When I first met singer-songwriter Grace Pettis this past October, I was standing outside The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee. The airline had left my bags in D.C. so I was on the phone with them for a good hour while soaking up the southern sunshine in my cowboy boots. It was my first time at the legendary Bluebird. It’s a special place to the songwriting a community. It’s a place where some of the finest songwriting talent in this country has played at least a song or two. And that’s also the night I learned that “timing is everything.”
While on the phone with the airline, a car pulled into the lot and a group got out to start loading in for the night. That was Grace Pettis and her band. It was the night of a CD release show for her most recent album “Two Birds.” Like I said, timing is everything.
As they unloaded for the gig, I held the door open for them a few times. What else did I have to do? I was on hold without any of my luggage in Music City, USA with just my phone and wallet. After load-in, they sound checked and what I heard was worth getting to the Bluebird early for.
Grace returns to Washington for a set at Ebenezers Coffeehouse this Friday and took some time over e-mail to answer a few of our questions. Here’s what she had to say.
Rachel Levitin: You’ve been at it as an independent musician for quite some time now. What’s been the biggest struggle for you while trying to maintain a career in music?
Grace Pettis: The main struggle is just making enough money to keep doing this. Unlike a lot of careers, there’s no well worn path to guaranteed success and stability. You can’t, say, earn a degree and expect to make a living as a performer. Even winning awards and years of experience is no guarantee of being able to pay your bills. It’s a constant struggle keeping my head above water. Some months are great. But others hit hard. I eat a lot of Taco Bell and I sleep on a lot of couches. And I’m one of the lucky ones.
R: Despite the tough, uncharted path laid out for independent musicians searching for success, what motivates you to press forward and keep doing what you love?
G: I think I must be a little crazy. You’d have to be, you know? Part of it is that I truly feel called to do what I do. In that sense, it’s a vocation. But there’s another motivator that’s more selfish. I just really love writing and playing and generally immersing myself in music. Doing this full time means being able to do that more. I’m generally desperate to do whatever it takes to be able to keep making music and to stay inspired.
R: The consensus is you’ve forged a reputation as a highly respected songwriter at a young age. What is it about your songs that you feel resonates most with your audience?
G: That’s a good question. If I knew the answer to that, I’d be doing more of it and more consistently. I write a song every week but only a few of them seem to be the ones that really hit home. It’s the truth factor- I know that much. When I (intentionally or accidentally) tap into something that feels true and powerful to me, it tends to feel that way for the listener too. Even if it’s a song that’s intensely personal. Sometimes it’s the personal song that rings truer than anything and ends up being universal.
R: When it comes to songwriting, how do turn an idea into a song? Walk us through your process.
G: Well, the idea arrives, for lack of a better word. It isn’t summoned or created. It just arrives, on its own schedule, or it doesn’t. Thankfully, the ideas seem to want to arrive more when I’m paying attention and receptive to them. So, at least as far as that goes, I have a little bit of control. But mostly, the whole idea arriving part is pretty mysterious.
And then there’s the writing part. This part is a frenzied creative blur where I scramble to find a notebook, guitar, back of a receipt, anything to get the idea down and explore it to the fullest. I get to know the shape of the idea, the depth of it, and as many of its facets and contours as I can. When I finally rock back on my heels and put down my pen, and when I feel that I am done “getting it down,” I put on my editor’s cap. Sometimes I do this right away.
Sometimes it takes a few weeks or months before I feel that I have enough distance from the initial rush of a seemingly good idea to know if, in fact, I have the makings of a good song. When that happens, I start thinking critically about the song. I’m fairly cutthroat. If there’s a brilliant line that doesn’t serve the song, it’s got to go. (I save it for later though- never throw any good line away.) I whittle and I rearrange and I employ my “tricks,” like internal rhyme or alliteration. I put a little shoe polish on it, get it just right and voila! Brand new bouncing baby song.
R: In the past few months, you’ve joined forces with your fellow musicians to form the band Fourteen Hundred Miles. How does it feel to be on the road with them?
G: It’s great! Playing with Taylor and Blake Powell is a lot more fun than playing by myself, for one thing. And for another thing, the songs immediately sound about a billion times better. I’ve gone from girl with guitar to three part harmonies and multi-instrumental arrangements. From the first few times we played together, Blake and Taylor didn’t do the typical sideman thing. They didn’t just play obvious parts. They brought a lot of creativity and hard work to their instrumentation and really made the songs their own. They both have distinctive, powerful musical voices on their own. Lately we’ve done a lot of collaboration.
We’ve written a bunch of new songs together that we’re all proud of. There’s something about what we bring out in each other that’s exciting. We’re all good at different things and we work well together. That’s a hard thing to find! We are just getting started but we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the band.
R: What would say is the hardest part of continually being on the road touring from town to town on a sporadic schedule?
G: The hardest part is being away from my husband. It really doesn’t get easier but we have learned a lot about how long is too long to be away from each other. And we try to talk on the phone every day. That makes it easier to stay connected and important in each others’ lives. It’s hard to keep that appointment, when you never know what time of day you’ll be free or who will be in the room or in the car when you do have an hour to talk. But we really try to carve out that time. It’s a necessity.
R: Do you have a special DC related memory from passing through town on tour or otherwise? We’d love to hear what you love about DC!
G: Well, if I’m going to be totally honest, driving through DC is not my favorite. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m usually driving into town a few hours before the gig, which means I’m always caught in 5:00 traffic. And 5:00 traffic is bad here! So I guess I like the city best at night, when there aren’t that many cars on the road. DC can be really beautiful at night. And, of course, I love the monuments and museums. So many of our nation’s treasures are here. I’m lucky to have lived so close to the capital.