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Neyla Pekarek on Leaving the Lumineers and Her ‘Women-Empowering’ Solo Debut

“I feel really liberated to be releasing my own record and my own music,” says cellist and singer Neyla Pekarek, who, in October, announced her departure from folk band the Lumineers. Now signed to S-Curve Records as a solo artist, her debut album “Rattlesnake” drops Friday. “I would definitely call this record a feminist record, a women-empowering record.”

One even could say that Pekarek is shedding her skin and taking on a new form with “Rattlesnake,” which was themed around the legend of Colorado pioneer Kate McHale Slaughterback. As the story goes, Kate came upon a rattlesnake while hunting for her supper back in 1925. One rattlesnake became two, and soon, Kate was surrounded by no less than 140 snakes. While her three-year-old son and her horse looked on, she singlehandedly fought off and killed every single rattlesnake with nothing but a roadside sign. Then she skinned them and made herself a dress. (Note: we said this is a legend.)

When Pekarek heard the story, she was inspired to write not just a song about Kate’s life but an entire album. Among her collaborators: singer-songwriter M. Ward of She & Him and Monsters of Folk produced, and Liza Nelson, a Los Angeles-based artist, created the album artwork. Pekarek also has plans to adapt “Rattlesnake” for the stage. But first, two solo shows — one at the Opry at the Ryman in Nashville, Tenn., and the other in Greeley, Colo., the birthplace of her muse.

Variety spoke to Pekarek on the eve of her album release.

Where did this fascination with Rattlesnake Kate begin?
I stumbled upon the story of this very strange snake encounter where she famously clobbered 140 snakes in two hours. That sparked the idea to write a song, but it wasn’t until I dove into researching her life that I really became enamored by her. It was a story that was completely unknown even by a Colorado native. Even people who grew up in Greeley, this small town where the museum is, a lot of those folks don’t know the story either. It occurred to me that there’s so many tales about western women that have gone unnoticed.

So the fascination, and her becoming my muse, came as I read letters that she’d written. She had a 40-year correspondence with a man in Iowa named Buckskin Bill, and he was this colonel who wrote her essentially a fan letter after the rattlesnake encounter, and they developed this kind of strange romantic love letter exchange. I got the sense that she had little concern for what people thought about her and really lived life the way she thought she should live it, and not according to others. It was a tough life and she went through so many things — like being struck by lightning, working as a nurse during World War II, brewing moonshine in her goat’s pen to hide the smell…

Do you see of a little of yourself in her?
I do, but more in the sense that as I learned more about her, I felt like it gave me  more courage. I think I’m the opposite of her. I care a lot about what people think. I’m not very outspoken. Writing this record gave me the courage to be a little more outspoken and more brave because those things don’t come very naturally to me. … A lot of times women feel like there’s only space for a certain type of woman, and in telling this story about Rattlesnake Kate, so often the response was, “Oh, just like Annie Oakley.” And I’m an Annie Oakley fan — the first musical I ever did was “Annie Get Your Gun.” She was remarkable as well, but she was a different person. So to sum up all amazing badass women into one woman’s story just seemed a little bit unfair.

Besides Rattlesnake Kate, who are your personal heroes?
I was really into musical theatre, listening to old cast recordings of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. The other day someone on Twitter said something like, my record sounded too Julie Andrews for him. That’s honestly one of the most amazing compliments I could receive.

What was it like working with M Ward?
That was a dream come true. I made the stubborn decision that I only wanted M Ward to produce my record. I had sent him, via managers to managers, a few demos I had made, and he agreed to take a meeting with me. They always say don’t meet your heroes cause you’re gonna be disappointed, and this was so not one of those scenarios. He was just as I had pictured him, only better. He was so cool and relaxed and supportive and I could not have thought of a better and more validating way to make this first solo record. There was a lot of uncertainty and not feeling very confident going into the studio, so having the validation that M Ward thought I was writing good songs, that was really exciting to me. Plus my record ended up sounding exactly as I pictured it in my mind — with a lot of producers, it doesn’t always happen that way. You get talked into things you’re not always comfortable with or a label wants it to sound a certain way. I really had creative freedom, plus M Ward played all the guitars on it. An amazing added bonus.

You recently left The Lumineers. Was that a hard decision to make?
It was hard in that it just became my identity for the last eight years. I joined the band in 2010, and essentially spent all of my twenties in that project, but it felt time to move on. Partly because I was ready to explore a different identity as a songwriter and as a singer, and [be] more focused on a project that had my own fingerprints on it. Certainly leaving a gigantic, monstrous operation like The Lumineers was not an easy decision, but it felt like the right one at the right time, and I feel really liberated to be releasing my own record and my own music. 

Now you’re going from playing sheds and arenas to small venues again as a solo artist. How is that transition back to clubs and theaters?
It is totally different than what I was doing with Lumineers, playing Madison Square Garden and those types of things. But the small handful of shows I’ve done in the past few months have been really exhilarating. Some of those early days of Lumineers touring where we were roughing it in a van and playing people’s living rooms are really precious memories for me, and so getting back to that and being in these small divey clubs is actually really exciting. It’s a totally different feeling of nerves, and plus it’s a different role coming up in front and being the center of attention.

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