A brilliant songwriter with a literary quality that makes her songs comparable to short stories, Vanessa Peters is Dallas’ Aimee Mann.
On her latest album, Foxhole Prayers, Peters addresses school shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, and compares the president to a carnival barker. It’s also a concept album based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.
“I didn’t want to be finger-pointing or obnoxious about it,” Peters says, when asked about her decision to address the current political climate as a songwriter. “But it seemed disingenuous to write love songs when it felt like the world was on fire. And I wanted to make a record that would still be relevant 10 or 15 years from now, so I decided to tackle it metaphorically.”
Born in Dallas, Peters studied abroad in Italy in 2000 and has made it her second home for nearly two decades. In 2002, she started performing at open mic nights in the Lone Star State and released her first record, Sparkler, three years later. Since then, she has recorded music in Texas and toured mostly in Europe.
Her style includes aspects of folk and country, as well as the infectious cinematic quality of rock and indie pop. With smart, sing-your-heart-out anthems, it is not difficult to imagine Peters being an Oscar-nominated songwriter, like Aimee Mann or Elliott Smith. “Cage,” a track from her excellent 2016 album, The Burden of Unshakeable Proof, is perhaps the ultimate example of this -- the tune sounds like it should be the soundtrack in a trailer for a Cameron Crowe film.
But curiously, her songs have predominantly appeared in reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and The Real World: New Orleans.
Peters has released several critically acclaimed records and toured relentlessly for years, but admits she hasn't garnered the success she hoped for yet.
“It’s really hard to keep going out there year after year and releasing records that don’t go anywhere,” Peters says. “It’s hard when I know that I’ve written a good song and can’t get anyone to hear it.”
“I always hope that this is going to be the record that finally breaks out,” she adds.
The songs on Foxhole Prayers are political and sociological, but they are not rants. Unpretentious and modern, Peters is aiming for an emotional connection with listeners and found inspiration in The Great Gatsby, which she read last year for the first time since high school.
“I remembered it as a tragic love story, but had such a different spin on it as an adult,” Peters says. “I realized there was a tie-in with the corruption of the 1920s and the world we are living in now.”
Peters is known for sad songs that sound happy, but Foxhole Prayers is decidedly hopeful.
“My songs can be kind of heavy, but I am an optimist at heart,” Peters says. “I don’t see any point in lamenting endlessly when there is work to be done. Hopefully humanity can rally one more time.”
See Vanessa Peters in concert Nov. 30 at Shipping and Receiving (201 S. Calhoun St., Fort Worth) and Dec. 1 at Club Dada (2720 Elm St., Dallas) during the Dallas Observer Music Awards Showcase.