Before I set out to interview Petunia, the architect and the man behind the Vancouver, BC band, Petunia and the Vipers, I grilled his publicist Joelle May. I asked her for the best and absolutely worst questions I could possibly ask Petunia in person. She warned me right away that the worst line of questioning would be to be ask him how he came up with such an adorable name. It’s the obvious question that nearly every writer before has addressed, and it’s something Petunia is not keen on answering. However one question she suggested demanded my attention: “Ask Petunia about poker.” It turns out this singer songwriter who has carefully carved out his own brand of mystique, is also a serious poker player. As a Chess player, I waited to make my move. When I finally sat down with Petunia before a show, in the basement of The Green Frog in Bellingham, WA, I tossed out a few questions to test his defenses, as he plotted out a pair of set lists. Then I asked him if he was a legitimate gambler. He looked up with a half smile, and squinted with his left eye as he studied my face.
Despite my visions from listening to tunes like his ‘Cricket Song’, Petunia is not in fact the abandoned Canadian son of the father of Country music (that yodeling blues singer from Meridian, Mississippi named Jimmie Rodgers). Nor was he raised by wolves. He was raised in a small town in Quebec playing hockey as soon as he could run, like any red blooded French Canadian.
He still plays hockey on occasion, though I couldn’t get him to cop to any level of the sporting violence we Americans associate with that northern sport. He winced at the suggestion, as our conversation shuffled towards his recent experience at a Gautama Buddha inspired ten day silent retreat. He explained the surprising benefits of extreme silence and the smallness of a human voice after not speaking for 10 or 11 days.
Petunia is a serious fellow. Almost counterintuitively, it appears that some of the most serious men in music are pleasantly agile comedians in closer quarters. Elliot Smith once did the robot from the stage all the way to his car following a gig, just for the gag. Petunia was not going to do the robot. Nor was he funny. But he did surprise me, picking every name off the tip of my tongue while we rapped about our mutual admiration for the humble and dusty architects of the now sprawling Nashville Country music empire. These are folk heroes most fans of Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift would consider perfect strangers. As I tried to recall the names of men such as the black harmonica player and original Opry cast member DeFord Bailey, Flats & Scruggs, and Bill Monroe’s original banjo player Dave “Stringbean” Akeman, Petunia named them all as if they were on the starting 6 of his fantasy hockey team.
While trying to understand his poker game it shed some real light on his inner being, what matters most is the music. What I caught on stage at The Green Frog that night, reminded me bit of the scholarly microscope and tiny universe of Taj Mahal (with out the running conversation with his audience). But like Taj, Petunia served up a set of anthropology you could dance to. itunes might put The Vipers in one single box, but great songwriters each hone their own personal prism. They can break up a ray of light, then manipulate and blend the colors. Then there’s Petunia’s showmanship. It’s subtle. He doesn’t move like Jagger, but he does have 7 kinds of smoke. Petunia faded into the background, trading places with his upright bass player, and just a song later he again slipped back to center stage. On one particular return to the footlights, he played a tune recapturing the crowd with an amplified kazoo, held together with an enthusiastic amount of white tape.
Petunia is a cerebral man, deeply inspired by the grand ol’ canon of Country & Western that informed Rockabilly’s earliest rock & soul roots. He’s also an alchemist, carefully remixing the art form’s most explosive elements. The DNA of Country is a mixed up bag of dust storms, rusting plantations, and immigration. It’s all there to be reused. Take for instance the Latin rhythms he’ll subtly employ. Petunia didn’t cop them all from records: like an old hand, he studied with seasoned Mexican musicians that live and die on the stuff.
Petunia is one of those writers that has found his own voice on his own unique terms, and has forged his own identity. His music is filled with folk imagery and a fusion of musical traditions that is both nostalgic and completely new. After my meeting with Petunia and catching his show, I was inspired to follow up with an even better round of questions. Here are a few of those more personal questions:
Davin: Where were you and what were you doing when Jimmie Rodgers first truly moved you?
Petunia: Toronto, Ontario, Canada…I was making indie 16mm films on my wind up Bolex paralax-view camera.
Davin: What’s the greatest lyric in the French language you’ve ever loved and what does it mean to you?
Petunia: I like when Acadian French singers use non-words. Like Do-do-do… na-na-na, hey-hey-hey…ta-na-na-na… it’s also pretty respected still in their music. So childlike, so sophisticated in a way at the same time, so cool.
Davin: What song recorded by any incarnation or member of The Carter Family has come closest to breaking your heart?
Petunia: Wow – so many of the original Carter family (A.P., Sara & Maybelle) songs touch me when I hear them:
Wildwood Flower…Grave on a Green Hillside…Poor Orphan Child…Motherless Children…I Never Will Marry…those titles sound pretty dour, how about…You Are My Flower, Moonlight Shining Over Dixie, I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home? Single Girl/Married Girl, Do Not Disturb…etc.
I played in the subway and on streets across Canada (sometimes in NY City) for years making my rent on mostly Carter family songs. I’ve sung them out when it felt like no one was listening. I’ve sung them out when I had huge crowds of people listening. I’ve sung them in trains, trucks, planes, boats, cars, old hilltop churches, park benches, under bridges, in echoey bathrooms, in run down schoolhouses, old folks homes, birthday parties, funerals, political rallies, hobo junctions, by night, by day, by early morning light, by the light of the moon, in the absolute darkness, drunk, sober, stoned, heartbroken, content, down and out, happy go lucky…in so many shapes and sizes have I sung ’em that I can’t remember even a fraction of all the times anymore. Mostly I’m just left with a feeling. I had sung them out on a daily basis for years before I really took to the stage. For hundreds and maybe thousands of hours. You might say that I’ve meditated on their vibes almost 100 years after their initial recordings were made. And yet their songs still ring true to me. Always have.
They all speak to me about my own life experience as a street singer and human being, and hold extra emotional weight as a result. They live on in all my music whether referenced or not. I suppose it’d be nice to think that all the music we’ve sung and played lives on whether through music or otherwise. Why not?
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