It was a book first, and then it was a movie.

Gretchen: Oh, I didn't know that. Yeah, no, I knew it… it was certainly in my consciousness.

Songfacts: Wow. Powerful stuff. And didn't the proceeds for that go toward a women's shelter?

Gretchen: No, but between Martina and myself, there's been a lot of money raised. I mean, Martina's been amazing. We've done a bunch of benefit things for various causes having to do with that. Police working on domestic abuse cases, that sort of thing. And she's really taken the banner. She's really made it something that's part of her work. It's an amazing thing. I can't tell you the number of times I've done that song and had a woman come up to me at the end of a show, trying to keep it together and then just losing it and crying. And I usually just can feel it. I know what it means, and it's usually that she's been through a situation like that. Or in some cases I've met women who've lost sisters in similar situations. And it's the most powerful thing, it's the most humbling thing. Because you realize you've told this story, you get emotionally involved with it, but it's still fiction for you. And these people have lived it. And they feel safe enough and open enough to come to you and just be that vulnerable in front of you, and share these incredibly painful and deeply personal memories with you. It's quite something.

Songfacts: How do you react when people come up to you and do that?

Gretchen: I was grateful, of course, but it used to make me slightly uncomfortable, because I didn't know what to say or do. I guess I'm just a people pleaser and wanted to make it okay or something. And you can't make something like that okay. And now I guess I've taken on a little bit more grace about it, and I just usually give them a hug. Because what can you do? What can you really do? You can just share that moment with them. And that's really what they want. They just want to tell their story, and I think that's why people respond to music and to songs like that because they tell the story for them in a sense, in a way that maybe they can't.

Songfacts: Yeah, and I can't relate to it myself either, but I have to admit to you that it made me cry.

Gretchen: It's very rare as a writer that you get a chance to hear your song, or you come even close to hearing your song as though you'd never heard it before. But I'll tell you, I worked on the video, I did a little bit part in the video, Martina's video for that song, and when I first saw the video, when I sat down and they showed it to me, I cried, too. It really moved me.

Songfacts: You appeared in it?

Gretchen: Well, I didn't appear in it, my voice appeared in it. At the very beginning the mother and the daughter are singing, there's a little scene of them in the backyard and they're singing "Amazing Grace." I sing the mother's part.

Songfacts: Oh, that's you? Okay. And she burned down that house in one day, I heard, doing that video.

Gretchen: They had one take, it was going down.

Songfacts: Cool. Okay. "The Secret of Life." Such a happy, kind of happy upbeat song.

Gretchen: I usually introduce that song, "What if the Dalai Lama were a bartender?" It started as a little bit of nothing, really. I had had a little bit of success with songs like "Let That Pony Run," and "Independence Day," a lot of what people in Nashville call "women's songs," which is a term that just makes my skin crawl. But songs from the point of view of women. I bristled a little bit at that, and I thought, I've spent like 10 years playing bars, hanging around guys. I know a thing or two about men. So that's how that song started. I just started with this sort of riffing on this couple-of-guys-sitting-around-drinking kind of line. And it marched into sort of barroom philosophy at that point. I think my favorite line in that song is "The secret of life, try not to hurry, but don't wait." I love that sort of Zen-ness of all that. And once I sort of had my sights on that, I knew what I wanted to do, and it was just not that hard to write. It was just all about, mostly listing things that to me really are the secret of life. The overall sentiment in the song is it's moments. It's just moments, that's all it is. It's not one big thing, it's not a self-help book, it's not in a self-help book, it's just moments, and they come and they go, and the trick is knowing you're happy when you're happy, and being in the moment. It's very Zen, really, the whole message in that song.

Songfacts: I call guys like this, these characters of yours, I call them good ole boys, because I've known a few of them in my lifetime.

Gretchen: Definitely. Faith Hill did it, and she did the video. And my only regret was the bartender in the song is named Sam, and I just thought it would have been really great to get Ted Danson to be the bartender.

Songfacts: Nice.

Gretchen: Wasn't that his name in "Cheers"?

Songfacts: Yeah. He's hysterical.

Gretchen: He is Sam the bartender.

Songfacts: That would have been good.

Gretchen: But yeah, they're just a couple of loser guys. You know, average Joes.

Songfacts: Who don't know anything, but they think they know it all.

Gretchen: Well, yeah. But maybe they know something that those of us who spend too much time in our heads don't know. But the bartender's the one who's really on the ball. The bartender's actually the one. The guys, they're just shootin' the sh*t. The bartender, he's the one. He's the Dalai Lama.

Songfacts: Very nice. And I know that you have another album coming out here pretty quick. That's what you're going on tour for, right?

Gretchen: Well, yeah, shortly. It's coming out in the U.K. in April, and probably July in the U.S.

Songfacts: Oh, okay.

Gretchen: I'm not quite on the new album tour yet, but I'm gearing up.

Songfacts: Perfect. All right, is there anything off the new album that you want to throw at me here, or is that something I should just wait for?

Gretchen: It's a whole new ball of wax. It's my divorce album. I'd like to talk about all the songs on there, but I don't know, you'd be at a disadvantage, you've never heard them.

May 14, 2007
Get more at gretchenpeters.com

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Pauline Mitchell from Bristol. UkI am very interesting in reading what Gretchen has to say about her song ' Waiting For Amelia ' as I have requested she sing this on her upcoming tour of the UK when she has asked people to suggest songs she can sing. I am pleased to learn that it is one of her favourite songs so I hope she kindly sings it and gives us the explanation for writing it a decade or so ago. Using Amelia Earhart as a metaphor is an excellent idea and I agree with Gretchen that it would be nice just to fly away at times and leave your current life behind. I would like to think Amelia did just that but to be honest I think she perished with Fred Noonan in the Pacific. I'm looking forward to seeing Gretchen in Bristol on 23 May 2010.
see more comments

Stand By Me: The Perfect Song-Movie CombinationSong Writing

In 1986, a Stephen King novella was made into a movie, with a classic song serving as title, soundtrack and tone.

Mark Arm of MudhoneySongwriter Interviews

When he was asked to write a song for the Singles soundtrack, Mark thought the Seattle grunge scene was already overblown, so that's what he wrote about.

Does Jimmy Page Worship The Devil? A Look at Satanism in RockSong Writing

We ring the Hell's Bells to see what songs and rockers are sincere in their Satanism, and how much of it is an act.

Kristian Bush of SugarlandSongwriter Interviews

Kristian talks songwriting technique, like how the chorus should redefine the story, and how to write a song backwards.

Carol KayeSongwriter Interviews

A top session musician, Carol played on hundreds of hits by The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra and many others.

Ian Anderson: "The delight in making music is that you don't have a formula"Songwriter Interviews

Ian talks about his 3 or 4 blatant attempts to write a pop song, and also the ones he most connected with, including "Locomotive Breath."