A rabble rouser returns
Saturday 20th June 2015
The great GRACE PETRIE, who’s just released a stunning new album Whatever’s Left, tells Bob Oram why she’s back in the musical and political fray
MEETING Grace Petrie a few weeks ago at the launch of her new album Whatever’s Left, I’m struck by her ease and charm.
The album’s the seventh in a 10-year year career and, at the age of 27, it is she says “my most political yet.”
We’re sharing our grief at the devastating election result and when I ask her whether it’s marked a change in her outlook, as the 2010 poll did, she’s clear that what happened five years ago was a watershed moment.
“I got politicised as a person, became active and it bled over into my music,” she says. “The wonderful thing is I found the more I did, the more demonstrations I went on, the more things I was hearing about, the more I wrote about.”
Her last record, 2013’s Love Is My Rebellion, was more reflective and introspective because, she confesses, “mid-term cynicism set in.”
2010 was her first-ever election and she was really engaged, enthusiastic and campaigned hard. “But then you hit a wall and I thought: ‘Oh God, we cannot possibly win’ and I realised I was only going to write cynical and negative songs and I made a decision that no-one wanted to hear that.
“In the run-up to this election I became galvanised again and it has redoubled in my mind the importance of activism.
“I realised I have a comfortable life and we cannot afford to forget those with no voice in society who are now going to have even more taken from them.
“That’s exactly what the Tories bank on — for us to be so ground down, that we give up. Now things are worse than ever, it is even more important that we try. That’s why these songs are a return to my rabble-rousing” she says, smiling.
Though Petrie grew up in a solid Labour household in Leicester, pre-election she aligned herself with the Green Party.
“I am against austerity, against the privatisation of public services and I believe massively in a living wage for young people and it astounds me that the Labour Party were not behind them,” she explains. “I don’t have a big following but some young people asked me for advice and I simply couldn’t sell the Labour Party in all good conscience.”
Now, she says, is not like the 1980s, when the Red Wedge music collective agitated for support of the Labour Party. “At least then there was some red to sell,” she says. “Some of Labour’s decisions made me weep, especially the decision to support workfare and withhold benefits from people unless they worked for free.
“I was hoping after losing so decisively that Labour would claim a ground ideologically different from the Tories but now, apart from Jeremy Corbyn, the current leadership candidates make we weep with how right-wing they all are.”
Liz Kendall, her MP, is “absolutely atrocious” and, as far as Petrie’s concerned, an interview she gave to the Guardian was “a love letter to the right.”
“I cannot understand how having abandoned their core demographic they actually believe the answer is abandoning it even further,” she asserts. “She made my support for the Greens an easy choice but I don’t know what I would have done if my vote really mattered in a marginal.”
What Petrie wants to see in the next five years is a broad coalition of the left that incorporates the Green Party, Tusc, the left in the Labour Party and the SNP because, she believes, “there is still a massive appetite for a proper left-wing opposition in the country.
“I am comfortable with the Greens for now and ultimately I will support their policies in my heart and I do long for the day Labour reflects that. But they haven’t yet in my lifetime.”
While admiring the grassroots nature of the many artists and bands challenging the mainstream music industry, she accepts it’s difficult for them to break into it.
“It is more capitalist and corporate than it has ever been, a machine set up to make money and if you are singing politics it is divisive by its very nature and so you will alienate some people and that’s not what they are about.
“When Rihanna tweeted: ‘Free Palestine,’ it was deleted within seconds and I find that interesting. People say artists are not political because they don’t want to be but there is an enormous political void across all mainstream music and that is not a coincidence.
“Someone who is arguably the most successful female pop artist in the world cannot afford to express herself on Twitter and, I assume, had it removed by her management because the industry simply does not want to lose money by alienating half of its market.”
Anyone seeing Petrie live will enjoy not just her music — her rapport and banter with an audience is a joy. “I am probably better known on the comedy circuit,” she grins. “Having previously toured with Robin Ince and Josie Long, last summer Latitude actually booked me on the comedy stage. Unlike music, comedy is not allergic to politics and satire is expected and accepted.
“Robin’s audiences challenged me a lot and are not easy but I have had good responses. My own audiences are soul-nourishing and invigorating for me but it is good to break out of your comfort zone and play to people who don’t know you.”
But at the album launch, the audience certainly know Petrie, and she soaks up the love. Opener If There Is a Fire in Your Heart’s beautiful a cappella harmonies silence the room before her band the Benefits Culture kick in with a gorgeous percussive rhythm backing to her songs and start the party.
On Overheard she reflects on not challenging a comment made in the hairdressers. Intelligent and humorous, engaging both mind and feet, it sets the tone for the whole night. Singalong classics You Pay Peanuts You Get Monkeys, They Shall Not Pass and Farewell to Welfare mix it up with standout versions of Work-shy, Ivy, The Long Game, The Heartbreak Handbook, You Were Always Going to Break my Heart and the title track from the new album Whatever’s Left.
With singers Tim O-T and Sam Duckworth supporting and Mike Jackson from LGSM introducing her, Petrie clearly enjoys and appreciates a wonderful celebration of her talent.
One of Petrie’s favourite reviews was in this paper which said that if the Morning Star had a house band she would be it.
“I was so proud of that and enjoy the paper,” she says. But, like so many, she gets her news from Twitter, although she recognises that means “you only surround yourself with sources you like and, in the aftermath of the election, you can see that was maybe a lot of people’s undoing.”
Music is cathartic for Petrie. When she’s angry or in love, whether in life or politics, she writes songs. The new CD is political “because politics is breaking my heart at the moment but I also want people to like everything I do.”
They surely will. The quality in her recordings and performances shines bright and she can be the house band for the Morning Star as long as she likes.
Whatever’s Left, price £10, is available from music.gracepetrie.com.