Interview: Neyla Pekarek
For her first solo album since leaving The Lumineers, Neyla Pekarek eschewed the typical loosely connected collection of songs and focused on the life of Kate Slaughterback, a Colorado frontierswoman who earned the name Rattlesnake Kate after fighting off 140 of the poisonous beasts in a single day. Theatrical and imaginative, Rattlesnake is a debut with enough personality to rival the figure who inspired it and has set the cellist/vocalist on the creative path she’s long desired.
A few weeks before returning to The Grey Eagle on Wednesday, Feb. 6, to open for DeVotchKa, Pekarek spoke with Asheville Stages about concept albums, working with M. Ward, and what her former bandmates might think of her new music.
Edwin Arnaudin: I know you played here with The Lumineers in 2012. Was that the last time you were in Asheville?
Neyla Pekarek: I think it was. We were at The Grey Eagle — I remember it well. [Laughs]
EA: Yeah! It’s cool for your solo tour that you’re coming back there. Is there anything about the venue that stood out to you?
NP: I just remember Asheville in general being such a friendly place, and since then I’ve had so many friends move there. It’s not a hidden gem anymore — everyone knows it’s cool. [Laughs] But yeah, I can picture the venue quite well, and they took really good care of their artists and you’re up close and personal with the people, so it’s good.
EA: Well, I definitely want to focus on the new album and how it came to be, but to get to that point, I wanted to start off by asking that when you were with The Lumineers, what was your involvement in the band’s songwriting process?
NP: I was not involved at all, actually, which [informed] a lot of my decision to step away as I started to identify more as a songwriter. To be fair, I don’t think they were ever looking for help in that department or someone to be another songwriter in that band — or a singer, for that matter. They hired as a cellist and that’s what I provided for them, but I’m ready to explore some other things as a musician.
EA: Now that you’ve gone solo with all the responsibilities that entails, what are some of the things you’re discovering about yourself that maybe weren’t as pronounced when you were with the band?
NP: It is a totally different skill set, and to take on a leadership role has been an interesting thing to navigate. It’s something that I don’t know is super natural to my personality, and so I’m really trying to figure out how to be a leader. I have a really great band that I’ve put together locally here in Denver, and they’ve been so awesome and supportive. I think that’s a lot of it — surrounding yourself with really supportive people that like making the same kind of music you like to make, and there’s just a lot of mutual respect in the room and that feels really great.
EA: Now, I’m guessing you must have done a heck of a lot of research on Rattlesnake Kate.
EA: What was involved in digging into her history?
NP: Yes, because she’s relatively unknown, which is part of why I wanted to tell the story — and I’m from Colorado and this is a Colorado-centric piece of our history. And so before she died, her only son, he donated the majority of her belongings, including letters and articles and things she’d kept to the historical museum in Greeley, Colo., where she’s from. And that’s where I went to school, so as I started to research her for this record, it’s really just, like, two boxes worth of stuff, and it had a lot of photos letters and these letters and such, but there wasn’t a ton to really dig through. But the amount that I did was enough to make me completely obsessed and she truly became my muse.
EA: I’ve seen you refer to Rattlesnake as "a song cycle with storytelling,” which I prefer to what I would say, which would be “concept album.”
NP: [Laughs] Sure.
EA: Whatever name it goes by, I figure that would bring up a certain set of challenges and rewards versus a more traditional album. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?
NP: Yeah, totally. I think the minute you do put together a song cycle or a concept record or whatever, it can be kind of polarizing. And I think this record, you could definitely call it “theatrical.” [Laughs] And that can be polarizing a little bit. I don’t know that it’s a record for everyone, but I think in writing music, it’s important to not write from a place of, “I want to write a song that’s going to please everybody,” because that’s completely impossible. [Laughs] And so I was just really adamant about writing songs that were meaningful for me. I’m the one that’s going to have to perform them for a record cycle, so you want to write songs that you feel really good about performing. And I think you can see that genuine excitement in a performer when they’re making music they want to be making.
But it’s probably a bold decision, for better or worse, to come out with my first record as this very strange, campy, kitschy song cycle. [Laughs] But I really leaned into that. I think I’m a pretty strange person as well [laughs], and so it just kind of fits with that. It actually was a pretty cool way to write a record, party because the confines of having to write all on this theme, it gave it some direction. And I think, moving forward, even if it’s not a full-on concept album that I were to write, I think picking a few themes and trying to base it around that just gives it a little more focus. And it was kind of cool to write through a historical story as well because I could write these songs about this woman’s life, but it was sort of this mask I could use to write about my own baggage. [Laughs] It was a sneaky way to write these songs that sort of have two sides to them.
EA: Are other favorite song cycles or concept albums by other artists that have made a difference in your life and that you maybe used for guidance on Rattlesnake?
NP: There’s artists I really admire and respect, like Andrew Bird has done quite a few concept albums. And I did some touring with him last year in August. I really admire someone like Andrew Bird just in a…obviously his musicianship, but also just in a career sense that I think he has so much integrity as an artist and he’s always doing something very creative. And all of his records are a little bit different from each other and his fans, I think, they know that they’re going to come into a really great show when they come to see him, so he’s really developed this amazingly loyal fanbase.
But I think going into this, my goal, if had it my way, would be that I could have written a musical. I just thought, at the time, it’s a huge undertaking, first of all, and I didn’t think I had the tools or skills to do it. I just love musicals. And I knew that I understood the way making records works and how to tour an album and that type of thing — it’s what I’ve been doing. However, since then, I’ve been commissioned by a regional here in Denver, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, to turn this into an actual musical. So it’s sort of the best of both worlds.
EA: I was going to ask — How far along is that process?
NP: It’s taking shape a lot quicker than I thought. I sort of thought I’ll put the record out, maybe 5 years down the road we look at this — but it is all happening simultaneously, which is madness, but great. We’re actually doing our first workshop of the stage production. I’m working with a great scriptwriter named Karen Hartman, and we are doing our first workshop in February, right after I come back from Asheville, actually. So, I’ll do that tour with DeVotchKa, and then come home and we’ve got two weeks — and, you know, a workshop is exactly that. It’s very much a work in progress. It’s a way to use a space with actors and directors, but we’ll perform whatever we have ready at the end of that, but I think it’ll be the first of many iterations of whatever this will become.
EA: That’s very exciting!
NP: Yeah! [Laughs]
EA: Well, you mentioned Andrew Bird having a passionate fanbase, and I’d say the same thing about M. Ward and I thought it was neat you were able to connect with him for this album. How did that come about?
NP: That was an absolute dream come true. I’m a huge fan of M. Ward, just like I am of Andrew Bird. I just sort of got this stubborn idea in my head that he was going to produce my record. I was just going to figure out how to make it happen, but I just thought, you know, I’m a huge fan of him and I didn’t think this was too far a departure. It’s obviously different music, but I think he writes songs that have sort of this retro sound to them, I guess. And I’ve read a lot of what he’s inspired by and the artists he listens to and it seemed to align with some of the stuff I grew up listening to.
And by means of making these very crude, sort of homemade demos of a few songs, I was able to get a meeting with him and he was so gracious and kind. They say, “Never meet your heroes,” and it was just so not one of those situations. He was as cool, if not cooler and sweeter than I imagined him to be. I think it was one of the biggest things that happened in making this solo record — getting this validation from someone I respected so much, and being in the studio with him and having such a great experience and feeling just a lot more confidence around this project than I had. It was just me alone with my homemade demos. He was a great mentor in the studio and continues to be. It was an absolute dream come true to work with someone like M. Ward.
EA: Now, moving on to your live show, are you playing Rattlesnake from start to finish or are you working other things in?
NP: No, it’s pretty much just Rattlesnake start to finish. I can’t even remember if we do the songs totally sequenced the same way the record is — I’m actually not sure. It is Rattlesnake’s songs and there’s a lot of storytelling. There’s some light costuming. It’s not a full-on musical that people are coming to, but certainly not your classic, I think, “band comes and plays the record and leaves.” It’s certainly an experience, and I think it gives a lot of context for the record. The live show plus the record together, you just understand it a little bit more. It’s been really fun to put the live show together because I think it’s kind of meant to be performed that way. Even the songs on the record, they’re sort of sung in this way that’s to the back of the room the way a theater performer would sing them. In some way, I think that was necessary to get this story across, and so I think the live performance really ties all of that together.
EA: You said that you feel really good about the band. Who all will you be bringing to Asheville?
NP: They’re all based in Denver. Brian Cronan, who’s featured on the record, he was my college roommate and he and I stumbled upon Kate’s story at the museum together as college students. So it’s really cool to feature him. He’s a theater actor and has an amazing voice, so it’s cool to write for someone that I knew very well and knew his voice very well. So he’ll be there, and by means of my guitar player — his name’s Josh Skelton — I did a benefit a few years ago for Teach for America, and he was in a house band, and I just remember him being so sweet and nice, and he helped me put my songs together with the band.
So, I reached out to him toward the beginning of this project and he knew a great drummer and a great bass player. our drummer’s Blake Watts, our bass player’s Nick Golder, and we’ve got a keyboard player named Ryan Skiles. So, I met them all through Josh, our guitar player and they’re all just really sweet, great musicians based in Denver, which, sometimes you pull people from New York or L.A., and these guys are just as good, I think, as musicians out of those places. So, it’s been really fun. They’ve been really sweet and fun to work with so far.
EA: Well, to kind of tie it all back together for my last question, it seems like when you left The Lumineers, it was a very amicable split. They put that supportive message on social media about it. But since Rattlesnake has been out, have you had any communication with your former bandmates or gotten any reactions from them about your solo material?
NP: Honestly, no. I know they’re working on a record right now, too. I think we have gone our separate ways, and maybe in time there will be more communication. But, you know, I don’t know that this music is really their cup of tea. I’ve actively heard Wes [Schultz] say that he really doesn’t like musicals. [Laughs] So, I don’t think that they’ll really like it anyway. But yeah, it was a split that…it was time to happen, and I feel so grateful for the time I was in that band, but I’m really happy to make this change and to be doing my own thing.
IF YOU GO
Who: DeVotchKa with Neyla Pekarek and The Contenders
When: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 8 p.m.
Where: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave. thegreyeagle.com
Tickets: $22 general admission/$55 VIP meet and greet
(Photos by Liza Nelson)