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Into the Sound 

Jacob Petrie could have gone to Harvard, but he went into the woods instead

click to enlarge STEPHEN SCHLANGE
  • Stephen Schlange

The sun had finally peeked through the spring clouds, and Jacob Petrie knew that this was the day he was going to tell the story of his winter. It was March of last year. He'd gone running earlier in the day and now was soaking in the sort of warmth he'd missed after several snowbound months living on the shores of Priest Lake. He was ready now. He'd been practicing for this. He was going to paint a picture, through music, of his experiment in the woods.

Two days spent in a fury of inspiration later, he had seven tracks of synthesizer-driven instrumental music. The then-22-year-old called the album Live Right, a phrase that had become his personal motto after nearly a year without as much as a cellphone or Internet connection. He's proud of the result, but in a different world, with just a few different choices, Petrie wouldn't have spent his winter in the wilds, but in the library at the Harvard School of Law. He'd been accepted to the most prestigious law school in the country, but he wanted to make music.

So he made music.

Almost all the walls of Petrie's first-floor downtown Spokane apartment are bare. But there's one small poster of John Lennon sitting at a white piano on the wall nearest the bank of synthesizers, mixing boards and other assorted gadgets where Petrie, with a shaved head and a defensive-back build beneath a plain T-shirt, composes his music. Things are shockingly clean — even the bathroom where his bachelor's degree from the University of Montana sits framed above the toilet and the kitchen from which he'll pour me a glass of water.

The occasional car buzzes past his window. It's not loud, but it's deafening compared to the sort of quiet you'll find during a winter at Priest Lake, where the population dwindles from its summer peak down to a few hardy souls, and where everything from buying a gallon of milk to getting your mail becomes exponentially more difficult, despite the lake's relative proximity to Spokane.

I ask Petrie how he ended up at his parents' lake cabin instead of Harvard. It will take two more meetings and nearly seven hours for him to answer that question. And he does so in a near-monologue that amounts to a relatively complete record of the past three years of his life. The narrative is always linear — one step leading to another, one decision affecting the next, all of it somehow coming back to music. If I take him off course, he navigates us back to the story, even if it's an hour later. This can be exhausting, because if you ask about Priest Lake, you need to know about college, and you'll only grasp his college experience if you learn about his youth.

"I ate lunch in the bathroom the first day of high school. It's not a sob story, it's just the truth," says Petrie.

He came to Ferris High School from Odyssey, a Spokane public school program for gifted youth where he was, by and large, with the same group of 20 or so kids for four straight years. By the time he was in eighth grade, his skill with the saxophone had him playing with the high school jazz band in the mornings before heading to Odyssey. He was taking a number of private lessons and had excelled at a number of instruments by the time he reached high school, where he said the initial challenge was learning how to make friends.

He didn't struggle with music, though. He studied under skilled Spokane musicians like David Dutton and Brian Bogue and played in the Spokane Youth Symphony. At the same time, he was diving headfirst into rock music, applying the same intensity.

"I got lucky. My older sister is five years older than me and she had every Radiohead album that was out at that point," says Petrie, who remembers lying on his bed and disappearing into the sounds of OK Computer.

By high school, he was taking lessons for oboe, saxophone and piano while also dabbling in guitar. Music was pretty much everything, and he was damn good at it. But on the ride back from a lesson one day, Petrie waited for the car to stop before he told his mom he was done. He'd later ask his mom to sell his oboe and saxophone.

"It was hard for us because we thought, 'You have so much talent and ability that it should be part of your life,'" says his mother, Linda Petrie, an administrative law judge who works for the state of Washington. Jacob's father, Gair, also is an attorney in Spokane.

Linda and Gair figured their son was too young to be so singularly focused. So from there, Petrie tells of devoting himself to a number of pursuits for the rest of high school: the JV baseball team, debate, track and field, girls, partying, making hashbrowns. School, though, never attracted that laser focus.

"I didn't like going to class, didn't like doing homework. I was the typical kid who wasn't yet working to their potential," says Petrie, who would get a C in an AP class only to smash the AP exam with a top score.

He graduated with about a B average and applied to only one school — the University of Montana — and even that was on a whim. His parents were willing to pay for his school, but only if he maintained a 3.0 grade point average.

He arrived in Missoula the following fall. He played lacrosse, studied psychology and figured he'd become an English teacher. Just two and a half years later, though, he was ready to graduate with a 3.99 GPA and one of the top LSAT scores in the country. He set his sights on the nation's top law schools, Harvard being at the top of the list, and by his standards, the only school on the list.

Have you written the songs for your next album yet?

"That's a whole different conversation. Songwriting is something I do all the time."

Can you play me some?

"I wasn't prepared for that."

So, is this an album of covers?

"No, no. Those are just sample tracks."

It's a week after we've first met and I'm finally asking questions, but only because I've found myself woefully confused at what exactly Petrie is trying to show me on his computer. He's just a few minutes removed from explaining that he's devoting his energy toward dissecting pop songs — as in Top 40 sorta pop — to learn how to write and produce his next album, and that was confusing enough. Now, I'm staring at a bunch of marks on a screen as Petrie explains why Kesha's "Tik Tok" provides excellent scaffolding for a poppy rock song he wants to build.

This is all part of his studious intensity. If he were at Harvard, he'd be examining the minutiae of constitutional law. But in preparation for his next album, he's studying the beats per minute of a Katy Perry song.

"I view the pop format as grammar. I want to be able to speak in the language that people trust and people understand and can lose themselves in," he says, almost defensively.

This is frustratingly impressive, but I still want to know why he delayed Harvard for a year, then two years, and how he ended up at Priest Lake for a winter, and what the hell he did with all his time. And, shit, I'm just going to ask him if he thinks this whole making-music-in-the-woods a la Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is cliché at this point.

"I fully embraced that cliché. I was fine with that," says Petrie, who adores Vernon's work and has read extensively about how the singer-songwriter holed up in his dad's remote Wisconsin hunting cabin, writing the songs that he'd release under the name Bon Iver.

But before we can go to the lake, we need to go to Portland, Petrie says. Before he set off to make Live Right, he was devoted almost singularly to getting into Harvard Law. In his last semester at the University of Montana in the fall of 2010, he'd studied for the LSAT with monk-like intensity and slaved over law school applications. After graduating, he spent time living with his parents in Spokane, volunteering at the Center for Justice and coaching middle school lacrosse. But he had canceled his application to Harvard before it was considered because he thought it flawed, with typos and other errors. He was, however, accepted to high-level law schools like Duke and Georgetown — at age 20. Those schools were not Harvard, so Petrie decided he'd take a year and work on his applications. But he needed money.

"My only marketable skill at that point was knowing how to take the LSAT," he says.

That skill, it turns out, pays well if you can teach others how to take the test, which he did. The company paid for him to live in Portland, where he'd teach a class early in the week before jetting up to Seattle and doing the same. For the better part of a year, he went back and forth, spending his 21st birthday instructing the next crop of aspiring attorneys in logic puzzles and using spare moments playing his guitar and composing music on his computer. He also got his applications dialed in to where he wanted.

He was playing his guitar one day in December of 2011 when the phone rang. It was someone from Harvard. He'd been accepted.

"I got the phone call and I just kept playing my guitar because I was already so much in that other focus," he says. "But all of a sudden, I'm in this position where my family and friends are all expecting me to go to law school."

It was a little more than a month later when he decided he wasn't going to Harvard, at least not the following fall. The school's admissions department is clear in its support of a one-year deferral. So with music on his mind, Petrie headed back to Portland, where he found an affordable sublet and was charging ahead with the aims of recording some sort of singer-songwriter album.

Soon, he'd met a skilled musician with a few professional recordings under his belt, and Petrie thought he'd found a mentor. Days were spent talking about music, and dinners were consumed with the man, his wife and their young child. It was a full immersion mentorship, Petrie recalls.

Then came a car ride in which the man screamed at his child and wife. The incident rattled the sensitive Petrie, who was soon set to head back to Spokane for a visit. By the time he got home, he was already uneasy about the man he'd thought was guiding him toward his musical goals. Then the wife called Petrie. She said she'd been physically and psychologically abused by the man, sometimes just moments after Petrie had left following a dinner. And the baby was in danger, too. Thankfully, Petrie says, she got away from him.

But Petrie was floored. He changed his phone number. He never went back to Portland and he never wanted his creative or personal goals to rely on anyone else.

"I can't ever put myself in the position where I'm relying on someone for validation that I'm doing the right thing," he says. "I trust other people, but my attitude with the music and my path with it shifted to this thing where I will rely on no one."

What did you do with your time in the woods?

"I would watch the weather. Seriously. It was like a performance every day," says Petrie.

He did other things, too, of course. He took long walks in the snow at night. He meditated and drank tea and laid on the ground and, more than anything, thought about music and his life and how the two intersected.

click to enlarge Jacob Petrie, aka Jakob with a K, throws an impromptu dance party in an alley downtown. - STEPHEN SCHLANGE
  • Stephen Schlange
  • Jacob Petrie, aka Jakob with a K, throws an impromptu dance party in an alley downtown.

Eric Gavelin met Petrie at band camp during high school and has remained a close friend. He was wrapping up his English degree at Eastern Washington University when he learned that Petrie was staying at Priest Lake, where Gavelin and Petrie had both worked at a resort during their college summers. He'd drop in on Petrie on the weekends, peeking in on a creative experiment that at one point had Petrie declaring that he was going to make seven albums in a year.

Gavelin, and other friends who visited over the course of Petrie's time at the cabin, were often brought into long conversations about art. Petrie, who by then had put off Harvard for yet another year, also taught Gavelin how to play guitar. Other friends, including Petrie's new girlfriend, came to the lake to provide a necessary comma to the long stretches of isolation. The cabin, at least at certain times, had become a philosophical and artistic retreat.

"A lot of time was spent with me painting in a room and him playing music and learning software in another, with tea breaks where I was grilled about how I came up with painting ideas," says Gavelin. "It seems like an attempt by an emerging artist to pin down the abstractions of art, or maybe a way to find the place from which inspiration comes from."

Both of these guys talk like this unabashedly, in complete opposition to the LOL communication of their peers. It all reflects the fact that Petrie has spent an unfathomable amount of time just thinking. And that's what he set out to do when he went to the lake.

"I was on this personal, inward, introspective journey, and music was what I was doing, but ultimately it was just part of that journey. Music was just another tool I had to explore myself. I was investigating all those cliché questions — who am I, what am I doing?"

He speaks voluminously about the notion of "flow," the philosophy professing that one can enter into a state in which they excel at a task by focusing all of their energy on said task — it's zero distraction, high-level productivity. This is why Petrie says he was taking all those long walks where he "took pictures" that he wanted to recreate sonically. It's also why he was painstakingly experimenting with his music software all those months. And it's why he was sitting in the sun that morning last March. He was waiting for the moment to be right to make his music, and then he dove in for those two days and nights. There were weeks of editing and tweaking, but the bulk of the creative vision from that stretch remained.

Now he has Live Right, which he released in December under the name Jakob with a K. It's not revolutionary by any means, and Petrie doesn't claim it to be, but it's solid electronic music. Mixed at Portland's Jackpot studio by famed Elliott Smith collaborator Larry Crane, the record is mostly simple but perfectly listenable, and at times dance-worthy. Sometimes, you can feel some of the emotion the young artist is working through, but mostly it's just music, and he's fine with you feeling that way. For Petrie, it's a permanent and personal record of the year he decided to put down everything and go into the woods.

"Instead of trying to access it in my memory, I can put on this record and I'm there."

So are you heading to Harvard in the fall?

"I hate to avoid the question — honestly, how I live my life, I don't know. An asteroid could hit us, I could step outside after talking to you and I could get hit by one of the buses that rolls by Sprague," Petrie tells me one afternoon.

That day he was completing housing paperwork for Harvard, so it's hardly off the table. But he can't commit just yet, he says. He has this new album to complete and he has no timeline on that.

The idea of a law degree from Harvard has its appeal, though. Yes, he's aware that some of his classmates could turn out to be the next "slimy politicians," yet others might be the next leaders of social change. It would be nice to hang out with those people, he says. But he could give a damn about the sort of money he'd make with that degree. On the other side of the coin, he's not concerned with even his pop music aspirations yielding any cash. When he says this, you're inclined to believe him. Either he's the best undiscovered car salesman or the kid just has something figured out. His mom thinks it's the latter.

"The day he learned not to ride his bike with training wheels, he would ride 20 miles. The big joke was that he just kept going," says Linda. "There was no hesitation and no looking back, he just mastered it. That is how he's approached everything."

Petrie would like you to listen to his music if you'd like, even if he really just made it so he could remember his own story. He's really good at telling the story about where he's been — just don't expect to be told what's coming up ahead.

"My priority is to breathe and be happy and to treat other people well, and if I can do those things, it really doesn't matter what I'm doing." ♦

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