The Lumineers’ Neyla Pekarek is working on a solo project about Rattlesnake Kate.
The Lumineers’ Neyla Pekarek is working on a solo project about Rattlesnake Kate.
Andrew Kelly

The Lumineers' Neyla Pekarek Is Releasing Her Debut Solo Album

“I’ve always been a super-nerd,” says Neyla Pekarek, cellist, vocalist and pianist for Denver’s internationally renowned Americana band The Lumineers.

“Even in my introduction to the Lumineers, I had listened to so little mainstream music at that point in my life. I was really into musical theater and vocal jazz and things that weren’t necessarily cool. I’ve definitely felt like an impostor most of the time. Where I feel best is when I’m around a bunch of theater nerds or other weirdos like me.”

Pekarek, a Denver native who studied musical theater and music education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, joined the Lumineers after graduating, much to her parents’ chagrin.

“They were not excited about it,” recalls Pekarek, “partly because I had just paid all this money to get an education to be a teacher. I graduated during the recession, and there were no teaching jobs. I didn’t think this would really be a long-term endeavor, and I think they thought I would grow out of it, too. It just turned out that the band ended up being a more practical job than teaching, at least at the time.”

Joining the Lumineers proved to be a smart choice, as the band cemented its place in Colorado history by going from playing the tiny Meadowlark Bar during open-mic nights to selling out Madison Square Garden and touring with U2.

Now Pekarek is going back to her roots with the release of her debut solo album, Rattlesnake, a concept album inspired by Katherine McHale, aka Rattlesnake Kate, a northern Colorado folk hero who — with her three-year-old son sitting atop her horse — killed 140 rattlesnakes when confronted by a rare rattler migration in 1925. When she ran out of ammo, she started slaying snakes with a “No Hunting” sign.

There’s a reason Pekarek’s interest in Rattlesnake Kate’s story has stuck with her since college. McHale, whose mantra was “I’m the boss of me,” was married and divorced six times and worked as everything from a midwife to a bootlegger. Pekarek sees her as a feminist icon.

She laughs when asked how she would react to the sudden sight of hundreds of snakes blocking her way.
“I would definitely run!” she says. “I’m so not as tough as Kate was.”

Pekarek, now 31, first learned the story in college. “I always wanted to do something with it, and ten years later it’s come to fruition,” she says. “It kind of started as a joke during downtime; I was just putting together songs to make my friends laugh, and a friend of mine said, ‘Wait — these are kinda good. What are you doing with this?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m just joking.’ I stopped joking about it, and now it’s sort of all-consuming.”

Pekarek will be performing songs from Rattlesnake at four concerts this month, opening for Andrew Bird in Boulder, Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs.

“We might throw a cover or two in,” Pekarek explains, “but we’ve kind of crafted a show that bridges the gap between a full-on musical and what people expect when they’re going to a concert. It’s a lot of storytelling, and it’s kind of a cohesive story with the songs from the record, but I’m not necessarily in character. There’s not really dialogue or anything like that, but definitely a lot of storytelling [and] some light costuming.”

A full-on musical version of Rattlesnake is expected next year, with help from Denver Center for the Performing Arts artistic director Chris Coleman and script writer Karen Hartman, who are working with Pekarek to bring her musical to life.

“I just love musicals,” Pekarek says. “I spent the better part of a decade making records and touring, and I knew how to do that, so it’s funny that with this sort of concept album, the musical side is taking shape a little bit easier and faster than the music end, as far as labels and shows [go], which is more of a struggle than I had anticipated.”

Despite that struggle, Pekarek is thrilled to use Rattlesnake to dig into her Colorado roots.

“I definitely have a lot of Colorado pride,” Pekarek says. “I grew up here and made the decision to stay. The more [the Lumineers] started traveling, the more I loved my home. I feel really proud to have put Denver on the map as far as [being] a place musicians gravitate toward now, although it’s getting really full here. Sorry if I’ve contributed to that. But I feel lot of pride around that, because we live in a beautiful place with really nice people. The music scene was really kind to us, and it’s a really great community-oriented scene and a cool thing to be a part of.”

Andrew Bird with Neyla Pekarek, Friday, August 10, and Saturday, August 11, $39-$59, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder.

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