“Catching Up With” is a new interview series where we reconnect with an artist who has previously used the NoiseTrade platform and chat with them about what they’re doing now. This week we’re catching up with singer-songwriter-cellist Neyla Pekarek to discuss her debut solo album Rattlesnake and what it’s been like to record and perform as a solo artist after almost a decade playing in The Lumineers.
NoiseTrade: First off, I love the bold move of choosing a quasi-concept album format for your debut solo release, Rattlesnake. What sparked your interest in the story of frontier icon Rattlesnake Kate and how did that inspiration translate into your songwriting?
Neyla Pekarek: The story of Rattlesnake Kate was one that I just could not get out of my head after I heard it. I was a college student in Greeley, CO when I stumbled upon this story on a trip to the local history museum. Not only did I find her death-defying tale of clobbering 140 rattlesnakes just the most bizarre thing I had ever heard, but I also thought it was odd I was JUST hearing about it, especially being a Colorado native. Once I learned more about who she was and the way she lived her life – a person who was outspoken, independent, brave, unconcerned with other people’s opinions of her – I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I found a lot of strength and courage in Kate’s story, and thought other people might feel that way too.
NT: With “The Attack” being the earliest song you wrote for the album, was the idea of a fully-fledged concept alive at that point or did it develop later down the line?
Pekarek: In all honesty, I wrote “The Attack” mostly as a joke, just to amuse some friends and it got really out of hand. I was encouraged to write more songs by these friends, and after I wrote “Better Than Annie” and “Western Woman,” it was clear to me I was on my way to writing a whole record about Rattlesnake Kate, mostly because the more I researched her, songs were pouring out of me. I became so fixated on her and she really became my muse.
NT: From folk to blues to Americana to even a little doo-wop, I really enjoy the variety of genres you play with throughout Rattlesnake. Who are some of the artists that have truly fed into your broad breadth of songwriting styles?
Pekarek: Most of the music I listened to in high school and college – the really pivotal times in anyone’s honing of their musical taste – was musical theatre, jazz standards, and barbershop quartets. I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Carole King, Elvis, Manhattan Transfer, Patsy Cline, The Andrews Sisters; the great girl groups of the early 60s such as The Shirelles, The Chiffons, Little Eva; broadway cast recordings of Cabaret, Rent, Les Miserables, Rogers & Hammerstein. I was never very with the times when it came to listening to what was popular on the radio.
NT:What drove the decision to have M. Ward (She & Him) produce Rattlesnake and was the studio experience any different as a solo artist, as opposed to your many years of recording sessions as a band member?
Pekarek: M. Ward was sort of my gateway into listening to anything slightly more modern and mainstream, although so much of his music sounds quite retro and throwback, which is probably what drew me to it. I have always been very enchanted by the way his records sound and I wanted my record to sound that way. There’s a warmth and dreamy quality to his records and a coziness that comes with listening to a record that’s recorded that way. I couldn’t believe he agreed to produce my record, but the experience was so wonderful and I am so honored he did.
Being in the studio with him was a very different experience than I had had before, partially because it was my music and my songwriting (and my money) that was at stake, and I had a really clear vision of what I wanted out of the recording sessions. And instead of feeling the pressure of playing on someone else’s record and potentially wasting their time, I felt more at liberty to experiment. Matt also created a really great environment where I never felt like trying something out of the box was a bad idea. If I needed to do a lot of takes on one thing, he was super patient and kind and offered incredibly helpful feedback.
NT: As someone who has played live shows across the spectrum from small clubs to sold-out summer arena shows, how did performing your own songs on your recent solo tour compare to those experiences?
Pekarek: It’s been such an amazing experience putting our live show together, and playing these songs in front of people. I have a really talented band that I put together here in Denver: Josh Skelton on guitar, Blake Watts on drums, Nick Golder on bass, Ryan Skiles on piano, and Brian Cronan as my Colonel – he is featured on a few tunes on the record as well. It’s been such a joy making music with them. Oddly, after playing in front of thousands of people at places like Madison Square Garden or Solider Field or The Rose Bowl, one would think I would never be nervous for these smaller shows, but I’m way more nervous for these shows.
I think this project is just so special to me. These songs mean so much to me and are so vulnerable. It’s a lot to share that with strangers and in these small venues, you can see those strangers! It’s just a lot more pressure to be up front and to be singing and storytelling, but I’ve been grateful to have the space to share these songs and have audiences who are willing to listen.
NT: Finally, you’ve mentioned the desire to turn Rattlesnake into an outright stage musical at some point. Where are you at in that process and what fuels that theatrical subset of your creative output?
Pekarek: Yes! I was recently commissioned by the Denver Center for Performing Arts to make a bonafide musical out of these songs. I’m working with a wonderful playwright, Karen Hartman, and an amazing director, Chris Coleman, and we’re gearing up for our first workshop of the production at the New Play Summit in Denver in February.