Ep. 6 :: Levi Petree is Making Conversation

Apr 7, 2014 by

Welcome to episode six

of Making Conversation.

(click on the media player above left to listen to or download the full audio of this interview)

Thanks for joining me for Making Conversation, where every week I interview an artist in his or her 30s, who is doing work I find important, and has something illuminating to say about what it means to do what we do as we are now.  My name is Chelsea Marcantel, and my guest this week is Levi Petree.

You can listen to his debut EP, Rebel Music, if you click here.

Levi is a songwriter and actor from Lafayette, LA. He attended Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA, as well as The School at Steppenwolf in Chicago,  where he was a founding member of the SiNNERMAN Ensemble. Levi currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA, writing songs and performing with his band, The Radio Publica. You can also see him in the sketch comedy series, The Best of Craigslist.   Levi is one of my best pals.  We had a standing karaoke date at the Holiday Club in Chicago: rain or shine, or blizzard, every Wednesday night, for about two years.


Levi Petree (photo credit: Ashley Anne Caven)

Levi Petree (photo credit: Ashley Anne Caven)

CHELSEA:  How are you today?

LEVI:  I’m doing great!  Beautiful day out here.

CHELSEA:  Oh good!  So, Levi, what labels do you use to describe yourself as an artist?

LEVI:  Um, I’m really working and getting comfortable with just being a ‘songwriter,’ or maybe just an all-around ‘entertainer.’  I think I feel very confident in myself when you just say, “Yeah, I’m a songwriter.”  Or “I’m a musician.”

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  For some reason, I’ve felt uncomfortable in the past saying, like, “I’m an artist.”  Like, it just implied something that didn’t sit too well with me.  Maybe it’s because I just didn’t wholly buy into what being a true artist means, and totally committing yourself to it.  So, um, I don’t know.  I feel… I just feel very comfortable just saying, “Yeah, you know what, I write music.  I write and play music.”  It’s what I love doing.

CHELSEA:  Great.  Do you have any sort of, like, role models for the kind of entertainer that you want to be?

LEVI:  Yeah!  Songwriters like Springsteen, Dylan, Morissey—guys that write a lot of rock songs that are very poppy, and are just very, kind of, firm in their structure.  Very much a verse—chorus—bridge type of writing process.  But also, just in terms of what I’m trying to work towards, I feel like those guys just keep cranking things out.  They are able to write things that are fun to sing along to, and also things that are very personal to them.  And they’re great, they’re really fun entertainers, when you see them live in concert.  I think ultimately that’s something that I’d really like to achieve, where people just know that it’s going to be a great time when you come to the show.  And it’s songs that you can just sing along to, and it’s going to be a fun, unique experience.

CHELSEA:  Uh-huh.

LEVI:  That’s what’s most important to me right now.  Just making sure we have good songs that will hold up well live.

CHELSEA:  Cool.  So let’s talk background and geography just a little bit.  You are from Louisiana, like I am, but we actually met in Chicago, and now you live in Los Angeles.  So let’s talk a little bit about the cities that you’ve lived in and worked in, and why you chose them when you chose them.

LEVI:  Okay.  So, once I left Louisiana—I went to college at this great, great school in central Louisiana called Northwestern State University, which really paid off when I moved to Chicago, because it had the same font and color as Northwestern University in Evanston.

CHELSEA: {laughs}

LEVI:  {laughing} So I just really tapped into that student discount market up in Chicago.  And, you know, I ended up in Chicago because I was dating this girl at the time—I was a semester ahead of her—I had just gotten into grad school in California, and kinda talked my way into going to Chicago with her for the summer.  She was going to be doing an improve intensive at iO, Improv Olympic, in Chicago.  So, we found this really expensive, furnished studio apartment in the Gold Coast before we went up there, and we loaded up her dad’s truck, and we drove up.  Neither one of us had been to Chicago.  And I think I’d only auditioned for grad school because I didn’t know what else to do or where to go, so I just wanted to have something set up.

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  So, when I ended up in Chicago that first morning–it was raining the night that we got in, so you couldn’t really see anything—so the next morning when I woke up, we were so close to the lake that I just walked out to it.  And it was so beautiful.  And, you know, you could look up and see the skyline, the Hancock tower kind of overlooking the water, and Michigan Avenue, and it was just so beautiful.  I felt so at home right away.  I was like, this is, yeah, this is where I’m gonna stay.  I’m gonna make it happen here.  

CHELSEA:  Yeah, June is how Chicago gets you, for sure.

LEVI:  {laughing} Yeah!  Yeah, definitely… you definitely want to buy into that over the summer.

CHELSEA:  {laughs}

 headshot by Greg Crowder

Headshot by Greg Crowder

LEVI:  Yeah, so, then I decided to move there, moved all my stuff up.  And it took me about a year before really getting settled, and meeting people, and figuring out, you know, how to play the Chicago game.  Of acting and auditions.  After I’d been there for a year, I got into—I got really lucky with this, and I think it set up the rest of my time in Chicago, and kind of informed everything from there—I auditioned and got into the Steppenwolf Summer Theatre Program.  And from there I met about twelve or thirteen people that, we just really connected and decided to form a theatre company together, which, you know, seems to be thing that people do in Chicago, is they form their own theatre company.  And so we formed the SiNNERMAN ENSEMBLE, and we started producing plays together.  I’ll give other people more of the producing credit.  I, you know, helped out with other stuff, and acted in the shows.   But, yeah, so, I was fortunate to work with some really great directors and companies, and do some shows and roles that I really liked a lot, and I think by… After a couple of years, you’re working so much that you’re constantly in a show, and then you’re in rehearsals for another show while the other one’s running, but you are having to find other ways to make ends meet.  So, it could be… In my case, I was getting up at five in the morning, or a little bit before that, to work at this gym during the day, and I did that for about the first three years that I was there in Chicago.  And then after that, it was dog walking, and the apartment brokers thing.  So, you know, you’re working your full-time job to be able to support your nightlife, which is the theatre and the awesome theatre community of Chicago.   I think I just got to point where I was like, “Well, I’m young and without responsibility, so maybe I’ll just try to move out to LA and see what happens there.”

CHELSEA:  What was it about LA that appealed to you, specifically?

LEVI:  (pause) I honestly sometimes don’t really know, when I look back on it or think about it.  And I think it’s a couple of things.  I think it’s that I got it in my head where, “Oh, you can go out to LA and make money acting?  Yeah, sure.  That sounds like a good idea.”  And then, I think, I put myself in a position where I’d said I was going to do it, so think I said “I guess I better just do it.”

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  And it took… it took a while to get to a place where I really felt like I knew what I was doing.  I feel like I got my butt kicked around a little bit.  I was trying to make a life in a city happen very quickly.  I was so used to living in Chicago and working there, that I kind of gravitated toward a lot of Chicago people.  I got here and was trying to rush tings, and make new friends, and form, like, a new family, and get involved with more familiar acting work.  Like, I started doing a Meisner series that I ended up just hating.  I just wasn’t very comfortable, and I was trying to rush myself.  And I also got hurt—I’d been training for a marathon and I hurt my knee, so I was in physical therapy as soon as I moved here.  It was just a lot.  And I kind of realized that, you know, I don’t really know if this is the day-to-day work that I want to be doing in order to make sure I make it as an actor.  Like, I don’t really know that I care about it that much, to where I will just be crushed if that dream doesn’t happen.  And, in the back of my mind—or, something that had always been on my mind—was that I wanted to play music.  I had a guitar.  I’ve always fantasized about it, and would also kind of write things and have melodies pop up in my head, even though I didn’t know how to play an instrument yet.

CHELSEA: Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  And I’d finally, you know, just kind of made myself start sitting down and learning how to play guitar.  I’d go onto YouTube and watch people play things, or I figured out that you could go on the internet and they’d show you the chord structures if you wanted to learn and song.  And for me, that just ended up being the easiest way to learn how to play guitar, was learning other songs.  And so I just started to teach myself, and it also taught me more about songwriting.  And just knowing, like, a big song book and just being able to pull from all these things.  So once that started to happen, then I became a lot more comfortable with being in Los Angeles, and really loving the city, and starting to figure out, “Okay, how can I make that happen here?  Like, have that be the reason why I’m here and the work I want to do.  And finding that now and having that to work on daily, is something that kind of opening acting and everything else back up, because it’s got… It’s helped me figure out that here, you really have to self-produce and self-start and make your own things happen.  It’s got, you know, me writing other sketches, or doing comedy, or getting involved with that again.  Also when I moved here, I was doing stand-up for a little while and it was fun.  I had a great time doing it.  So, for me being in LA, that is what the experience has been.  It’s been more about like, “Okay, this is really time for you to hammer down what it is that you are going to do and make happen for yourself.  Something’s not just going to fall in your lap, and if it does, you have to be prepared to run with it.”

CHELSEA: So you’ve made this transition now from being primarily an actor, to being primarily a songwriter and a musician.

LEVI:  It doesn’t feel like a phase.  I mean, I don’t know that when I was acting, that ever felt like a phase.  I thought, for sure, you know, why would anybody ever want to do anything else?  This is the life, this is the best thing.  And then, I got older, and had some other experiences, and it just kinda changed that.  Since I started doing this, since I started writing my own songs, and getting out and getting to play, I haven’t looked back.  That’s something that feels overwhelming at times, and a little scary, but it’s also a huge driving force.  It’s like, well, if you don’t do it, then guess what?  You’re going to run out of time and it’s just not gonna happen.

CHELSEA:  Uh-huh.

LEVI:  So, no, it’s not a phase at all.  We had a show last night that just burned the house down.  And it’s invigorating, it’s like, “Yeah, this is—this is it.  This is the way to go.”  And it just fits.  It just feels right.

Levi Petree and the Radio Publica at the Silverlake Lounge  (photo credit: Becca Murray)

Levi Petree and the Radio Publica at the Silverlake Lounge (photo credit: Becca Murray)

{Song Excerpt: “Cheap Thrills” from the Rebel Music EP}

CHELSEA: So, if you could give advice to a young artist in his or her twenties, what would you say?

LEVI:  Oh, there’s so much!  There’s just so much!

CHELSEA: {laughs}

LEVI:  I… Just based on personal experience, I feel… Just try to sit down with yourself and really just write out what it is that you want.  What kind of goals do you have for yourself.  And if it is… if you know what it is that you want, no matter what type of artist you are, find a couple of people whose careers you admire, whose careers you think you’d like to have, and just study anything you can about them.  Read biographies, watch their work, figure out what process is.  What kind of stuff do you do that’s similar?  If you don’t really know what it is that you want, your twenties, I think, are a great time to just throw yourself at the wall and just see what ends up sticking for you.  Not everything will, but you’ll be able to figure out what it is that you want to do.  You’ll also be able to figure out what you don’t want to do.  And you can just really work yourself to the point of exhaustion, because you’re gonna have plenty of time to settle down and be selective.

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  You know, if you can, if it’s possible, maybe find a mentor.  Somebody that is a little bit older than you, or is willing to kind of take you on and check in with you every once in a while, that you can kind of be there up close and study one-on-one.  And they can kind of tell you, “No, you know what, maybe kind of worry a little bit more about this, focus on this, try to get into these places.  Here’s what you can do to kind of get your foot through the door.”  I feel like some people that you have access to, I feel like a lot of people probably would want to help out somebody that was just starting out.  I guess.  Also, I feel like now that I’m in my early thirties, focus starts to change and I think more ahead now.  Like, okay, I’m not going to be young forever, I guess my body will start breaking down.  I’ve had a couple of surgeries in the last years that I’ve had to pay for.   So think about trying to get your health insurance, think about saving money, getting a savings account and learning more about finances, too.  So that you can be okay down the road.  You’ll be taken care of.  And also because it’ll help sustain you as an artist when things are going slow.  Like, you can still kind of do some work for free, just to stay involved with the process. 

CHELSEA:   Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  And not just be constantly worrying about money.

CHELSEA:  I think the financial stuff is a good point, because um, specifically with artists, I think that, um… In other professions, maybe you realize that you’ll have to pay your dues and you’ll have to put in some time and slowly build up equity, and slowly to get to a point where you can comfortably live.  But with artists, I think we sometimes have this idea that we’re just going to struggle, and be poor, and then eventually we’ll have this break and we’ll have more money than we could possibly know what to do with.  So, it’s like, “Well, I’ve just got to get to the point, to that watershed moment when I get all the money.”  When in fact, most working artists, you know, will never have that huge payday where they suddenly get a $20 million paycheck.  So the sooner you can learn to live on what you have and live within your means, whatever that means for you, the more comfortable you’ll be and the less anxiety you’ll have.  Which will ultimately make you more able to focus on what you’re trying to do.

LEVI:  Yeah.  Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right.  The biggest wake-up call that I had, and a lot of my friends had, as we got older and we got into our thirties, is that Life Is Real.  Real problems exist.

CHELSEA:  Look to the future.  Because Life Is Long.   That’s something I’ve learned in my thirties.

LEVI:  Yep, yep, yep.

CHELSEA:  Life goes on for a long time.

LEVI:  Oh yeah.  Oh god, Chelsea, it’s… I’m only thirty-one, and I’ve had that same thought of, “Life is long.”  And then I think, “There’s another forty, fifty years of this?  Maybe more?  Maybe less?  Oh my god.”

CHELSEA: {laughs}

LEVI:  {laughing}  That’s uh, that’s definitely something I’ve started to write about, too.  And I think they’re funny for, like, this thirty-year-old person to be singing about, you know, “I’m not saying we can live forever.”

Photo credit: Becca Murray

Photo credit: Becca Murray

{Song Excerpt: “Dropping the Shield” from the Rebel Music EP}

CHELSEA: Well, piggybacking on the “Life Is Long” realism, what sustains you?  Why do you keep doing and making and creating?

LEVI:  (long pause)  Right now, I feel like, to be 100% honest, there is a lot of fear and worry of future disappointment that makes me wake up and just really try to hit these things and make it happen.

CHELSEA: Uh-huh.

LEVI:  Because I, I think, “Okay, you’re getting older, and time may actually be running out.”  It sometimes feels like it’s a young man’s game, or a young person’s game.  So you only have a certain window to get these things out. And it’s not like that for every artist.  If I get in a position where I’m stuck, or I’m worried, it’s like, you know what?  Screw it.  Just get it out there.  Find something to do; just start making it happen.  Get people together to play music.  Um, you know, I’ve loved living in Los Angeles and Chicago.  I don’t know that I want to live in another city, or start that process all over again.  And there’s a hope, I think, that I just want to end up in Louisiana.  I think I’d be really fine and comfortable and want to be back in Lafayette or around there, and just be able to work on music every day.  And be around my family.  It has hit me that, “Oh, you know what, the last ten years I’ve spent most of my adult life away from my family.  Getting to see them a couple of times a year.”

CHELSEA:  And you said something when we were talking about this earlier that I had not thought about but, um, I identify with—the idea that you would have spent all this time away from your family pursing something that would eventually not amount to anything.  So it has to, it has to mean something.  To have given up all this time with your family, you have to dedicate yourself to it so it becomes a worthwhile sacrifice. 

LEVI:  I don’t know why, but I sometimes worry, as I start to think more about having kids and what is the reason behind… I try to come up with, like, why you’d want to have a kid and raise a child, and what is it that you want your kid to achieve?  And I sometimes wonder, like, “Man, I wonder if my parents are disappointed in me.”


LEVI:  {laughing}  Because it hasn’t clicked, or it hasn’t happened.  And I don’t think that they are at all, but it’s just something that I think about.  So, knowing that I want to be closer to them, and I miss them, I think that just has an effect on me.  Like, “Well, you can’t just go on without thinking about it forever.”  I feel like a lot of people—I don’t know if this is true—but I know a lot of people do move away from home, and they don’t see their folks or talk to their folks or their other family members that much.  I feel like you’re really great about it.  You get to see your parents a lot, and you’re in contact with your brother and your sister, and I really admire that.  I find that very inspiring.  Because I feel like you are able to live the life that you want, and from my impression, it seems like you are very comfortable with the life that you and Miles have together.  It’s just so awesome, and I look at that and I admire that so much.  And I think… I don’t know that I’ve found that yet, to where I’m just really comfortable and have everything set up the way that I want to be.  And I think my ultimate fantasy sees me down in Louisiana, near my family, being able to do all this stuff.  Which I think is possible.  {laughs} But you know, now I feel like, okay, you’ve got these guys you love playing music with, and it’s doing something to elevate that, so now it’s like, “Okay.  You need to commit to being here.”


LEVI:  I do feel good about committing to that, and being here, even though, you know, it’s a little lump in my throat.

CHELSEA:   I didn’t, um…  I—I am close to my family, I mean, I know I don’t see them as much as they would like, but I also sometimes feel like, if I have a kid… We live in Virginia, or if we go somewhere else, how often is that kid going to see their grandparents?  How often are they going to see their cousins?  How are they going to know them growing up?  Having grown up being just so close to all of my family all of the time, and I know that really shaped me as a human being, I sometimes worry that I’ll have a kid that’ll have a long-distance family.  And how weird that would be.  So that’s kind of a lump in my throat, too.  I think about that more since I got married.  But, to shift to something less melancholy and more exciting—

LEVI:  Okay?

CHELSEA:   Tell me about the album.  Tell me what’s going on, and how people can find it, and what you’re exited about.

L-R: John Salgado Jr, Tony Sancho, Levi Petree, Sean Novak.   photo credit: Calliope Porter

L-R: John Salgado Jr, Tony Sancho, Levi Petree, Sean Novak. (photo credit: Calliope Porter)

LEVI:  Well, I’m very excited!  I got the news on Friday that it’s up, it’s streaming on Spotify (click here) and it’s up on iTunes (click here).   The guys that I play music with?  I love them.  Absolutely love them, and I feel like a lot of people say, especially out here in Los Angeles, “Well, there’s so many musicians that everybody’s got their own thing going, so it’s hard to make it work.”  And I’ve gotten really lucky where, we all—the guys that I’m playing music with—this seems to be our ‘thing.’  When it was time to put the record out, you know, we sat down and kind of had the discussion of, “Okay, so we’ve got this band name, and we’ve been billing it as ‘Levi Petree and The Radio Publica.’  Is it easier to just market it as just myself, should we put the band name on there?”  And we’re like, “Eh, maybe it’s harder to have the band name on there, maybe it would be simpler and people would be able to recognize it a little bit more.”  So we kind of walked away from that and I made the decision to just use my name.  But then, at the end of the day, I was like, “You know what?  These guys really made it into something special, on top of anything that I did.  So I want to make sure that they get credit, that they feel like that we’re a band.  That we are all in it together.” 

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

LEVI:  They’re so talented and great, and we’re friends.  And we really connect together.  So anyway, so—very excited.  It’s an EP, it’s our first release.  We titled it Rebel Music after one of the tracks on there, and I think it just sums up  the very rock-and-roll spirit that is on there.  You know, it’s a statement of like—a little mini-statement, almost a demo, if you will, but a pretty professional, professionally mastered and mixed and recorded session of songs—that I think are a great idea of what our band is.  Of the greater ideas that we have, how much fun we are live—if you listen to this record, I feel like it’s pretty much exactly the energy that you’ll get when you come to see us play live.  It’s very fun.

CHELSEA:  Yeah, it’s all the things you’re saying.  It’s fun, it’s energetic, it sounds like a group of guys that have a lot of fun together.  It reminds me of all of the best parts of singing karaoke with you.  And I think that it’s gonna be great for summer, and for driving around with the top down.  And that whole sort of like, “We’re on an adventure.  Just every day, every day of life is an adventure” kind of feeling.  And I hope that people will find it on iTunes (click here) and Spotify (click here) and Facebook (click here) and just really connect to it.

LEVI:  I have no idea, like, I cannot control what people will think, if they’ll like it.  You know, whatever people get from it, that’s their own thing.  I just know that I want to put it out there.

CHELSEA: Well, thank you so much, it’s been so wonderful to talk to you today.  And I can’t wait to send this album out via, you know, my little push here, so that people can find it and enjoy it and listen to it.

LEVI:  Well, I was just going to thank you for offering to do this, and just the entire series that you’ve done.  I’ve been reading all the transcripts, starting with Danielle, and Margot, and all the others that you’ve put up.  It’s really awesome that you are doing this, and giving voice to your friends, and artists that you don’t normally get to hear from, and hear that side of, “This is what it’s like for a working artist that hasn’t exactly become a household name yet.”

CHELSEA:  Right.

LEVI:  And I just really appreciate that you asked me to participate.  I’m very grateful for that.

CHELSEA: Well that’s very nice of you to say.  Thanks for reading along, and for supporting the podcast!

LEVI:  Absolutely.

CHELSEA:  Well, I’ll talk to you soon.

LEVI:  All right.  Well, thank you very much, Chelsea.

Rebel Music album cover{Song Excerpt: “Remember When” from the Rebel Music EP}

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Making Conversation. I hope you’ll join me again soon for another chat about making art in our thirties.  You can download and read transcripts of past episodes at www.ChelseaDays.com.  You can also find this podcast on iTunes (click here).

My guest today was Levi Petree, and you can find his debut EP with his band The Radio Publica on iTunes and Spotify.  It’s called Rebel Music, and here are the links:

Levi Petree and The Radio Publica on Facebook  (click here)

Spotify  (click here)

iTunes  (click here)

CD Baby  (click here)

The Radio Publica band features Sean Novak on bass, Tony Sancho on drums, and John Salgado, Jr. on guitar.   Our theme song at the top of the show was composed by Miles Polaski, and the rest of the songs you’ve heard are from the Rebel Music EP.  My name is Chelsea Marcantel.

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