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TJ WEST: Sara Petite


TJ WEST: Sara Petite

By Kim Grant

Over the years, Americana music starlet, Sara Petite has established a solid name for herself in her adopted home of San Diego as well as in Nashville and Europe. Her sound ranges from country to bluegrass to rock ‘n roll and everything in between. Petite is a natural songwriter with a distinctive voice whom one critic said, “…sings with the girlish lilt and firecracker energy of Rosie Flores.”

In 2011, Petite’s world flipped upside down when her partner and drummer, John Kuhlken died tragically at the age of 49. Taking solace in songwriting, her latest and fourth album, Circus Comes to Town is a dedication to the memory of Kuhlken. Although the past few years have been a game-changer for Petite, the artist has been moving steadily forward with her music and has just returned from a tour of Europe.

TJ West chats with Petite, as she gets ready for a Los Angeles show this weekend presented by The California Roots Union.

How would you describe your music to someone that hasn’t heard you before?

June Carter meets Loretta Lynn with a rock n’ roll Bobbie Gentry twist and some vulnerable honkytonk thrown in. I’m a songwriter who writes from the heart.

You are a San Diego resident–is that where you’re originally from?

Originally I’m from Washington State. I’ve been based in San Diego for several years now.

How do you feel about the roots music scene in San Diego? Are they a supportive group?

LATBU_SaraPetite3_t700I feel like I made my own scene and maybe other people do, too. In the beginning people said I needed to decide which way I would go: Country, Bluegrass, or rock n’ roll, but I write what I want and if it is a pop song then that’s what it is. It’s hard to sing pop songs sometimes, but if that is what I write that is what I write.

I love classic country and my voice is classic country and a lot of my writing is too. I write bluegrass and old-time sometimes and I also write Bruce Springsteen heartland rock’n’roll. You can do what you want in this world. Maybe other people won’t get it at the end of the day or maybe they will, but in the end I wrote what I wanted. I believe authenticity and originality is one of the best gifts you can give the world

Where are some of the places to play in San Diego for a touring Americana artist?

It is difficult for a touring artist in San Diego. I play the Belly Up and Humphreys mainly, and sometimes a few dive bars and biker bars but that’s more for fun. All of the gigs I get hired for on the side are because people know me. I would like to organize a California Roots Union show like David Serby is doing in L.A. so touring artists can come down and play a gig and get paid decent money.

You’ve just returned from touring Europe was it your first time touring there?

This was my 9th trip to Europe and it has been a rollercoaster. You have to keep building an audience and coming back. I make a lot of headway with my band, but it puts me back financially. If I travel by myself I do well and can come home with money. I have had to take a lot of time off in the last few years because of my personal life, so that put me behind professionally. Life rains on you but there are also sunny days.

Sometimes the things you love you just have to quit doing for a while when it takes a toll on your body. I’m not afraid to talk about the fact that I invested in myself after I had some personal tragedies happen and I have spent a lot of time visiting therapists and doing yoga. I am happy and I like myself these days for better or worse. It makes touring and roller coasters a whole lot easier.

Your latest album, Circus Comes to Town is a deeply personal record following the loss of your best friend, band mate and partner, Johnny Kuhlken. Was it a healing experience to write and play these songs?

It was very healing. Both of my jobs were very public. Unless you have gone through the same thing, you really don’t know how it feels to lose your left arm, the person you depend on everyday for support.

I thought I was winding down my music career before he passed away. It was an accidental career, I had fun and I had gone for it, but Johnny had been getting sick more and I just didn’t really know what I was doing. When he passed away I had to keep working because everything was upside down. Unfortunately I didn’t have a cubbyhole to crawl into and do my work as my job involves being in front of people. I was pretty messed up and it all had to be in front of an audience–yeah life sucks sometimes.

I saw Lucinda Williams at the Grammy Museum recently and I can’t remember her exact words, but she was talking about what she writes about. A lot of it is tragedy, but you go through so much heartache and tragedy and really as a writer that is the only thing that makes you feel better, writing it down is what gets you through everything.

There were times I was on stage and really drunk, but I wasn’t drunk enough to cure the pain and to hide my vulnerability. Then sometimes I was on stage too sober to not cry about everything. You have to move through the pain to get to the other side. You can try to drink it away or pain pill it away, but it still going to harbor in your body, waiting and waiting until someday you are really going to be screwed when everything shuts down.

Pain, grief, and trauma–it all stays in your body unless you decide to take a hard look at it. For me writing was a way to deal with all the things I never got to say to Johnny and all of the questions I had that will never be answered. All the things I did that I wish I could take back or the things he might of done.

Music was my way through healing and maybe there were times I shouldn’t have played through it all and there were other times I wish I didn’t have to play. When you are on your way to a gig alone and you can’t fucking see through the windshield because you are crying so bad that the mascara is all over your damn face, that’s when you really wish you had one of those jobs where you could just fucking call in sick. But that isn’t the way our world works, and I did sign up for this beautiful, rotten, antagonizing wonderful life, didn’t I?

What is your favorite track off of the album?

145400I love “Someday I’m Gonna Fly”. It really isn’t a song for my quirky voice and it would suit a better singer. I wrote it after watching a family member tear apart another family member. I remember being small and defenseless and having cruel things happen to me and not knowing how to process it and the fact that life can be really unfair. . I really empathized with the person this altercation was happening to. I loved this person and as adults, for someone to have power over us and to make us still feel so small felt crippling and heartbreaking. I think I have always been looking for my freedom from that type of abuse. This song was for the person mentioned above and me. Every child is good no matter what mistakes he or she makes. We should never be made to feel like something is wrong with us when we are that young.

“Ashes” is the song that I feel like John wrote. It was really what he would have said to his best friends and me. Even though I wrote it, I felt like he did, because some of the wisdom in the song took me awhile to figure out. Wisdom about other people’s burdens and the fact that no matter how close you are to them, their burdens are not yours to pick up, especially if they have left his earth.

I also love “Scarlett Letter”– it’s a song about guilt, skeletons, etc. We all have sinned, we all live with regret, people who point fingers are doing everything to avoid looking at themselves. It’s not that they are bad; it’s just a way to escape yourself. “The Scarlett Letter” is one of my favorite books. Hester’s sins have been revealed and even though the town ostracizes her, she can start over again. The preacher has secrets he’s keeping and while he is giving these beautifully moving sermons he is killing himself because these secrets contain guilt and shame.

“Mama Ain’t Happy” is one of my favorites, because I constantly live in a child-like world, and it’s a funny cartoonish song about the battle of the sexes starring chickens, Rooster and Mama Hen.

You have recorded a couple of albums in Nashville and seem to make that a second hub. What’s your take on that city and how would you say the Southern California roots music scene distinguishes itself from Nashville?

Nashville is Nashville, L.A. is L.A., great music is great music and a great song is a great song! Both cities and music scenes are fantastic.

I would love to find somewhere more local to record, because I am writing all of the time. I have a knack for meeting awesome people and have really great friends in this business. My last two CDs I recorded in Nashville and I had a production deal with Eddie Gore, who is absolutely wonderful and family to me now. After Johnny died I think he just wanted to get me back in the studio to try to help me out in some way. That is how the second CD came about, as he believes in my writing and me. It’s always great to have someone on your side.

What’s ahead for Sara Petite?

I love playing live shows solo, if it is the right venue and I also love playing with my band. My band has a great energy and they are my best friends and great people. I love playing with them and I want to keep playing as much as I can! From a songwriter perspective, I would love it if bigger artists played my songs and I would love to be a performer on the level of Lucinda or Patti Griffin–they are my heroes.

I almost quit this business after John died, but I really had nothing left except this and it kept me going. I have so much more in my life now and I am pretty damn thankful (unless I have PMS). I have a degree and I keep up skills just in case shit happens and I can’t keep playing music. But I think at some point things will work out just fine.

Sara Petite will be playing a California Roots Union show on Saturday, November 15th at T. Boyles Tavern 37 N. Catalina Avenue in Pasadena, CA. Showtime is 9:00 pm and cost is $5. Also on the bill: Michael Ubaldini  |  fb  |  buy

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