Neyla Pekarek has shed her skin.
Well, creatively. The longtime cellist and vocalist for the hit-making Denver group The Lumineers recently left the group to deliver “Rattlesnake”, her first album as a solo artist.
The 13-track album, released early this month, takes its name from the frontier-era legend of Rattlesnake Kate, who shot and otherwise killed more than 140 rattlesnakes near Greeley after she and her son were cornered by the hellions.
Pekarek, who grew up in Aurora, said the eponymous title track’s melody came to her in an Uber to Denver International Airport, of all places.
She recorded the tune on her phone while in security and on a plane, she said — proof, by the way, that inspiration can strike even in the presence of pushy TSA staffers.
The song idea expanded into a full-fledged Americana album throwing listeners back to Colorado’s frontier days. Here, Pekarek tells the stories of other Wild West luminaries like gunslinger Annie Oakley, but with the nuance of an artist who voraciously researched legends’ lives and loves.
From the get-go, though, Pekarek’s work is more evocative of a musical theater production soundtrack than an Americana album.
That’s by design, Pekarek said. In fact, her solo debut was directly inspired by her days as an actress in Overland High School theater productions.
Pekarek’s family moved to Aurora when she was 5, and when she enrolled at Overland, she was seriously shy and withdrawn, she said. She credits the school’s theater instructors for pulling her out of her shell, starting with her acting debut in the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Ironically, she wasn’t listening to much popular music at this time, she said.
“I was really into musicals and weird barbershop quartets, and I wasn’t really listening to the greats,” she said, confessionally. “It’s coming full circle, because the album is very theatrical,” Pekarek said of her career.
In fact, she said she’s been commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to write a musical theater production based on the album’s content.
It’s a big opportunity for Pekarek, who studied musical theater at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley before becoming a teacher in Littleton.
“Rattlesnake” — with songs ranging from a love letter for a horse named Brownie to a duet between Rattlesnake Kate and her real-life lover, an army colonel — definitely departs from the foot-stomping campfire anthems of The Lumineers, and Pekarek knows it.
“I get that this is not a record for everyone,” Pekarek said. “It is pretty campy and kitschy, but you can’t go into a record trying to make a record for everybody,” she said.
Pekarek sees parallels between her search for musical self-fulfillment with western frontier women like Rattlesnake Kate. For them, the west could represent endless possibilities: a type of freedom, or simply a better life than they one they left behind.
Pekarek has some trepidation about striking out alone, and it’s warranted. She’s left behind a band boasting hundreds of millions of song listens on Spotify, routine world tours and TV appearances. The group was also invited to the White House by President Obama — twice, according to their website.
Now, she’s setting off for a tour east and west again to promote the album, including shows in Greeley, Denver and Boulder.
While speaking with The Sentinel, Nekarek only discussed her time with The Lumineers when waxing about the serendipity of it all: she began her career as a debt-riddled teacher living in the attic of a ramshackle home near Denver’s Cheesman Park, and within two years, she was a Grammy-nominated musician.
Plus, she’s got the inspiration of Rattlesnake Kate, a classic western luminary herself. If Pekarek can channel the energy of the snake-slaying trailblazer, her solo career should have no problem whatsoever.