AUTHOR'S NOTE: This original review was written in March 2003 for my online radio station RismixLive. Visit Alice Peacock's web site at www.alicepeacock.com
It’s pretty near impossible to conduct an interview when you’re separated by a few thousand miles and a precarious cellular connection. And yet that’s where singer/songwriter Alice Peacock finds herself this afternoon – struggling to hear my questions over the blasts of static as I picture her dangling out an open car window trying to improve the reception. Eventually she just stops moving completely and sets up camp at a rest stop simply to avoid tossing the phone altogether.
I caught up with the Chicago-based singer/songwriter on the road as she travelled between Oklahoma City and Dallas, conscientiously catering to the road demands of her craft. “Sure I get tired,” she says cheerfully, “but this is what I want to do. Playing live is where I started and where I’m most comfortable. And as long as people keep showing up, well, that’s what I’m doing this for.”
People showing up will not likely be a problem in the foreseeable future for this Minnesota native. Her sophomore album, ALICE PEACOCK, has been received well both critically and commercially since its release in the fall of 2002, with a significant buzz reverberating through the AAA underground, fuelled specifically by the online media. Of course, one has to tolerate the customary female singer/songwriter comparisons – Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Joni Mitchell – but Peacock remains flattered and realistic about any resemblances. “I guess we all get compared to Joni at one time or another – she’s like the “mother” of the genre, and I don’t have any problem whatsoever with that. I don’t really see any huge similarities though, other than the fact that we both use open tunings on the guitar and have a commitment to writing from an honest place.”
It’s that honesty that ignites and fuels ALICE PEACOCK. Peacock’s sweet demeanor is so evident in her writing that it sets the listener immediately at ease. Her lyrics are smart yet unencumbered with pretense, so she has no problem getting her point across. And she serves up her soul so vividly that you have no choice but to involve yourself completely.
“Writing for me is a long, consistent search for truth – my truth,” insists Peacock. “Sometimes I’m trying to cope with it, and sometimes I try to reconcile it to where I am at this point in my life. But mostly, I think I’m just trying to establish what exactly my truth is. That’s what the record, and really what my career has been and will continue to be about. The fact that other people relate to it is an incredible validation for me. It’s very motivating as an artist.”
Indeed, some of the most popular songs on the album are peppered with this kind of self-reconciliation. ‘I Hear You Say’ and ‘I’ll Be The One’ are energetic, driven pop tunes from a first-person perspective on relationships. “People see themselves differently in relationships – they have different understandings than their partner might. It’s human nature. ‘I Hear You Say’ is really just a comment on that kind of interpretation.” Both of these songs push to the forefront the kind of breezy confidence that fills most of the album, though Peacock laughs at the suggestion. “It’s nice to know that’s the way it comes across,” she says with a knowing chuckle, “and I’m going to leave it at that.”
Not all the tunes on ALICE PEACOCK make for easy listening on an emotional level. ‘Some Things Get Lost’, for instance, portrays the anguish of loss with a gentle simplicity but a heartache that’s almost tangible. “I wrote that song to help myself grieve,” she admits contemplatively. “It was all about the catharsis; about putting the pain into something real that I could take out or put away as I needed to.” Another song, a hidden track on the album – ‘Northern Star’ – is borne of the same pensive hurt. “They’re both so personal, but the sentiment is so universal. I guess that’s why people relate to them on such a basic level. That’s when I know I’m doing this thing right – when the audience just gets it without me even trying.”
That Peacock’s lyrical dexterity is instinctive is a foregone conclusion after the album’s first listen, but she is quick to point out that she broadened her skills by sharing co-writing credits on a few songs with prominent peers like Tom Littlefield, Angelo, Kristen Hall and Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers. “Kristen and I had been introduced by a mutual friend, and we ended up hanging out together during one of my trips through Atlanta. We were in her apartment, watching TV and throwing around some song ideas, when we noticed a story on illiteracy in Georgia and how 1 in 3 people can’t read. We just couldn’t believe the numbers. So we started talking about how politicians were too busy with their own agendas and in-fighting to notice the issue, and how people have to take some personal responsibility for the problem to help get it solved. Pretty soon we were writing ‘I’ll Start With Me’, and Kristen was getting Emily Saliers on the phone to give us a hand. It was great. The three of us are basically on the same page creatively so the writing process was just a joy. It’s the most political song I ever wrote, and it felt good to take a position.”
ALICE PEACOCK marks the beginning of Peacock’s relationship with Chicago’s prestigious AWARE label, home of Grammy nominee John Mayer (with whom Alice duets on her new single, “Bliss”) and the new singer/songwriter-centric supergroup The Thorns (Shawn Mullins, Pete Droge, and Matthew Sweet). Label exec Gregg Latterman closely monitored Peacock’s rise through her first release, REAL DAY, and was quick to jump on board as she wrapped up the current album.
“AWARE is obviously a great fit for me. They’re not about making the next pop smash – they’re really nurturing to their artists. Gregg specifically is absolutely dedicated to artist development. It’s very reassuring to have that kind of machine behind you as a solo performer.”
Even with a major label behind her, Peacock has no qualms about what it’s going to take to succeed in the volatile swamp that is today’s music industry. “I take a very grass roots approach to my career. I’m in it for the long haul, not for any flash-in-the-pan kind of gratification. The influence and distribution of a major label is great, but it takes some serious dedication from the artist to really reach the audience. I’m on the road a lot, playing, doing interviews – just basically getting the word out and building support. The challenge is keeping up the momentum and expanding my fan base.”
Part of that dedication is recognizing the value of file-sharing in the ongoing crusade to ‘spread the word’ about her music, though that recognition is somewhat reluctant as it is with most artists signed to a label. “I have to admit I’m in a quandary about the whole thing. File-sharing has given a whole new meaning to ‘word-of-mouth’. Like I said before, any way to pass the word is good to me. But I also see the way that album sales and SoundScan numbers can seriously impact a career, and anything that negatively affects those numbers is cause for concern. Either way, I’m not sure that my audience does a whole lot of downloading, so right now I’m not worrying too much.”
In the end, the bottom line is the songs, and it’s Peacock’s quality of work alone that will leave the greatest impression on the listener. Her live, acoustic performances are celebrated for their magnetism and her ability to connect to her audience on a very organic plane. The songs on ALICE PEACOCK are like conversations over coffee – personal yet accessible – with sensibility and smarts to spare. Listening to the album, and speaking with the artist, you quickly become privy to a strong woman who is wistfully comfortable with her past and passionately hopeful about her future.