LH Talking of the UK, it’s incredibly 25 years since you first played here. What can you remember from those early shows?
GW Yeah, 25 years since my first real tour there. My first album had just come out and I was urged by several friends over here to go to the UK because they said their audiences are going to “get you” . So I pushed hard for an early UK tour , my record label was amenable to it but I had to push a little bit. And one of my first impressions was ” how do they know all of the words to all these songs?” . There was just this knowledge the moment I walked out on the stage – I was playing very small venues but everyone knew the words and people would even talk to me after a gig about the different players that were on the album, other things they’d played on, they were just so incredibly knowledgable and well versed. I remember being very impressed with that and thinking ” this is who I want to play for! ” . Rather than noisy, drunk people …I’ve had my share of that, too, especially back in the day when I first started out!
And I guess the other thing as an American coming over for the first time is it takes a little time getting used to the British audience as it’s more reserved… with the exception of the Scottish audience which is a totally other thing! What I realised was they were pin drop quiet during the songs and that was because they were listening so intently, so I relaxed into that pretty quickly. So the British audiences were very different, even more so back then than now …or maybe it’s because we have a bigger audience now… they are very demonstrative to me now, still very quiet during the songs but very, very demonstrative in between. But yeah I adjusted pretty quick and felt that is was a place I could come back to over and over again .
And maybe the third factor was that there was never a feeling on my part, like I often have over here in the states, that I didn’t fit somehow, either stylistically (like I wasn’t “Country” enough) ..I never ever had that feeling. I just felt like the kind of amalgam of things that I am, a little Folky, a little Country, a little Rock, were all perfectly normal and fine. I never felt self conscious or like I needed to push myself in some direction stylistically ever. I felt free to be myself.
LH I was going to mention our audiences in the next question….in relation to choosing to record your new live album “The Show” here! I guess for the reasons you’ve described we are the perfect combination for such a project, quiet when most need but wildly enthusiastic in between songs?
GP I actually hadn’t thought about that but yeah! Funnily enough it hadn’t crossed my mind as I’m so used to it, it was something I just assumed! The inspiration for recording the album there was obviously in part because we had the string section and we felt we just HAD to document this as it’s so special. But also I just felt like in a very real sense that the UK is my home as far as performing goes, and in any audience there will be a fair amount of people who have been coming for over 20 years and they’re the people I want to play for. And so it was a combination of factors, but you are quiet, you’re right, and that helps the engineering part of it ….and we didn’t have to encourage the audiences in between songs, what you hear on the record is what happened!
LH So did you decide to document it before the tour or part way through when you realised how very special is was turning out to be?
GP We decided to do it before and the reason was we’d done one show, a festival up in Perth, in this format with the strings. And the feedback we got after that show was ” if you ever do this again, you MUST record it!” We really took that to heart . People have all sorts of opinions about live albums ..love them/hate them…but I felt like this is really a moment I will never get to have again and I didn’t know if an album would come of it, let alone a double album, but I just knew I wanted to take the time and go to the trouble to document it.
LH So having the all-female Southern Fried String Quartet out on the road with you on that tour will have evened up the male:female ratio considerably!
GP It was so much fun, fantastic! We had six women (my tour manager is female) and three guys! I’ve never experienced a tour ever where there were so many women…tho I guess that’s the case on the Wine, Women and Song tours . Touring with women is the best! It was just like a fresh infusion of energy and fun, we kind of laughed all the way through the tour. I think we did eight or nine shows and recorded those three towards the end, and I was really sad at the last gig, I wanted it to go on and on because they were so much fun!
LH Did you rehearse much together? Or even at all ? Did you tell them the songs you’d be playing so they could prepare, how did that side of things work?
GP Well string players work from charts so I had string charts from my first few records for a couple of songs. They were written for more parts so I had them adjusted for a quartet. And then I have this fantastic arranger, Patsy Reid who is also Scottish ( she played with us on the Perth show but wasn’t on this tour ) and I told her the other songs I wanted to play with the strings and she wrote all the charts! So I had to have a good think about which songs …and you also have to keep in mind that if there’s ten songs in the set with the string quartet they can’t all be slow ballads which would be very, very easy for me! It would put people to sleep and you need to change the pace up ! So i thought about what we could do with things like “Blackbirds” and to “To Say Goodbye” and to things that weren’t exactly ballads to spice it up some more!
As rehearsals went, because the string quartet play from charts and are such great musicians we’d basically run things through at soundcheck and then we were done. I had them play with my band, they were familiar with all the songs at that point, so we had a little rehearsal but not much and of course that is nerve-wracking the first night! But as they’re working from a chart the person most likely to screw up is me. We’d changed things quite a lot so it was up to me and Barry to remember ” ok, in this version we are doing this thing twice instead of once” …those kind of things.
( LH note: Barry is Barry Walsh, Gretchen’s husband and long-time musical collaborator)
LH Tempos changed sometimes too, didn’t they?
GP Yes, and that is one reason why we very consciously set the three dates we wanted to record at the end of the tour. We wanted to be in a very relaxed, free-flowing kind of state. Also we chose the venues partly for sound.
LH I was wondering if the set list was picked with a live album specifically in mind, so you kind of answered that above…
GP You know I didn’t I pick the set list for an album as much as for a show…in my mind I’m always thinking about the flow of the night, but if it works on the night it’s going to work on a record.
LH But I guess on the record you could have jiggled the songs around if needed?
GP We could but we didn’t! The one thing I did was switch Disc 1 to be with the strings, and on the night I came out with the band and was then joined by the strings, but because this was going to be an album partially about the addition of the quartet I felt like we should lead with that, so we did.
LH So when it came to the production/editing side of things, did the pandemic make things a lot trickier than you’d anticipated? Did you and Barry have to be more “hands on”?
GP Well, we had the recording in the can late 2019, and I had the record of Mickey Newbury songs coming out in 2020, so I though let’s just wait as there’s no hurry. And then the pandemic hit and we released the Mickey Newbury record, and then we were just sitting around and thought well, I guess we could mix that live album now, what else are we going to do with ourselves? We thought we’d be coming back to England to mix it with our producer, literally sit in the same room as him, but you know we did it remotely and it worked out just fine ! We sent files back and forth, I think it was maybe even better. I do know that while we were listening through to those live performances, probably in about month six of lockdown, I just remember thinking what a different world that was to the one we were in. But it gave us time to mix them the way we wanted to…..you know, as is witnessed here, you can do pretty much anything remotely now! So it wasn’t the obstacle I thought it would be.
LH. I was actually going to say that it must have been very emotional for both of you listening to the recordings while not being able to play live and indeed not knowing when things would open up again and having to postpone upcoming tour dates?
GP Yes, if I ever had any doubts about putting a live album out, you don’t know how it’s going to be received as it’s just a different animal from a studio record, I think the pandemic made me feel “Oh my God, this is a photograph of what we are missing! A snapshot of what live performance feels like”. Listening to it while we were mixing, what that really evoked to me was that you could hear the sound of the room and the sound of the audience. After you play a hundred live streams ( which I didn’t even come close to tho I played quite a few!) there’s just no comparison to hearts on a screen and the energy you’re getting back actually being in a room with people. To hear that on the recordings was very emotional.
LH There’s some beautiful photographs from that tour on the double CD’s hardback cover… they were fittingly taken from one of you most longstanding UK fans I understand, another nod to the support you have over here?
GP Absolutely! Andrew Newiss has been taking beautiful photographs of us live for years, and at some point we thought ” well, he’s our official photographer!” We just approached him and said ” do you want to do this?” and he was all in! And the photographs are SO beautiful, he did the most wonderful job and I’m so grateful to him …he said the only thing he wanted was for us to make sure the venue didn’t yell at him for taking photographs! I was just knocked out with what he got.
LH As I mentioned at the start, you’re heading our way for some shows imminently….headliners which are a mix of formats, some more intimate and stripped back, some full band and then there’s your appearance at The Long Road Festival… is that mixture something you’re looking forwards to, keeping things fresh and interesting for you?
GP It definitely keeps me on my toes! You know what I like about the intimate evening format is that I can pivot any way I want to, Barry knows all my songs, I can just call a title out and do it. But I love the feeling of playing with my band, they are such great players and I love the energy, power and drama they bring.
LH You’ve also announced shows here next Spring..but that’s you’re final full tour here I gather, as you’ve recently announced the end of your touring life as you’ve known it for many, many years. From just a few of the comments and reactions I’ve seen from your fans on social media everyone seems very supportive and to totally understand the decision, which I’m assuming was in many ways tough (you’ve been talking to me about your love for it all) but maybe in some ways easy for you to make… I would imagine it’s such a complicated and expensive process, plus it must also be a physically very tiring undertaking?
GP I think that like a lot of people I had a lot of time to think about things during the pandemic, and what my life was like, and there were some parts of it that I felt I was “white knuckling” my way through. Working so hard for so long… and I have a really strong work ethic and don’t mind hard work… but doing it to the extent it’s not healthy. And post-pandemic touring has got a lot harder, it’s really, really problematic. Not that I wouldn’t keep going, but I just feel …I don’t know, really at the bottom of it, it’s just something I was really wrestling with even before the pandemic. I think I recognised I was getting close to burning myself out and that I had to do something different. And once I’d worked my way through the grief/loss part of it I realised I will be the same person I was, I’ll have more room and space and energy to create, if I choose to do that. And it doesn’t mean we can’t do the odd gig …it just means the sort of touring we were doing,10,15,20 date on the run, we’re not going to do that anymore. We are going to take care of ourselves. I think a lot of people came to similar decisions.
LH And long tours mean leaving Oliver (Gretchen’s black labrador) behind for extended periods of time… do you face time him while you’re away?
GP Like all dogs he’s anti-technology! Thank goodness I have the dog whisperer, who is amazing, because I couldn’t leave him for that length of time without knowing he’s having a good time and being loved!
LH You mentioned having more time to be creative… so will we get some new music from you?
GP You know my attitude towards it is I’m giving myself permission to do anything and nothing, and that includes writing something other than music, that includes more music if it comes, and that includes sitting and staring at the Gulf of Mexico! In my soul and gut I feel that I’m going to have a certain amount of downtime first to regenerate . Then I’m probably going to get itchy to do something! But I don’t know what it’ll be, and I think I just want to leave that live open for myself.
LH That sounds like a very healthy attitude to me! Thanks again for your time, safe travels to the UK and I’ll see you here soon!
GP Thank you, Lesley!