Richard Shindell and Gretchen Peters
Featured Artist #1
Richard Shindell and Gretchen Peters
Originally from New York, now dividing his time between Buenos Aires, Argentina and New York's Hudson Valley, Richard Shindell is a writer whose songs paint pictures, tell stories, juxtapose ideas and images, inhabit characters, vividly evoking entire worlds along the way and expanding our sense of just what it is a song may be. From his first record, Sparrow's Point (1992) to his current release, Careless (September 2016), Shindell has explored the possibilities offered by this most elastic and variable of cultural confections: the song.
The path that led him to songwriting was both circuitous and direct. Taking up the guitar at the age of eight, he spent his formative years learning the instrument - first acoustic, then electric. And he listened: Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Motown, Bowie, Hunter-Garcia, King-Goffin, Paul Simon, Bill Monroe, Rogers & Hammerstein. Their songs gave the impression of having always been there, so solid and self-evident were their melodies, hooks, grooves, and lyrics. Listening to WNEW or WLIR in 1970s NY felt like a kind of anamnesis. So it seemed completely out of the question to imagine that a song could be written - by anyone, anywhere, anytime, about absolutely anything. If he sang, it was just to sing along, or harmonise to the hymns in church.
On the other hand, a good song seemed like such a simple little thing. A voice in the back of his head kept whispering that surely it must be possible to write one. He would make his first attempts at it during college, where he studied Philosophy. According to him, these early songs were "abysmal: pointless, self-indulgent drivel. It's a wonder I ever allowed myself to try again."
After college and a nine month stint in a Zen Buddhist community in Upstate New York, he headed to Europe with his guitar, finding something not approaching a livelihood performing in the Paris Metro, where his repertoire consisted of Fahey-tinged fingerpicking, Blakian flatpicking and "endless droning along in open tunings." Evincing an early inclination toward self-imposed commercial exile, he sought out the less-travelled corners of the Metro. "I loved the acoustics in those tunnels, but only when they were empty."
Upon running out of money, and despite being an atheist, he applied to and was accepted by Union Theological Seminary (NY), beginning his studies in 1986. Three years in an M.Div. program did nothing to cure him of his atheism, however it did provide him (thanks to a friendly sexton) with late-night access to the neo-gothic expanses of Union's St. James Chapel, whose celestial acoustics inspired his first "keeper": On a Sea of Fleur de Lis. Ostensibly a paean to the Virgin Mary, the song marked his rupture from the church and the beginning of his creative life. Its underlying themes - immanence and transcendence, human love and divine love, the particular and the general - have continued to resonate through subsequent work, right up to the present. In many ways, his new album
Careless, though in no way a concept record, represents a further exploration of those ideas.
More songs followed. He began frequenting a well-known songwriters circle on Houston Street in New York City. Hosted by the late Jack Hardy, every Thursday night writers would gather to debut new songs, give and receive constructive criticism, take the songs back to the drawing board to try again the next week. It was a tough crowd, but also a supportive one. And beyond the concrete benefit to one's craft, those gatherings offered the fledgling writer a sense of community, and thus identity. He began to think of himself as a songwriter, abandoning his theological studies.
It was right about then that Shanachie Records called with an offer for a three record deal.
That deal resulted in
Sparrows Point (1992), Blue Divide (1994), and Reunion Hill (1997). The latter, produced by multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (credits too numerous to mention here), won the AFIM (NAIRD) award for "Best Contemporary Folk Album" in 1998. Its title track was covered (along with two other of Shindell's songs) by Joan Baez on her 1997 release, Gone From Danger. In 1998, Shindell joined forces with his friends Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky to make CryCryCry (Razor and Tie), a collection of covers by writers such as Robert Earl Keen, Michael Stipe, Ron Sexsmith, Greg Brown, Julie Miller, and James Keelaghan. Over the course of two years, the group toured in support of this highly acclaimed (and eponymously titled) album, leaving audiences spellbound by their gorgeous three-part harmonies.
By then Shindell was beginning to stretch out as a harmony singer, guitarist and performer. With each successive record he toured relentlessly, building a solid following of loyal fans. He also became an adept bandleader, as reflected in his 1999 release,
Courier (Signature Sounds), a live album, recorded and mixed by Ben Wisch, and featuring long-time cohorts Lincoln Schleifer, John Putnam, Dennis McDermott, as well as Lucy Kaplansky and Larry Campbell.
The year 2000 brought the release of a new collection of originals, one of Shindell's most popular albums,
Somewhere Near Paterson (Signature Sounds), produced by Campbell. That year also saw a major life-change: with his Argentine wife and their two small children, Shindell moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Taking a few years to get acclimated and learn the language, in 2004 he followed up with Vuelta (Koch Records), joining with Puente Celeste, an eclectic and much beloved group of virtuoso Argentine musicians. The decade's next was release was a collection of covers, South of Delia (2007), Shindell's first foray into production. More than simply a cover record, the song-selections and performances of South of Delia were that of an expatriate looking back at the country and culture he moved away from, and featured guest appearances by artists such as Viktor Krauss, Richard Thompson, Tony Trischka, and Eliza Gilkyson. His next collection of original songs, Not Far Now, was released by Signature Sounds in 2009. For 13 Songs You May or May Not Have Heard Before, which The Telegraph (UK) called "a stunningly good record", Shindell revisited some of his earlier material, giving fresh interpretations to old favourites.
In 2015 he joined forces again with Lucy Kaplansky to record another collection of covers,
Tomorrow You're Going (Signature Sounds), also produced by Larry Campbell. Consisting mostly of love songs, or love lost songs, it provided Shindell and Kaplansky an occasion to revel in their distinctive, two-part harmony with the backing of a top-notch band (Byron Isaacs, Dennis McDermott, Bill Payne, and Campbell) - all thanks to the participation of a committed community of fans who financed the project via the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The campaign more than doubled its funding goal in less than 48 hours.
Shindell continues to tour nationally in the United States, with the occasional forays into Canada, the UK, and Europe. Although known primarily as songwriter, Shindell takes a more holistic view of his career. Producer, writer, singer, guitarist, interpreter: it all adds up to a life in music.
Featured Artist #2
There's a bittersweet beauty to the passing of time — the changes it brings are just as often heartbreaking as they are heartwarming. The inevitable tension that arises from that sway is Gretchen Peters' most trusted muse. "The years go by like days. Sometimes the days go by like years. And I don't know which one I hate the most," she sings in "Arguing with Ghosts," the hauntingly wistful opening cut on her new album, Dancing with the Beast.
Between the melody and the melancholy, the song sets the tone for all that is to come after and lifts the album over the high artistic bar set by her last outing, 2015's award-winning Blackbirds. Written with Matraca Berg and Ben Glover, "Arguing with Ghosts" began, as so many songs do, with one small grain of inspiration. "I think we were initially talking about how Nashville is changing, and Matraca said, 'I get lost in my hometown,'" Peters recalls. "And we went from there. Of course, it took on much more meaning, but I think that our starting point was just that sense of disorientation."
Whether a single sentence or a simple setting, once planted, even the tiniest seed can grow into a vision unto itself. Strung together and populated with strong and broken female heroines, those vignettes make up Dancing with the Beast and, indeed, Peters' entire discography. "The pictures and the details come first, and I think that's kind of necessary because they're sort of like little bombs of emotion," she says. "It's like when you pull out a Polaroid that you haven't seen in 25 years, and your heart just kind of explodes because it brings back a whole world."
Once immersed in a world of emotion, Peters digs underneath to see what's fueling a particular fire, as she does so stunningly with the overwhelming insecurities of female adolescence in "The Boy from Rye." Knowing very well that most teenage girls endure objectification and sexualization, and their ensuing loss of confidence and power, Peters put her pen to paper and told that story.
"I remember being that age — summers on Long Island at the beach, the sense of freedom, being with friends, encounters with boys, and the pressure of suddenly being in competition with your best friends." she offers. "There was a feeling that you'd crossed some invisible line, and gone from being the subject in your own life, to being the object. It's a very treacherous time of life for girls."
Dancing with the Beast puts female characters at the fore, from teenage girls to old women. And intentionally so. With the 2017 Women's March and #MeToo Movement as bookends to her writing time, Peters knew that a feminist perspective would be the critical core of the record. "Those two events just put everything — as so many things in 2017 — in really stark relief," she admits. "You can trace the feminist DNA in my songwriting back to 'Independence Day' and probably before. The thing that 2017 did is just put it front and center. It was very easy to kind of go to sleep for a while and just not think about that stuff because we were lulled into complacency for eight years."
Scenery, too, played a part in inspiring several cuts on the LP, most notably "Wichita" and "Truckstop Angel," both sketches of women doing whatever they have to do to stand up in a world built to hold them down. Once she knew where the songs were set, Peters and Glover dug into the details. "'Wichita' was a lot like 'Blackbirds,' with me and Ben playing detective, like, 'What do you think happened here?'" she says. "I think I had the line, 'I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita.' And the next questions were, 'What happened to this girl? How did we get there?'"
"Truckstop Angel" was an idea originally sparked 20-something years ago by a New Yorker article Peters read about people that lived in the wide open western reaches. "They just kind of went out there to get away from the world," she explains. "I read this article and I was fascinated, and one of the things in the article was these truckstop prostitutes. And I just never got that out of my mind." Peters wrote around the idea a lot in those two decades, but never got to the heart of the story until she encountered such a character at a truckstop in Alabama. "This woman — a girl, really, as I don't think she was more than 17 — at 1:30 in the afternoon, walks through the lot in five-inch platform shoes and short shorts. And I just thought, 'Oh my God, that's the woman. That's her.'"
A title — and an election — were the beginnings of "Lowlands." Though Peters doesn't consider herself a political writer, she is politically minded and, therefore, knew she had to address the 2016 election and all that has happened since… but in her own way. "I wrote on my chalkboard, 'Tell one little story,'" she says. "I just wrote it there, and I would stare at it for a while."
Soon enough, the title came, bringing with it both a feeling and a place. "The description of the geography gave me a feeling inside of low clouds and general gloominess, but also the idea of laying low and staying low." To capture that mood, Peters crafted a multitude of verses, whittled them down, and stitched them together. "It has no chorus. It's nothing but verses. It's very Dylan-esque, in that way," she says. "I just wanted it to drone on and on. We don't get a break. It's relentless, which is exactly how last year was."
To further drive the relentlessness, producer Doug Lancio built a foundation of programmed drums and synth drones, elements that purposely pushed Peters to the outer edges of her artistic comfort zone. "We struggled together over how far to go with that kind of thing," she confesses. "I wanted 'Lowlands' to sound like the sound of dread. But the first mix we had going just didn't feel like me. It had to have some beauty in there, too."
The final female voice on the album comes from Peters' mother, who passed away in late 2016. "Love That Makes a Cup of Tea" came out of a dream Peters had of her. "I can't remember what the rest of the dream was, but she, in a reassuring way, held my hand and she said, 'You know, honey, there is love that makes a cup of tea,'" Peters recounts. "She was the kind of person who would show you her love by baking you a pie or knitting you a sweater. She just said that in the dream, and I woke up and I thought, 'Okay, there it is. I'm going to write that.'
"I do remember feeling that I had to try to write something with hope in it," she continues. "It's not my strong suit. But I wanted that on this record, because I do think there's hope. I do see hope around me. I see a lot of trouble, too, but we have to try to find some light. Those are hard songs for me to write, but this was my mom's gift. She brought that to me."
Beauty tempered by dread, sorrow buoyed by hope, these are the ever-present tugs of war that make life worth living and songs worth writing. And they are the over-riding themes that make Gretchen Peters one of her generation's most compelling singer/songwriters.