File under: Artists you don’t know but should. In today’s dense musical landscape, that file is as large as ever. I first heard Eric Peters a few years ago in Nashville and realized right away that I needed to make space for him in my musical attention span. He performed a song written from the perspective of a rusty old bicycle chained to a rail at a subway station, and he had just the right touch of frailty that I like in a singer-songwriter’s voice. I wanted to hear more.
On May 1, Peters releases what I count as his best work in over a decade of making music, Birds of Relocation. It’s a “statement record” that finds Peters declaring to the world, “I have been through darkness and despair, and I am through with it. There is light and hope and life.” It’s by no means sappy; instead, let’s call it “informed optimism”. To quote a review by S. D. Smith (I’m allowed to do that because this is an interview, not a review!), “It’s the airborne travelogue of a grateful, singed survivor, the record of one songbird whose shining eyes are turned suddenly skyward.”
I caught up with Peters in Chattanooga after a benefit show he played with Andrew Peterson for the Richmont Community Counseling Center. As the show ended, one of the Center’s counselors noted how much the previous couple of hours had felt like a counseling session all their own. Indeed. I’ve divided our interview into two parts. First, Peters talks about the new record. Tomorrow I’ll post part 2, in which we learn what it’s really like to be an indie artist.
TSO: Explain the title of the new album, Birds of Relocation.
As I was writing these songs, this theme of coming out of darkness emerged. It’s the story of the last 2-3 years of my life: this theme of relocating, being found again. At one point during that dark period, anxiety had me frozen, paralyzed. I remember at one point just not being able to move. I didn’t know what to do. It was really strange. I kept trying to hang on to staying present, not wishing away the days. Knowing that it takes a tiny amount of light to break darkness. Deliberately making an effort to move from this place of despair. I talk about this and I realize I don’t ‘have it’ yet, but, that’s the idea. For me, painting was one of these actions of moving forward.
I started painting in the last year and a half. I had never painted before, but I sure love artists like Van Gogh, and Arthur Dove. I love what they do with colors, and seeing the brushstrokes. I said, “I’m just gonna try it. I may be terrible at, I may fail, but I’m just going to try it. Enough with fear. I’m moving forward. Relocating. Moving from these boughs of hopelessness and despair and saying, Enough!” One of the first pieces I painted was a little 8×8 of what would become the album cover. Orange sky, a low shrub in the bottom right, some birds flying off. I called it “Birds of Relocation”.
TSO: I appreciate that when you took your mental stand and decided to do something, you chose to create. I believe we’re made in the image of a Creator God, and when we take part in that, we’re somehow sharing in His work.
Part of the story is that I read a biography of John James Audubon, the painter and naturalist. I don’t really like the word ‘inspired’, but to read his story, I saw so much of myself in him. He was an entrepreneur. He came over from France, moved to America, married and went to the frontier, which at the time was Kentucky. The middle of nowhere. He set up a business but it utterly failed. He lost everything. He had been drawing and painting as a hobby, all up until that time. He decided to lean into his talents, this hobby that he loved. He published Birds of America, which was this immense work that took him 14 years of his life. I just took great – I have to use the word inspiration – from that. I recognized that I love creating, and this is a new outlet for me to be able to create. ‘Cause I sure don’t know what else I’m going to do with my life.
TSO: Your new album opens with a song called “The Old Year”, and later responds with “The New Year”. Is there a line of demarcation between the old and new seasons in your life?
Yes and no. Yes, in that 2009 was a really psychologically brutal year for me. I had released Chrome. It’s a pretty dark record, and those songs were part of that story. I had a brand new record out and I had no shows to tour with it. Nothing. I was really flummoxed, distraught. I didn’t know how I was going to take care of my family. There was a temporary teaching job that opened up, and I had tried everything I could to avoid having to take it. I did not want to do it. I wound up having to take it, and it wound up being really enjoyable. I loved the students. I was terrible at the facilitation and being a teacher, but it was great relationally, and it was work! I wrote “The Old Year” in January 2010, as if to say, “2009 was a terrible year, see you later, good riddance.” But I didn’t want to leave it at that. There’s so much to be thankful for.
TSO: You said Chrome was a dark record. Would you call Birds a happy record or a sad record?
A joyful record. It’s a reawakening album. I feel like I’m writing songs that are me. I don’t know how to expand on that yet, but there’s something about the songs, and playing them and singing them that just feels like they’re in the pocket. I’m in my place.
TSO: Was this songwriting process cathartic?
Songs have always been a catharsis for me. They’re my free counseling sessions. They always have been. The older I get, the more I do this, the more ironic it seems that these songs I write are about hope, and that’s the thing I struggle with the most. These songs are not pep talks – that’s an awful way to describe them – but I think it’s interesting that these are the songs that come out of me, as if I’m having to remind myself.
[Coming in Part 2: What’s the most surprising thing about the life of an indie artist?]