It’s time for another official installment in the “Rabbit Room Interview Series” and there’s no better place to go than to the door of the (much too) humble mind of Eric Peters. For those familiar with the wonderful Scarce or even earlier material (Ridgely, anyone?), you know Peters to be a very talented singer/songwriter. What I didn’t realize is the fragile nature of the artist within…. Meet Eric Peters.
Rabbit Room (Matt): How closely related to Scarce is the new music you’ve been working on?
Eric Peters: Honestly, I’m not sure yet. My confidence is in low estate these days. I’ve struggled to write anything new since Ellis’ birth (December 2006). It quite truly pissed me off that all I ever heard when we found out we were pregnant was, “Oh, I can’t wait to see the songs you’ll write once you have a kid.” Things like that, and it built up my expectations and hopes. Well, along came the boy, there we were in our 750 sq. ft. house in Nashville, and I could not think, could barely exhale, could find no quiet moments to escape with the guitar, and there seemed to be nothing to say since solid rest was nowhere to be found. Strangely enough, there was little equilibrium in my life. But, though Ellis’ first year is a blur to me, I suppose I managed to write a few things, however unfinished, because here I am making another record.
Some of these songs were written a few years ago – even prior to Scarce – so I’m not sure how they’ll stack up to the newer material. A bunch of the songs are stories told in third-person, so I suspect there will be a theme to root out there. One, in particular, is a song I wrote for a dear friend who went through a bankruptcy. He and his family lost nearly everything they had (home, cars, business). When I later got to catch up with him and listen as he told me the story (in the boating aisle of a Bass Pro Shop of all places), he wiped many tears from his eyes in relaying the story of how, at one point in all the events, he told God he hated him, the moment of his coming alive again in spite of this terrible scenario, and how God’s Spirit had to remove all the “shit” in his life in order to get his heart back. Where before my friend was bitter, stressed to the core, sleeping very little, and generally uncaring for his family, he came out with a distinct peace that he otherwise would never have known.
In short, he was a reborn man, and I could absolutely see it. I related to his bitterness in the aisle of that store and on the 15-minute drive back home, I started writing a song I hope will make it to the album. “Living for Myself / I Had to Tell You” feels like a very honest song (I know, I know… how many times have you heard me and every other singer-songwriter out there say something that a song is “honest” or “vulnerable”?) to me, one of the most true ones I’ve ever written. It’s almost as if I’m starting to finding a voice. I welcome that.
Not to leave anyone wondering if I despise my dear son, I did recently write a song for him, one I like very much, called “I Will Go With You”. It’s a piece for him, for his hopes, for his growing up, for his figuring out and remembering who he is as a man and a saint of God. Ellis is already a saint to Danielle and I.
I have a feeling that the new album will be more distinctly personal than Scarce was. Now, I fully realize that hearing some writer talk about making an album full of story songs sounds absolutely dreadful to you, o’ audience. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. But I think Ben is smart and able enough to keep things from entering the same-ol’-same-ol’ territory.
RR: When you work with guys like Shive and Osenga on your albums, or even having friends play on your own recordings, how does that familiarity help or enable the recording?
EP: Well, having recorded most of my other records on the other side – i.e., not being all that acquainted, or at least being close friends, with the players or producers – I’d have to say, even though Ben (Shive) and I are barely only four acoustic guitar tracks into this thing, that recording with people you know and who know you, *especially* outside of music, is a tremendous and most-welcome blessing. In the very little I’ve experienced so far with Ben in the studio (though we’ve been friends since 2002 when I toured with he, Andrew Peterson and Laura Story), this fares to be an enjoyable and more relaxing exercise for me on the whole. I think Ben is a genuine fan of my songwriting, and that can only bode well for the way these songs and this album ultimately takes shape. If there is any good and decent art that comes out of me, it is due to the grace of God, the nurture of my family, and the encouragement of friends in my life. I need them all for the sake and courage of my heart.
I am really excited to see what we come up with for the new record. Listening to Ben’s album only increases my joy and eagerness to keep working on it.
RR: What about the opposite side – do you think the familiarity hinders the music at all?
EP: Well, it might I suppose, but then again if you trust and value your friends’ talents and abilities, then their service to, and desire for, your songs will be just that: to serve the songs and, therefore you, as both an artist and friend. I believe that’s what community does. I guess if you’re an artist who’s trying to create a completely new image and sound for yourself, then I could see how bringing in a whole new group of musicians would benefit that effort. Then again, these men and women are called “studio musicians” for a reason; they’re good at what they do. What do I know…
RR: Looking back at where you were with Ridgely, when you first decided to go solo, is this what you pictured when you made that leap?
EP: Ha! Not at all. Not many folks have ever asked me this question, so I’m glad you did.
My solo career is nothing even close to what I thought it would be when I first embarked upon it, post-Ridgely, circa 1999. You’ll laugh, but I truly believed that the solo thing was going to be a piece of cake, a walk in the park, and an evolution towards my one day being famous. After all, Ridgely found modest success and I thought it would be natural and easy for me to step out on my own. It’s embarrassingly true that I thought and believed all this, but at the time I was 24, and dreams, like so many other things, eventually wither and die, for good reason, sometimes. But unlike death, there springs life from the unlikeliest of places.
I am grateful for the time I had in Ridgely and the music we made those few, young years, but I like the songs I’m writing now so much more. I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who will completely disagree with that statement, and God knows I didn’t help bring them aboard early on with my first solo album, a weak effort at best. But I followed that up with an album called Land of the Living, and it was a much more authentic and richer effort that helped ease some of my nagging doubts about having called it quits with Ridgely in the first place. I still deal with lingering second-guesses from time to time, but I no longer regret the decision to leave.
I think back on those times when my wife and I survived those first few solo years with only my EP, More Than Watchmen (the “weak effort” in question), to sell at shows and it makes me wonder (and marvel): “How on earth did we ever make it, how was there ever enough money to survive?”. It actually makes me shiver to think about now. I guess when you’re young (and clueless) (and stubborn), you don’t need much at all to get by. I remember one of my very first solo shows involved driving 14 hours to play in west Texas (I lived in Baton Rouge, LA at the time) where I played for 4 or 5 listening people, my wife being one of the audience members. I sold one CD, gave two away. No financial guarantee (I think they wound up giving me $50 in an act of mercy), no travel allowances, just some pizza and a hill-country bed. Amazing grace.
Though my hopes for my career have, to a large degree, been dashed – or at least altered – throughout all this time, I feel I am slowly coming to a place of peace, intermittent though it may be, about my place in the kingdom of music. I’ve said this before somewhere, but I hope to come to a place where I can give God utmost thanks for my little plot of land, for I know it is what is best for my soul. My job as Saint Farmer Eric, as best as I can figure it thus far, is to till the soil, work it to the best of my abilities, weed it, manage it and hope for its sustenance and bounty. And perhaps one of these days it will produce a 4-H award-winning pumpkin, or some metaphor to that extent.
RR: What’s the closest point you’ve ever come to quitting?
EP: This past fall, 2007. Though I on any given day feel the uncertainties of my place in the music industry, I can’t recall a moment when I felt like it was so clearly time to give up on this like I did in November. I was so thoroughly discouraged – by the general lack of response to my music (after all, I’m a musician, I want people to like my writing), by the gaping chasms in my booking schedule – that I could plainly see the writing on the wall. I began interviewing for a job here in town as a financial advisor. Though my wife was not at all excited about me entering this particular line of work, ironically enough I might have been a good fit to the company due to my skeptical, cynical nature. “So, there IS an up side to my cynicism, after all.”
I suppose some or all of this will seem silly to folks, but the truth is that my overall confidence in what I’ve been doing, what I’ve been saying or trying to say in these songs doesn’t, or won’t, amount to much in the grander scheme of things. That is my fear: that I will have wasted my entire adult life on something so fruitless, so worthless, so selfishly motivated and self-serving that I will not have propelled people, or myself, to the good and decent things of earth.
That may sound big and too far-reaching, but I, like any husband-father simply want to provide for my family the best I can and to give them some nice things in life. As it is – and has been for years – we simply survive. We certainly don’t live extravagantly, albeit here in America, but we manage to pay our bills every month. It is a hard thing for me to be daily grateful for what I have been given, career-wise; I still compare myself to most every other artist, especially within my circle of friends, I long for the successes they find, I yearn for a financial boon and for my career to all-of-a-sudden take off. Yada, yada.
RR: You mentioned most of your career hopes have been dashed or altered… so what career hopes do you have now (unless you refuse to use anything but gardening analogies – which I rather enjoyed, but for the sake of asking)?
EP: I don’t fully know. At this point in my life, I am sure of one thing: that I am to take care of and provide for my family. I don’t feel like I’m doing that very well as a musician holding onto his everlasting dream. I sometimes wonder if it’s just a pipe-dream instead of something based in reality and faith. In some way, I feel as though I’ve given up on career hopes. In another way, I don’t think you can ever completely give up on them, try as you might to suffocate them.
Career hopes? My artist friends will give me grief for this, but I still hope to be signed to a record label one day (I never have). I hope for management-booking representation. I hope to get a song on a movie soundtrack. I hope to get songs placed in TV shows. I hope Emmylou Harris and/or John Hiatt records one of my songs for their albums. I hope for respect among my peers. I hope I’m not a novelty. I hope I’m not a fraud or a wannabe in this business. I hope to get our house painted. I hope to get our 1965 Karmann Ghia out of the shed onto the road, once and for all. I hope to take my family on summer vacations. I hope to take my wife to Greece. I hope the landscaping I did this spring will, by this time next year, have been worth the labor (Sorry, I couldn’t resist mentioning the garden.)
RR: Finally, how did you first become acquainted with the Proprietor?
EP: My former band, Ridgely, was on tour in the fall of 1998 (Awakening Records Tour) with Bebo Norman and Mark Williams. We played here in Nashville at Vanderbilt one night, and Andrew & Gabe (Scott) came to the show. I remember the Caedmons folks were talking up this songwriter guy, Andrew Peterson, so I was eager to meet him. We met after the show at the merch table and we gave them Ridgely t-shirts while extracting a promise that AP would send me one of his shirts (Note: for you early fans, this would be the famous stick figure “Andrew Peterson is My Friend” shirt). I bugged him (yes, there was email then) over and over again to mail me a shirt. He finally did. I’m a persistent fellow. Somehow, somewhere in that process I got ahold of his album, Carried Along, and loved it. It was so vastly different and better and more rich than most stuff I’d heard coming out of the CCM world. He took me on the road with him as his opener in 2002, an enjoyable tour. I also became friends with Ben Shive on that tour.
Andrew has easily been the most encouraging and generous artist friend I have in town. He sees good things in my songwriting that I, myself, am unable to see — the key component to that statement is that he actually verbalizes it. Andrew was the one who listened to my pathetic-ness one fall day in 2007 (see above) as we drove out to a new used bookstore that had opened east of Nashville and I explained my inability to do this musician thing anymore. I was hurting and low and he listened, asked questions, propelled me to keep going, to not quit. Andrew Peterson is a unique soul; he can break your heart with a lyric and build you up with the encouragement of his mouth. I credit him, along with my wife, Danielle, for my stubbornly sticking around as an artist.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.