Grace Pettis – Interview

It was wonderful speaking with Grace Pettis. In addition to having talent, she is a warm, giving person and it’s easy to see why so many musicians want to work with her. She has collaborated with hundreds by her count and I’m sure that’s just the beginning. She has a wide range of interests and in addition to her musical endeavors she has created a podcast where she reviews Star Trek episodes with other musicians. This sense of fun, along with her desire to see this world be a better place, is evident when speaking with her, watching her shows or listening to her music. It adds an extra glow to all she does.

Grace Pettis is on Facebook and Patreon. She has also released a new single “White Noise” with all proceeds going to Color Of Change. Since this interview Grace recorded her new album in Nashville and we’re looking forward to it’s release in the coming months!

Fredda Gordon: I saw your livestream the other night and enjoyed it. How are you how facing the current coronavirus situation?

Grace Pettis: It pretty much killed all of my live performances for the year. [And] my band Nobody’s Girl, with BettySoo and Rebecca Loebe, was planning on releasing an album next month and that’s been pushed back to 2021. I was supposed to go in the studio to work on my debut solo record with MPress Records last month and that got pushed to July. It’s still happening but we wanted to give it some time to figure out the best way to keep people safe. There’s been a lot of research about singing we want to weigh and be responsible about. 

When we work on that record we want it to be really joyful. We want to feel great about the experience and not be wondering if it’s something we should or shouldn’t be doing. We’re going to have face masks and isolation, which is going to make it different from other recording experiences where you get to be in the same room, gathered around the speakers, listening to demos together and talking through your shared vision for the track. We’re going try to find ways of keeping as much of that magic as possible with things like zoom meetings and video conferencing between isolation booths. Our primary goal is to keep the players safe.

In terms of touring, that’s about half of my income. The other half is songwriting through BMG, so I’m luckier than a lot of musicians I know because I have some kind of income coming in. 

FG: You have to get creative in another way.

GP: Yeah, and my husband and I, we just sold our house and downsized to a tiny home.

FG: You live in a tiny home?

GP: We just moved in a couple of days ago. I think it’s bigger than most tiny homes, it’s really a very small one-bedroom apartment. It would be big for New York standards. It’s not that bad and it has a real, working toilet which is amazing. We’re constantly tooling around with it and trying to get the most out of the space.

FG: Is that a piano I see? Is there room for music?

GP: Yeah, and that was really the clincher for us. Our landlord had this extra little micro-office. It doesn’t have a bathroom, it’s really a little trailer. I’ve turned into my studio. I’ve got this giant armoire that has my guitar cases in it. We’re figuring it out but that’s been key for us, downsizing and getting our bills smaller, now that we’re both working from home. Our last living situation we owned our house. We had two roommates and in the space of a few weeks my husband lost his job, a roommate lost his job, and our other roommate had less hours. We immediately put the house on the market and sold the house. We were lucky, but we did go from being homeowners with a retirement plan to… yeah life is different, but we still consider ourselves very fortunate and this is a great situation for us.

FG: Regarding other things going on these days, you have said that certain careers attract the best people and the worst people.

GP: Yeah I feel that way. Anywhere that there’s power over the lives of other people you’re going to have individuals that are drawn to that kind of work because they want to help, make a difference in the world and in people’s lives. You are also going to have the very worst human beings on the planet drawn to that kind of work because they’re drawn to that kind of control and power over other human beings for the sake of of having that power. It’s why checks and balances are so important. That’s such a keystone of democracy. When we don’t have that kind of oversight, when there aren’t consequences for people abusing their power, that’s when we end up where we are. The Catholic Church is a perfect example. I’m a devout Catholic and we have a real problem with predators in the church preying on children. These aren’t just parishioners, these are often priests. These are people that have the most power and the most respect and reverence from our community. We lift these people up as being shining examples and when abusers take advantage of those kinds of roles they’re shielded by the admiration we have for men who are in persona Christi. We have to admit that to ourselves, to be honest about the fact that these coveted, respected positions of power are perfect breeding grounds for horrific human rights violations and abuses that we’re seeing in the police force, in our government, in the church and in any structure of power.

FG: Let’s go back a little to your life growing up. You grew up with a singer-songwriter [Pierce Pettis] in your house. How did that come into play in your life and music?

GP: My brothers and I were surrounded by music from an early age. There were always singer songwriters in our house. We had a constant folk musician infestation throughout our childhood. There were always people hanging out with my dad, with my mom and later with my stepmom. Sometimes they’d drag us along to folk festivals. Sometimes there’d be songwriters coming over to write with our dad, or people he was touring with. When we were little kids he toured with Sara Hickman and I have a memory of her playing me a Sesame Street song. It was constant, normal and seemed like a thing that adults did. it wasn’t this crazy far-fetched career in my mind.

FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?

GP: God, there are so many. I remember as a little kid watching my dad on stage and watching other people watching my dad on stage and absorbing that very strange dynamic [thinking] ‘Well it’s my dad but it’s this version of my dad, and there’s this communication that’s happening between him and all these people. It’s sort of a one-way conversation but it’s kind of not’ and turning all that over in my head, trying to make sense of it. I remember asking questions like ‘where does the person start and stop and the artists start and stop?’ And ‘is the song different from from the singer? Where are all those lines?’

Also just constantly being around music. My mom sings and plays also even though she’s not a performer. My aunt sings, both of my grandfathers were singers, both of my grandmothers played the piano so it was in my world all the time.

FG: When did you know you wanted to do this for a living?

GP: I don’t that I ever wanted to do anything else. There was a time when I was a really little kid that I also wanted to be a painter, or someone who drew pictures or sketches, but it was in conjunction with music. It was never an either/or thing for me.

There was a time in middle school that my mom would have parties and she trotted me out [and said] “Sing a song for us.” I think I sang “Stormy Weather,” the Lena Horne song. I remember this room full of grown-ups started crying. I was a 12 year old and was like ‘Oh, that’s cool, I can make people cry.’ [laughter] It was like discovering you have secret powers. And again, thinking about that relationship that you have as a performer with an audience, and being aware of it from an early age.

Also, I had a moment when I was a freshman in high school and I just moved in with my dad who lives in Alabama. There was a talent show and I wrote a song. I was the new kid, I had only been there a few weeks, and I played that song and won the talent show. As a freshman. Looking back I’m pretty sure the judges were biased because they’re like “Oh, she wrote this thing.”

FG: The song probably impressed them.

GP: I don’t know. I ended up recording [that song] on my first record which is called “A Bird May Love.” That was a moment of being aware of my own power in the world or a sense that maybe I could do something with this and that it could be useful and that I could make something that people would like and that would move people.

FG: Did you go to school for music?

GP: No, I didn’t. I was focused on the long game. ‘How can I spend the most amount of time playing music as possible without having to get another job?’. I thought that the smart thing to do was to get a back up degree. I wanted to get [it] in a music town so that I could also spend a lot of time around music so I moved to Austin. I majored in communication, minored in religious studies and went to a lot of shows, sold CDs and did open mics and things.

FG: Are you in Austin now?

GP: Yeah. I moved to Virginia right after college, got married and put out my first record in the space of like a month or two, and then started touring full-time. We moved to Virginia, the Shenandoah valley, where we worked for three years. Then we moved to Nashville for about a year. Pretty typical really. Then we moved back to Texas because we love Texas and my husband got a great job in Austin. We’ve been here since 2014.

FG: Can you tell me about your first gig?

GP: I played little open mics and at my church a couple times, but outside of that my first gig was this house concert outside of Dallas for a guy named Tom who made telescopes. He was this incredible man and I just loved him. He was part of this tribe of Kerrville Folk Festival folks. I had been to Kerrville a few times, so had made some friends there. They asked me to come out and play the show and I was nervous. They set up some tea lights in the middle of the room to look like a campfire so it would feel familiar. It was really sweet.

FG: They set them up for you?

GP: Yeah! And that’s also where I met Dirje Childs, the cellist, who is the only person so far to have played on all of my records. She’s a very dear friend, incredible cellist, and she brought her cello that night. She was a friend of my dad’s and I was like ‘Do you want to just hop up and play with me?’ and she said “Sure!” She just got up there, didn’t have charts, didn’t have any idea what I was going to play and they were all original songs. She just played along and that was the beginning of our friendship and my first official gig. This was in 2009, the same year I entered the NPR Mountain stage contest and ended up winning that. My second show ever was Mountain stage where I got to play my song which [won].

FG: That’s great!

GP: Yeah, that was the first or second time I’d ever, other than being in the studio, been in front of a microphone.

I didn’t really start touring until 2010. I graduated college May 2010, got married in June, then I officially started playing tours that I booked myself. That was the same year that I toured with Storyville coffee. They were partnered with the International Justice Mission and their goal was to free slaves around the world. They put 10 of us folk singers in these nice vans with crew and a whole set up for a house concert and sent us around country. We would play two or three shows a week in the living rooms of the rich and famous. We would move all their priceless furniture into a van, set up the house concert and play. At the end we would move all the furniture back exactly where it was. The homeowners would invite all of their fancy friends over to hear the house concert and they would sign up for subscriptions for coffee. 100 percent of the profits went to free slaves around the world. I met some really interesting people but it was such a contrast because I was broke, really young and very naive. I immediately went from that to booking my own tours where I’d play for five people in a dive bar somewhere.

FG: That’s hard to do.

GP: I got paid very well for the Storyville stuff. It’s run by John Phelps who’s the greatest human and he and his wife Esther have a heart for making the world better. They paid the musicians really well because he is a musician on the side and felt strongly about that. He was a big fan of my dad’s so he had me come out and open for my dad. He ended up becoming a fan and supported me. He also is the person who gave me my first real guitar that I wasn’t just borrowing. It’s a really nice guitar. I still play it, it’s the guitar that I play. I was treated like a rock star and I went from that to being totally on my own in my car. It was good, it gave me a sense of the full spectrum of the experience right out of the gate.

FG: You mentioned that you sold songs to other musicians. How does that feel?

GP: You don’t necessarily sell them because I still own them all, but songs of mine have been covered by a few other artists which is incredible. It’s the best, most flattering feeling in the world. It’s such a buzz. Sara Hickman was the first person to cover one of my songs in 2010. She put it on her record Absence of Blame, a great record.

She was one of my heroes so that was very cool. Then there was a few of my friends and peers that I would co-write with who then would cover that song. There’s a song of mine called “Dancing” that I wrote with Sofia Echegaray that I put on my 2009 record that was covered by a few different people. I had a few cuts on artists’ [albums] who I was writing with. I’ve written with maybe a hundred other songwriters or so. I like to write with other people and that kind of sneaks my songs onto other records. The latest, and maybe the coolest, is Ruthie Foster covering two of my songs on her last record Joy Comes Back, which indirectly led to me to signing a publishing deal with BMG. It brought me a lot of attention and elevated what I was doing. She very much championed me that year. I feel really fortunate for that connection. That was right around the time I got involved with Nobody’s Girl and I met my manager through Ruthie. So many great things came out of that.

FG: How do you approach songwriting? Is it always the same?

Most of the time it’s the same but there’s always an outlier. Sometimes I’ll just dream a song and then wake up and write it down. Or I’ll read something and I’ll be like ‘That has to be a song!’ or I’ll do it based on a prompt because I wasn’t feeling inspired and I needed something to work on. Sometimes it’s stuff that other writers bring to the table. They might bring their own scraps and ideas and we’ll work off of that.

In terms of the way that I write on my own, I get ideas and I always write them down or sing them into my phone so that they’re not lost. Then when I have time, preferably the same moment that I get the idea, because that’s when you’re really juiced up about it, I’ll sit down and just mess around with them and let them tell me what they want to be. Sometimes it’s a lyric and sometimes it’s a melodic thing. A lot of times it’s both at the same time. Some people are instrument driven, but that hasn’t been me. I’ve mainly been lyrics and melody driven.

FG: I’ve written a few songs but I’m not really a songwriter. I love music and just want to be around it. Writing songs is hard a lot harder than it looks.

GP: I think it’s great that you’re doing that. I wish more people would. We live in such a culture of experts, that you have to be the best at something in order for it to be worth your time and I reject that as a premise. I think everybody should make art. art is therapy and it’s cheap therapy. It’s good for your soul, it’s good for the human experience.

FG: You said you’ve written with hundreds of people but if you could choose one person that you would love to write with who would it be?

GP: Oh man, there’s so many, this is hard, you put me on the spot. I’ll just list some of my favorites, the Pantheon of songwriter gods, including Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill, The Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile, any of the surviving Beatles, Bob Dylan, any of those. Jimmy Webb was amazing, Patty Griffin, there’s so many good… Jason Isbel, there’s so many good songwriters out there. Mainly I’m drawn to the Americana world but I also grew up listening to a lot R&B, hip-hop and jazz so I would like to work with some of those kind of writers as well. I’ve kind of lost touch with like what’s going on currently in that world in R&B world but some of the people I grew up listening to were Lauryn Hill, India Arie, and Beyonce. I think Beyonce is an incredible songwriter, I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for her songwriting, and she’s a Texas songwriter too which makes it even cooler.

FG: I saw the collaborative video for “Tiger” that you did with Nobody’s girl. How did that work?

GP: We wrote the song together, we write all of the songs together in Nobody’s Girl, which is my collaboration with BettySoo and Rebecca Loebe. We met at the Kerrville Folk Festival, so songwriting has always been at the core of our band. We had lots of cool ideas for music videos for that song and most of them were shelved because of coronavirus so we had to get creative. A lot of that song is about this undercurrent of tension and repressed rage that we all have, that we stuff down and keep under lock and key every day. We all have those “Tigers” in the closet that we’re keeping a lid on all the time and it’s exhausting. It’s the daily struggle, expectations and pressures that we all feel, probably especially women of color, but everybody. There’s a real respect that I have for women who are able to do that because it’s such a display of power to be able to keep those things at bay all the time. It’s so much easier to lose your temper and we have a lot of songs about that, but there’s not a lot of songs about being in control of your emotions and your anger and not letting them control you or get in the way of what you want from your life. It’s equal parts condemnation of the forces that make us feel like we always have to be so tightly wound and we can’t express ourselves fully but, on the other hand, it’s also like a celebration of the inner strength that it takes to do that. So we thought what better way to put that on film than just film us going about our day in quarantine, the ultimate pressure cooker because you’re just we’re all freaking out about the world and we’re just stuck in these little boxes, going through the routines every day. So, we just filmed that.

FG: What about your single “Landon,” is that a true story? It is really powerful.

GP: Yeah, it’s one of the most literal songs that I have. I wrote it in the beginning not for anybody but me and him. It was an apology letter because I felt like I had so much to say and had feelings that I wanted to express that I couldn’t just express in a letter or a Facebook message. Songwriting is how I express myself. It’s the easiest means that I have for saying what’s on my mind, so I ended up writing a song. It took me years to write it. I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it because it was such a specific and particular thing that I wanted to say and it was easy to veer and not get it right. It took a lot of time to say it exactly how I wanted to say it, and then I sent it to him. I said “I wrote this for you, if nobody else ever hears it that’s fine. You let me know if you want me to be out there playing it, but it’s for you and and I just want to tell you that I love you and I’m sorry.’

He wrote back right away and he’s such a… I’m tearing up just thinking about it… he’s such a kind, compassionate, forgiving person that he never held it against me in the first place. I’ve been carrying around all of this feeling of guilt that I wronged my best friend and he hadn’t been carrying it at all. He had forgiven me the same day. Part of that is because we’re from Alabama and he got a lot of worse reactions than the one that he got for me, which at least came from a place that was trying to be loving. Obviously ignorant but in a loving way versus some outright hate and rejection. He got a lot of shit for coming out and my response was pretty tame compared to some of the other stuff. We had just sort of drifted apart so it was a way for us to come back together and reconnect in a true, authentic way. We got to have a take-2 on our friendship and we’re both really different people now than when we were 17 and it’s been cool to reintroduce each other to ourselves. I highly recommend reconnecting with your high school friends that you messed up with.

FG: Are there any other songs you’d want to mention?

GP: I’m writing a lot of songs. There’s a bunch that I think are gonna end up on the new record but I want to wait. I should have a new record early in 2021.

FG: I look forward to hearing it.

GP: I’m also putting out a new podcast called Troubadours on Trek. It’s a Star Trek music podcast where I interview musicians and then I get them to review an episode of Star Trek with me. We’re just going in order through the first series and then we’ll probably do Next Generation after that.

FG: That sounds so cool, I’ll watch for that too!