Interview: Eric Peters on Birds of Relocation

Interview: Eric Peters on Birds of Relocation

Birds of Relocation is the new album from Eric Peters and by his own description it is “shockingly bright.” Then again, the artist often described as authentic and vulnerable is quick to assure me that he’ll never be far from the shadowy valley. If you’ve taken in the beauty of albums like Scarce or Chrome then you realize just how beautiful Peters’ hopeful expressions amidst sorrow can truly be.

Via Kickstarter, many of you enabled Eric to record Birds of Relocation, an album informed by an famous ornithologist that Eric relates to on a personal level. Here’s the story of Eric’s near-crippling journey between one album and the next and the joy he found in having you all along with him.

RR: In the past year, your need to create has branched out quite a bit. Why do you think that is?

EP: In 2010 and 2011, I read a couple of books that greatly affected, encouraged and, honestly, changed me, or at least drew me out of my self-built confines. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and Richard Rhodes’ excellent biography of ornithologist, failed entrepreneur, and artist, John James Audubon each revealed and awakened something in me that, because I was either too dense, too dark, or too oblivious, I had avoided simply on the grounds that I was afraid–or if not from fear, then from my penchant for lending an ear to the foul voices in my head.

I was afraid to try something new, like painting. I’m drawn to color. I need light. Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, with those bright, short, bold strokes, set off mesmerizing, vivid scenes of swirling, breathing movement. The shades, the textures, the colors, the light–my word.

It was ultimately in reading Audubon’s story that I recognized a bit of myself: his love for birds and being outdoors, his early failure as a businessman, his fight to keep hoping amid depression post-bankruptcy, and, thankfully, his ultimate decision to lean into his talents of drawing and painting, which led to his self-publishing an immense seven-volume work, The Birds of America, an opus that took him fourteen years to complete.

By leaning into the talent he loved and knew he possessed, he trusted himself to his art, to his craft, and, I believe, it made him a better man. At the very least, he left the world works of lasting beauty. “Hopes are shy birds,” he wrote in his journal, “seldom reached by the best of guns.”

For me, painting is a new expression, one that I don’t profess to be particularly skilled or talented at, but one that’s a joy nonetheless. I’m finding that I paint very much like I write songs: big scenes, quick and short strokes, abstract and arcane at times, but with every new glance the work reveals a new layer that, at first, might have gone unnoticed. I’m so grateful for this season, this ripe, fruitful time, to proclaim, “To hell with fear,” to move–to MOVE!–this is such a vital aspect of my story, to hack away at the bonds of crippling mental paralysis. I might very well fail, but I’m going to try to move, for my movements dismantle hell, its lies, its plaguing voices, its breaths of fear.

RR: In the past few years you’ve been through some dark places in your life and a lot of that went into your last album, Chrome. Do you feel like you’re on the far side of that valley now? Is this record an answer to those old struggles?

EP: Birds of Relocation, in many ways, feels like a response, a bright and vibrant reply to Chrome. This is my ninth studio album, and it’s quite possibly the most thematically cohesive and consistent of them all. I look on these eleven new songs and marvel at their mere existence, how they came to be, the places and depths from where they came, their playful levity, their breadth, their thrill at being, their not giving up on me–their life.

By now I’ve learned that I am never, and never will be, far away from that valley. For better or worse it’s the nature of who I am, the way of my brain’s workings, its faulty connections and misgivings. But light, as we know, can explore and explode its way into the darkest of darks, illuminating long lost, forgotten, or cringing hope. From the dawn of my songwriting days, I have written about the waxing and waning of hope–some things won’t change–but with this album I feel that presence, the reality of actual life, a contentedness of soul.

There is a sadness that never ventures far from my side; I don’t know why, I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s always present with me, loitering. The question is a matter of what I do with it, how I respond, it’s the where and when of choosing to hope, which voices do I listen to and lean into. I see the songs on Birds of Relocation as heralding the beauty born out of struggle, grief, sorrow, sadness, and depression–all pointing and leading to the infiltration of long-awaited light.

RR: You used the phrase that you never will be far away from that valley. Is this the first album that you’ve been settled into that idea?

EP: I believe so, yes. Though it was not easily identifiable to me early on, it is a reality I have slowly been learning about myself since the writing and recording of Scarce (2006) when I felt my general depression began to clearly make its presence known in my songs.

2008-2009 was a mentally brutal year. Friends had affairs, there was a rapid trilogy of deaths in our family, there were hurricanes, I was struggling to find work even though I had just released a brand new album (Chrome, 2009), and I bore what, at the time, felt like the humilitation of having to take a temp job and having to deal with general career disappointment. Couple all that with my chronic low self-esteem and my learning how to be a parent to two very young boys who seemed more like wedges than bonds between me and my wife. I reached a low–though pivotal–point during the summer of 2010 when my anxiety and darkness crippled me nearly to the point of being unable to function.

I remember at one point not being able to physically move, think clearly, or make any decisions, thinking assuredly–and believing it–that, with the exception of my wife and boys, the world would be better off without me, that I was inconsequential, and that no one would care if I were gone. I immediately called a very dear psychiatrist friend of mine who had reached out to me earlier that year, and I asked for help. To ask for help is humbling. I began seeing a counselor late that summer, and soon thereafter I went on medication. These actions changed my life.

Though I’m still susceptible–I never expected to be cured–I have a clearer thought process now. I’m more consistent. I’m less prone to utter apathy and acedia. I’m able to enjoy my life more. In short, I’m able to be grateful. Seeing clearly is a new grace. The apostle Paul had his “thorn,” which he wrote would be with him his entire life; mine happens to be depression. I’m prepared to walk on with that thorn in my side, but now I’m armed with age, knowledge, hindsight, modern medicine, dear friends, and a wife whose grace has been incalculable. I have the necessary components to function. These eleven new songs are shockingly bright. I’m just glad folks are willing to go on the ride with me, to follow me through the dark.

RR: That’s beautiful to hear about the songs being “shockingly bright”. Do you have a favorite example from the new album?

EP: “The New Year” caught me off guard in a really pleasant way. The song feels like an addendum to another of the new songs, “The Old Year,” an exclamation point, a sort of “I’m staking my claim,” anthemic and epic. My producer, Ben Shive, was a huge part of bringing that out.

RR: After Chrome, I’m assuming there was a legitimate thought of setting the guitar down. Was there a point where you considered leaving music, as a career, behind?

EP: I’m always thinking I need to hang it up, or find a stable nine-to-five. And then I think, for good reason, that a cubicle job would ruin and crush me. Apologies for the melodrama, but in some ways I believe that would be true for me. I hear people speak of their “callings” and their assuredness in them. I can’t say I can always relate to that level of confidence. Some days I feel I am doing what I am absolutely born to do; then other, darker, days, when there are no shows on the calendar, or I go months without an adequate paycheck, I wonder what on earth I am doing wasting my life, or wasting anyone’s time with my so-called art.

As narcissistic as this sounds, the reality is that I enjoy writing songs that I would want to listen to over and over again. It doesn’t make a bit of sense to me to write songs that cater to a certain crowd, group, or demographic. I can’t be that person. I can only be Eric Peters, a.k.a., Pappy, Eeyore, glass half-empty guy. Ha, that probably explains much of my commercial failure, eh?

RR: Can you give us an idea of what you felt when the Kickstarter campaign became successful and you crossed that threshold?

EP: Relief. The initial push during the first two weeks was thrilling, then there was about a week-and-a-half (of a four week campaign) where it nearly stalled, and I was only halfway to the goal ($12,000). In my typical Eeyore, Pappy way, I immediately conjured a worst case scenario: I was going to be the first of my friends to fail to reach their goal. Figuring nobody cared anymore, I would hang it up, get a job flipping burgers, and move on with life. Thankfully it didn’t play out that way, and I have this opportunity to share eleven new songs with people. It was probably more stressful than I should have made it, but in the end it was gratifying to know that folks do, indeed, care about my music.

RR: Any concrete plans after the release?

EP: No immediate, major plans, other than to embark on what I’m hoping will be a lengthy fall CD release tour, ideally with a small band to help bring these songs to form. In the meantime, I will continue painting, taking photos, and offering the fruit of that work for sale on my website. And let us not forget Good Neighbor Lawncare, my side business.

[Birds of Relocation releases digitally on March 27th. Pre-orders begin soon in the Rabbit Room Store.]