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Q&A: Petunia

The Canadian musician - real name Ron Fortugno - will be joined on stage by his band The Vipers next month for a special show at this year’s Belfast Children’s Festival.

So, how would you describe your show?

It's roots-based Americana and I like to say ‘action-adventure'! A big blend of styles, spanning all my influences — bebop, jazz, punk rock, classical. And we draw from the idioms of Americana and roots music. It's easy to latch on if you're a bebop or punk rock fan, or just a fan of good music.

Have you always been into country and roots music?

As a child, I didn't really listen to music. As a teenager, I was a punk rocker, and sometime around 18, 19, I got into jazz and classical music. I got into country music later. I'd never heard of Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers until I was in my 20s. Then I decided I was going to try to play guitar and sing.

What was the appeal of country music?

I guess it's similar to punk rock, in that attitude is important, and what you are saying is even more important. In North America, a lot of punk rockers, later in their lives, get into country music and roots music. It's a common theme — there's a reason why Hank Williams III is as popular as he is.

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Have you always used the name Petunia?

Yeah, as soon as I got into playing music. A lady with a box of tapes got me into this music, and she named me Petunia the first night we met. She made a mistake and thought it rhymed with my last name. That's what she told me anyway! But it's memorable. Nobody calls me anything else, except my parents. My dad works in an automobile factory. He's a blue-collar, union dude and my mom is an English teacher. Maybe it's a bit foreign to them.

Often when a performer assumes a name, they inhabit a character, like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Is that something you can often relate to?

I don't consciously do that, but I'm guessing it happens. But now that I think about it, when I first got the name I suppose I was a bit more effeminate — I was meeting a lot of feminine types. But that faded away.

How did your career begin in earnest?

I hitchhiked all over Canada and have been on every major street corner playing music. I've seen the whole country and it's beautiful. That's been more rewarding, almost, than anything else. I can't tell you how many times I've arrived in a town, busked on the main street corner and that night met someone who said, ‘Come and stay on my couch' or ‘Camp in my backyard'. You meet a lot of people playing music on a street corner. Canada is small towns for the most part, so it's easy to meet friendly people.

Now you're a professional, touring musician, do you have a different mindset?

Oh, for sure. Being an itinerant, travelling musician and a touring musician, they're two different things. With one, you're carefree. With the other, you've entered the music business. Once you have tour dates and start to cover some ground, you become part business person and there's a lot to be done. Why do it? I wouldn't be going to the UK if I didn't.

Petunia & the Vipers play The Empire, Belfast, on Friday, March 7 at 6pm and 9pm (over-18s). For details, visit www.belfastchildrensfestival.com or www.movingonmusic.co.uk.

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