Lafayette, Louisiana-native Levi Petree is a ragin’ Cajun who has an affinity for Johnny Cash and The Clash. Mix in his Louisiana roots, and the singer/songwriter has a sound as spicy as the gumbo his state is known for.
The bayou-bred musician learned his craft at Irish jam sessions where he was educated on “three chords and the truth” of songwriting. This style became his credo of sorts as Petree started crafting songs which would eventually become his album ‘It’s Country,’ a sarcastic title if there ever was one.
The songs on ‘It’s Country’ showcase a range of styles and influences. There’s a little Americana thrown in on tracks like the hopeful “Fight On” and humorous story song “The Habanero Do-Si-Do,” but you’ve also got barn-burning rave-ups (“The Rapture,” “Eyes So Blue”), an ode to Morrissey and ’50s pop (“I Know You’re Gonna Haunt Me”), a Beatles-esque sing-a-long (“Rockaway”), an early-Elvis era ballad (“Lover’s Cove”) and the snarl of the Sex Pistols (“Do What You Want”). The closest the album ever comes to truly tapping into its country namesake is the song “What’s It Gonna Take?” an emotionally charged, Springsteen-esque response to a movie theater shooting in Levi’s hometown of Lafayette in July 2015.
Innocent Words is honored to premiere Levi Petree’s riveting track “What’s It Gonna Take” off ‘It’s Country,’ and we sat down with singer to talk about this emotionally charged single.
Innocent Words: The background story for “What’s It Gonna Take?” is such a fucked up event. Was it hard to write this song?
Levi Petree: Unfortunately, this is something that came as a result of a horrible and unnecessary tragedy. There was a shooting at a movie theatre in my hometown of Lafayette, LA a couple years ago, and I wrote this song the night it happened. I’d been at a movie theatre here in Los Angeles and was hit with texts and voice mails about it as soon as I came out. It was an awful feeling because, as we’d seen so many times in the news, it could happen anywhere and it’d finally happened to a place and people I loved. I was angry and floored and just sat down to write. It was the same theatre I’d go to with my family while I was in town and all I could think was that it could’ve been someone I knew. Most of the lyrics just poured out of me. The next morning, though, I found out I actually had known someone in the theater who’d been shot, but they were going to survive. Then I learned the names of those who hadn’t made it and it just broke my heart. They were two young women, vibrant and active in the community. One of the women happened to be a musician and designer for a local clothing shop she owned with her husband. They sold Louisiana and Cajun-centric clothing that featured some of her original designs.
Every time I went home, I’d stop by her store and pick up a new shirt, or a button for my guitar strap. It was a way of taking Louisiana back to California with me, a little piece of home. Going to her store and wearing her designs helped me maintain a sense of pride in where I was from. I couldn’t stop thinking about the two women who were gone, or my friend who was sitting in a hospital bed. I couldn’t stop thinking about their families. And for the rest of the day, I just sat down with my guitar and processed. I didn’t want to stop until it was done.
Innocent Words: Writing the song is one thing, but recording it is another. Was it tough to get “What’s It Gonna Take?” how you wanted it to honor those effected by the tragedy?
Levi Petree: There was a great sense of fun for all of the other recordings, but this one was a little more serious. Because of the subject matter, I think everyone brought a bit more weight and wanted to make sure we did the subject justice. The majority of the songs on the album had all been in my band’s repertoire for a while, but this is one we hadn’t worked on much. I know we’d attempted rehearsals with it, but can’t remember if we’d ever felt confident enough to do it at a show. When we were recording, it felt like something new. It’s also one of only two songs we basically recorded live for the album. The rhythm guitar, bass, and drums were all recorded live and then we layered a bit of lead guitar and organ months later.
Innocent Words: I’m sure you had an idea in your head of what this song would sound like. How does the end result measure up to that idea in your mind?
Levi Petree: The final piece of the recording puzzle was getting our friend Erik Szabo to put some organ on it. I was in Louisiana for a couple months, but Sean and Chad kept working with him on all their keyboard parts for the album. I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the first mixdown of this song with completed organ. I was in Baton Rouge, killing time before a show by driving around on I-10. They’d just sent me the file and I played it through my grandmother’s car stereo. It was magnificent. I know it’s my own song and I’m invested in it, but Erik’s presence on this song made such a change in the recording that I completely forgot what had come before. There will always be things with my vocals and some extra guitar that I wish I could go back and tinker with, but I knew once we had that organ on there it was done. It felt complete. It brought more power and build to the chorus, also giving the song this elegiac, gospel tone that I thought was necessary. Chad and Sean also came up with this beautiful harmony for a background vocal on the bridge that I think added something special to that moment. What we released with this one is something I’m quite proud of.
Innocent Words: How do you think “What’s It Gonna Take” represents you as an artist? What do you hope listeners take away from having listened to it?
Levi Petree: I think it does a good job of representing the hybrid where I live. There’s no medium slog for me. I either want to do something simple with just my guitar and harmonica, or I want to have the life-affirming power of a rock & roll assault behind me. In a strictly musical sense, you get the best of both worlds on this one. Lyrically, I try to be thoughtful and compassionate and I think that helped to drive the song, as well.
I hope people that listen to this song can either relate to it, or maybe gain a different perspective without feeling like they’ve been preached at. That was never the purpose of this song. It obviously came from a very personal place for me and I’ve gotten involved with certain causes as a result. My only goal in releasing and promoting it, though, was to draw out awareness and empathy for someone else’s plight.