On Rare Bird, Sara Petite deftly adds her own colors and tales to the Americana tapestry, threading country-fringed rock n’ roll that shakes the paint through aching ballads that draw upon a life punctuated by opportunity and loss. Sara was raised in the Pacific Northwest among tulip farms and her older siblings’ album collections, and if the path toward her own musical adventure appears at times haphazard, it almost certainly resembles destiny as well. Initially, music was just a hobby for Sara, who graduated from the United States International University in San Diego, CA with a degree in political science, but as passion evolved to commitment, so did her aspirations. Her songs have been championed by publisher (and widow of songwriting legend Harlan Howard) Melanie Howard as well as GRAMMY Award-winning producer, David Bianco, who’s final sessions appear on Rare Bird. Bianco’s passing in June of 2018 left the potential album in an emotional limbo while even after its eventual completion, the COVID-19 pandemic conspired to delay it further– but as Petite would tell me, “Everything’s temporary.”
AI- Getting ready for this interview, I came across stories involving airplanes and motorcycles and bears, and Tiger Mountain… Sounds like you grew up in a pretty cool place.
SP- We did. We grew up in the woods. Basically, my mom would kick us out every day and we’d play in the woods. My grandfather was an airplane salesman and he sold Elvis The Lisa Marie. Then he ended up the head salesman, later on in his years, for Boeing in the Middle East. My dad became a pilot. When I was born, my dad was laid off and built a house. He got an education loan and he built the house ’cause in the beginning, when he was a pilot, he was laid off all the time. But it was out in the woods and that’s where I grew up. We grew up a little rough, but it was fun. Now, it’s like suburbia. Our old neighbor was a dentist. It wasn’t like that when I grew up. There weren’t houses around us and stuff like that. And that’s how Tiger Mountain, where my dad’s from and my grandmother lived, that’s how it was there too. And now it’s like Microsoft world!
Was country music a part of that family life? Was it a daily thing?
No. My parents liked oldies. We listened to oldies in the car and we also listened to the radio. My brother loved The Beatles and he’s eight and a half years older than me. So we were just totally into whatever my brother loved– and my older sister. Like Bruce Springsteen and stuff like that. I got a good education on that. And then at 14, I just started listening to country radio. I got into that, but I had a classical piano background. And I did artistic rollerskating, competitive. It’s like Nancy Kerrigan, but on quads. I know it’s funny!
(Laughs) No, I think that’s cool!
So I got like a really showtunes, classical background, but a really full background on music. I got into country music, but then, later on, country just wasn’t… I really liked the songwriters and I really like all kinds of all genres. So Americana definitely suits me a lot more than radio country.
You dove into this after your time in San Diego. What got you headed south into that part of California?
I just moved. I just decided to move down here. I had a great aunt that lived here. I was just turning 20, and my skating coach, I think he was yelling at me in my face. They kinda have the tear-you-down-to-bring-you-back-up attitude, which really doesn’t work when you’re an adult or a teenager. And so I was like, “If I could have anything in the world, what do I want?” And I was like, “I’m moving!” I had $300 saved and I just drove down and got a job down here. I stayed with my aunt for three months, you know, to get some money together. And I did skating a little bit, but then after, I went to school and got my education. I always wanted to do music, but I just wanted to get an education to be able to take care of myself. I started doing music while I was in college. And so then, I dunno, I just became a musician! It just happened. I wasn’t planning on it.
Well, sometimes that’s the best way for it to work out. When you’re not planning on it then your expectations are much different. You mentioned Americana, a genre near and dear to my heart, that’s made up of so many different things, but I would say that you definitely fall on the uh, honky tonkier end of that Americana spectrum. Is that what you started out doing or did it evolve into that?
I naturally have an accent when I sing. I don’t try to do that. No matter what I do, it lands there. But when I do a live show, it’s anywhere from songwriter-y– I like a lot of instrumental– to Bruce Springsteen-type rock n’ roll and to old honky-tonk, yeah. It just depends on what I write.
You originally planned to release Rare Bird last spring. Of course, that all got thrown into a maelstrom! Tell me about when it got put together. Where was it recorded?
I had met this guy when I was putting out my last CD, Road Less Traveled, and his name was David Bianco. I got an email one time from this guy that was David Bianco’s manager. He was going to come to my show and I was like, “Oh, who’s this guy?” So I looked him up and was like, “Oh, shit!” ‘Cause he has a GRAMMY with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan! He heard me on Spotify and liked my voice. I already had a CD in the can, and a year later, I went up just to meet him. He’d come to my CD release party, but I just went up to meet him and hang out with him.
It was interesting because I was admiring something on the wall and he’s like, “Oh, my wife did that,” and I was like, “Did she do the decorations?” He said, “She passed away.” And she had passed away six months after my partner [John Kuhlken] had passed away nine and a half years ago. We just kind of bonded. We were at lunch and I was like, “Oh my God, we’re gonna be friends!” He said, “Yeah, but I’m gonna produce you. I’m gonna produce your CD, okay?” We just were instantly friends.
We were gonna do two songs to see how it goes. The song “The Misfits”, I had written a chorus and he was like, “You have to finish that song!” So I did. And we went in with the band, recorded it. The second day, we were finishing up some of the band stuff and then I was going to do the vocals and he said, “Look, I don’t feel good. I’ve never not done a session. I’ve never called in sick, but I think I have to leave early.” His kidneys hurt. I was like, “Shit, just go now, just go now!” I wanted to take him to the hospital [and he said], “No, no, no, I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.” And he actually died that night. So there was kind of like a stall because I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I lost this guy that I had just started becoming friends with and was kinda like a father figure to me.
So I started probably six months later doing a CD. I was a little low on cash, so waited a little bit and then started finishing it and then we were gonna put it out in the spring. I had to put in a whole bunch of money and I was ready to do the finishing and mixing and stuff like that– and all of a sudden COVID hit. I was like, “Well, I’m not gonna mix this right now.” After a few months, I was like, “Let’s just mix it. I don’t care if it’s gonna be a year before I put it out. It’s okay.” You know, just to get it done. That’s been the whole process. They were gonna wait until next spring. I was like, “No, let’s do it now. We can’t just keep waiting.” ‘Cause we don’t know. I think the more we get vaccines, [and when they] hopefully start rolling out faster in a couple of weeks, things are just gonna start turning around. I’ve had this for so long. I haven’t grown out of it, but you start to. You know what I mean?
How have you remained productive over this last year while continuing to hold onto Rare Bird? I feel like every single city that has a music scene or any kind of scene, it exists as a microcosm that mirrors everywhere else. How have you been dealing with it?
I’ve gone through a lot in my life and everything’s temporary. I’ve just gone through a lot of hardships. I have a very happy life, but everything’s very temporary. And so it is what it is. [The album] cost like $12,000 to make and like, “Oh, shit! I’m just sittin’ here!” But it is what it is. I’ve written. Sometimes I write. People always say, “Oh man, you must be writing all the time!” I’m like, “No, not really.” But sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I play a lot of music, sometimes I don’t. But I’m working on other artistic projects.
I have a great uncle that wrote books in the ’50s and ’60s. He has a book that I’ve been looking for for years on the internet. It was kind of like this anomaly. I could never find it– and I didn’t realize I had the manuscript and it was never published! So I’m working on that right now. And there’s somebody working on a film for one of my for one of my songs. It’s an indie film that has to do with one of my songs called “Bootleggers”. And there’s a thing of my poems that I’m working on. I do write still. I have enough for another album, but it is what it is. I just do what comes to me.
I want to break a couple of those things down. Your great uncle– is this your Uncle Irving [Petite], who I heard you tell a story about having the bear?
Yeah. He passed away probably 15 years ago. Maybe a little bit less.
I imagine you have a wealth of stories about him. You say you’ve discovered this manuscript. You’re working to get this published?
What’s it about?
Basically, he was a nature writer. He had a book called Mister B., which was his most famous one. This was in the ’50s and ’60s. And then he had a book called Life on Tiger Mountain. He was called the Thoreau of Issaquah. He never had power or electricity, and he just had the coolest attitude– but he was really dysfunctional too. He didn’t know how to function in our world. If you told him why you needed something more than he did, he’d just give it to you. When my great grandfather died, he gave my grandfather Irving’s money and my grandfather gave him money every month because he would have just given it away. Even though he knew he needed to keep it. But he was really awesome. And animals? The bear basically came to live with him. It was a bear, like a cub, that the mother had left because it was too needy. It’s like survival of the fittest. She left it to stand on its own. There was another cub. He tried to reunite it and it didn’t work. And then the bear ended up at his house moving in! There’s all kinds of stories.
When my parents got married, [Irving] had taken a sailboat up to Alaska. He has a book called Meander to Alaska. My mom’s Canadian and my dad was based near the Canadian border, and when he got out of the service, they moved back down to Issaquah. [Irving] said, “You can live in my house while I’m gone.” And there was a goat living in there! My mom’s like, “Hell no!” But it’s just like all these weird, like quirky things. This Tiger Mountain Sketchbook is chapters about nature and animals. Basically, I’ve kinda put everything together. Luckily, I have all the chapters. Some of it was written on the back of flyers he’d gotten from the library. I mean, he was just this weird guy that used everything he had! This one was done in the ’80s. I’m gonna print it out myself, type it all out myself and then just see what we’re gonna do. My father was really happy about it. It’s like the right piece of history landed in my lap, you know? I’m kinda like the historian in the family and I just relish family stories. Some of my music has family stories. Probably not Rare Bird, but some of my music has a lot of family stories in it.
Well, let’s talk about “Bootleggers” and a film being based on that song. You’ve got a couple of songs involving the fair occupation of bootlegging. Is that something that comes from the family history? I’m from West Virginia, so I feel comfortable asking that question.
Oh, okay. You know a fair amount? My parents, they’re pretty square. My great uncle didn’t moonshine, but he has stories about it in his book. He bought all this property on Tiger Mountain. It was like pennies on the dollar. He ended up selling some of it to my grandfather and his other brother, my great uncle Marvin– and his wife used to make it. We’d be up hikin’ on Tiger Mountain and my dad would say, “This is was where this was, this was where this was…” It’s a really, really, really beautiful area, and I just got the idea for [the song]. I have a twin sister named Jenny, so I always put her in songs when I can. So it’s fictitious because we never ran moonshine, but it was inspired by being in the woods with my father and my sister and just hikin’ around.
Is there a schedule? The script is being written, but is there like a timetable for when we can start looking for that?
Oh, it’s an indie film. They have to shop it.
Is that something that you’ve considered before? How did that come together? I mean, the relationship between music, especially narrative music, and film is very close. Is that something that you had considered before like, “Oh, this would be really great!”
No, no. Somebody just called me and it’s somebody I know. And I was like, “What? Okay!” You never know what’s gonna happen– like, is it going to get picked up or not? But I thought it was pretty cool. Bruce Springsteen, he does these stories about these characters and it’s so frickin’ amazing. I love Dolly Parton. She’s one of my favorite writers. And Petty and Dylan and stuff like that. But Bruce Springsteen has just this vast catalog. I’m kind of obsessed with his writing. I love his wife’s writing too, but I love his narrative stuff. I wish I could write narrative stuff like he does.
You’ve got a degree in political science and international relations, which would seem like you’d be making music of a completely different nature. But I guess you do with “Keep Moving On”. Tell me about that one.
I like policy. I don’t like the bullshit of what’s goin’ on right now. I was a researcher before I was a musician and I really enjoyed it. I could’ve gone either way and I chose music. Two of my uncles were Parliament [of Canada] members and so we kinda have politics in our blood. With my music, I would say I lean progressive, but not everybody in the country leans progressive. I think that we should try new ideas when it comes to the environment and homelessness. I do run progressive, but I also understand that more of a moderate Democrat is gonna be able to appease the country more because you can’t leave people behind either. And there’s a lot of people that are left behind, which I see more than ever.
Black Lives Matter. I totally support them. I’m a massive feminist. At the same time, there’s people that don’t feel represented in our country, and I think you can see we have somebody that really tapped into their anger. Like with what happened Wednesday [January 6, 2021]. And then we also have a lot of misinformation in our news. But because I have so many different people that come to my shows, if somebody wants to talk about policy or something, I would totally talk about it, but I don’t use my platform as that because my life’s work has to do with love. The idea of love, like with Jesus Christ, with Mohammad, with Buddha, love was very judicious and love was like, “You do the crime, you pay the time. There’s consequences in life.” As a parent, that’s the most loving thing you can do is give your children consequences.
We have this world where there’s a lot of negativity and there’s a lot of people not wanting to accept responsibility for their lives. And that’s a lack of love, I think. I would like to inspire people because I think that we do our greatest works when we feel good inside and we’re our best people when we feel good inside. So versus political, you can see that when I say John Lewis. Because he was a civil rights leader right now. I have a family member that’s total Q Anon and she just hates the guy! Three years ago, she would have totally loved the guy!
“Keep Moving On”, you wrote about the great John Lewis.
I have a friend, she’s a playwright who’s just written this play here. There’s a town called Julian, and the Robinson family, they’re cherished by this town up in the mountains. They were the first black family to move up there. They owned this hotel in the 1800s. She wrote this play [about it], starred in it. We were talkin’ about John Lewis and she said, “I’d love to write a play about him,” and I said, “I’ll write the songs!” I love the guy, you know? When you read his book, Walking With The Wind, he talks about these protests and the [passive resistance] movement. The first ones they did were at the counters in Nashville. They would go sit there and people would just pummel ’em– and they would just get back on their chairs. They would just get back up! It’s really effective, but I don’t know how many people can actually really do that. I mean, if somebody pummeled me, it’d be really hard for me not to pummel ’em back! And I’m not a violent person! The idea that the passive protests and all the stages he went through in life and one of the things he really remained was humble.
He was a very, very humble servent. You have to have some kind of ego, but he really did remain very, very humble to the end and kept fighting. You make trouble. Like good trouble. That to me was a person that just stood up for love and truth and honor in our society. He really moved mountains and in a very quiet way, in some ways, but in a very loud way. Because he did the passive protests and the way he was, you had to respect him, even if he was very opposite to you. He loved everybody no matter what they did. No matter their actions or what they stood for, he still loved everybody. And you can see it!
That song really was inspired by what I had read about his life. He’s just somebody that’s very, very inspiring to me. CT Vivian, Maya Angelou, these people, they live their lives in truth. And it’s very hard to, because we don’t all get the ability in our lives to really know ourselves. Sometimes we’re busy running away from ourselves. These people were very honest.
On Rare Bird, you have a lot of spiritual notions and explorations– angels, souls, medicine men. Was that calculated or coincidence? It seems like that’s something that’s always on your mind and within your writing, indicative of where you are at any moment.
I’m not very calculated. If I tried to be, it would just frickin’ flop. Maybe I am and I don’t know it? But the soulful stuff, I went through a lot of heartache. I lost my partner, and for three years, it was hard. It seems like my life was richer afterwards, like the beauty was deeper but also the amount of pain I felt. They don’t let you go with the person when they’re dying and you’re stuck here on earth to deal with all the things you didn’t deal with, all the heartache, everything. And when they’re such a big part of your world, it’s like your world is just gone.
Plus, I wear my heart on my sleeve– so maybe it was a little worse than other people (laughs)! But it gave me the ultimate opportunity. I was always on a soul journey, maybe a little bit, but it just ramped it up. My greatest achievement in life is the soul journey I’ve been on. Some of us have some dysfunctions and issues and stuff like that. I have a lot of really cool friends and anytime someone said, “Hey, you should try this,” I did. And one of them was ayahuasca.
One of my friends is quite a bit older than me. She’s 63. She’s one of my very best friends. She’s a nerdy accountant that every single thing she puts in her body is very healthy, and she told me about ayahuasca. I love drinkin’ and stuff like that, but always, I just like to make sure that everybody’s safe, I’m safe. And that really became like a big thing too, after John died– like safety. So she explained it to me and because of the way she conducts her life, I decided to try it– and I loved it! It was under the guide of this shaman guy and it was amazing! That’s kinda what “Medicine Man” is about. It’s really hard to go into detail in a song sometimes– ’cause I think the song’s a lot lighter than what it really is. “Medicine Man” is really kind of an ode to ayahuasca.