Nashville songwriter balances beauty and darkness on 2018's #MeToo-inspired 'Dancing with the Beast'; Peters performs alongside Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson on Three Women & the Truth tour
When Nashville songwriter Gretchen Peters was working on songs for her 2018 album, Dancing with the Beast, she told co-writer Ben Glover about her sometimes-crippling self-doubt, which could make her feel like she'd never write anything good ever again.
“And he said, ‘I've been dancing with the beast a bit lately myself,'” Peters said recently by phone. “He's Irish, so things like that just fall off his tongue. I said, ‘Ben, that is what we're gonna write right now. That's a title.'”
As they talked about what the song could be, Peters decided they should animate the beast — turn it into a character who could illustrate self-doubt, depression, addiction and other dark, inward voices. “If we could turn the beast into an actual character, what would it be like?” Peters said. “Well, it would kind of be like an abusive husband or boyfriend. It gaslights you. It tells you you're not good enough, that you need it. All those things. That was our way into that song.”
“He only comes around when he pleases/He only comes around when I'm alone/He don't like my friends or my family/He don't like me talkin' on the phone,” Gretchen sings over a repeating, Edge-like electric guitar riff that provides the tune's sonic bedrock. “But he takes me in his arms like a lover/He hears my confession like a priest/He whispers in my ear, in the darkness/I'm dancing with the beast.”
Peters, who will perform at Columbus School for Girls on Saturday, Jan. 12, alongside Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson as part of the Three Women & the Truth tour, has spent much of her career writing songs as character studies that explore humanity's inner workings. But after the 2016 presidential election, the 2017 Women's March and the #MeToo movement, she was motivated to incorporate more external forces.
“How can I possibly write and ignore what's going on in the outside world? You just can't do it. Even if I had tried to keep that out of my writing room, it would have crept in there anyway,” she said. “But there was definitely a question in my mind: How do I deal with this? I'm not really a political writer. I'm a storyteller. I don't write protest songs. I mostly write about people. The answer was in front of my face, but it took me some time to come to terms with it. I had to continue what I'd always been doing: telling stories. But those stories were more pointedly set in this era that we're in and this climate we're in.”
Many of the songs on Dancing with the Beast prominently feature female protagonists. Peters inhabits a roadside prostitute on “Truckstop Angel” and 12-year-old Cora Lee, who protects her little sister at all costs on murder ballad “Wichita.”
“It was not much of a surprise to me that the stories came out to be about women and girls,” Peters said. “Over the course of my whole career I've mostly been telling women's and girls' stories. This age we're in kind of drew a frame around that and made it seem like more of a theme than it had before.”
Closing track “Love That Makes a Cup of Tea” surfaced soon after the death of Peters' mother, who visited the songwriter in a dream. “She just patted my hand and said, ‘Honey, it's gonna be OK. There's love that makes a cup of tea,'” said Peters, who didn't quite know what to make of the statement. “Grammatically it's not exactly correct, but I just wrote it down as is, thinking, ‘This is what she gave me. I'm gonna see what I can make of it.'”
On the finished song, Peters gently picks her guitar and compares all kinds of love — love that moves mountains, beats a drum, fights for justice, builds a wall — and then describes the love her mother mentioned. “There is love that makes a cup of tea/Asks you how you're doing, and listens quietly/Slips you 20 dollars when your rent's behind/That's the kind of love I hope you find,” she sings.
It's a hopeful song on an album that doesn't shy from darkness, which sometimes threatened to take over. Peters wanted “Lowlands,” for instance, to evoke “the sound of dread,” and in an early version of the song, she met her goal a little too well.
“It was all doom, no beauty. … We had to get some beauty in there,” she said. “There's beauty in much of the darkest moments that we go through. I have a friend who lost her mother the day before yesterday, and I was talking to her last night and she said, ‘It was beautiful and brutal at the same time.' I've been through that fairly recently, and I know exactly what she means. I think when you can interpret that into music it's very moving, because it's how life really is.”