Sara Petite Sings Through Pain and Loss
San Diego Union Tribune
There is no medical evidence to prove that Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith and Carrie Rodriguez somehow joined forces to mother a fully grown musician daughter. But if they did, with Loretta Lynn and Roseanne Cash serving as musical midwives, San Diego singer-songwriter Sara Petite would be the likely outcome.
At the rate she’s evolved over the past seven years, Petite could one day be their peer. She’s already good enough that they would surely welcome her as a very promising protégé.
Now, with her fourth and newest album, “Circus Comes to Town,” this 2003 USIU political science and international relations graduate has produced the most accomplished and emotionally moving work of her career.
That’s the good news for Petite, who performs an all-star album release concert Saturday at the Belly Up.
The bad — make that sad — news is that to reach this artistic peak, she first had to overcome a state of emotional and physical depletion. It was fueled by intense grief and numbed at times by alcohol, as she makes clear in such stirring songs as “Forever Blue” and “Drinking to Remember.”
Both were inspired by the 2011 death of her partner John Kuhlken, who drummed in her band, The Sugar Daddies. A highly regarded pillar of the San Diego indie music scene, Kuhlken worked days as an advertising copywriter for U-T San Diego. His presence suffuses the best songs on “Circus.”
“In a lot of ways, it’s been really healing to write these songs. But, sometimes, it’s been really difficult,” said Petite, who cut the album in Nashville for her own Sweet Pea Records (sarapetite.com).
On the twangy, but wrenching, “Drinking to Remember,” she sings: Round every corner, I still search for you / But haven’t found you yet / I ain’t drinking to remember / I’m drinking to forget.
The suitably moody ballad “Forever Blue,” finds her lamenting, with a quiver in her voice: I’m out here standing, all alone / If I had God’s number, I’d pick up the phone / I’d ask him: Did my angel make it home? / Forever blue / Forever blue.
Petite wrote the album’s stately title song while Kuhlken was still alive. But its lyrics anticipate a looming void, with such telling lines as Lookie here, I’ve come down with the blues and Didn’t know I would fall like that.
" 'Circus Comes to Town' is a really sad song," said Petite's twin sister, Jenny, who shot all the photos for the accompanying CD booklet and will be a guest vocalist on a few songs at Saturday's Belly Up concert.
"Some people end up crying when they hear it."
Perhaps most moving of all is “Ashes,” the album’s melancholic closer.
On it, Petite makes Kuhlken the singer, so to speak, by putting his thoughts into the lyrics: Spread my ashes in the desert, scatter some at sea / Keep a little for yourself, a little piece of me.
“I think,” she said, “John actually helped me write it (posthumously).”