An award-winning singer-songwriter from Austin via Alabama, Grace Pettis has been characterized as “a little bit folk, a little bit country/Americana, and a whole lot of soul.” Last year, she signed with MPress Records, released three critically acclaimed singles – “Landon,” “White Noise,” and “Drop Another Pin,” and recorded a new record in Nashville (forthcoming on MPress Records, May 2021). DittyTV Senior Editor Tim W. Jackson gave the new album a listen and knew he wanted to touch base with Pettis for a 5 Questions segment. Enjoy that piece here, and then be sure to scroll all the way down to the bottom for the world premiere video of the album’s title track, “Working Woman.”
1) After listening to the new album a few times, dang, you can belt out a tune! But we’ll get to the new album in a bit. Let’s start with your early memories of words and music coming together. With your father (Pierce Pettis) being a singer-songwriter and your mom (Dr. Margaret Mills Harper) being a poetry professor, what are some of your early realizations about the power of songs, and who were some of your early musical influences?
I was immersed in music and words from the very beginning, thanks to my parents. Both are voracious readers and powerful writers. Both have great taste in music, especially songwriters. We grew up listening to and reading what they loved. And we grew up with two parents who made a living out of words and music.
My mom snuck in lessons in etymology and root words and had music parties and Yeats reading club meetings in our living room. She and I sang Indigo Girls and Beatles songs together and read books like Anne of Green Gables, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Harry Potter.
My dad brought home boxes of other songwriters’ CDs. Some well known, some not. So that was kind of like being a DJ at a ’90s college radio station when I was 13 or so. He let me screen them for him. I’d listen to everything, pick the best ones and give them back to him to listen to. He instilled a love of the Bible in me and gave us the Chronicles of Narnia and the Screwtape Letters. He read us Mark Helprin’s books for children: A City in Winter, The Veil of Snows, and Swan Lake. I remember one time that I got to go on tour with my dad, just the two of us, which was a rare treat. We listened to The Watsons Go to Birmingham and My Ántonia together on audiobooks we’d rented from the library.
Sometimes I wanted to read books that were too big for me because my dad or my mom was reading them. That’s how I ended up reading books like The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Helprin’s masterpiece, Winter’s Tale, before I was really old enough to understand what was happening in the stories.
And then the people they partnered up with after they split—my stepmom Michele and my mom’s partner Rick—brought other great stuff into my life. Rick is responsible for introducing me to Star Trek, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt. Michele turned us on to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Wildflowers was the soundtrack of my preteen summers on the backroads in Alabama), U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel, and Crowded House.
My other early musical influences were the ones I sought out myself. Lots and lots of R&B, some gospel, an ocean of jazz—but only jazz singers, and mainly female jazz singers. I loved to hear women with big strong voices and women who could make their voices do amazing things. Billie Holiday’s rich, heart-wrenchingly blue voice when she hits those slanted notes with intention and ease, the way Lauryn Hill sings that run and raps the lyrics with a surgeon’s precision. Aretha Franklin. Enough said.
2) What did winning an array of songwriting contests do for both your confidence and your career?
It was everything. When I was 18, 19, 20, and just starting to write songs that I thought maybe were pretty good, I had a thousand reasons to doubt myself. I had a lot of hangups because my dad was so good at songwriting and at playing guitar, too. I knew I could sing. I was a confident singer. But I was a shitty, beginner guitar player (which dredged up a lot of those stereotypes in my mean self-condemning brain about female singer-songwriters not being good guitar players, not understanding our instruments or gear, just getting the gig because we’re young or pretty etc. All bullshit, of course.).
And the biggest thing was that I didn’t know if my songs were any good or if people were just humoring me or seeing something that wasn’t there, because I was my father’s daughter. It’s hard having smart, talented parents. You can’t tell if you’re smart or talented, too. I entered those contests because they promised a blind, unbiased listen. I would sign up for open mics at folk coffee shops and leave my last name off the sign up sheet. I thought, “If I can win a few of these, maybe I’m good enough.” So then winning gave me the courage to put myself out there and go for it. And it also gave me a whole tribe of other songwriter friends, especially women songwriter friends like BettySoo and Rebecca Loebe, Megan Burtt and others. I’m eternally grateful for that.
3) OK, to the album! Working Woman releases May 7, and it’s packed with 10 powerful songs and a handful of wonderful featured artists and collaborators. What can you tell us about those collaborators—and also the importance of having an all-female/non-binary creative team for this project?
I ran into Mary Bragg in a restroom at the International Folk Alliance Conference in January 2020. I had just signed my record deal with MPress Records and I was riding that high and thinking about the world as my own personal oyster. Mary had just played a showcase that really knocked me out and we were just on a little happy cloud, talking about everything we were up to and everything we wanted to be doing in 2020 (obviously, this was before the pandemic shattered everybody’s plans). Mary was producing records and putting out incredible solo work, and I was dreaming up what I could do with MPress and a little budget for an actual, honest-to-God record release. I’d never had a publicist, radio promoter, label, etc., and everything suddenly seemed to be falling into place for me.
We started bouncing ideas off each other, like you do, and I mentioned that I was thinking of making an all-womxn album. Mary was immediately drawn to the idea. I knew at that moment I wanted to work with Mary, who was a friend and kindred spirit, in some way. Maybe as a co-writer or a guest artist … but then a month or so later it dawned on me that she was a producer. I saw a post she’d put up about her work with the Red Dirt Girls and I went and buried myself in her production work. Between that, her amazing solo albums, the work she’d done with Jackson Emmer and as one half of The Reckless Electric, I came out of it pretty sure that she was the producer I needed. And I was right.
From there, the rest of the record fell into place easily. The band—Megan Coleman, Ellen Angelico, Ryan Madora, Kira Small—was made up of players Mary knows well and has worked with regularly. Kira Small is a friend of both of ours, from my Nashville days. Everybody else—Rachael Moore, our engineer, Shani Gandhi, our mixing engineer, and Piper Payne, our mastering engineer—came from Mary’s Nashville Rolodex, too. If we’d recorded in Austin, it probably would’ve been my Rolodex, but we wanted to work at a studio Mary knew and was comfortable in, and one that had some star-studded history. Sound Emporium fit that bill to a tee, especially because it’s run by a woman (not the norm for major studios), Juanita Copeland.
Honestly, we didn’t really have to try that hard to fill up a studio with the best womxn players and personnel in Nashville. It should have been harder than it was, based on how absolutely amazing every single person on this album is. It’s been my observation that womxn in the Nashville music scene at the level that everybody in the band is at kind of all know each other. Maybe that’s because they’re outnumbered? When there’s a festival, or a touring band gig, or a booking roster opportunity and there’s only one slot for a womxn (everyone else on the bill is inevitably male), we/they/you start to learn the names of the one or two other womxn being considered for that gig. And maybe when you’re young, you buy into the bullshit and think of those womxn as your competition. But as you get older, you start to see them as co-conspirators and allies. Because you realize that every one of them has had to beat out like 100 dudes for that recognition she’s earned. And if she’s not white, or differently-abled, or queer, multiply that by another 100. I’m convinced of that, and I think it’s part of why the record sounds as good as it does. Those are some of the best players in Nashville you’re listening to; the ones who had to put up with a LOT of shit to get where they are; the survivors who were too stubborn to give up.
I can also tell you that all of the featured artists were long shots. That part should have been harder than it was too. Some of them are friends, yes, but they’re busy friends. People in high demand with little time in their schedules to sing bgvs. Some were similar types of friends of Mary’s. There were a few we didn’t have any kind of personal relationship with, who got back to us right away and said yes. I would have been thrilled if even one of any of these enormously talented women got back to us and said yes. And when all of them did… I was overwhelmed. Every single guest vocalist on the album is someone I deeply respect and admire. I’m floored by how generous they all were.
The last time anybody checked, two years ago, women were just 21.7 percent of artists. 2.1 percent of producers were female. We are more than half the population and only two percent of producers are female. Let that sink in: 97.9 percent of producers are men. The very basic and obvious conclusion is that we as a culture are not hearing women’s voices and perspectives. Once you figure out that it’s happening and that you’re a part of that machine, you want to leverage any power and platform you have to change it for the next one in line. I wanted to make an all-womxn album because standing in that bathroom with Mary, I couldn’t think of an album where all the names in the credits are female. And neither could Mary. I felt like I needed to make it, just for that reason alone. And knowing I had “Working Woman” as the lead single… it just seemed like the perfect time and vehicle to do it.
4) It has been a tough year for touring musicians, but with this album releasing in May, what are your expectations—or perhaps simply hopes—for what you’ll be able to do to promote the album?
I have HIGH hopes. For the first time in my 10-year career, I have a record label behind me. And not just any record label, but MPress Records, which is run by Rachael Sage and other passionate, professional, hard-working people who are all truly superfans of my music. On top of that, I have an amazing manager, Fabian Perez, who’s seen me through a lot of highs and lows. He’s constantly reminding me of my own potential and of what’s possible. And he says it very confidently, so most days, I believe him. I also have all the other pieces: a publishing deal with arguably the most important music publisher there is, BMG Music, a crackerjack Nashville PR team, Richlynn Group, a legit Americana radio promoter, Brad Paul, great distribution, and even a real booking agent, Mary Granata, in spite of the fact that there are literally no gigs right now. It’s like I just woke up one day and all the puzzle pieces were in place. I know it happened slowly and over lots of years. But it still feels like an overnight miracle in a lot of ways.
So yeah, having that dream team behind me, combined with the dream team we assembled to make the record and the fact that I think it actually sounds pretty damn good, I think we have a real shot at getting this thing heard by lots of people. It’s very exciting. I feel like I’m able to buy a lottery ticket for the first time. It’s no guarantee we’ll win the game or anything. So much of it is out of our control. When something breaks through the noise and “sticks” to people’s cultural consciousness, it’s often at least partially the result of good timing and dumb luck. Like, you accidentally stumble onto something that lots of people are feeling and experiencing. That’s what songwriting is like, too. But you can’t even play that game, really, without the privilege of having all those industry pieces (management, booking, label, etc.) in place. Lots of amazing stuff never gets heard because the artist couldn’t even afford the ticket to play the game. I’m cognizant of that fact. I’m incredibly lucky; I’m holding a golden ticket. So from here, we’ll see what happens. And hopefully, if something wonderful does happen for me, I can make it happen for my friends, too: all the other artists that deserve to be heard. That’s my not-so-ulterior motive. That’s Rachael Sage’s and MPress’ ethos, too, and it’s one of the reasons we were all such a good fit for each other.
5) Let’s end with the song and video for “Working Woman.” As both the opening and title track of the album, what can you tell us about the song and the video (which we’re so happy to present to the world in this premiere)?
This song is the core mission statement of the record. It’s about seeing, honoring, celebrating, and valuing the work that womxn do in all its diversity. Some jobs are glamorous, some less so. But pretty much all of us are “overtime and underpaid” and pretty much none of us are recognized as much as we should be for how good we are at our jobs and how quickly everything would fall apart without us. That goes double for nurses, the Rosie the Riveters of our time, and mothers, who have the hardest, least valued job of all. And it goes triple for womxn who aren’t white, who are differently-abled, or who are queer. But it goes for all of us, and there’s strength in numbers.
That was the spirit of the video we made with Kelly Ngo and her partner David Reinis. All the womxn in the video are friends of ours, or friends of friends, and they’re all just doing the jobs they actually do; the same things they do every day when there’s no camera around. The goal of the music video was to shine a little light on them and the care and effort they put into their lives; to showcase the value of what they contribute to the world.
Thanks so much for your time, Grace, and now let’s wow the world with this premiere video of “Working Woman.” Fans can tune into the network Wednesday night, March 31, for the DittyTV Debut of the video at 11/10c on The Curve.