By Megan Westberg
Neyla Pekarek hadn’t played her cello much during her college years. She opted instead to study musical theater and hone her vocal skills. Her plan was to become a music teacher. Still, when she saw a Craigslist ad looking for a cellist, she responded, and found herself “in a band that ended up being the Lumineers.”
You’ve probably heard of the Lumineers. Their eponymous first release, with the inescapably catchy “Ho Hey,” went triple platinum, finding its place at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The band followed up with Cleopatra, which, after debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, was also certified platinum in the US. A whirlwind of touring and performing ensued. “I think we toured about 600 days during that last record cycle, so 2016 and 2017,” says Pekarek, whose warm voice betrays hints of lingering wonder at their astounding success. “Honestly it’s just an all-encompassing project, the Lumineers.”
Eight years later, Pekarek has decided it’s time to leave the band, and launch her solo career with a new release of her own, Rattlesnake, which drops January 18. “I think eight years is a good time to give to a project,” she says, “and I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of this massive machine that was so unexpected for all of us. But I don’t really have a creative outlet in the Lumineers.”
Pekarek’s role didn’t include songwriting, which was covered by band founders Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites. Nonetheless, she found herself writing songs in snatches of time between tours and performances. “I sort of started [writing the album] as a joke,” she says with a laugh, “and then stopped joking really quickly.” Her unexpected album took shape, inspired by a story she had first come across as a college student in Greeley, Colorado—the story of Rattlesnake Kate.
Rattlesnake Kate, or Katherine McHale Slaughterback (also, for a time, Kate Garner), was born in 1894 in a log cabin in Colorado, and has a history worthy of any Western legend. Her nickname was earned on October 28, 1925, when she and her three-year-old son Ernie hurried on horseback to a local lake after hearing hunters in the area. Hunters would sometimes miss a few ducks or geese as they collected their quarry, and Kate was hoping to find an easy meal. Instead, when she dismounted to open a gate, she found a coiled rattlesnake in her path.
Kate Slaughterback was a fiercely independent woman, remarkably so given the social constraints of her time. She worked her own farm near Hudson, Colorado, and was perfectly capable of dispatching a rattlesnake with the .22 Remington rifle she had with her. She did so. And then, as more and more rattlesnakes appeared, she realized that she, her son, and her horse were standing in the middle of a migration.
Surrounded by rattlesnakes, she quickly ran out of bullets and had to resort to killing them one by one with a sign (or possibly a fence post) she found nearby. As her son watched from the back of their horse, she later recalled that she “fought them with a club not more than three feet long, whirling constantly for over two hours before I could kill my way out of them and get back to my faithful horse and Ernie.” They escaped. When she returned to the scene with a neighbor, they gathered and counted her assailants. Rattlesnake Kate, as she would then be known until her death in 1969, had singlehandedly killed 140 rattlesnakes.
This story has all the hallmarks of a classic Western tall tale. But there are pictures of the aftermath. She strung the rattlers all in a line and posed for reporters, who made her story a worldwide sensation. Rattlesnake Kate was a woman of many talents, one of which was taxidermy. After preserving the snakes, she fashioned a flapper-style dress, shoes, and necklace out of them—which are all still on display at the Greeley History Museum. It was here, on a Saturday afternoon, that Denver-native Pekarek, then a student at the University of Northern Colorado, first stumbled on Rattlesnake Kate’s story. “I just thought it was such a strange story,” she says, “and I always knew I wanted to do something with it, but I wasn’t quite sure how to channel that.”
There was more to Kate than just her rattlesnake dress. “The story about the rattlesnake encounter was what piqued my interest but as I dove more into the history of her life and all the stories from her life, I was so inspired by the kind of person she was,” Pekarek says. “She was the kind of person that was really ahead of her time.
“She didn’t live within the confines of what society expected women to be.”
This is certainly true, though, as is the case with most legends, some embellishment of her exploits is conceivable. Most credibly, Rattlesnake Kate had a penchant for wearing pants. She was married and divorced six times. She raised and milked rattlesnakes for their venom, sending it to scientists for study (and profit). She carried on a 40-year correspondence with a poet who called himself Buckskin Bill. (The letters survived and have been published, though the romance to which they allude may be more literary than literal.) She might have been a bootlegger.
However, though Kate did serve as a nurse during World War II, there’s no telling if the story of her breaking her hip by parachuting out of a plane that then crashed and killed all aboard is true, strictly speaking. But potential hyperbole doesn’t diminish Kate’s standing as a woman who lived on her own terms—or make her story less attractive to a songwriter.
“I never really thought of myself as a songwriter before I started doing this,” Pekarek says. “I wrote songs here and there through college and post-college but nothing I was ever really brave enough to share with anybody.” But as she went through the process, she found help from an unexpected source. It was Rattlesnake Kate who seemed to encourage Pekarek to express herself. “She was pretty loudmouthed and stubborn and spoke her mind. I was really inspired by that. It’s often hard for me to find my voice and she helped me do that in a way,” she says.
Kate’s life served as a road map for the album, with songs like “The Attack” alluding to specific events, and others handling her heroine in a more existential way, tackling the anonymity of legend (“The Perfect Gown”), the inevitability of heartbreak (“Hold on Tight”), and the power of home (“Western Woman”). Her resonant voice is often underpinned by cello, which breaks through the musical texture frequently in solo, adding a richness and occasional moody flavor to the eclectic album, which draws on influences from the blues to doo-wop.
Pekarek started playing the violin in third grade, after a demonstration at school, and quickly switched to cello after finding a great teacher. She studied Suzuki and was a part of her school orchestra and the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra before heading to college. No one specifically taught her how to write songs, but she says her music theory classes helped, along with her penchant for listening to “tons of different kinds of music.” Following the story of Rattlesnake Kate, she says, “was a really cool way to write lyrics, because I think I could write about my own stuff sort of secretly through the mask of this narrative.”
Though she finds the piano the easiest tool for songwriting, she does like to write songs on her cello. It’s sometimes the only instrument on hand and she says she “loves the idea of writing on a cello because it’s sort of like writing with another voice in the room.” She finds this especially useful in terms of developing harmony. On this record, she remembers writing “Hold on Tight” on the cello alone in a Paris hotel room. “It has that melancholy feel that a cello often brings to a song,” she says.
Perhaps one of her greatest challenges in writing this album was learning to identify herself as a songwriter. “I hadn’t shared much of my songwriting with other people, so that was really scary,” she says. Fortunately, she found a perfect creative partner in her producer, M. Ward, whose own albums had been influential on Pekarek’s musical tastes. He was a contemporary artist, “but was writing a lot of throwback-sounding music,” she says, which appealed to her, as she mostly listened to musical theater, barbershop quartets, and jazz standards through high school and college. “It was really validating to have this person that I respected so much be so excited about this project,” she says, “and it gave me a lot of courage to break out on my own.”
Musically, Pekarek’s growing confidence as a songwriter allowed her to suffuse her album with a lot of drama, capturing the intensity of Rattlesnake Kate’s life. And speaking of drama, it isn’t difficult to detect the influence of Pekarek’s musical-theater background in this recording. For one thing, this album is not a collection of singles; each piece contributes to an overarching narrative. Pekarek audibly brightens when I ask her about any plans to turn it into an actual musical. “I would say that was my initial intention, but I just had no idea how to put together a musical—I just knew I liked them,” she says. After receiving some well-placed guidance, she’s been working with the Denver Center for Performing Arts to turn this album into a “full-on musical,” which will workshop as soon as February. Pekarek will be composing all the music and lyrics for the show.
That, combined with an extensive tour in support of the album, should make for a busy 2019. At press time, Pekarek is eagerly anticipating the album’s release. “I hope [the album] speaks for itself,” she says. “I hope people come in with an open mind because it’s a story and a journey . . . I hope people get it on vinyl because it’s a good way to hear Rattlesnake Kate’s story, which I think is an important one to share.”
What Neyla Pekarek Plays
Cello Pekarek was gifted a cello from Eastman Strings. “I love the cello that they gave me because it’s so rich and beautiful but it’s really durable.”
Strings D’Addario. “Your cello goes through so many climate changes on a big tour, and I’ve had really good luck with having things stay in tune.”
Case BAM. “For a long time I traveled with the BAM flight case, which is a case within a case,” she says, though for some time she’s been traveling with just her regular BAM case.
Pickup Fishman Concert Series. “It’s built into the bridge. I think that was a real game-changer with the way [my cello] sounded onstage.”
Learning to Play in a Band
Pekarek had a classical background in cello before joining the Lumineers, and offers this advice for cellists who are interested in making the leap from orchestra to band.
Listen to a lot of music
“I think the best thing is listening to other artists who are doing it. I listened to a lot of the Avett Brothers when I joined the Lumineers, because I had no idea how to bridge that gap.”
Find ways to practice new styles
“Transcribe things that are not on a cello, even if you’re listening to a trumpet solo in a jazz tune. Transcribe that, put it on the cello, and see what happens.”
Appreciate what your instrument has to offer
“Find those moments where [you can contribute] nice, lush string arrangements that fill the sound or those moments where you can have a solo.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Strings magazine.