Former Lumineers member Neyla Pekarek talks about her solo debut, Rattlesnake, out now.
After eight years as a part of the highly successful group the Lumineers, classically trained cellist and vocalist Neyla Pekarek is venturing into new territory with her debut solo album, Rattlesnake, out now.
Inspired by the true story of Rattlesnake Kate — a frontierswoman who singlehandedly killed 140 snakes as they approached her and her son — the album encourages women to live outside of what is expected of them. It also provides a voice for those who have felt unheard.
Album highlights include “Train,” “Better Than Annie,” “Swearing You Off,” and “Western Woman.”
Recently, we talked with Pekarek about songwriting, Rattlesnake Kate, and an upcoming theatrical project.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve just released your debut solo album, Rattlesnake. What excites you most about its release?
Neyla Pekarek: I’m so excited, I kind of can’t believe it’s here. I finished my record almost a year and a half ago now. There’s the process of mixing and mastering and all that, and it just took a while to find a good home for it, label-wise. I’ve been sitting with this record even longer than that, so to finally get it out in the world and, you know, it’s my first endeavor as a solo artist and the first time my vocals have been showcased on an album. So it’s a lot of firsts, and that’s really exciting.
C&I: The title’s inspired by a real-life frontierswoman, Rattlesnake Kate. What drew you to her story?
Pekarek: Rattlesnake Kate was from Greeley, Colorado, and that’s where I went to college. I’m also a Colorado native, from Denver. When I was in college, I came across this story through this historical museum in town, and it just really stuck with me. I found this rattlesnake legend: In 1925 [Rattlesnake Kate] was out on horseback with her 3-year-old son and encountered a rattlesnake migration and basically fought for her life for two hours. ... When she ran out of [bullets], she grabbed a sign from the ground and began beating the snakes to death.
That was so gruesome and scary, and I’ve often thought about if she had been by herself that day if she could’ve sustained the two hours of adrenaline to do that. But having to protect someone else maybe helped her through that. ... This mother’s rage was really an interesting thought for me. The more I researched her and her life and read about her, I found someone who was completely independent, and certainly at a time when that was less common for women. She spoke out and said what was on her mind. She was ahead of her time.
C&I: Is that the story that you wanted to tell with Rattlesnake?
Pekarek: Yeah. I think it gave me a lot of inspiration to be more vocal on my part and to speak out and not care as much what people thought about me. At least I strive to. She became this muse for me but also this huge inspiration to become a stronger woman. I think the record, in general, talks a lot about anybody who’s felt a little bit marginalized and just not feeling heard all the time or feeling a little bit invisible sometimes. ... I’m hoping that a lot of people can relate to that, that have felt marginalized in their lives.
C&I: Many of your fans know you as the cellist and a vocalist from the Lumineers. Rattlesnake is pretty different from what we’ve previously known from you, sound-wise. How would you describe your new music?
Pekarek: I’ve called it a lot of different things because it is a strange album. I think it’s very theatrical. Going into this project, that was what I, in a pipe dream, would’ve loved to make it into — a stage production. I didn’t think I had the tools or skills to do that, but I did know how to write and record and tour a record. So I started there. In the meantime, I actually have been commissioned by a local theater company here, the Denver Center for Performing Arts, to turn this into a stage production, which has been so exciting and a totally different beast. I do think it has a theatrical element.
I think the vocals are the main showcase of this record, for better or for worse. Every vocal line is sort of sung for the back of the room, an odd thing to put on a record, I think. It could be jarring for some people but emotionally and with the things I’m trying to convey in the record, it was important to sing it that way.
I think instrumentation-wise it’s not too far of a departure from Lumineers. It’s a lot of piano, cello, guitar, drums, bass, which are the same main elements of the Lumineers world, which is by nature what I know how to play. It’s also just what I wanted to go for, sound-wise.
C&I: A theater album – what a cool idea.
Pekarek: Totally. I’ve called it a folk opera. I’m not sure what the right term is for it, but I do think there’s a big storytelling element, which is a lot of what folk music is; it’s storytelling. So I think somewhere in that folk Americana realm, it stays true to that a little bit.
C&I: You got to work with M. Ward on this album. What was it like to get to work with such a legendary producer-songwriter, and how did he get involved with the project?
Pekarek: Yeah, I love him, too. I made this stubborn decision that I wanted him to produce my record and I wasn’t going to settle for anybody else until we made it happen. So I would make some homemade recordings, some demos just on my iPad in my living room, and I put together probably four of them or so and, through a management connection, sent them over. He agreed to take a meeting with me and look into the idea of producing my record. We went into the studio just with the intention, I think. [We had] four days blocked out [and] we were going to work on two songs, just to see. Because it’s hard to sign on for a full record before you really know what someone’s like. [I] ... knew I wanted [the record] to sound similar to his records that have that warm, dreamy sound to all of them and a little bit retro. He does a lot of things through tape, and we did that for this record, too.
C&I: Did you hit it off as collaborators?
Pekarek: It was just such a good fit, personally. I hadn’t had this experience like this before, being in the studio. It felt really relaxed and very comforting. It’s really validating that one of my heroes was open to my songs and gave me the courage to ultimately go out on my own and start declaring, “Yes, I’m a songwriter.” So it was a really wonderful experience. We made the two songs and then went on to do four songs in that week, and then did two more sessions together to finish out the record. He played all the guitars on it, which were very much his style. I felt so lucky to have that experience. It was really amazing.
C&I: Were there any memorable moments along the way of writing to recording? Any fun stories to share?
Pekarek: No, it was all just very chaotic. You just never know when these moments of creativity are going to strike. I hadn’t done a ton of songwriting before. It’s sort of my first real endeavor trying my hand at songwriting. I started writing around the time that Lumineers were going in to make our second album, which was not good timing because it meant that I had at least the next 18 months or so, probably closer to two years, that I would get into something else.
A lot of these songs were written in hotel rooms and green rooms in brief moments. One of them, “Train,” my single, actually popped in my head on the way to the airport in a car. I just thought, Oh my gosh, there’s melodies in my head. And I started making transit voice memos and sort of wrote it from the car, through security, onto the airplane, just making these little voice memos into my phone. Sometimes that chaos can be a little bit good for ideas and just feeling frantic. That’s how I wrote this record. I don’t know how I’ll write the next one, but we’ll see.
C&I: Is there a specific track that you’re most proud of or one that really resonates with you?
Pekarek: When you start writing an album, they all sort of become like your children and it’s hard to pick a one. Cut a couple songs and it all becomes very precious. It’s kind of interesting, actually, to hand this project over — [give] these songs to a stage production — because you become more precious about it and there will be actors singing these songs and not me, which is all really exciting to me because you see someone else’s brain take your art and make it their own.
But as for tracks, I think “The Perfect Gown” was one that stuck out to me on the record. It’s a really big song. The vocals are pretty difficult, and the message, I think, was really important to me, going back to feeling marginalized and not being taken very seriously as a woman in the music industry sometimes. That song was a really cathartic way to write about those things. It’s one that was kind of our problem child in the studio [in terms] of exactly how to record it. Because I felt so passionate about doing that song right and having it go on the record, I think it encompasses a lot of what I was feeling as I wrote this record of wanting to feel more heard and visible and just more understood.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring?
Pekarek: We’ve got a big tour set up. I’m going out with DeVotchKa in a couple weeks. A lot coming up: There’s the Opry this weekend and then I’m opening for DeVotchKa for about 10 days. I’ll come back to Denver for two weeks doing a workshop version of our stage production and then more touring after that. My solo dates will be released soon.
C&I: The Opry, that’s a big deal. Are you going to do anything special for that performance?
Pekarek: I’m so excited. I think I’m playing with the house band, which will be a new experience for me. I have a great band from Denver that I’ll be touring with, that I put together here. But again, handing your songs over to other people and seeing what they come up, I think, will be really neat. I mean, it’s Nashville, too, so everybody’s incredibly good. I’ll be intimidated, but it should be fun.
C&I: What can we expect in the future for your solo career? Are you working on your next album?
Pekarek: Oddly, I am in some ways. I’ve got a few songs. Like I said, creativity — you never know when it’s going to pop up. I have thought ahead a little bit and I’m continuing to songwrite. Once you get off tour, they want those records quick. Yeah, I definitely intend on making some more records and pursuing my solo career.
Speed Round With Neyla Pekarek
Something fans might not know about you — I have a pet rabbit. Her name is Barbara. And I’ve never had a dog; I’ve never had a cat. But I had bunnies growing up, and so now as an adult I also have a precious pet bunny rabbit.
Favorite place in the West — I got to say Denver. I love Colorado.
First song you look for on the jukebox — Probably “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. It’s my favorite song. There was a period of time I was listening to it every day. I’m not sure why, but it enchanted me. I love that song.
Favorite western movie — I just watched Tombstone the other day. I went to Glenwood Springs in Colorado and saw Doc Holliday’s grave and it inspired me to watch Tombstone, so that one’s my favorite; it’s recently on the brain.
Favorite Western food — Green chile.
Go-to bar drink — An old fashioned.
Wardrobe staple — I’m always looking for shoes that I can walk in because I do a ton of walking on tour. I have these really great Rockport boots that I love that are really cute, but I also can walk around in them.
Artists you’d recommend to your fans — I’ve been really into Natalie Prass these days. ... I saw her perform and she’s so charismatic and her voice is amazing. She has these really neat songs [and] I’ve been having that record on repeat lately. I love it.
For more information on Neyla Pekarek, Rattlesnake, and upcoming tour dates, visit her website.