When the Straight arrives at the Banners family restaurant on Commercial Drive to interview the roots musician known only as Petunia, he’s sitting in a booth, his cowboy hat on the table, playing cards with Al Mader. Mader is a local songwriter who performs as the Minimalist Jug Band; he has been gigging with Petunia for some 11 years, trading songs at venues like Slickity Jim’s. He will also be accompanying him on an upcoming extended two-man tour that’s set to wind from Toronto through the Maritimes.
The more eccentric of the two, Mader gives performances that are a mixture of John Cooper Clarke, Hasil Adkins, and a self-deprecating street preacher. Sometimes, when they’re playing small towns, he’ll elect to sit shows out entirely. Even Petunia will occasionally tailor his set, depending on audience sensibilities.
“Some of these are tiny, tiny towns,” Petunia says, thinking perhaps of Hunt’s Point, Nova Scotia, where the two will stop this fall. “Especially if it’s the first time you’re playing there, you know if you went and just played your own material, it’s not going to fly. But if you play, like, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’, or you play some Jimmie Rodgers, yodel, play some George Jones, Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the people we’re playing to, they know that music. So if they recognize that you know the same music they do, and yet you don’t look like you should, because you’re from the city and your name is Petunia, and yet you go into there and play this stuff and you do it well, it’s good.
“It really shakes people up, in one way,” he continues, “and in another way, they’re willing to accept your own music more. They put their faith in you a little bit, and then you can throw a couple of your songs in.”
Petunia’s new album, Inside of You, doesn’t feature Mader, but it has a wide range of local stars, from rockabilly guitarist Paul Pigat and trumpet-electronics man J.P. Carter to Petunia’s full band, the Vipers. That backing unit features Ray Condo alumni Jimmy Roy and Stephen Nikleva on guitars, Patrick Metzger on bass, and Paul Townsend on drums. There’s also violinist Lache Cercel, who leads the Roma Swing Ensemble. Cercel first collaborated with Petunia at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, outside Bellingham. “There’s jams and stuff around the campfires, and I figured it would be a really good cross-cultural thing, so I had Lache play with my band.”
Cercel even contributes a tune to the album, “Oh My Mother”, which Petunia renders twice, once in English and once in Spanish (“Ay Mi Madre”). “Lache taught me a Romanian melody, and we worked it out,” and Petunia wrote words to it, without realizing that the tune was associated with any particular subject matter. “And then a few weeks later, he says, ‘Petunia, your song, we can record it now, my mother she has passed away.’ And then he told me that the theme of the song is about mothers dying. I had written the song without knowing that, though!”
It’s not all folk traditions with Petunia, however. “The Bicycle Song” is a hypnotic oddity, “written in the groove of riding a bike”, with Jimmy Roy’s lap steel giving it a dreamy Hawaiian twist. “Runaway Freight Train Heart”, the album opener, is fast-paced rockabilly. And “Primitive Love” has a deep, reverb-heavy electric guitar that evokes Link Wray more than country. “That’s Paul Rigby,” Petunia notes, referring to Neko Case’s long-time guitar foil. “It’s a song that’s been going through my head for a few years, because I had a few ideas about primitive love—about sex, about sexuality, about men and women, about our physical makeup and what guides us. We think it’s our brains. It’s not our brains, our bodies are a lot smarter than our brains.” He likens the song to “Mercy”, the standout track from his 2012 album, titled simply Petunia and the Vipers. “They’re similar kind of songs, but aside from that, they were written the same sort of way: you have all these ideas floating around in your head for maybe years, and then one day, they just come out.”
Unfortunately for the rest of Canada, Petunia doesn’t bring the Vipers across the country often, usually just touring with Mader and the occasional hitchhiker. Their stories could fill another article—like the time they picked up a freight-hopping fiddler who ended up on tour with them, or the time Petunia ended up playing a balloon festival in Sussex, New Brunswick, run by a hitchhiker’s mom. “The band will go to big places,” Petunia says. “We toured all of the U.K. and Ireland, and we tour up and down the West Coast.”
Petunia continues by arguing “You can’t tour Canada as a band,” and then offers a story he heard from Ian Tyson: “He was talking about his own music, and he said, ‘It doesn’t travel well east-west. It travels really good north-south, because along the ridge of the mountains, the cow that gives her calf in Alberta gives her calf the same way in Mexico. All along the ridge, it’s the same culture.’ But he might also have been talking about how getting over the mountains, after mid October, is foolish, if you’re going to do it regularly! Many musicians have died. And then once you’re over the mountains, it’s not just that you cross once. You cross twice, to come back!”
Petunia and the Vipers play a CD release party at the Imperial Theatre (319 Main Street) next Saturday (May 24).