Neyla Pekarek records at Mighty Fine Studios last September. (Photo by Brit Cole)

As “Western Woman,” Neyla Pekarek Sounds Like Colorado’s Latest Folk Hero

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Neyla Pekarek (Photo by Brit Cole)
Neyla Pekarek records at Mighty Fine Studios last September. (Photo by Brit Cole)

Colorado native Neyla Pekarek, who traveled the world as an accomplished cellist and classically trained vocalist for the Lumineers, knows there’s nothing like the comforts of home. So, following her 2018 departure from the group that exploded onto the international scene with Americana authenticity only a few years earlier, Pekarek began breathing that fresh Rocky Mountain air again.

Returning to her roots and branching out as a solo artist who was eager to share the legend of a bigger-than-life female trailblazer from her neck of the woods, Pekarek became a true pioneer in the vast wilderness known as the music industry. Rattlesnake Kate was born again in a 2022 stage musical project that followed the 2019 release of her solo debut album Rattlesnake.

On Friday (June 30) at Swallow Hill’s Daniels Hall, the Denver-born Pekarek will be back on stage again to tell the rest of the story. Her first live show since 2019 will celebrate that day’s worldwide release of Western Woman, a five-song EP that brings elements of Rattlesnake Kate back to life. All five songs, along with others from Rattlesnake, will be performed at the Denver venue that’s only a few miles west from Aurora, the sprawling suburb where Pekarek was raised from age 6 through high school.

“Hometown shows are always my favorite,” Pekarek shared in an email interview for Americana Highways. “There’s really nothing like a live show, and I always feel like I come alive just a little more when I know someone in the crowd. … I’m incredibly excited for this one because my sister and 6-year-old nephew flew in from Chicago for the show. He hasn’t seen me perform a show like this, so I’m very interested to see how he does. He will have to stay up past his bedtime, but I think he’ll be JUST fine with that.”

Neyla Pekarek (left) performs with the Rattlesnake Kate cast during the world premiere of the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production in February 2022. (Photo by Andrew Kelly)
Neyla Pekarek (left) performs with the Rattlesnake Kate cast during the world premiere of the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production in February 2022. (Photo by Andrew Kelly)

Among the featured artists sharing the stage with Pekarek and her cello in “an AMAZING band” she has lined up will be Devotchka drummer Shawn King, bassist Kim Bird (both of whom played in the pit for Rattlesnake Kate), Annie Booth (keys), and Dave Devine (guitar). Vocalists will include theatre actor Brian Cronan and Jadyn Johnson, along with “a small and marvelous choir” supplying the gorgeous harmonies that became a trademark first heard on the concept album, then the stage musical performed at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts from February 4-March 13, 2022.

Recognized by member companies of the Colorado Theatre Guild, Rattlesnake Kate earned eight Henry Awards, tying for outstanding production of a musical while Pekarek was named outstanding supporting actress in a musical for her role as Brownie, a cello-playing horse. It’s not the Tonys or Broadway, but how often does a Best in Show performer get to strut their stuff in Denver? Just ask the NFL’s Broncos, in a dry spell since Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning retired in 2016, or the NBA’s Nuggets, who waited 47 years until Nikola Jokić led the franchise this season to its first league title.

“I will be storytelling to give context for these tunes throughout the [Swallow Hill] show in what I’m calling a ‘folk-cabaret,’ of sorts,” noted Pekarek, whose tunes for the musical numbered “around 30,” including most of the 13 tracks from Rattlesnake, which was produced by M. Ward of She & Him and Monsters of Folk fame.

Finding a Fab Five

After writing over a dozen more songs, “It was challenging to pick just five for this EP,” added the 36-year-old Pekarek, whose studio musicians included Paul Brainard on pedal steel, an instrument she called “the perfect icing on the cake” that brought a few of the tunes together. “I would have loved to do another full-length album, and frankly probably could have, in terms of material! But it felt both time-effective and cost-effective to pick just five songs, at least for the time being.

Western Woman EP
Artwork of Western Woman EP by Sierra Garner

“Some songs felt more challenging than others to live outside of the stage version of this show; things that feel earnest and genuine on stage can feel sappy or corny on an album without the context of the characters and story. There were a couple of songs I wish I could have added to this, and maybe I could record more in the future, but I think this feels like a good time to put this project away for a bit and write some non-Rattlesnake songs.”

Perhaps the final chapter of this Rattlesnake tale took place in Denver last fall, when most of the EP was recorded at Mighty Fine Productions while Pekarek found time between rehearsals for Civil War folk-rock musical Futurity at the Aurora Fox Arts Center. Along the way, she flew to Portland, Oregon, to record guitars with Ward (“one of my musical heroes”); figured out arrangements with “integral” Rattlesnake Kate music director Angela Steiner; found comfort in working with “super supportive” engineer Loren Dorland; and reunited with previous collaborators like King, Bird, and Cronan, her “best pal” whose lead vocal on “Jack’s Request” wasa showstopping performance on this EP,” maintained this Western Woman, who may just be Colorado’s latest folk hero.

The stars of Western Woman’s outstanding opening track also got a “super special” shout-out for answering the chorus call on “Western Woman: Invitation,” with Pekarek’s high school choir teacher, Darin Drown, leading his harmonious group of family members.

“Most of the songs [on the EP] ended up sounding pretty different from the stage versions,” Pekarek declared. “I love the evolution of this project in that way; each collaborator adds something a little bit different and it’s so fun to see the way the songs evolve, especially when working with musicians of this caliber.”

Discovering Kate

After wrapping up the songs behind the story, Pekarek provided her own saga from the Wild West that led to her introduction to folk hero Katherine McHale Slaughterback, aka “Rattlesnake Kate.” The musical namesake was a frontierswoman who used a rifle for some rootin’-tootin’ shooting (and a “No Hunting” sign after running out of ammunition) to combat 140 rattlesnakes while protecting herself and her young son about 100 years ago near Greeley, a Colorado town 60 or so miles northeast of Denver that was founded for farming.

Strengthening her bond with the Centennial State by listening to folk music on the radio and through events like the National Western Stock Show in Denver, the graduate of Overland High School in Aurora concluded, “You’re exposed to a lot of Western culture, sometimes without even being aware of it. My family wasn’t particularly outdoorsy, though I’ve grown to enjoy Colorado hiking and nature as I’ve gotten older.”

Pekarek soon found herself in Greeley, studying musical theatre en route to earning a degree in music education at the University of Northern Colorado, where her father previously majored in history. “[He] has always had an affinity for historical stories, and though my grades in high school may have said otherwise … I think I’ve inherited some of that love for history as well.”

Around 2008, she became especially attuned to the historical figure named Kate, and the subject has possessed her ever since. “I just thought it was such a unique story, and so odd that it wasn’t widely known,” pointed out Pekarek, a Greeley resident for five years before moving back in 2009 to Denver, where she currently lives. “But it wasn’t until 2015 that I actually started writing songs about her; once I started, I couldn’t really stop. I immersed myself in letters she had written, and dug through every available item in the archives that the Greeley History Museum had to offer. The more I learned about her, the more I was inspired by the way she lived authentically to who she was, unwilling to compromise who she was for anyone.

“She paid a price for this, with six marriages and six divorces, a life of much solitude, though had a life of independence and autonomy, which I think she craved at times. I think that still happens today for women. We’re encouraged to stay small, to be nurturing, people pleasers, and discouraged to take up space and speak our minds. I loved the way that she rejected this, rejected the mold that was expected from her, and that she was herself through and through, for better or for worse.”

An Adventurous Climb

After her college graduation, the former student intended to become a music teacher. “I really love teaching and am glad to find ways to still include that in my life,” said Pekarek, who is a guest artist teacher at DCPA this summer along with the Barbershop Harmony Society and Sweet Adelines International. “Teachers were so integral in shaping me as a person and as a musician, and I am so grateful for having teachers who cared so much about their students and who nurtured my strengths and passions, especially in the arts.”

Living with her parents during the recession, it was tough to find a teaching job, though. To keep herself occupied, Pekarek in 2010 answered a Craigslist ad seeking a cellist to join the Lumineers, the group co-founded by Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, who relocated to Denver for a time after starting out on the East Coast.

Neyla plays the cello
Neyla Pekarek plays the cello at the Lumineers’ New Year’s Eve 2012 show at the Ogden Theatre in Denver. (Photo by Michael Bialas)

“I never ever thought I would end up playing in a mainstream or Americana band like the Lumineers,” stated Pekarek, whose addition officially turned the duo into a trio. “I think as a cellist and a vocalist interested in pretty niche mediums like barbershop quartets, vocal jazz, and musical theatre, I didn’t see myself finding a career in mainstream music. I feel incredibly lucky that I fell into something like that, and I am grateful the music industry was ready to embrace that kind of music at a time that I was ready to start my career. A lot of right-place-right-time sort of things happened with that. But I do feel like I am finding my footing in a career that feels more like home to me in the theatre world.”

As Grammy-nominated artists who have released four studio albums — from their self-titled debut in 2012 to Brightside in 2022 — the globetrotting Lumineers have sold out shows at prestigious venues like Madison Square Garden in New York City and Red Rocks west of Denver.

The one Lumineers show I attended — with a raucous New Year’s Eve 2012 crowd at the sold-out Ogden Theatre in the Mile High City before their popularity reached its peak — received a mixed review. That was despite the luminous presence of Pekarek, who also manned the bass and sang an untitled duet with Schultz that was one of the celebratory night’s surprise highlights. Otherwise, though, she and the cello stuck together, usually in the background at stage right, her fine vocal abilities seemingly underplayed.

Asked for this interview to sum up her overall experience with the band, Pekarek reiterated, “I am incredibly grateful for the experience. I never ever dreamed that I would get to travel the world, play to thousands of people, make music for a living at that capacity — it was all a really unexpected gift.”

After saying all the right things, though, she made it clear there were essential reasons why she decided to go her own way.

It was also challenging and all-consuming, and after almost a decade, I felt like it was time to move on. I felt like I had songs inside of me to write and other things I wanted to give my attention to. It was not a collaborative atmosphere, and I didn’t have the space or time or support to pursue my own projects with the grueling schedule of the band. And with the intensity of touring, and the things that come with large changes in a short amount of time, the relationships were pushed to their limits, and it was challenging for me to maintain the initial affection and friendship we had developed when I had joined the band. We are not currently in touch, but I think we are all in a better place as a result of that.”

Leaving the band in 2018, her statement that October read in part: “They say when a snake sheds its skin, it is a sign of rebirth, transformation, and new beginnings. … It is time to shed my skin; it is time for a new adventure.”

Life After the Lumineers

By then, the solo album was in the works. The day after Rattlesnake was released on January 18, 2019, she made her Grand Ole Opry debut, though it was held at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Fifty-six months after putting the Lumineers in her rearview mirror, a one-off reunion show or song collaboration in the studio with them seem like peace-pipe dreams. Besides a solo show scheduled at 54 Below in New York this September, Pekarek is considering a few West Coast dates — “perhaps early next year” — while focusing on other projects.

“I feel eager to write more musicals, I love the collaborative aspect and the earnest culture of theatre folks,” Pekarek revealed. “I’m so inspired by artists like Brandi Carlile, Sara Bareilles, Yola, Kishi Bashi, Andrew Bird — artists who are outstanding musicians and pushing the envelope for how to be creative in this industry. Crossing over into various mediums and continuing to hone their craft, which they all do so beautifully.”

While also becoming “more active in endeavors that are near and dear to me” such as barbershop quartets (she’s a member of Sweet Adelines International and the Barbershop Harmony Society) and guest artist teaching, there’s also an intriguing figure from the past that has caught her attention.

“I have begun work on another musical that I’m very excited about; the team is awesome, and the story is incredible,” Pekarek offered. “It’s another historical story about another total badass, relatively unknown gal, the magician Adelaide Herrmann.”

Though Herrmann, billed as the “Queen of Magic” who was recognized internationally as a headlining entertainer and vaudevillian for more than 25 years, wasn’t from Colorado, expect her life experiences to capture the Wild West heart of an artist emerging from the shadows. Aiming at more success in this next act, there’s no telling what the straight-shooting Pekarek has up her sleeve.

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