There's a lot more to freedom than wind in the hair and weight off the back. Danielle Peck knows this because she's lived it and – with her new album – she's written, played, sang and recorded it. "There are so many ways we talk about freedom," she explains, "but we rarely talk about how it feels. Exhilarating? Of course, but true freedom is also a little frightening, requires some discipline and comes with responsibility. At least, if you're going to take it seriously. If you do, in the end it's incredibly empowering."
An accomplished recording artist and performer, Danielle knows of which she speaks, having travelled that path on the way to completing How Freedom Feels, her third album. No stranger to country fans, she's enjoyed chart success with songs including "I Don't," "Findin' A Good Man" and "Isn't That Everything," and has cultivated a loyal fan base on the road, performing hundreds of shows both as a headliner and in support of country music's biggest names. But while music has driven her life since childhood, it's only recently that she's centered it in a deeply personal place.
"When I first came to town I had been writing songs by myself and performing them on the road," she explains of early years with her Ohio-based band. "When I got to Nashville the big thing was co-writing, so I had to learn how to write with someone else. I felt like I always had to have 10 ideas and was always writing toward the catchy song, the clever turn of phrase, something I thought radio would want. It wasn't so much about what was inside of me, where I was at or what I believed. A lot of the songs I wrote back then are great, but I've learned to let go of some of that and write from a more personal perspective."
That process began with the kind of meant-to-be happenstance often found behind life's turning points – she found her producer, Lari White (Toby Keith). "I did a writer's night with Chuck Cannon and afterwards told him I loved his music and would be thrilled to write with him sometime. His first words were, 'You've got to meet my wife. You have to meet Lari.' So he set up a co-write and we clicked immediately. I've never worked with a woman as my producer – there aren't that many. We were able to connect on a completely different level. And I basically lived at their studio for a year.
The result is an album that is unfailingly optimistic and positive, but not necessarily because Danielle's life has always come up roses. "It was actually pretty organic," she explains. "It wasn't until after song selection that we noticed every song had a positive message. I want people to feel good about their lives and the world. That kind of encouragement is important to me, and I think that's because I needed it. Life can be a roller coaster. What I've learned from the successes and the setbacks is that the important thing is to stay focused and positive.
"I know what loss feels like, and I know what it takes to get back up. I've been through it, I've seen friends go through it and I've watched my family do it, too. And I realize now, the only thing you can control is your outlook. So I think in the music I wrote, the music I chose and the music we recorded, I was really just trying to lift my own spirits."
Her rise-above attitude is perfectly captured in the album's first single "Impossible Dreams." Written by White, Chuck Cannon and Mark Portmann, the song celebrates the "everyday heroes" who strive and achieve despite the odds. "It's about believing in yourself, fighting for who you are and never giving up on your dreams," Peck says. "Even though it's one I didn't write, I've lived it. It says everything I'd hoped to express on this album."
As the music took shape, Danielle began to feel the pull of performing. "Once I started writing, I knew I wanted to get back in the studio to make an album. And once we got into the album, I couldn't wait to get back on the road. I love living in that bubble – different city every day, living out of a suitcase. I've got a gypsy heart. I love to travel."
In a sense, her performances are undergoing the same transformation as her music. "I play piano and guitar, but I've never played them onstage," she says. "Certainly when I write I'll have a guitar or be sitting behind a keyboard, but going out with a band I just never played. So I made myself do that this year because I want to share that part of what I do. I had a West Coast run and knew I wanted to be far from Nashville when I did it, since there are so many great players back home. I went out for some acoustic shows just me and my guitar, back-to-back nights and really didn't give myself any options.
"The fascinating thing about it was the level of connection with the audience was completely different. It's like it stripped everything else away and it was this raw interaction I'd never really experienced before. It really affected me."
This sense of directness and, perhaps, solitude is a recurring theme. "I take nothing away from the music I've made before, but everyone evolves. Growing up singing and playing in cover bands, then my own band, writing with big writers and being signed to big labels, you get a lot of external forces as motivation for what you're doing. Stepping back to make this album over the past year, I've done a lot of reflection and found more internal motivations.
"Whatever circumstances I was going through, I became so resolved to offer a positive message and give something good to the world," she continues. "That's really the most honest place I found in myself, and I have to believe, especially with times as tough as they are right now, that others in similar situations will also feel that need and respond to this music the same way I did."
It's a sentiment best expressed in the title of her album, and the title track. "That's actually the first song Chuck, Lari and I wrote together," she smiles. "We were talking about having the creative freedom to say anything you want, any way you want to say it. And in a lot of ways it's a reflection of the creative freedom I had working with Lari. It feels great and it's scary at the same time, and it's the true story of this process. But it's also the story of anyone setting out into the unknown."