After singing her way through Drake High School in San Anselmo and making it through several elimination rounds on “American Idol,” Kelli Peterson moved to Hawaii to record and perform her own style of soul-reggae under the stage name Kelli Love.
She built a $15,000 studio behind her rented home in the town of Puna, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and was working on her third album when the volcano on the island erupted on May 3. When the evacuation order came, Peterson fled with her two young boys, two guitars, a ukulele and some recording gear but had to leave behind her keyboard and piano and amplifiers. They each packed a small suitcase but left behind all the furniture, art and possessions.
Everything but Peterson’s dream was locked in lava and gone for good as she bought one-way tickets home to San Francisco to start over.
“We were literally in the path of the volcano,” said Peterson, a single mom. “We had to evacuate and come home in a crisis, to Marin, where I have family.”
One reason she had left home is that the cost of housing in Marin made Hawaii cheap by comparison. But in her three years away, Bay Area housing costs had taken off, and now she struggled to find a place she could afford to rent. At first, she was moving the kids back and forth from her aunt’s place in Fairfax to her mom’s place in Cotati while also working to scrape up enough money to get into a place of her own.
“I’m working three different freelance jobs doing social media and marketing, working at night after I finally get the kids to bed,” she said. “I’m trying to get the money together, and every time I check Craigslist, the rents keep rising. In Marin, it could be $7,500 that someone needs to come up with just to get into a place.”
Peterson was out of money, but the thing she still had was her car, a Toyota Camry that she’d left behind years ago. She drove in search of housing, and was all the way to Point Reyes Station when she ran out of options and found herself at West Marin Community Services, a nonprofit agency.
That’s when her luck finally started to turn after five bad months. Program manager Martha Martinez helped her gain assistance through The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. With a grant to cover her deposit and first month’s rent, she was able to lease an apartment in Highlands of Marin, a hillside complex just east of Highway 101 in San Rafael.
Peterson, 35, and her boys Kín, 5, and Che, 1, share a one-bedroom. Because they had no furniture, Peterson went online looking for curb giveaways. She got lucky there, too. A man in San Anselmo was remodeling and dumping his living room set. Peterson had no way to haul it all so the man loaded it on his truck and delivered it.
Now she is sitting on a gifted $3,000 sofa from Pottery Barn. There ought to be a song in that.
As a writer, Peterson resists the cliche that she has come full circle, but it is true that her earliest memories are of going to the Marin Civic Center, one exit to the south, to watch her maternal grandfather, Peter Allen Smith, preside over the Superior Court.
“I just love that Frank Lloyd Wright building,” she said. “It’s really beautiful and nostalgic for me.”
Her mother, Anne Marie Smith, is an oncology nurse at Kaiser Permanente, which is even closer.
“It’s a blessing for all of us,” Peterson said.
Peterson is the oldest of five siblings. By age 16 she was singing with the Bay Area funk-reggae band About Face. She sang a solo at her Sir Francis Drake high school graduation ceremony in 2001. By the time she graduated from UCLA, in 2006, she’d adopted the stage name Kelli Love. She was also on MTV’s “Making the Band” in 2005.
She was writing songs for TV and film, doing session work. In 2009, she earned a songwriting credit for “Who’s Gonna Love You Now,” on an album by Randy Jackson, a producer and judge on “American Idol.”
“What made me move to Hawaii is that I wanted to change gears and make a go of it as an independent artist,” she said. Last winter, Kelli Love sang with Eli Mac to open for Lauryn Hill at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, she said. Songs from her CDs are on soundcloud.com. As Kelli Peterson, she had a job on an event production team.
Now she doesn’t even have a piano, though she couldn’t fit one into her apartment anyway. She also doesn’t have a table to eat on, and the only quiet place for her to play her guitar is out on the back patio. Kelli Love has not yet started to sing about fleeing the volcano, but she can feel it starting to come.
“I’m getting the kids into school and programs in this area, which will give me more time to find more work and re-establish myself here,” she said. “I’d like to start a new album in the spring.”
m>Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Instagram: @sfchronicle_art