Life has resembled something of a rollercoaster ride for San Diego’s Sara Petite in recent times due to personal tragedy but also for the unveiling of recent album ‘Circus Comes To Town’ that is quite simply a stunning piece of work.
It is not too often a bona fide country artist from the United States sets foot in the UK due to various reasons concerning the British palate ranging from a lack of interest in all things associated with Western attire – the customary cowboy boots spring to mind here – to others of a more fiscal nature. So when news of San Diego’s Sara Petite announced a whistle-stop tour of the British Isles, FLW seized the opportunity to meet ‘n’ greet the country starlet whose recent new long player, ‘Circus Comes To Town’ has been burning a considerable hole in the FLW player over the past few months. With this in mind, the obvious starting point for this eagerly awaited discussion was the ideas and inspirations that led to the wondrous set of songs making up ‘Circus Comes To Town’.
“It was a period in my life where I went through a lot and questioned a lot and I feel the songs on there are just a full perspective of the human condition,” responds Sara Petite regarding the making of her new album. “I tend to be a very real person; what you see is what you get as whatever I’m going through, tends to be what I write about.”
This opening statement is definitely indicative of the stories woven in the tapestry of ‘Circus Comes To Town’ as songs reflect a deeply personal tragedy experienced by Sara Petite leading up to, and during the album’s completion. The loss of her nearest and dearest partner was a knockout blow, and one she is undoubtedly still smarting from, as the person in question is often referred to throughout the discussion but also in honour of his overall contribution musically. ‘Circus Comes To Town’, therefore, comes as a great testament to the characteristics of Sara Petite, as the San Diego songstress managed to ride out incredibly choppy waters when everything appeared to be diminishing around her; something of which the album’s title alludes to, along with the slapstick pretence of the circus imagery.
“It was actually when I was on tour here [UK] when I got that idea [album title],” comments Sara, “because I had done a four-date tour with Marty Stuart, and then thirteen dates on my own. Therefore, it was the tour of my lifetime but I felt like I was going crazy inside because I was going through a lot emotionally, and I don’t think I realised everything I was really going through at the time. I actually wrote ‘Circus Comes To Town’ before Johnny [Kuhlken] passed away, but I was going through a lot as he was often sick and I didn’t realise that he was dying. When I look back, I realise that I was really going through a lot, and it was difficult when I had to get on stage every night and be happy when all I wanted to do was cry. At the same time, I was having the best tour ever, and in my mind it felt like a circus as I was going crazy inside having to portray something completely different outside.”
Without question, ‘Drinkin’ To Remember’ is a lament to those tragic memories and one in which Sara Petite sings with heart firmly planted on her country sleeve.
“I came up with the idea just before Johnny passed away and wrote the first part. After he passed away, I finished the song but it was a difficult period as I had never experienced anxiety before in terms of the level I experienced. It’s weird because I don’t think a human body is capable of understanding; I can tell myself analytically what’s happened and how everything needs to process, but your emotions and your body doesn’t get it that he’s gone. So that’s really what the song’s about because it’s really hard to let go of somebody as there’s a part of my body that still thinks he’s coming back.”
Despite a profound sadness engrained in a number of the songs, what seems evident from the off, however, is the sense of energy bursting forth in a real steely show of force as evidenced by the Springsteen-esque and in no plain terms issued warnings of ‘Perfume’, to literally giving the feeling of the open highway and wheels in motion of ‘Movin’ On’. This, however, is part of the charm of ‘Circus Comes To Town’ as Sara Petite manages to shift facades between songs with relative ease and in the process reveal a considerable amount of humour that receives a tip of the hat in terms of acknowledgement from FLW for the genius that is ‘If Mamma Ain’t Happy’, and the barnstorming ‘Scarlet Letter’ with its “harmonies like bluegrass but rocked up like Jason & the Scorchers” as described by Petite herself. With everything gone before her, Sara Petite has every reason to feel more than a little enamoured with this overall body of work.
“I think as an artist, most artists are not completely satisfied with everything,” comments Sara. “The last album was more produced whereas this one is a bit more broken down. I don’t know if the writing is better or just different than the last album, as ‘Doghouse Rose’ was a little bit rowdier with a couple of Jason & the Scorchers type songs. People sometimes think that everything is 100% autobiographical but it’s not always as sometimes I’m just using my imagination. There are moments where I would love these more imaginative things to happen, but if it happened in real life it would be a disaster! Having said that, the spectrum of the type of songs is broad as there’s a couple of traditional country songs; a couple of pop songs and rock ‘n’ roll songs, as well as a roadhouse song, but it all fits together as one piece.”
The condition of not being totally satisfied with any artistic endeavour is not simply reserved to artists themselves, as on more than one occasion many a music purist has reserved judgement on what they deem to be country music in this instance. Fortunately, such attitudes have not pervaded the creativity of the songwriting process when it comes to Sara Petite and her acoustic guitar, due to vocally demonstrating from her first tentative steps that there really is only one way, and that is the Sara Petite way.
“I am kinda in my own scene in San Diego because there wasn’t really anywhere for me to play,” explains Sara when it comes to the punters expectations. “When people hear me and respond surprisingly, ‘Oh, you’re country!’ these places – the country bars that you play – are Top 40 with line dancers and they don’t want you to play. I’ve had more problems on the bluegrass circuit because it’s really political with a right party and a left party in the states. The right party can be extremely harsh and judgemental on people, so even if they plug an instrument in when you’re at Summer Grass [festival] for example, people just get up and leave. Earl Scruggs had a drum but people commented that it’s not real bluegrass if you have a drum! Johnny [Kuhlken] never had a drum kit as he had a little snare and they said we can’t have that! And we had some people get mad because he used a little egg shaker and a cowbell. His personality was so big that it was always much more fun if he was playing with us, and people really flipped out about it!”
Pursuing her own path in the massively popular country scene of America, trying to establish yourself as a credible artist can be a bit of minefield not only due to the previously mentioned purist attitudes but also due to the level of competition, not to mention the vastness of the American environment when it comes to the live circuit in order to get your message across. Fortunately, such uphill struggles has not fazed Sara Petite as this singer remains headstrong in her quest to bring her brand of countrified tunes to the masses. This self-determination also stems from clocking up many hours working nine to five in various different occupations, with the final decision coming when Petite was relived from her duties as Operations Manager, which led to a decision to enter the musical circus full time.
Being raised in Seattle has also played its part on this musical quest in the sense of the cross-pollination of musical genres, as Seattle is not exactly renowned for its country music but more well-known for its grunge music. Thankfully, Sara has the explanation for this little conundrum in terms of her love for all things country.
“I grew up in Summer; it’s a farming town southeast of Seattle. I was into country as were my friends as we had grown up with it. Later on, I switched over to country again from a lot of pop [music] as there was a lot of music I didn’t identify with during this period. My boyfriend, at the time, was a Tulip farmer and he was into country as well. Also, I remembered the country dial on the radio because my mother would never change it.”
Was your mother a big influence in terms of your interest in country music considering your comment regarding country music being a permanent fixture on the radio?
“My mother used to bring home country tapes from the library but she also had the soundtrack to the Loretta Lynn movie ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’. My twin sister and I used to learn every single song on that soundtrack and people would come over and we would get on the coffee table and sing just for fun. We used to mimic her and I didn’t realise that I was doing this because I have an east Kentucky accent when I sing.”
More notably, the unwavering self-belief that Sara Petite rightfully possesses also derives from an unusual family background that involved certain family members inviting goats, chickens and bears as household guests! Therefore, such eccentricities have gladly seeped into her songwriting (‘If Mama Ain’t Happy’) and more than made her comfortable when it comes to making decisions regarding which direction to take musically.
“My dad was from Tiger Mountain,” replies Sara “and my great uncle was the first one to live up there. My Uncle Irving moved because there were too many people out there in the end; he was a nature writer and went to the UW. In addition, Uncle Irving was buying, along with his roommate, lots of property every time they had money because it was cheap due to being ‘junk’ property. He ended up getting kicked out of his apartment at the UW because he had a goat living in his house and under the sink when the landlord came in. So he moved up there [Tiger Mountain] and made this little shack, which actually stands there today. He worked in several jobs as well, such as the Seattle Times; the Post Office and he felled timber to make money. After reading the Tiger Mountain book, you realise that there are so many stories such as my parents getting married there. In fact, Uncle Irving had a goat and a bear living in the house. There were also chickens, which he moved into the house when it was really wet and he’d go and sleep in the outdoor shed!”
With such eccentricities in mind, there are also more standard influences infiltrating the ideas and songs of Sara Petite which, once more, reveals a broad palette musically.
“My heroes are people like Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. So I kinda like the working man’s rock ‘n’ roll such as Tom petty, Steve Earle and I really like the songwriters Todd Snider, Bob Dylan and stuff like that. Also, I love the traditional country [music] and I feel that my voice fits this style. I also love June Carter; she’s very, very funny. I used to be a rhythm guitar player for an old-time band and I also had a bluegrass band and then rock ‘n’ roll country, which I call Outlaw Country, as I love things which are a bit more real.”
Would you therefore describe your sound as being at the less commercial end of the country music scene?
“Definitely less commercial such as in the 70s when Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] couldn’t get played [radio] because they did their own brand of country, and they did it really well just outside of Nashville,” answers Sara with a definite thumbs up to the less commercial sound of country. “There’s a big movement in east Nashville and it’s gaining in popularity because it’s different from the Nashville country. A lot of people who come to our shows have mentioned that they don’t even listen to country but mention they like my music. This is because a lot of people identify country with US country radio, which is essentially pop music and almost 80s pop music sometimes. I’m not saying it’s bad because if I was 15 years old, then I would love Taylor Swift but it’s just not my thing.”
Can you please elaborate further in terms of what you mean by the country scene in east Nashville?
“It’s not generic and it’s more artistic,” Petite sums up briefly. “When you make an album, and I know everything has changed with downloads, but with an album it’s a whole artistic piece. So when you have someone who’s a songwriter and they produce an album, that’s an artistic piece and therefore I like artists who are more like that because it’s who they are at that point in time. If you look at my last four albums, I have changed a lot but I have remained the same. So it’s kind of evolving although I think I’m devolving sometimes [laughing] because sometimes you have to devolve to evolve a bit!”
With ‘Circus Comes To Town’ gathering further momentum not only in terms of critical recognition but also wining over the hearts and minds of many country aficionados, as well as the indie kids (Yes, there are a few converts, FLW), are there plans for Sara Petite and her trusty guitar to head back into the recording studio soon so that we can experience more fascinating tales of chickens and bears residing side-by-side with their new found owners?
“For the next album, I want to cut a more bluegrass, acoustic album. June Carter did an album that was really amazing called ‘Press On’; it was all her songs and they did it in a circle and she told the stories. The one thing people ask for more than anything is the stories; they want albums with the stories on it. It will probably be [recorded] in Nashville as it’s really one of the best places to record. So I want to do something like that and definitely more live.”
Sara Petite’s ‘Circus Comes To Town’ is out now on Sweet P Records.
After reading the Tiger Mountain book, you realise that there are so many stories such as my parents getting married there. In fact, Uncle Irving had a goat and a bear living in the house."
FLW - From the Tapes
With all the tales coming out of the Petite family history, the king himself, Elvis Presley, even gets a mention.
“My grandfather sold planes and he did that for a living as he actually obtained a degree and became a teacher but it wasn’t for him. Anyway, in this letter my Uncle Irving had written to his mother talking about my grandfather and how he couldn’t believe how much he was wasting his education by selling aeroplanes. He ended up working for Boeing and he was the head salesman in the Middle East. I don’t know how long it was for, but I don’t think he was working for Boeing at the time but he ended up selling to Lisa Marie Presley, but the actual deal was finalised with Elvis’ father, who basically gave him a signed painting in return as part of the deal.”