Photography: Courtesy Jared Roybal

Singer-songwriter Kate Vargas gives C&I a sneak peek at her forthcoming album, For the Wolfish & Wandering, available July 27.

You could cast around forever trying to figure out who Kate Vargas reminds you of. Maybe the best attempt we’ve come across is The Deli Magazine description of the New Mexico-born, New York-based artist’s outlaw Americana sound as “a favorite bourbon come to life.”

In the absence of other worthy comparisons, suffice it to say that Vargas’ distinctive raspy vocals and poetic storytelling lyrics pull you in and keep you coming back, eventually making you accept the fact that you’re never going to figure out who she sounds like.

That’s because she is, in fact, a unique talent.

That Vargas, who is a Berklee College of Music grad, is a star in the making seemed evident on her previous records, Strangeclaw (2016) and Down to My Soul (2014).

Even more so on her new album, For the Wolfish & Wandering, out July 27. With her songwriting lens focused on the dark side of balladry and her tremendous retro vocals smoldering at the forefront, Vargas draws from headlines and personal experiences for an album that fortifies a deep attachment with listeners.

Album highlights include the opener, “Roll Around”; the slow-burning “Mighty Fire”; the bass-driven “Mountain Song”; the ballroom jazz-influenced “7 Inches”; and the acoustic “Madeline.”

We talked with Vargas about the new record and what inspires her.

Cowboys & Indians: What inspired For the Wolfish & Wandering?
Kate Vargas: I had a real sonic vision for this album going into [it], that I feel was achieved. I wanted to create the album around very specific sounds. I found a quirky old Marveltone guitar with all this character and complemented that with alternative percussion instruments, played by Granville Mullings Jr. That was the basis for the sound of the album and we built on that, being sure to be conscious with each added piece. Recording is exciting and there are endless possibilities, so it felt important to be resolute. It’s easy to get carried away, which I have in the past. There’s a rawness to these tunes. But a boldness as well. That was my intention, anyway. My goal these days is action with intention.

C&I: How has your songwriting evolved over the past few years?
Vargas: I hope it’s getting smarter. I’m a pretty slow writer, meticulous. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be that way to be piercing, to be potent. I really went for it with these songs and tried not to get too precious about it all, to just trust that whatever was coming out was meant to be out there. I also realized the power of collaboration since my last album. I had been a very isolated writer, but almost half the songs on this one are collaborations and that definitely gives an added energy.

C&I: Who worked with you on the album and how did they contribute?
Vargas: Charles Newman produced it and he really helped breathe life into the sounds and the overall vision. And the musicians, too, of course. Granville Mullings Jr. played percussion, Matt Basile on bass, Gerald Menke did dobro, pedal steel, and lap steel. The Reckless Daughters came in with their gorgeous vocal harmonies: That’s Lena Kaminsky and my sister, Lizzy Vargas. Andrea Wittgens played a great old upright piano. I feel so fortunate to have all of them on this thing. Not only are they all super-talented, but they are fantastic humans, and that’s even more important to me, because I think that comes across in recordings as well.

C&I: Tell us a little about the Holiday Music Motel.
Vargas: Just after my last album came out, I was introduced to the Holiday Music Motel, run by Pat Macdonald (Timbuk3, Purgatory Hill) and Melaniejane (Purgatory Hill). It’s a sweet place to stay on its own, but three times a year, about 40 songwriters from around the country gather there to write songs for a week, purely for the love of it. We spin a Jameson bottle with a laser pointer for our songwriting partners, write and record a tune in 24 hours, and then do it again the next night and the next night. The songs coming out of there are ridiculous, they’re so good. They have a radio station that plays all the songs written there, Steel Bridge Radio; it’s an app, too. What’s happening there is so unique and worthwhile, people should definitely be diving into that archive. Being a part of the Holiday Music Motel community these past couple years has been a game-changer for me.

Get an exclusive first listen to For the Wolfish & Wandering, below.

For more information on Kate Vargas, her upcoming tour dates, and to preorder For the Wolfish & Wandering, visit her website.

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