Bakersfield makes a lot of lists — not all of them good — so when someone makes a positive splash it's worth celebrating. Two local musicians landed on Spotify Viral 50 charts, representing, according to Billboard.com, songs with “the greatest volume of sharing and social activity.”
Last week Peter Fenn's “Let Go” (with GrizzRivers) and Kim Petras' “I Don’t Want It At All," co-written and co-produced by Bakersfield native Aaron Joseph, climbed their respective charts — the former on the Spotify National Viral 50 and the latter on the Global Viral 50.
Fenn, a singer/songwriter, was born in Bakersfield and moved away as a child with his family, eventually returning as a teenager. He didn’t start playing and performing until a few years later, spurred on by the most potent of muses: heartbreak.
“I’ve always loved music,” Fenn, 26, said. “But I didn’t start playing until I was 18 when I started at BC and I broke up with my high school girlfriend. I had the whole summer to myself, basically, and I picked up the guitar and it’s been eight years now that I’ve been playing music.”
After graduating with a philosophy degree from UC Santa Cruz, Fenn started working for Dropbox in San Francisco. In 2016, finding himself at a personal crossroads, he quit his job and moved to Los Angeles to devote his full energy to his music career.
“First of all, things in Los Angeles are more musically driven than in San Francisco,” Fenn said. “There’s just more of an industry there and I could learn a lot if I went down there. Secondly, I just knew I was getting older, you know? In five, six years' time I want a family so the (clock) is kind of ticking. So, I decided to save up some money and move to Los Angeles because I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I’d never do it.”
Soon after, Fenn was contacted via SoundCloud by producer GrizzRivers, who was impressed with Fenn’s music. Having never met in person (the producer lives an hour north of San Francisco), the two created the track by sending it back and forth via email: GrizzRivers provided the beat, Fenn the lyrics and vocals.
The irony that he had to move out of Northern California to find someone from there to help catapult him into the top of the national charts isn’t lost on Fenn.
“It’s weird how everything plays out.”
Including how the song took off: It was finished and nothing happened. Then, two weeks ago, Spotify randomly put the song on the top of one of their playlists and before long, it was amassing hundreds of thousands of hits.
“It was at the top of this playlist and then the next day it started going viral on the charts. It started at No. 10, then No. 4 and then for three days we were No. 1,” Fenn said.
“I honestly think that it’s the right combination of instrumental and songwriting. Without the instrumental, it’s just a cool song, but people may not resonate with it, but without the song people can’t sing along. I think it was the right combination of flavors. The song has this funky new-age disco feel.”
But in Los Angeles, evan a strong work ethic isn’t enough to match the cost of living there. Faced with looming poverty, Fenn made the decision to move back to Bakersfield in June.
“I moved to L.A. and there’s this idea that musicians move there to make it big and I think that’s kind of wrong,” Fenn said. “As long as you’re making good music you can make it. So that kind of inspired me to move home with the combination of running out of money. I can be in Bakersfield and make quality music.”
“I’m a huge fan of Merle Haggard, and I think that him coming from here gave me the hope that I can be like a Merle Haggard. I could be that next breakout talent from Bakersfield, if I just go and work hard. … You don’t have to be in L.A., you don’t have to be in New York. You can make a hit record in Bakersfield.”
Unlike Fenn's success, Kim Petras’ “I Don’t Want It At All,” a 21st-century pop update of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” didn’t quite reach the top spot on the National Viral 50 (it peaked at No. 2). It did manage to go to No. 1 on the Global Viral 50, which was great news for Aaron Joseph (nee Aaron Aguilar), a Bakersfield native who co-wrote and co-produced the song.
Joseph, like Fenn, made the trek to Los Angeles around 10 years ago, taking every opportunity thrown at him and earning his dues by learning and polishing his production and performance skills as he went.
Somewhere along the way, fortune smiled on Joseph when his co-worker managed to obtain world-famous producer Dr. Luke’s email address. The Grammy-nominated producer is well known for being one of the most successful producers of the last decade — helming hits for Kelly Clarkson (“Since U Been Gone”), Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”) among others — but also for his part in a high-profile ongoing legal battle with singer Kesha, alleging abuse and sexual assault by Luke.
Joseph quickly put together a song and sent it to the producer on a whim.
After a positive response, correspondence continued until Joseph found out the person on the other end was a hacker posing as Dr. Luke.
Eventually it ended up working in Joseph's favor when the real Dr. Luke and his management, after getting wind of what happened, reached out and took a chance on the young upstart.
Luke eventually signed Joseph to his publishing company, Prescription Songs, leading to Joseph’s collaboration with Petras. But Luke’s legal battles were casting a pall on the up-and-coming duo. When the time came, Joseph decided to return the same good will that the producer offered to him years before.
“I took Kim over there when it was pretty hot — when the water was boiling pretty hard for Luke,” Joseph said.
“As soon as we arrived, he was just, ‘Yes. I know you probably have questions,’ and just laid it all out and looked us in the eyes and told us his side.”
“I was, like, 'Dude, I know. It’s all good. You’re like family. We’re here to show you what’s up.' He was just, ‘I love this project and I want to do anything I can to help move this project.’”
Petras herself is no stranger to public scrutiny. She underwent a highly publicized gender transition at an early age and gender reassignment surgery at 16 years old in her native Germany. Being a transgendered artist in our social network/tabloid society opens the door for even more media exploitation. Both Petras and Joseph are fully aware about the potential sensationalism.
To them, the best defense is artistic integrity; disintegrating any specter of gimmickry or artifice. When you deliver the goods and you resonate with people, who can touch you?
“I feel that we worked really, really, really hard on making the music be as good as possible,” Joseph said. “(Petras’) goal is to be successful, and well-known, and respected, but we worked really hard to make sure the music was first — by far. We want her to be a career artist — to come in and stay.”
Petras herself has developed a soft spot for Bakersfield and its charms that even the locals have maybe forgotten about.
“I've been to Bakersfield quite a lot because (Joseph’s) mom (local singer Becky Aguilar) is a super awesome lady. She’s been great. I love it out there… I’ve been to the Bakersfield fair, I love the drive over there, especially. Bakersfield is really nice.”
“It’s so desert-y but it’s awesome. Whenever I drive up there, I just say everything is so beautiful up there — and (people) just don’t see it.”
So what’s next for them? Fenn plans on releasing singles culminating in a proper full-length release. There are no live shows planned.
“I think, nowadays, it’s hard to put out a full album without a big fan base, so I’ll continue putting out quality singles and continue to work with producers to come up with good song. For me, really, it’s about leveraging momentum and working with people who I’ve always wanted to work with and make some good records. That’s really the focus for me: making quality music and continuing to put it out and try to make a name for myself. That’s what’s on the docket for the moment.”
Joseph and Petras are almost done with their full album as well.
“Hopefully, there’s more to follow this,” Joseph said. “I think this is just the beginning. I also think it's going to be interesting how Bakersfield may react. I’m excited about that.”
Does the future hold a collaboration with these artists? Time will tell. But for now, each of them are proud to see their hometown represented capably by each other.
“I think it’s just so inspiring that people from Bakersfield are making a splash out there,” Fenn said.
“It’s an honor,” Joseph said. “I love my hometown … it made me what I am.”