Leicester singer-songwriter Grace Petrie is quickly becoming one of sought-after performers on the folk circuit as well as a standard bearer for the protest song. Fatea writer Nic Rigby caught up with the singer lauded by such songwriters as Billy Bragg, Peggy Seeger and Leon Rosselson.
The year 2018 was a great year for singer-songwriter Grace Petrie. It saw the release of her acclaimed album Queer As Folk as well as sell-out tours of the country and she wooed crowds at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Grace’s first appearance at Cambridge “under my own banner kind of thing was a bit of a dream, to be honest”, she tells me.
“I think it's sort of the benchmark, isn't it, in British folk music. It's definitely the one I've been shooting for, for many years,” she says.
Growing up in Leicester, Grace was first influenced by her father’s music collection.
“My dad's a big fan of music and when I was growing up he always had music on in the house and I grew up on a pretty healthy diet of your kind of standards, you know, my parents were children of the 60's, so it's a lot of kind of Fleetwood Mac and Beatles and Bob Dylan and things like that,” she said.
“So I had quite a musical submersion going on in my house. And then when I was a teenager I suppose I kind of started playing the guitar when I was about 13, and it just went from there really. I was kind of into all of the usual pop music of the day.
“Certainly I think influence-wise, female singer/songwriters like Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Joni Mitchell, all big influences on me when I was young.”
Grace says she always wanted to be a songwriter.
“It was always there in my mind that that's what I wanted to do. I think when I was much younger I didn't have a lot of confidence in my voice, so I spent a lot of years thinking I might become a songwriter for other people.
“And then I started getting gigging when I was 18 and sort of, I don't know, paid my dues - awful open mic nights around the Midlands and being bad and getting constructive feedback.”
She says one of her early breaks was getting to tour with comedian Josie Long in 2012.
“That was just an amazing opportunity. Playing sold-out rooms all over the country. So when I sort of did that, that was the point at which I said: ‘Right, I think I need to properly go for this. So I gave up my job (as a youth worker in Sheffield) in 2012.”
She adds: “I think at the time I thought that I would give it three months and probably end up in the job centre, but that was nearly seven years ago.”
I asked how she feels about the label of political songwriter?
“I find the term protest-singer is quite limiting only in the sense that a lot of people sort of decide they're not interested in politics.
“For a lot of people, I think, music is an escape from politics, especially these days. The politics that we're seeing in the world around us is just so sort of polarizing.
“I think a lot of people look to music for complete escapism from that. So I think it can sort of make people switch off before they really know what you're going to be talking about.
“I think that that is unnecessarily limiting because politics actually obviously touches everything, touches everyone. I think I would really struggle to find any song that is kind of about people’s real lives that has no element of political context to it at all.”
She adds: “I think it's just I've always sung about things that move me, emotionally, and sometimes that's about love, sometimes that's about the world, you know?
“Sometimes that's about things that are happening. At the moment, the kind of political changes that we're seeing happening on such a massive scale in the world right now, I think it's quite impossible not to write about it.
“The most extraordinary ideological shifts that have happened in the last couple of years alone.”
LGBT rights are something close to Grace’s heart.
“I've always sung love songs about girls, about women. Always kind of been quite open about my sexuality in my songwriting, and I never saw that as a political identity.
“I was kind of brought up in a house where that was just me being myself and I was never expected to be anything else.
“I think it still is something of a political statement to be proudly and unashamedly gay on stage and be very open about that.
“In some ways we've come a long way, I do think, but these freedoms that people like me have, there will always be people working to take them away.”
She says the US government is “explicitly transphobic, and has already proved to be tacitly homophobic”.
As a topical songwriter Grace has also found herself writing and singing on BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, presented by Punt and Dennis.
“I don't want to get anyone in any trouble, but I will say that whilst I am immensely grateful for the opportunity of being on the Now Show, which is a tremendous one, it is hands down the least favourite thing I've ever done.
“It is so stressful, you know. You get 48 hours, pretty much, to write a song. It's gotta be about that week's news stories.
“You gotta make a story out of it, you gotta try to make it funny, and you know, I'm not a comedian. Then you've got to perform it in front of a live audience.
“There’s no more immediate feedback than that of a comedy audience, because either they laugh at it or they don't - it's a tremendously nerve-wracking experience. Having said that, it has given me the opportunity to write some songs I never would have written.”
Her album Queer As Folk came out in September last year and received a four star review in Mojo magazine and was named one of the top albums of 2018 in The Guardian.
She says she’s pleased with the way the album turned out.
“I turned 30 in 2017, and that was quite a defining moment for me in terms of becoming a bit more comfortable with who I am.
“I think I'm finally at a stage where I know what I'm trying to make. So, yeah I think I'm at a point where I understand what I'm trying to do, understand what I'm trying to write, I'm kind of holding my space a little bit more confidently in the world and on stage.
“There's some amazing guest musicians on there, I've been so lucky. I've got Nancy Kerr on there, I've got Miranda Sykes, Hannah James, Belinda O’Hooley, you know, just a real pedigree of heavyweights.
“I think it's new in lots of ways, and I feel really quite proud of it.”
This month Grace Petrie is supporting Americana singer/songwriting star Frank Turner so 2019 could be another great year.
Photocredits: Mark Winpenny