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L.A. is filled with talented artists, each with a story waiting to be told. We caught up with local musician, Levi Petree, to talk southern roots, his career, and more. "Opportunity comes from putting yourself in a position to succeed," says Petree. Read on to get to know the man behind the music.
When did you start making music and how does it affect you?
I started making music about 5 or 6 years ago. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a kid, but I never took lessons and didn’t have the self-discipline to teach myself. About 9 years ago, though, I was in a play with some Irish musicians and they invited me to their jam sessions. I sat in the back and just observed what other people were doing. I learned a few chords and just started tearing into my guitar, teaching myself how to play songs I loved. I already had the itch to write, so I started doing that pretty quickly once I’d learned how to put some progressions together.
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As an artist, what challenges have you encountered and overcome throughout your career?
The biggest and most constant challenge is always that self-doubt of “Oh God, I have no idea what I’m doing.” My band and I still have a DIY mentality, so sometimes it can feel like nobody’s getting back to us, or we don’t know where we fit in our own city. But lessons I’ve taken to heart from other people (and now firmly believe), is that there’s a place for everything and everyone. So we just keep putting it out there with a little faith that it’ll get to the people that want or need it.
When it comes to your songwriting process, where do you typically draw inspiration from?
The first batches of songs stemmed from “writing what I knew,” pulled directly from relationships and friends. And I approach most of the songs from the angle of a storyteller, which often means sitting down with a notebook, or an open google doc and just letting the words come out. But usually, there’ll be a phrase that pops into my head, or something I observe in passing. My brain just seems to think in melody, so I’ll find myself humming, or singing nonsense and then dwell on it until I map out the rest of the song. Morrissey’s one of my favorite lyricists and I definitely try to emulate him at times by injecting a little humor.
You released your debut album, It’s Country, in March 2017. What was your experience like working on this project and what can new listeners expect to hear?
It’s Country was the first opportunity I was given to take time in a studio and build recordings piece by piece. Before that, I’d put an out EP where we cut 5 songs in one day, all live. But with the full album, I had the benefit of having a home base we could work out of at Exposition Studios. Our drummer, Chad, took on producing duties. Most of the songs were ones we’d been playing live for a while, so they were fairly easy to recreate, but we also had a couple songs, like “Lover’s Cove”, that we were able to take our time with and make more lush, experimental arrangements out of.
I can still get a little uncomfortable listening to my own voice on a song, but when I listen to the music from that album I get so happy to have Chad McKinsey on my side. He made those recordings sound like a big studio production and I’m very proud of what we have to show for it. For anyone that’s about to listen to it for the first time, I think they’ll be surprised to find there are a few different subgenres of music on there. Rock n’ roll, punk, folk, singer-songwriter, and yes, maybe even a little country. The name It’s Country was more a sarcastic reaction to what people call rock n’ roll these days.
Tell us the story behind your first guitar and the significance it holds.
My first guitar is actually my stepdad’s…but I’ve been borrowing it for 18 years! It’s a 1978 black Gibson Les Paul that used to be named after him (“Mr. Jim”) but I put a Magnolia flower sticker on it a couple years ago and started calling it “Black Mag.” There was a woman named Jillian Johnson from my hometown of Lafayette, LA who was shot in a movie theatre there a few years ago. She ran a shop called Parish Ink that has a lot of Louisiana-themed goodies and one thing I bought there was a sticker of Louisiana’s state flower, the magnolia. It was the last thing she designed and I felt it was a way to pay tribute to her, as well as keep a little bit of home with me when I play. And now I have a niece named Magnolia, so I think calling it “Black Mag” fits.
It doesn’t stay in tune as well as some other guitars I have, but I still love to use it as my main guitar. It’s what I learned to make noise on!
What’s your most memorable performance to date and why?
There’s a gig we did at this bar in the mountain town of Crestline a couple years ago that sticks out. It was a 4th of July festival and we’d already done two sets to a somewhat thin crowd. But once the fireworks were done, the place filled up to the point of claustrophobia and it just turned into a rager. I feel very strongly that, as a band, we shine when people are ready to party. People were dancing to songs they didn’t know, singing along to ones they did, and I found myself playing my guitar while standing on top of one of the bar tables. Our band actually jokes around all the time that “people are still talking about that legendary 3rd set in Crestline!”.
Walk us through your warm-up routine.
The pre-show routine is kind of a sacred thing for me. I try to get to the venue as early as possible so I can set my stuff up and then enjoy the other bands. I think it’s really important to support the other artists and make sure they’re getting good energy from the audience (... and I get a little annoyed when other bands on the bill don’t watch each other’s shows. It’s rude). I’ll also try to find a table, or corner for myself to write out the night’s setlist. I’m just a nerd for gauging the room each night and figuring out what the best flow of songs will be. I’ve always loved following my favorite artist's setlists from show to show, so it’s one of the things I love the most about playing live.
How does life in Los Angeles differ than life in your Lousiana hometown?
Lafayette and Los Angeles are more alike in ways than you would think. In Lafayette, the Cajun culture dominates everything (the music, the food, the laid-back and open way of life). So everything revolves around that and people take a lot of pride in it. In Los Angeles, we have so many other cultures to appreciate that you can have a hard time getting to them all. Around 2012, though, I made a lot of friends at this bar in Boyle Heights called Eastside Luv, right next to Mariachi Plaza. It became one of my favorite areas of town because of the way people had such love for their culture. It made me feel at home.
Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Bruce Springsteen - His shows are the epitome of what live performance can be. And his songs always sound like they’re reaching for something higher. I just find a lot of emotional resonance in his writing and delivery.
The Sex Pistols - My all-time favorite band. Great energy in Steve Jones (our local DJ Jonesy’s Jukebox!) guitar playing. They were larger than life and I think underrated as a pure rock n’ roll band.
The Clash/The Who - I think these are the two bands I’d compare our live shows to. Go for broke, raw, powerful.
Jenny Lewis - She has something in her voice that I responded to the first time I heard her. It’s commanding and her songwriting is always clever and catchy.
Glen Campbell - His voice makes me emotional when I hear him sing. There’s truth and warmth to it. Would love to achieve that richness someday.
Morrissey - Definitely one of the bigger influences. I love the way he croons and his lyrics are great lessons in how to fill a verse in as concise a way possible.
Eagles of Death Metal - Saw them open for The Strokes in 2006 and was instantly a fan for life. Have always tried to capture the same sense of fun they have.
Neil Young - A plugged-in, buzzed-out electric Neil Young is my spirit animal.
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If you had the opportunity to collaborate with anyone in the near future, who would you choose and why?
There’s a producer named Greg Kurstin we talk about a lot in our band text thread and I think it’d be cool to see what he’d do with our songs. He’s probably most well-known for working with pop artists like Adele, Sia, and The Bird and the Bee, but he also did Liam Gallagher’s (Oasis) solo album last year, which was great. Even though we think of ourselves as a rock n’ roll band, all the songs are rooted in a classic pop structure and it’d just be cool to see where someone at the top of their game would push us to, recording-wise.
Tell us about your personal style and how denim plays a role in your wardrobe.
Jeans are just classic Americana rock n’ roll, man. I like dressing up every once in a while, but I could never be an everyday suit-and-tie type of guy. Gimme a nice pair of darker blue jeans with a button-down long-sleeved tee and I’m happy. I’m like my grandpa in that I have a lot of the same thing in my closet. Born to be an old man in that way. I do love jackets, though. When I’m on stage I try to look nice and layer up with something that adds a little snazz…
Any advice for aspiring musicians?
Go to shows! Support live music and get to know the other artists. Build a community of artists and producers you can collaborate with. Just find a way to get yourself involved in the process of making music with other people, or find a place where you can learn from others. Opportunity comes from putting yourself in a position to succeed. If there’s one move I made that I think really helped me, it was getting an internship at Exposition studios, a small recording and rehearsal studio in Culver City. It gave me a network of musicians to learn from and the owner, Greg Thomas, gave me recording time for the hours I spent working. My first album is a direct result of that.
Do you have any exciting plans for 2019 you can share with us?
We just started recording demos for future singles and I’d like to get some of those out. And we’re finally going to tour through Louisiana in the late Spring, which I’ve always wanted for our band.
Lastly, how do you personally feel lucky?
Sometimes I wish I’d have started playing music at an earlier age, but I really do feel lucky that it all worked out this way. I feel a genuine appreciation that maybe things happen for a reason and it’s led me to form great relationships and friendships with people I may not have met or worked with otherwise. I’m happy to just enjoy the present with the family and friends in my life. In the end, they’re all that really matters and I feel lucky that whatever comes my way is something we get to share.
Keep up with Levi and The Radio Publica on Instagram: @lpandtherp
Check out the official video for Levi's latest single: HEREShop Men's New Arrivals Lucky Insider Home