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Pierce Pettis

It was then that I realized that there was a definite link connecting them all. Most of them were written over a period of about two years, with maybe one or two that are older. They all seem to cluster around a deep sense of home. It’s kind of like where Thomas Wolfe said that you can’t go home, but this album sort of says you can!

You look at a song like a couple of mechanics fixing an engine. They may love engines and it may be a work of art to them, but they are also professionals and they want to do it right.

There’s a guy in Jacksonville that always comes out to hear me and every single time he says the same thing—that he loves "God Believes In You." He is always very quick to point out that he is an agnostic.

Pierce Pettis
Interviewed by Mike Devlin

Pierce Pettis has long been regarded as a premier songwriter. In the 1980s he earned the respect of fans and peers in New York’s Fast Folk scene, before spending some time as a writer at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. His reputation preceded him to Nashville where he worked for PolyGram as a contract songwriter. Pierce released three albums for the Windham Hill label High Street Records. These three albums, Tinseltown, While the Serpent Lies Sleeping and Chase the Buffalo are currently out of print. (Let’s all give them a call about that!) Pierce currently records for Compass Records where he released Making Light Of It and Everything Matters. His new album is State Of Grace, a work that evokes his Southern roots and reflects a deep spiritual sensibility. I spoke with Pierce Pettis by phone while he was on tour in Tallahassee Florida. He was staying at a friend’s house, sitting on a typical big old Southern front porch with rocking chairs, overlooking a beautiful park with huge Florida pines and live oaks with Spanish moss.

M.D. Your publicist, Shari Lacy mentioned that the pictures in the CD booklet are from archives in your home town.

P.P. That’s right. My friend Collins Kirby, whom I’ve know since I was five, found them in three or four collections. He visited the city records and the library, and two or three individuals who had photos that went back 100 or 150 years. He went through hundreds of photos to find the ones we were looking for. Some of the pictures are of people whom I have actually known, or have known their descendents. It’s a very small community.

M.D. I wonder how many beautiful, interesting old pictures are packed away all over the country.

P.P. As a resource for cultural history they are invaluable. When you look at the old pictures, you see the detail. When you look at pictures of New York, from 1850 through about 1905, you see white, horse-drawn omnibuses everywhere. After that they disappeared. For everyone who lived in that 70 year period, this was as common a sight as the yellow taxicab. Then suddenly they are gone and you have a whole lifetime of people who never knew this. It’s a detail that would be missed by a regular history.

M.D. There is a very reminiscent quality to much of State Of Grace. There is also a strong sense of time and place. Were you in a mood to visit the past and brought to the place of your origins, or were you drawn to the past by the place you were in?

P.P. Actually, the songs collected together themselves. I solicited the help of a whole lot of people, including fans chosen at random. I first asked them if they wanted to be involved with this, then I sent CDs out, asking people to pick their favorite songs—no questions asked. The people that received them ranged from a friend here who works in the movie business, to a college student in New Jersey, a professor in New England, a music publisher in Nashville, a friend of mine who is sort of a mainstream country artist and then some family members and my producer. I knew that if all these different people, of all different ages and walks of life, picked the same songs, then those would be good songs. Interestingly enough there were at least six songs that every single person agreed upon. There were three CDs of twelve to fourteen songs each. One was labeled fast, one was slow and one was medium. I wanted them to pick four songs from each one. They returned their lists and I didn’t look at them until they were all collected. I sat down with my producer and looked at all of the lists, including our own, and we found that everybody agreed on at least six songs. The remaining songs were the ones where seven out of eight were in agreement. State of Grace is what emerged.

It was then that I realized that there was a definite link connecting them all. Most of them were written over a period of about two years, with maybe one or two that are older. They all seem to cluster around a deep sense of home. It’s kind of like where Thomas Wolfe said that you can’t go home, but this album sort of says you can! And maybe when you go home again, you see it in a way that you didn’t the first time. It’s definitely about place, but it was not something that was planned at the outset.

M.D. Have you heard of anyone else picking songs for their album in this way?

P.P. I don’t think so. I tried this a little bit the last time and it helped me to find songs that I had not noticed before. You know, you write a song and you demo it, and you file it away. The problem with that last time was that there were one or two songs that I had not really played out too much, so when it came time to record them, I didn’t know them as well as I could have. This time around was different, because these were all songs I have lived with. I have been playing them constantly, even the newest songs that I wrote about a year ago. They’ve not only been test marketed but they have been marketed in the field. I’ve been able to tell which ones the audience really likes. I’m more interested in how my fans feel about the songs than how I feel about them. After all, I have all of the songs—and all of the songs that nobody will ever hear, and some of those are my favorites!

M.D. Were the CDs you sent taken from live performances?

P.P. No, there were demos and basically the best copy I could get of each song.

M.D. Would this method be helpful in identifying the simpler songs that might be overlooked. I’m thinking of "My Little Girl," which is one of my favorites.

P.P. No, "My Little Girl" was a personal favorite all along. It was helpful to do things this way because of the way I wrote songs when I was working for Polygram and later Universal. I was under contract to write a certain number of songs. So you write and write and write, and make demos as you go along, then you move on to the next song. You can’t really hang around them too much. When I played live dates, many of the songs I’d play were ones that people had heard on the albums and wanted to hear again. So there wasn’t always time to learn every song that I wrote. I was writing four or five songs a month. So I was doing songs and filing them, and six months later I might not even remember them. I’m probably writing a little less now and concentrating on the songs a bit more, so I don’t think there is as much danger of forgetting them.

M.D. So you’re not a staff writer anymore.

P.P. I’m not writing for a specific company. Right now is a bad time to be trying to sign a publishing deal in Nashville. I’ve started my own publishing company called Slapfight, I have a couple of songs getting pitched around Nashville and I’m sending some others through other channels. I have some going out to see if they can be used in film.

M.D. Slapfight?

P.P. Slapfight. Anyone who has been in a band will understand that name. That’s four guys on a bus driving to Oklahoma, arguing over whether it’s McDonalds or Burger King this time!

M.D. When you are writing songs, do you know from the outset whether they are for you or for someone else?

P.P. No, and I really avoid that. I’ve gotten together with writers in Nashville, and we won’t even be into the verse and they’ll be saying, "Oh, this is a great song for…" whoever. That just kills it for me. Those songs rarely get finished—I loose interest real fast. I have to see it as a song first. I hope it will be one that I, or anybody else could do. Many times, when you finish a song you realize that it will work one place or another. For example, if I write a song that is very much from a woman’s perspective, like some of the songs I write with Sally Barrett, it’s clear that I can’t do those songs!

M.D. Some people have quite a bit of success with that. I’m thinking in particular of Richard Shindell doing "Mary Magdalene."

P.P. Richard follows a traditional folk line, and I think in traditional folk music, there has always been that thing of people singing from the point of view of the opposite sex. I don’t think that the same is true in mainstream music.

But as far as writing for a particular person from the outset—I just can’t do that. I try to be more like what Jimmy Webb would call a pure songwriter. I look totally at the song. It’s not about marketing, or venting my own personal trauma or angst. It’s about the song. Everything becomes a source for the song, whether it’s my life, or the newspaper.

M.D. I’ve found it frustrating writing even a memo by committee. I can’t imagine how you can collaborate in creative writing.

P.P. It can be great, or it can be terrible. I really depends on whom you are working with, and how interested they are in what you are writing. I’ve had many great experiences where I will sit down with another writer, and we’ll get an idea out of the air that gets us both excited. The other writer can challenge you. You’ll come up with a line and he’ll top it. Then you’ll top his. It’s also great because you have a critic right there. When you are writing, you tend to get enamored to a cute little phrase, and if you are not careful you will end up bending the entire song to one phrase. But if you have a cowriter, sometimes he will say, "That’s a great phrase, but it’s not working. Maybe you will have to go with something simpler."

M.D. It’s really valuable to have a good editor. Do you have anyone who is particularly good at that?

P.P. I try to write with mature writers. To me the mature writers are the ones who have gotten over themselves. They can take criticism. If you tell them that a line is not working, they are not going to take offence. You look at a song like a couple of mechanics fixing an engine. They may love engines and it may be a work of art to them, but they are also professionals and they want to do it right.

M.D. I find it odd that you seldom see a cowritten book, and I don’t remember having seen a cowritten poem.

P.P. You see some books, especially when they involve research.

M.D. But I’ve never seen a cowritten poem.

P.P. I think that is a totally different medium. I think that poetry is a lot more subjective. Especially modern poetry is so impressionistic, and tied to the interior world of the writer himself. Whereas with songs…look at Lennon and McCartney. They always created something that was greater than the sum of its parts. If you split the songs in half you would have two mediocre songs instead of one great one.

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to go overseas and sitting down and writing with European songwriters, and they are really disciplined about getting the melody first. I noticed at sessions over there that you wouldn’t even think about lyrics until your melody was pretty much complete. You wanted a melody so strong that it didn’t even need lyrics. Then it would be a matter of "What does this music evoke." I found that to be a very interesting way to write. You can write some really tight little songs. I think that a reason that this happens over there is that even though you have all of these different countries, English is more or less the language of pop music. (I guess that Spanish is getting to be a strong secondary language.) So you have all of these countries where everybody speaks a little English, but you can’t assume that the listeners understand a lot of it, so the words you choose have to be simple and catchy. They have to pull you to the melody, so whatever you miss in the language, the melody makes up for.

Having said all of that about the mechanics of writing, I must say that I still love writing totally out of the mainstream. I still love writing things in a long ballad form, the most uncommercial thing that you could possibly do. Some songs just have to be written that way. I’m glad that there are still so many people doing it. If long-form ballad writing were the vogue right now, Sy Khan would be on the cover of Rolling Stone! He’s about the best there is. There are a couple of other good ones—there’s a guy by the name of Tim Henderson down in Texas. It’s a great style. I’m talking about when you tell a story and you really lay it out—it almost reads like a short story, with about ten verses. That’s an old way of writing, going back to the balladeers of the middle ages.

M.D. I think that people are hungry for that sort of thing.

P.P. But you have to respect the kind of writer who can satisfy that hunger thoroughly, yet do it within the very strict constrictions of pop songwriting. Anybody that can pull that off, like the Beatles did with "Eleanor Rigby," can give you the entire story in three minutes. That is an art in itself. It is perhaps unfortunate that our culture has evolved to this point as a result of advertising. It’s shortened our attention span and caused us to think in sound bites and quick-cut editing. We see things very differently than people did a hundred years ago, when people had more time to stretch things out and think in a more linear way. We see things in almost a chaotic way. I think that it is a challenge for writers to work within their culture, but not lose touch with the past. I think that the person in what is broadly called the "folk" genre can contribute by trying to hold those two worlds together and supply a link between them.

Somebody who speaks about this is Jimmy Webb. He has a book called "Tunesmith." It is a wonderful book about songwriting. He has some interesting history about the evolution of the American pop song. If you think about the way that pop songs are written now as opposed to the 60s, 50s, 30s and 20s, you must think about the technology that was around at the time. The things that people were using to listen to the music go all of the way back to piano rolls. You could see how the music had to fit the times. For example, the length of songs changed dramatically when radio took over in the late 30s and 40s, because you had to fit in so many commercials and songs could no longer be five minutes long. They had to be three minutes. In those days a typical pop song would start with a long introduction before you even got into the song. Did you ever hear "White Christmas?" There’s this whole setup for the song. They disappeared because they made the songs too long.

Nowadays in a pop song, you want to get to the chorus as soon as possible and the chorus must be overwhelming. In a way it’s kind of crass, but on the other hand, all artists have been forced to live within the constraints of where they live. When Bach had the advantage of having a very rich patron, he could write the Brandenburg Concerto, because he had access to a small orchestra. When that patronage ended and he had to get a job as a common church organist he turned his attention to fugues, and wrote the most amazing fugues ever. To me that’s the right attitude for an artist. If you find yourself in a culture bound by three-minute sound bites and short attention spans, you have to find ways to be creative. There are some things that can be done in that form that you can’t do in a long form.

M.D. It used to be that people would know the names of poets.

P.P. Some would argue that poetry has become restricted to the esoteric needs of a very tiny cultural elite. I’m not saying that I agree with that necessarily, but I certainly hear that often.

M.D. I guess some modern poetry is fairly impenetrable, with obscure references.

P.P. I would quickly add that T.S. Eliot, was not necessarily trying to cut himself off from humanity. He just had a singular vision and he had to follow it his own way.

I think that there still is poetry, but maybe now it is back on the street. I would have to say that a lot of what Bob Dylan wrote is poetry for me. It may not be taught in English classes, but it certainly spoke to me.

M.D. I think that people are finding poetry in the work of singer-songwriters like yourself. Many times the songs are simple, like your song "State Of Grace" or "My Little Girl." I think that it takes a very mature songwriter to make a simple song profound and not trite. Do you have any insight into how you accomplish this?

P.P. It might help that I try to have respect for the listener. When I wrote "My Little Girl" I was thinking about my daughter, but it is not about me or my life. The purpose of the song is not for people to think about me, or feel sorry for me. The purpose is for them to hear the song and find something that is very familiar with their own life, like if they have little girls. I also try to be sincere. The other half of respecting your audience is not trying to manipulate them, or being condescending—not pushing on their hot buttons, like taking cheap shots at common enemies. I try not to manipulate people because I think it’s disrespectful.

M.D. "My Little Girl" was particularly meaningful to me when I first heard it because we had recently had a daughter. I remember it bringing tears to my eyes every time I heard it. I told her that we are going to dance to this song at her wedding!

P.P. That’s great because that’s what I want. I don’t want you to be listening to me singing about my little girl, I want it to be all about your little girl.

M.D. Is "When We Meet Again" a song for your children?

P.P. It is, and I was also thinking about my parents who are elderly. A couple of my children are going away to the other side of the world for several months, so that song has taken on a great deal of meaning to me and also to them. It is kind of like their song to take away with them. But there are people who have heard the song, who have just lost a loved one, in fact one girl had just come from the funeral of her mother. She said that the song made her feel good—it gave her hope.

M.D. There are even instrumental pieces that work that way for me. Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings, is a piece that speaks very clearly to me about loss. That piece has been used in movies. It was the closing music of "Platoon" and it was in "Elephant Man" when he was laying down to die.

P.P. Sometimes I feel like an idiot savant. I accidentally come across things that everybody knows. I have long since come to the conclusion that I have nothing to teach anybody, but the best I can do is to try to remind people of the things they already know.

M.D. Well, we do like to be reminded!

P.P. Maybe there is some kind of common pathos that we can all feel, if we still have feelings. I had a weird thing happen. Have you ever had the experience of reading T.S. Eliot and getting very emotional and yet you don’t really know what he is talking about? You don’t even understand the words but somehow they are bringing tears to your eyes. Have you ever had that happen?

M.D. Yes, but not with T.S. Eliot…

P.P. Try reading Eliot aloud. Try reading a passage from The Four Quartettes aloud and see what happens, it’s really amazing. It’s almost like there is something encoded in those words, and you don’t even have to know what they mean for them to touch you.

M.D. Your music often has a spiritual side to it that I find extremely rewarding.

P.P. Some of my greatest compliments have come from agnostics. [Laughs] There’s a guy in Jacksonville that always comes out to hear me and every single time he says the same thing—that he loves "God Believes In You." He is always very quick to point out that he is an agnostic. I’m not sure what is really going on there. Maybe he is not an agnostic. But what really satisfies me as a writer is that the song is strong enough to not be a problem for him, that he saw a song, not the threat of some person trying to plead his own ideas into his head.

M.D. Making Light Of It and Everything Matters had more songs about the difficult things in life. State Of Grace seems to be a departure from that, with happier subject matter. Is it harder to write that kind of material?

P.P. Oh…it’s hard to say. I find it hard to write well when I’m in a bad emotional state. Stuff I write during those periods tends to be very self-indulgent—dark and depressed. But later, when things have healed a little bit, I can often go back to notebooks that I was keeping at the time and be reminded of how I was feeling without being overwhelmed by those feelings. I can sort them out and tap into them and use them to put emotion and ideas into what I’m writing. It might be easier to write immediately when you are happy, and to apply that emotion directly than the other way around. We have this myth of the manic-depressive artist who has suffered for his art. That to me is just silly. The discipline of writing is not all that romantic. It’s not like you are sitting on a mountain top being inspired. It’s more like you are in a little room with a fluorescent light buzzing and the floor is full of crumpled-up paper and you are making yourself write. And you do it every day if you can. That’s what I’ve found works the best.

M.D. Still there are moments of catharsis.

P.P. You definitely have these little epiphanies, but for me it often comes after I’ve worked hard all day writing drivel! Or sometimes I’ll be driving in the car and get a really good thought and write it down and later I’ll recognize it as a genuinely great idea. But you can’t just sit around and wait for that, you have to work at it. Sometimes you’ll write what you think is drivel and you’ll open up your notebook the next day and find that you’ve got some pretty good lines in there.

M.D. I have this mental image of your days as a staff writer, of you are telling your secretary, "Hold my calls. I just had an idea for a song!"

P.P. It was never quite that grand! I never had a secretary, but I actually had my name on the door, and I was really proud of that…of course there were four other names on the same door. We all shared the same room. When PolyGram was bought out by MCA and later Universal, and they moved us out of the building, I made sure that I took my little name thing with me!

It was great, though. What could be better than getting paid to write songs? I love writing, and in the course of that experience I think that I learned to love it a lot more. I found that the more I made myself write, the less I made myself uptight about it, and the more open I was to moving things around, rewriting and editing. It freed me up and made me much better as a writer.

M.D. I noticed that you have written with Fred Koller. I know him from writing with John Prine…

P.P. He’s written with everybody. He writes with the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, the funniest man on the planet. He wrote that great song with John Prine, "Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian." Fred is a great songwriter, a Grammy winning songwriter. Fred can write a funny song better than anybody. That takes real talent. The same way that you judge an actor by his ability to do comedy—any songwriter who can pull of comedy in a song is a great writer.

M.D. He has a new album out of all the songs he did with Shel Silverstein.

P.P. Oh yes. And think about that for a minute. How many people do you think that Shell Silverstein would want to write with? Does Shel Silverstein really need a cowriter?

M.D. Knowing Fred for songs like "Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawiian," it was hard for me to pick out what his contributions to your songs may have been.

P.P. With Fred, it’s not the Fred Koller in the song—it’s the song. I doubt that he cares if people can tell which line is a Fred Koller line. He is only concerned with whether or not it is a good line. If the other guy has a better one, he would be the first one to want to use it.

Another writer who has been around in Nashville is Pat Alger. He’s a complete pro, yet he is an artist and he writes from the heart. He doesn’t write manipulative two dimensional songs. He writes simple songs sometimes, but they are all good.

M.D. Other than songwriters, are there artists, authors, etc. whose work you find inspiring?

I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan. I love Elvis Costello. I just picked up his greatest hits album that Rhino put out. Those songs are so amazingly well written, with lyrics as good as you’ll ever find. Listen to that song "I Want You."

Authors? I like C.S. Lewis. Most people think of him for his theological essays, but I’ve been reading his space trilogy. That third book, "That Hideous Strength," is really a great book! It’s actually kind of scary because it almost feels like the way things are going now.

If I mention two or three people, I’ll leave fifty out.

M.D. You usually don’t travel with a band, do you?

P.P. Not usually, but sometimes I’ll work with a bass player and a fiddle player. In the past I’ve worked with a keyboard player.

M.D. Do you have any plans to put out a live album?

P.P. I’d like to, actually. I have some tracks from several years ago that are very good. I’ve kicked around the idea of releasing that or some part of that but I haven’t had the time to get into it that much.

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