Kate Vargas’ new studio album, Rumpumpo, arrives from Bandaloop Records on July 16th, and like many records being released this year, represents the triumph of determination and ingenuity over chaotic circumstances. But it arrives with so much grace and so many fascinating qualities that it that it’s hard to keep in mind the difficulties Vargas faced when studios shut just before live recording sessions were scheduled to take place and she had to jump on a sudden, later opportunity for studio time with a totally different approach. The result is a fleet of songs that take you into Vargas’ meticulously crafted realm of language and musical storytelling with an inspiring sense of humor and hope.
I spoke with Kate Vargas about her journey as a songwriter on Rumpumpo shortly before she headed off from New York to start playing some outdoor shows in California, but you can also catch up with her on past livestreams held “Live From The Red Couch.”
Americana Highways: Did you spend most of 2020 and 2021 in New York?
Kate Vargas: No, my partner and I had this pretty crazy experience. We went out to California and were staying with some friends there. They ended up buying a house in England sight-unseen and they were our little pod. Then they bought a boat and wanted to go and meet their boat in Croatia and invited us. So we ended up on this boat for a month and a half traveling through Croatia and Italy, then were in England. We were very fortunate to have these experiences and be able to travel safely over the past year. But I’ve been in New York this year since January.
AH: Seeing what the world was like during that time must have been so different from normal.
KV: It was weird. Obviously, there weren’t tourists and stuff and we were pretty much on the boat a lot of the time, but it was definitely an interesting time to be traveling.
AH: That’s pretty old-school spending that much time on a boat. That’s like a 19th century view of the world.
KV: It was a unique experience. I’ve never been on water like that for any extended period of time, and I grew up in the desert.
AH: I hope you write about it someday.
AH: It must be a big relief to have the album coming out soon, especially given the roadblocks that you faced getting it recorded. I heard that your original plan was to record live for the album. Is that how you worked on previous albums?
KV: That is how I recorded my last album, For The Wolfish and Wandering, and then that’s kind of what kicked it off. From then on, I felt like, “This is how I want to record.” Making the decision to go ahead without that option on this one was a huge thing. On my first couple of albums, I was really finding not just my sound, but myself, and I how I go about being in the world. And therefore, how I go about being in the studio. So live recording was something that I came to and felt, “This is the way to do it.” On this one, we didn’t do that in the end.
AH: There does seem to be a movement back towards doing some live recording, even with limited overdubs. It seems like it’s now the harder path to take in terms of preparation and planning, unlike in the past.
KV: That’s a good point. Yes, it’s very true. We had planned to do it, but at that time, everything was closed. But we ended up in California later, and my Producer, who had previously been in Brooklyn for many years, made a major move to LA with his family. That was very fortunate and that’s how we made the album.
AH: Between your original recording dates and the new ones that you were able to set up, did the body of work change at all? I know that you wrote one more song for the album.
KV: I wrote two, actually, during the process. But everything else is the same. I know some song writers will write things really quickly, but I don’t do that. It takes me a while to get the material together for an album.
AH: I know “Rumpopo” was a recent one, but what was the other song that you wrote more recently?
KV: It’s called “Glorietta To The Holy Place.” I’m from New Mexico, and that’s something that I think a lot of New Mexicans identify with. I very much identify with the culture. There are all these really wonderful stories that come out of New Mexico, and I’ve made it a point to put one on each of my albums. I didn’t have one for this album, but I’d been intending to tell this story about a pilgrimage in New Mexico to a place called Chimayo. It has healing sand. They say that the sand there is healing and so people will walk hundreds of miles to go to this church. It’s incredible.
I’ve sat down to write a song about this so many times, and it had just never come. Then, when I did sit down last year, I thought, “I still have to write that Chimayo song.” And it was around the time the pilgrimage would be happening, but I wondered what would be happening because of lockdown. I read some articles about it, and the Catholic priests were saying, “Stay home.” But many people still made the pilgrimage.
I thought it would be an interesting take to write about it from the perspective of a little girl who was hearing about the pandemic, being put into lockdown, and going to church and hearing the priest say, “It’s the year of the faithful.” Then her hearing about Chimayo the way a child in New Mexico would, and thinking, “I’ll take this pilgrimage to make my family feel better.” It was really good for me to write that song.
AH: It sounds like in some way the bigger drama of the context of the pandemic made it the right time to write the song. Which is crazy because it’s already a dramatic story without the pandemic, but that idea of the big, apocalyptic landscape around it makes it even more dramatic.
KV: Yes. I think sometimes it’s also that shift that’s needed. The concept was so embedded in my head and there needed to be a shift or another element to it for me to get out of my rut.
AH: It’s a beautiful song. What’s the relationship between writing words and writing music for you? Do you write one first, and the other one follows?
KV: I don’t have a process, but what happens is that I write words a lot throughout my day. Then, music will come, and I will go back and look at the words, and say, “Does this music go with any of these words?” Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I’ll write something down that’s the end-phrase. And I love it, but it’ll just sit there for two years because no music ever comes that seems right. It’s very painstaking. There are songwriters who aren’t this obsessive and write great songs. [Laughs]
AH: There’s such a huge difference in the way that people write music. It really is affected by everything in their whole lives, ever. I don’t think that there’s a right way or a wrong way, but I know that some people seem to suffer a lot more than others.
KV: It’s pure suffering for me! [Laughs] I love the part afterwards, having created something. I’m referring to this music. I also write other stuff that I can do more quickly.
AH: Oh, really? What music is that?
KV: I’ve written stuff for licensing and I can do that easily. But there are parameters for that, with ideas like, “We can all do this together!” or “Today’s going to be the best day!” It’s really general and really positive. But I started collaborating quite a bit several years ago and so I’m with people writing songs. It is amazing how everyone does it differently. It’s great to see.
AH: For that reason, it’s amazing that people manage to collaborate. But it also makes sense that if someone finds a person that they can collaborate with, they hold onto that.
KV: Definitely. I think the lesson that I had to learn is that there’s so much ego involved in creating something. From my perspective, I had to put my ego aside, which is not always easy to do, and realize, “My way’s not the right way.” The way that I know how to write songs is not “the way.” That is worth it, to collaborate for that lesson in ego.
AH: That’s pretty profound. Do you think that experience influenced you to try different ways of writing or changed your writing at all?
KV: I’m sure it did, though not consciously. One of the biggest things that I got out of that was to not be so precious about everything. Though you can tell by listening to something like “Glorieta” that I still can be. One time I spent two months on one word. I just couldn’t find the right word. It’s truly an obsession. I don’t do that anymore. If one word isn’t the perfect word, it’s okay. I think collaborating has been good for my mental health.
AH: What your saying reminds me very much of some poets that I’ve heard of, like Dylan Thomas or T.S. Elliot. They would have really ramshackle drafts with most of the words crossed out and use just a word here and there. It would take them years to get that fabric put together.
KV: Definitely. Since I was a kid, I’ve been very drawn to poets. I do very much identify with that, sometimes even more than I identify with musicians, maybe.
AH: It seems like the more storytelling there is in music, like in Folk traditions for instance, the more overlap there is.
KV: It’s funny because I’m staring right now at a Leonard Cohen book. Leonard Cohen is a poet. I just got The Flame. It’s so hard to walk into a bookstore, I find, and not walk out with armfuls of things, but I had to get this book. Tom Waits is a true poet, too. These are the people that I really spend a lot of time with.
AH: I was wondering if you felt more attached to older music, but there are people who have these qualities in every generation.
KV: There are some great people right now. There’s this musician, L.A. Salami. Some of his newer stuff may be less like this, but he’s a poet. He’s a real poet, it’s wonderful. I was just listening to his stuff the other day. There’s also this Irish songwriter, David Keenan. He really embraces it. It’s like he’s from another time. He looks the part and everything he does is the part of an Irish poet. It’s really wonderful to see. Not many things make me as excited as good poetry or words that fit together well. But I am a huge fan of Dylan Thomas.
AH: He’s so big on sound and texture. People do great things woth texture in other languages, too, like Lorca in Spanish. I wish people felt more comfortable with this overlap. It seems like in the 60s and 70s people were more aware and interested by the overlap between poetry and music.
KV: It is really interesting. I feel like the poetry world and the music world drifted apart from each other. They are different scenes completely, which is a real bummer. The Nuyorican Poetry Café is one of my favorite things to do in New York. They are going to be starting it up again, but every Friday they do a poetry slam and it’s not an open mic. But it’s a true slam. People from the previous week continue the next week. It’s packed. It’s a room full of people who are crazy about poetry and you have to line up outside an hour beforehand since it’s first come first serve. The poets are phenomenal. It feels like something that’s very New York to me in a way that I don’t always feel about New York. It’s like “These are my people.” Or, “I’m at home here.”
AH: It’s rare to feel like poetry is given its due but when its treated like a contact sport, you start to believe it.
KV: It’s true, but I hope that is shifting because of people like Amanda Gorman. She’s so fantastic and I think that people have really recognized that. I’m hoping that means that there’s a little bit of a shift in awareness of poetry.
AH: She really showed the power of language, you’re right. These wheels can turn. Are there ways in which spending time in New York has left its stamp on you in terms of how you think or work?
KV: Yes. I associate this with being a very New Mexican quality, though I don’t know if it is or not: I’m just a laid-back person. I’m thoughtful and I take my time with things, sometimes to my detriment. The wonderful thing about New York is the energy. It’s almost impossible to take your time in the way that I’m inclined to. I’ve found that to be really helpful because there’s something inspiring about it. The city about it is just moving. People are going after stuff. It’s almost contagious for me. I think it is contagious. If I was in a place that was slower-paced, or maybe a small town, I don’t think I would have that same injection of energy, motivation, and drive. Not that I’d just be sitting on my couch all day.
AH: One of the songs on this new album made me wonder if it was a New York kind of song. On the song “Someday” when it talks about coming out into the leaves and the light, it reminded me of coming out of a city scape into a park-like area. You probably wrote this before the pandemic, but with everyone’s experience of being inside so much, it really resonates there, too.
KV: I wrote that one with my partner and I think it’s one of the prettier songs that I’ve written and been a part of. But it’s one of the darkest. It’s basically a kind of abduction song. But I do think that it’s taken on new meaning since the pandemic, which is probably good. We’ve been doing this Monday night livestream from wherever we are, and my mother tunes in. She’s always thinking of new things that song could be about since she doesn’t like the idea of someone keeping someone else captive in a basement, which I get. [Laughs] So she always suggests, “Maybe it’s about this…” It’s become a joke between us now. But the pandemic was an easy one to associate it with. She suggested it was about two people emerging from lockdown.
AH: You probably have a hundred alternatives now!
KV: I do! [Laughs]. https://www.katevargas.com