Though the official start of summer is still a couple of weeks away, outlaw country badass goddess Sara Petite wants to bring the heat right now. She refuses to play by any rules during an award-winning career that began in 2008 and continues to mix hot and humorous hoedowns with relentless roadhouse rock ’n’ roll. When it comes right down to it, this is a grown-up cowgirl who just wants to have fun. Ahead of the 9 June release of The Empress (Forty Below Records), her seventh studio album, Petite does just that. She sure knows how to rule the roost, even if it means “Bringin’ Down the Neighborhood” during the raucous music video that premieres exclusively today (6 June) at PopMatters.
Starring in the video made in January in her backyard outside San Diego and what she calls the “World Famous Spring Valley Inn, home of the Beat Farmers,” Petite knows how to be the life of the party. That’s probably true wherever she goes. Swigging beer while dressed as a policewoman or carousing with belly-up-to-the-bar celebrants, the singer-songwriter playing a “hell-raising hillbilly heroine” accomplished a simple goal with her concept for a colorful cast of characters. To have “as much fun as possible!” she exclaims in an email interview for this article.
“When I was really young, my Great Aunt Marlene told me I was too serious and needed to have more fun,” she adds. “I also had a partner, John Kuhlken, God rest his soul, who loved to create fun and enjoyed watching people have fun. I wanted an afternoon where we all had as much fun as possible, got a little buzzed, and made a fun video. I think we did it!”
Though the inspiration behind the song, released as the album’s first single on 28 February, addresses a familiar but thorny subject, Petite admits it was easy to write, owing it all to: “Family dysfunction. You have enough of it in one week, the song writes itself. I have a very fun, loving family, and we also have a lot of dysfunction as well. Like everybody else. …
“My twin sister [Jenny] was a daffodil princess in my hometown [Sumner, Washington],” she adds. “We always were kind of the ragamuffin family in my neighborhood; we weren’t poor. Just did things a little differently. A bit eccentric hillbilly. For years I’ve had the hook [for the song] — ‘Jenny, she’s still looking good, but we’re still bringing down the neighborhood.’ One week after a lot of BS, it wrote itself in one sitting. Went to a gig, and the band fumbled through it, and it worked.”
The video, directed and edited by Rob Cribbett and shot by Tom Vizzo, was comprised “of my besties and friends I’ve known for years,” along with family members such as Jenny and their older sister. (In a twist, Jenny’s daughter plays the part of her mom as Petite sings, “Jenny, she’s still looking good …” .)
As for the lucky lad who was on the receiving end of a kiss on the lips by Petite? “Well, the guy I was smooching was pretty hot!!! (He’s my partner 🙂 ),” she reveals, later identifying him as Jonathan Shelby Pruett. “When we go out, we’re always dancing, drinking, and making out … so [that] wasn’t really hard. My family, when it’s time to play, it’s time to swing from the trees. … Sober or unsober, we can be a lot of energy.”
Coming from a family that includes a brother, three sisters, and “a loving mother and father”, most of whom still live in Washington state, Petite left the nest long ago. A 2003 political science and international relations graduate from US International University in San Diego, she settled outside the Southern California city and currently lives there with three dogs — Domino, Bunson, and Benny (“they’re rescues; two of them are blind,” she points out).
Regarding her other interests, Petite offers, “I love nature and hope as a community we can start taking better care of our world, our bodies, and our minds. Mother Nature has been calling on us to pay attention and take care of her and ourselves.”
After releasing her debut album Tiger Mountain — a tribute to her late grandmother — in 2006, Petite decided two years later to take the plunge into music full-time, recording five more albums from 2008 to 2021. Along the way, she became a five-time finalist in the International Songwriting Competition. Last year, she won three San Diego Music Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Country or Americana Album for 2021’s Rare Bird, along with Best Country or Americana Artist.
Feeling blessed despite experiencing her share of heartache over the years, Petite lets her emotions loose on The Empress, which was produced by Grammy nominee Eric Corne. With lyrical handiwork found on all 11 of her songs, the LP includes co-writes with John Eddie (“Forbidden Fruit”) and Mark Stephen Jones (“She’s Come Undone”, another rocker driven by pedal steel, electric guitar, and a honky-tonk piano).
The tunes feature Petite’s unmistakable but versatile voice, which generates a range of emotions. Hear her snarl “I am the queen / I am the witch / I am the ruler / And the bitch” a la Wanda Jackson on album opener “God Save the Queen” (without a nod or a wink to the Sex Pistols). Then swing and sway while listening to a sweet vocal treatment alongside pedal steel purity on the tender Patsy Cline-like ballad “Tread Softly”.
So what can you expect when Petite plays her album release show later tonight (6 June) at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California, where guests are encouraged to “Bring your own mullet or Empress-themed costumes”? The answer might as well be her tagline:
“As much fun as possible!”
Read on to find out more about the new album, along with the life and times of Sara Petite in her freewheeling email Q&A with PopMatters.
Write on! Sara Petite Responds to Our PopMatters Quiz
Who are some of your favorite hillbilly/outlaw country heroes? Which artists affected you the most during your pursuit of a music career?
I absolutely adore Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Bruce Springsteen. About ten more, but these are my favorites and the most influential.
You say in your bio, “I’m an ever-evolving person who refuses to stay the same, and The Empress reflects that. My work is very personal, so this record is me — a securely insecure, confidently unconfident person who’s learned to be comfortable with the in-between.” How have you evolved since beginning your music career? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve gone through so much shit, trauma, beauty, grace, ascending, groveling, crying, crawling, laughing, and smiling in my personal life since I began. It gave me more grits, guts, and compassion. Music is something that is just part of me and how I express myself. I feel grateful, humbled, and very lucky I get to be me and do what I love. A psychic told me I was on vacation in this life. I was a little shocked about what she said because I work too much and have been through so much. Since then, I have been treating everything like vacation work, even when I get frustrated … makes it seem easier and not taking it so seriously.
You’ve previously mentioned experiencing a lot of heartache in your life, yet you display a great sense of humor in many of your songs and music videos like this one. How do you maintain a positive outlook as an artist in pursuit of happiness?
Jesus! I have no clue! I think sometimes growing up there was so much chaos. It was normal. I try to have as much peace in my life as possible. I have done 12 years of healing work like it was a job since my partner [Johnny Kuhlken] died. I knew when he passed, I would do everything it took not to be bitter. Life is meant to be enjoyed, but we are really supposed to grieve and grieve hard for the things that hurt us. It’s a process that has to be gone through; if you stuff it away, it can make you sick or keep rearing its head. For me, it is supposed to be expressed with deep passion and emotion, yet stable. The stability part is where I am at, trying always to have balance and stability. I think the Universe brought me down into this world as sunshine. Just had to understand there’s rain and storms along the way, but afterward when you decide to go through it, you get a rainbow 🙂
How does your seventh studio album compare with your previous work?
I THOUGHT I COULDN’T MAKE A BETTER ALBUM OR THE SAME AS RARE BIRD!!! I LOVE THIS ONE!!!!! It’s just another Sara Petite album more evolved, but I’ve loved every one of them.
After co-producing Rare Bird with Ben Moore (and the late David Bianco), what made you choose producer (and Forty Below Records founder/president) Eric Corne for this project?
I have a good friend [and publicist] Pati deVries, and she recommended him and told me to make the best record I could make 🙂
Where and when did you record the new album, and who are some of the musicians who played on it?
June 22 in Los Angeles [at Kingsize Soundlabs, the Carriage House, and Forty Below Studios]. Michael Kastner (drums), Bobby Furgo (piano, Wurlitzer, organ, fiddle), and Jeff Berkley (guitars) play in my band and on the album. Other contributors include Billy Watts (electric guitar), Bob “Boo” Bernstein (pedal steel), Jorge Calderon (bass), and Eric Corne (background vocals, percussion).
How does it feel to share a song title (“God Save the Queen”) with the Sex Pistols?
Wahoo!!!! Had no clue!!!! I’ll have to listen to it. I wonder if it is about Mother Earth as well?
What made you decide to record “Lead the Parade” again after initially making it the title track on your sophomore album in 2008?
I love revivals. “Lead the Parade” was originally written for my grandmother when she passed. I was helping my father clean her house and found manuals on how to make parade floats, and that’s how the idea came in. Leading the Parade is your last procession. Love, judgment, tears, celebration. I wanted to make it kind of like a New Orleans-ish funeral procession. The song, which starts the party, picks up halfway through and is a song I wrote after my partner passed called “Meet Me on the Other Side”. Spirituality is a deep path and can bring a lot up and out of your body. At the end of your process, things should feel light and free and good. We are good people here doing our best. Hopefully, we get to experience as much as possible in this lifetime, feeling we are truly good beings and free before our souls are free from the body.
How autobiographical are the songs you wrote for this album? Particularly “That Was You and Me”? Is the reference in the opening lines — “I think about prophets and poets / And the words to Kris’ songs / About the power of the music” — to Kris Kristofferson?
Kris is Kris Kristofferson, I love it when people figure it out and the song I’m referencing. Yes, it was autobiographical.
How much do you relate to these lines — “Soaked in sex, love, and alcohol / They say that’s rock ’n’ roll / You play guitar, but I’m the singer in this show” — in the same song?
It took me years in bands and relationships to realize I’m an equal, and when I’m the boss, I’m the boss. We all need to know the part we’re playing, what part fits us the best, and when we choose a role to play, that role needs to support the project or the group. If you don’t like your part, it’s time to exit.
We all have our demons which are ours to work. That part is true. For 12 years, I’ve been learning to set boundaries on cruel behavior. It’s been a lot of work saying no to harmful situations. I was used to always picking up other people’s mess and broken pieces, and learning it wasn’t my job anymore has been tough.
Since the final verse in “Le Petit Saboteur” is in French, do you speak the language fluently? If so, how/when did you learn?
I suck at French! Wish I had more time. I love languages. I learned it when I lived there, but if you don’t use it, you lose it. I can get by, but not fluent. I’m better at Spanish.
What do you remember about the first time you picked up a guitar or other instrument?
I played piano from five to 18, picked up a guitar in college and learned a few chords, wrote a song, and realized: I am a songwriter.