How Denver Almost Lost One of Its Best Songwriters in Kat Ellinger

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Kathyryn Ellinger wrote the Sleepers' excellent new album, Drive, following the most harrowing decade of her life. On it, she appears to have reached the full potential of her considerable songwriting range. Ellinger, who goes by Kat, has played piano since she was a kid and has been a part of Denver's music scene since the early 1990s. After a show at 7 South (now the hi-dive) featuring legendary local alternative-rock bands Twice Wilted, Sympathy F and Trancemission, she was inspired to start a band.

See also: Seven of Denver's Most Underrated Bands

Her first gig was with her first band, Requiem for Lassie, at the now-defunct Alibi's, a Glendale dive bar. No one threw tomatoes or heckled, and Ellinger was hooked.

Requiem for Lassie didn't last long, though, and Ellinger looked for a new outlet. She auditioned to become the singer for 40th Day, but the job went to Tammy Ealom.

Eventually, Ellinger met her future husband, Michael Trenhaile, and the two formed their own band; they called it Worm Trouble. The two songwriters have strong but distinctly different styles, and around 2003 they split the band into two projects: The Absolute Zero, for Trenhaile's songs, and the Sleepers, which featured Ellinger's. "I had someone call my music schizophrenic," says Ellinger. "But the mindset of that person is that all [music] is supposed to sound kind of the same. I didn't grow up with music like that. A Zeppelin album is all over the place."

The debut Sleepers album, 2004's Birthday, was imbued with the atmospheric hard rock and left-field pop sensibilities that have become Ellinger's trademark. But it wasn't until 2008's Home that her unique songwriting voice started to emerge.

Just as her musical life was taking shape, however, her personal life hit a few snags. Her marriage dissolved as she was writing the songs that would appear on Home. And around that same time, a fateful encounter with a rookie cop who mistook her one-hitter for a crack pipe landed her in briefly in jail. There she faced an assault and time spent in solitary confinement. "That experience is why I went from having a nervous breakdown over a divorce to not being able to function," reveals Ellinger. "I couldn't leave the house, I couldn't be a mom."

She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2008 she moved to Florida to live with her father. It took four years and extensive therapy before she was ready to return. Moving back, though, was a relief. "As soon as I crossed into Trinidad, Colorado, after the two-day trip, I bawled the whole way, 'I'm home!'" recalls Ellinger. She soon started playing with the Sleepers again, and this weekend the band will release Drive, its third album, recorded with Jamie Hilyer at Module Overload.

Ellinger has a new approach to music; she's no longer concerned with the rock-and-roll myths she may have entertained in her youth.

"I had all those fantasies in my twenties and early thirties," says Ellinger. "Now it's about writing good songs. My dream would be to play your average-sized joint across the country and overseas. At my phase in life, I'm not interested in things like fame and fortune -- it seems like a big pain in the ass. I'd just be happy if there was a group of people who like the Sleepers and come out to see us. Maybe we can grow our audience with this new album."

The Sleepers CD-release show. With Dagger Dagger and Band Idiot, Lion's Lair, Friday, February 6, $6, 303-320-9200.

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