"I'd like to get stoned," sings Alice Peacock over a shambling electric guitar at the beginning of her fourth album, Love Remains.
It's a startling, if tongue-in-cheek, way to kick off a set of country-tinged pop-rock tunes recorded in the heart of Nashville. But like the title of the song in which it appears, "All About Me," it's also a tad misleading.
In fact, the song is about setting aside self-indulgent fantasies to embrace love and commitment, and after a few verses of wistful imaginings about Jack Kerouac road trips and "no sacrifice," Peacock concludes - as swelling pedal steel and honky-tonk piano guide the waltz - "The life that I've got/ I guess that it's not/ All about me."
The song provides a fitting gateway to the album's deepest themes and a statement of purpose after Peacock's acclaimed 2005 album, the introspective, piano-driven Who I Am. "Enough navel-gazing!" Peacock declares with a laugh.
"This is a really positive record," says the Chicago-based singer/songwriter. "It's a reflection of where I am in my life and what really matters to me now. The title comes from this idea that other things fade away but love remains." The often buoyant, outwardly focused lyrics are mirrored by a largely ebullient musical approach rife with feel-good guitar hooks and heartland grooves.
It might seem a radical departure for a classic-pop troubadour like Peacock, but she says her primary collaborator on the disc, co-producer/co-writer Danny Myrick, made it feel pretty easy.
The two found that the commonalities in their backgrounds - Myrick is the son of a southern Baptist preacher, Peacock the daughter of a northern Methodist minister - strongly influenced their co-creation. "Danny and I grew up singing in church, like a lot of preachers' kids," Peacock reflects. "Music was always really important for us, even if we didn't necessarily buy the theology. There was good and not so good in our upbringing, but you don't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater."
"Writing with Danny brought me back to the best memories of my upbringing," she adds. "The music we're doing now is spiritual - and this record is in some ways a homecoming, reclaiming the essence of the faith we had growing up."
That faith is reflected in myriad ways on Love Remains: in the joyous embrace of divergent paths (the rollicking "Real Life," the rocking L.A. kiss-off "City Of Angels," the Cajun-flavored travelogue "Fairborn"); in the humbling experience of finding a soul mate (the delicate, accordion-and-banjo-spiced "Lovely," the playfully old-fashioned "Wrong Time"); in understanding one's own limits and life's unpredictability ("Do What I Can Do," the expansive, gospel-inflected "Trying To Hold Back Time"); in the necessity of opening one's heart in an often bitter world (the punchy, resolute "Forgiveness"); in the acknowledgement of death's inevitability and human connection as the true measure of our lives (the timeless-sounding title track).
Faith is also found in some of the toughest moments on the record, like the devastating, indelible "I Am Mary" (about a mentally ill homeless woman at the center of a larger tragedy) and the gorgeously intimate "Angel" (which chronicles the yearning for a child not yet conceived).
But perhaps the most striking expression of this spiritual homecoming is the anthemic "If I Could Talk To God," which imagines the Almighty's exasperation in the face of human discord. "The song came out of a theological discussion," Peacock explains. "We felt God would say, ÔWhat the hell are you doing out there, you idiots? Love each other. That's it. Can't you all just play nice?'"
Still, lest anyone think the making of Love Remains was all weighty discussion and Sunday-school testifying, Peacock notes that the process was more like a family hootenanny. "We found great musicians who were also just wonderful guys," she says. "They were a blast to hang out with and made me feel completely at home. They really embody this spirit of musical community you find in Nashville, and I just wanted to gather that feeling around me like a warm blanket."
"It was about the vibe," she elaborates. "Who could we put in the room? When Danny and I were writing together, just the two of us with guitars, cracking up and having a blast, the music had this Tom Petty/early Linda Ronstadt/John Mellencamp/Sheryl Crow-made-a-country-record feel to it," Peacock reveals. "I said, ÔPedal steel? F--- yeah! I want it on every damn song!' I love that '70s, California-country sound, and I'm totally unapologetic about trying to recapture it."
The players who helped sculpt the aural landscape of Love Remains include pedal-steel player Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt); multi-instrumentalist Phil Madeira (Emmylou Harris); guitarists Kenny Greenberg (Willie Nelson, Brooks & Dunn, Gretchen Wilson), Rob McNelley (Delbert McClinton) and Scott Dente (Out Of The Grey); drummer Will Denton (Steven Curtis Chapman, LeAnn Rimes); and mandolin and banjo whiz Ilya Toshinsky (Bering Strait). Myrick, living up to Peacock's description of him as "the groovemeister," played bass.
Along with several songs she wrote on her own and a few she penned with other songwriters (such as John Paul White, with whom she crafted "All About Me"), this latest batch of tunes finds Peacock in a new place, both thematically and geographically. But her abiding belief in the power of music is a constant. "Can music change the world?/ Yeah, I think it can," she sings in "Forgiveness," and she has a story to back it up.
"I did a TV gig in Italy with an Italian band," she recalls. "They didn't speak any English. But I showed them the chords to my song and they smiled and laughed - we had this complete conversation without language. To me it was just another example of how everybody connects through music. Music is one of the highest expressions of humanity. It's this auditory exclamation of who we are."
No, Alice Peacock has too much going on in her life to drop everything and get stoned. But she's going to keep getting high on what she does best and feels most deeply. And judging by the songs on Love Remains, her listeners will catch the same buzz.
Love Remains Song By Song
All About Me: When John Paul White and I wrote this song, we were laughing about artists who do "whatever it takes" to be rock stars and who take themselves so seriously. They seem to believe that you have to live wild, run from relationships and possibly shoot up heroin to keep your "artistic edge," that you can't make art without a life filled with drama and pain. John Paul and I decided that as much as we'd love to be nihilistic and edgy, we just aren't wired that way. We'd love for it to be all about us, but fortunately for those around us, it isn't!
Real Life: This song started out with me telling my co-writer Danny Myrick about some friends who'd met at a dance at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago - I live in Chicago - back in the '40s when it was actually a ballroom. We wanted to write a feel-good song about life. We also couldn't resist a good "na na na" chorus - who can?
If I Could Talk To God: Given that Danny and I are both preacher's kids, writing with him often veers toward conversations of a spiritual bent. We were musing about theology and all the division humankind has made among the religions of the world and that in reality, every religion's message boils down to, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." If we could talk to God, we have a feeling that's exactly what he or she would say.
Hard Way: I've always had a stubborn, "I can do it myself" streak. My dad used to bemoan that fact and say, "Why can't you learn from other people's mistakes?" Unfortunately, I have to do things the hard way.
Do What I Can Do: I always find myself saying, "Well, we do what we can do," and I like the flow of the phrase. It's a basic truth but very profound because we really can't do more than what we can; we can only do what we can do. The important thing is the trying.
City Of Angels: I have a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles. My Dad grew up there and I still have family there. My German-immigrant grandmother always lived within sight of the Hollywood sign because to her, Hollywood was the American dream. My parents met there in the '60s back when Laurel Canyon was the country. I grew up with an idealized vision of California and while I love the weather, the topography, the plants and the ocean and have many friends there, I can't live there full-time (okay, maybe in Santa Barbara). I need sharp-changing seasons for balance. And I need to live in a place where it's not the entertainment business 24/7.
Lovely: This is a song about being overwhelmed by the loveliness of someone. It's very simple and I was thinking Neil Young in style when I wrote it, sitting on the bed in my hotel room while I was on tour.
Blank Page: Sometimes not doing anything and just "being" and sitting with one's discomfort, discontentment, disappointment, etc., is the hardest thing to do. I'm a doer; I like to take action - "Action Alice." But problems can't always be fixed and you have to learn how to deal with uncomfortable feelings. It's a life lesson I'm continually learning.
Angel: This is a song about longing to have a baby, a longing I've been dealing with for years now. It was very hard to write and even harder to sing.
Trying To Hold Back Time: Danny and I are both influenced by the gospel tradition and love singing harmony together. This one allows me to open up vocally a bit more - I'm a soul singer at heart.
Forgiveness: One of the spiritual discussions Danny and I had early on was about the concept of forgiveness. Forgiving is hard, but it takes away the sting that holding onto anger can leave behind. This goes back to the idea of love being all that's needed to heal the world. If we operate on the principle of love, forgiveness will follow.
I Am Mary: A couple of years ago there was a fire in my neighborhood, in a brownstone about two blocks away. A homeless woman had started a fire in the stairwell to "warm her feet," as she later told the police. Three people just out of college died in that fire, and another was seriously injured jumping out a third-floor window. As I followed the story in the newspaper, I found out about the woman's past. She'd grown up on the South Side, but her family had moved away about 20 years previously. Around that time, folks that had known her since childhood noticed she was behaving erratically. Friends commented on how beautiful and outgoing she'd once been. I was so touched by her story, her slow descent into mental illness. She obviously needed help many years before, and had she gotten it, this tragedy might have been averted. I wrote this with my friend Greg Becker, who was just as moved as I was by her story. We wanted to tell it in song.
Fairborn: Life is a long road that just keeps on going. We never "arrive"; we just follow the path where it leads. I think everything happens for a reason and though we can't draw wisdom from some of the stops along the way at the time, we will when we're older.
Wrong Time: I wanted to write a song in the style of Merle Haggard, complete with the melody-line guitar solo and the alternating bass line played on guitar. I do sometimes feel like I was born at the wrong time. I'm a huge jazz fan and I love the Great American Songbook era of music. I also love classic rock and think I would have fit into the '60s music scene quite well. Ultimately, though, we have to treat our present as just as important as the periods we idealize because it's all we have.
Love Remains: Back to that overarching theory that love is all that matters! I like the idea that death is just a horizon we can't see the other side of. Our minds can't even really conceptualize it. But we can rest easier in the knowledge that we are loved, and that our love for others will keep us alive in their hearts and minds. It seemed like the song should have a happy musical jam at the end because I believe the cycle of life and death should be celebrated.