Fraser Valley musician Billy Pettinger is heading south to Nashville to follow her artistic dreams

Home is where her art is

Billy Pettinger has chased her dream from one side of the world to the other, but her heart will always lie in her hometown

Billy Pettinger has a lot going on.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in mid-October, and the 32-year-old musician is a day away from a homecoming show at The Roxy in Vancouver – a performance she’s promoted, tongue-in-cheek, as “my last Vancouver show in, maybe,  ever” – and she’s juggling a lot of responsibilities.

She has gear to pick up, a rehearsal to get to later and, considering this is only her third or fourth day at home in more than two months, there’s no shortage of friends and family with whom to catch up.

Oh, and on top of all that, she’s trying to quickly divest herself of some rustic-looking furniture via a slew of online ads before she hits the road again.

Just days after she plays The Roxy, Pettinger – a singer-songwriter who performs under the stage name Billy the Kid – is moving south to the Nashville area.

Time to unpack in her new city will be at a minimum, too, because a U.K. tour opening for punk/rock band Against Me! looms.

It’s a familiar trip for the thoughtful, heavily-tattooed singer, who spent much of the summer overseas, touring with musicians such as Billy Bragg and Chuck Ragan, while promoting her new album, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, which was released by London-based Xtra Mile Recordings.

All that travel – the unease that can come with living out of a suitcase for weeks on end – might seem, to some, as unsettling, especially now as the holidays creep into view and being at home with family and friends becomes important for so many.

And not to say Pettinger wouldn’t love to spend more time at home – she would – but she’s also cognizant of what it takes to make a living in her industry. In her, there exists an interesting juxtaposition of creativity and practicality.

“Vancouver is just a faraway place. When you’re trying to book a tour from here, it’s just a lot tougher. You’re surrounded by an ocean, by a border to cross, or a 10-hour drive to Calgary – or there’s Alaska,” she explains matter-of-factly.

“It’s home, and I’ve spent so much of my life here. But when you’re trying to make a living off of your art, it makes it a little bit harder to do when your hometown is one of the most expensive cities in the world.”

Rent at her new place near Nashville, she points out, is half the price of the one-bedroom apartment in Surrey she’s been renting – but rarely home to live in – the last couple years.

The road is a comfortable place for Pettinger, who grew up “in every suburb along Highway 1 from here to Abbotsford.” Since forming her first punk band as a teenager, she has lived everywhere from Vancouver, Kitchener, Ont., and Los Angeles, to Richmond, Va., back to Surrey, and now, Tennessee.

“If you don’t love what you’re doing, then there are things that you aren’t going to fall in love with about the road – the travelling and not being home, and missing people and family,” she says.

“But the other part of it is that it’s super exciting. You get to see all kinds of interesting things, and meet cool people and do interesting stuff – things you might not normally get the chance to do.”

She’s realized, too, that for someone in her line of work, location isn’t all that important, anyway.

“I can go to almost any city whenever I want to and book a show there, even if it’s somewhere small, like a coffee shop. So I can get that out of my system – I don’t have to live right in it, and that’s something I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older.”

There have been moments, however, where she’s struggled – times where she considered getting a real job and simply making music as a hobby. But each time, she’s fought the urge, knowing instead that being creative is the only thing that will truly make her happy.

In addition to her prolific music-making – she’s released four solo albums, as well as four with her old Ontario-based punk band, Billy and the Lost Boys – Pettinger has also published a children’s book, The Smallest Small of All, and spent stretches between touring as a painter. Last year, from her Surrey apartment, she created paintings almost daily, and sold them online to fans as a way to help pay the bills.

“There are so many things in the world that are trying to stop you from doing what you love the most. And it’s a lot to ask of your art to love you back and support you,” she says.

“So you have to keep finding that newness – that thing that makes you keep trying.

“There’s just a part in my brain that becomes activated, and makes me happiest, when I’m creating something… whether it’s writing a song, or a book, or drawing something, or painting. They all require different skills, but they all give me the same level of happiness. That’s the reward for me.”

When it comes to her artistic pursuits, Pettinger abides by a mantra well-known in the improv and acting world – always say yes.

“That’s the kind of creative spirit that’s always stuck with me. I don’t know how things are always going to work out, but you can either be scared of it, and not try, or go in a room and see what happens. A lot of times you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

That “let’s-see-what-happens” philosophy has served her well through the years, as it’s led to opportunities to make music with talents such as Bragg, Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida – who produced Pettinger’s first solo album – The Band’s Garth Hudson, who plays on Pettinger’s 2008 song, The Drugs, and Frank Turner, who produced her latest record.

“All these people, I’m a fan of… so to get to play at a show with them, or collaborate, it’s pretty neat to me – I’m always amazed that I get to do it,” she says. “I spent enough time in the trenches – struggling to make something happen and booking my own tours and stuff like that – that whenever something good happens, I expect it to be the last good thing that will ever happen. I think, ‘OK, well I guess I’ll go back home and get a real job after this.’

“I wouldn’t even be so bold as to guess what will happen next, because I never could’ve predicted any of this.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t still have things on her bucket list. She wants to write another children’s book, maybe a novel, too. She’d like to continue painting – maybe turn it into a legitimate side-career – and musically, touring with Ryan Adams, her favourite songwriter, still tops her to-do list.

And maybe – despite her previous claims to the contrary – she’ll hit the stage again here at home.

“It’ll be awhile, but never say never,” she says. “This will always be my home. It’s where I’m from.”

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