For a singer-songwriter who plays more than 200 shows a year and has more than 10 albums, Vanessa Peters is not nearly as well known as she should be. She's received plenty of praise from the local press (including this publication), but she doesn't consider herself a hometown girl.
"In all fairness, even though I'm from Dallas, I've only been a musician here for the last few years," Peters says. "I was younger than all my classmates — I graduated high school at 16 — and never really went to see live music, in part because I wasn't old enough."
Peters says she was too shy to consider performing. It wasn't until she moved to Italy at the age of 20 that she even considered performing. "I had always had massive stage fright and only ever performed in group situations, like choir," she says.
She originally went to Italy through the study abroad program at Texas A&M. She loved living there and stayed for almost 10 years. She found some local players who happened to love Neil Young and the Jayhawks, and that's how Vanessa Peters and Ice Cream on Mondays came to be. But after breaking up with her boyfriend, she decided to move back to Dallas in 2010. She's kept her ties to Europe, as she works in translations and manages property in Italy.
Peters' latest album, The Burden of Unshakeable Proof, is the first one completed at the newly built Electrofonic Studio, tucked away in the White Rock Lake area. The studio's location is very convenient — it was built as an extension of the garage to the house Peters shares with her husband, Rip Rowan. Rowan, known for his work with Old 97's, Whiskey Folk Ramblers and Salim Nourallah, helped make an ideal place for Peters to record.
"One of the best things about this space being our own is we don't have to watch the clock," Peters says. "This was the first record I ever made where I didn't have to be like, 'Can you guys please nail this take? It's been six hours and I just can't afford to keep us here anymore.' As long as everybody's having fun, run it again."
Rowan and Peters come across as happy and stable in their lives, but she doesn't shy away from singing songs about tough memories from the past, including anxiety and unhappiness. Still, the majority of the acoustic-fueled songs on Burden have a bright accessibility in their melodies. She writes about what she knows and the people she's known, but doesn't try to make sweeping generalizations about them in her lyrics. "I always try really hard to tell a specific story, but leave some space around it so that people can gather around," she says.
Peters is surrounded by talented players, including Rowan, who often plays drums and keyboards at the same time when he plays shows with her. For this record, though, Nourallah, Jason Garner and Daniele Fiaschi lend their talents accompanying Rowan and Peters. (Guitarist Nick Earl currently plays with Peters and Rowan live.)
When people can see Peters play live around DFW, it's usually when she's in the middle of a national tour. "When I play solo, I want to play a place like The Kessler because I actually want to talk to people and have them listen to the words," Peters says. "When I finally got to play there last summer, it was one of the greatest gigs I've ever played. There was a room of 200 people actually listening and were just focused on what was happening. That's hard to find as a solo singer/songwriter."
Peters moved back to Dallas when she was 30. What she saw made her happy. "Light rails and bike trails and good venues like The Kessler taking flight were encouraging, and made me feel like I could stay here," Peters says. "But because I've always been kind of a gypsy, I guess I don't really feel, even now, that I'm part of any kind of 'scene' here. I know a lot of local musicians, but mostly because I met them through other friends, but there are still lots of music-scene folks around town that I have never met. I'm kinda shy still in a way, I suppose."
A big part of "doing her own thing," as she puts it, comes from crowdfunding her records. She had crowdfunded records before Kickstarter set the standard for crowdfunding, and she has successfully used Kickstarter for her projects in the last few years. Rowan had worked with her before they got together as a couple. Her work ethic made a big impact on him. "Of all the artists I worked with at Pleasantry Lane, Vanessa stood out as being the hardest working," Rowan says. "When I met her she was playing 200-ish shows a year; again, all on her own work and money."
Her hard work ethic continues. She will have a live release show at Electrofonic on March 5, ahead of a spring tour through the U.S., and then plans to head to Europe for more touring in the summer. Plus there are about a dozen songs left over from the Burden sessions that Peters and Rowan would like to finish for another release. "It makes me excited to start the next one because now Rip knows the board, we know how the room sounds," Peters says. "We already have a base for those songs that if we wanted to, we can keep going with those demos. Or if we wanted to, cut new tracks."
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While she's happy doing her own records, Peters wouldn't object if a name label could help out, too. "It's not in my DNA to sell myself, and that's one of the great things people like me are missing when you don't have a label or a manager or a booking agent," she says. "At the end of the day, it does take a little of the joy out of doing the music when it's an uphill battle just to get anybody to hear it. It's so much harder now. I don't care what people say about how amazing the Internet is. There's more out there and the discovery algorithms don't work the way they should."
Still, Peters isn't going to stop because she has to do the majority of the work herself. "One of the hardest things about doing it all yourself is it's an exhausting amount," Peters says. "All work is hard. Work should be hard."