DeVotchKa

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DeVotchKa

Following the band’s 2012 tour DeVotchKa frontman Nick Urata was left feeling conflicted. On one hand, his band was as popular as ever, playing their critically-acclaimed songs from over seven albums to fans at sold- out shows around the globe, and Urata was enjoying a burgeoning career as a film score composer, with a GRAMMY nomination already under his belt. But on the night of DeVotchKa’s final show of the tour, onstage in an enormous arena in Mexico, Urata belted out the first few lines only to discover his microphone powered off—a simple mistake, but one that would later cause him to reflect deeply on his stake in life.

“You try not to make a big deal out of it, but you don’t recover from that for the rest of the show,” Urata says, now smiling at the memory. “It happened more than once on that tour, I went into a bit of a tailspin after that. I wondered if the universe was trying to tell me something I didn’t want to hear. I was realizing how nearly anyone can sing, almost everybody has the ability, but if you want to perform for people, then you have to fight for it.”

Following the tour, the band—Urata (vocals, guitars, Theremin, trumpet, piano), Jeanie Schroder (acoustic bass, sousaphone), Shawn King (drums, percussion, trumpet), and Tom Hagerman (violin, viola, accordion, piano)—enjoyed a series of gigs at smaller venues. Urata spent those shows both reconnecting with his audience on a more intimate level and rediscovering his love for his craft. It was a necessary moment that inspired him to begin work on a new DeVotchKa album—a process that would take a lot longer than anyone anticipated, but that would prove essential.

“I realized the motivation is simply how much I love singing,” Urata says, “and I just want to keep this conversation going with people who have connected with our band. Those shows after the big tour were when things started to fall back into place, I could see that people were moved by the lyrics and singing them back to me. It is a rare and powerful thing to connect with people like this. It is the thing that keeps us going.”

Urata began work on a new album, using that intimate dynamic with his fans as motivation. Despite a strong work ethic that compels him to work each and every day, the writing process proved to be a slow yet cathartic burn. (Naturally, his film work was also keeping his hands full — since the GRAMMY-nominated score to Little Miss Sunshine, Urata has composed the scores for myriad films including Crazy Stupid Love, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Paddington. Most recently, he composed the original theme song and score for the Netflix Original A Series of Unfortunate Events.)

Through persistence, concerted effort, and patience, Urata found his path. A musical perfectionist, the longer-than-typical window provided more opportunities to tinker, a blessing that can often be accelerated or outright ignored in these modern times. As Urata says, if you are going to hand him the luxury of time, he is going to put it to good use—and time is often what he requires.

“I get a creative spark and then have to chase it down, sometimes, for years,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned from great writers is to force yourself to show up to work every day, even if you feel you don’t have anything—apply yourself and it will come. It really does work. Writing music has always been the one thing in my life that’s subconsciously gnawed at me. I have to do it.”

Urata pulled from old notebooks and half-formed ideas as much as he conjured fresh material from the present. But in writing lyrics he has found that nearly every idea came from the past— despite the tense in which he sings. “I have a file in the back of my head with things that have happened to me, and that’s where I get my songs. I’m probably not alone in that. A lot of people think the song is happening now—‘you must be going through a horrible breakup right now.’ Really, I’m just getting in touch with the past. When you add music, it can take you right back there. Music is the great coaxer of those feelings, and that’s why people connect to songs. Music opens you up.”

In writing for what he would eventually title This Night Falls Forever, Urata tapped directly into his past, connecting the dots between that audience-and-artist relationship and a period of intense self-discovery. “One common thread in these songs is their sentimentality,” Urata says. “When you first discover rock and roll, that’s usually the same time you’re discovering girls or boys, when everything is so romantic and huge—that era of your life is where these songs are coming from. The songs are usually the same, thematically: why don’t you love me, why did you leave me, I don’t love you anymore, I miss you, I want to die...there’s only a couple themes when you break it down. I’ve always dealt in romance. I don’t know what else to write about.”

And from the album’s first lines (“I can draw a straight line through my mind right back to the good times/ back when all the stars were aligned”) it’s clear that This Night Falls Forever, set for release on August 24, 2018, via Concord Records, is a heartrending look backwards and forwards at once—the sound of a man searching within to face his future. From the rhythmic riff and urgent crooning of the opener, “Straight Shot,” with its cohesive lyrical story and speedy acoustic strumming, to the exotic waltz of “Let Me Sleep” and its spiraling strings and dramatic vocals, the flight is immediate.

“Done with Those Days” is a lush, slow-burning whistler, while the driving, playful “My Little Despot” is a cautionary tale about the travails of lover-as-dictator, which Urata recognizes could easily be viewed as a political moment despite his best intentions. “It was a cute idea two years ago but now it has a whole different connotation,” he says. “Today’s political climate has changed the availability of our lexicon. There is a temptation to bring politics and protest into our songs, but we have to have some respite from it or we’re all gonna go crazy. Music is a force of nature that makes people fall in love, that’s where the change will come from”

Elsewhere, the lush and tightly packaged “Love Letters” covers the entire arc of a relationship. The song represents yet another incident where time and distance proved a completion charm, “It would never tell me where to go,” he says. “When I came back to it, the second half wrote itself. It was one of those rare occasions when it all happened in one day. It asks a pretty raw question—‘Are you still in love with me?’ You can think of that as a metaphor for being in the band, too: ‘Am I still supposed to be doing this? Please give me a sign, because I’m still in love with it!’ And I’m just now realizing that following the thing you love is all you can do, and watch the chips fall where they fall.”

Urata cites the scope of the album as even more ambitious than DeVotchKa’s past work, with more detailed arrangements, more people involved including full orchestras, and an overall bigger sound. He praises the work of his bandmates, whose ability to build upon his demos lends the finished songs a sense of flesh and bone. “They enhanced it, rounded it out, and made it cool,” Urata says. “They added that live feeling that takes the songs to the next level. A big part of making a record is capturing the humanity”

As for the album’s title, Urata was inspired by yet another period of transition, albeit one that occurs each and every day: the passing of day into night. It’s a fitting motif for his process, a constant reminder that toil eventually makes way for transport.

“I wanted to capture that moment of twilight falling, where there’s electricity in the air and you get that sense that everything is going to be OK,” Urata says. “The harsh sunlight is gone, you start to get messages from your spiritual side, and it’s not all about the day’s work and politics and struggles. Theres’s a sense of something bigger at twilight; that’s where it came together for me. When I was going through a really tough time, a bad breakup years ago, the days were terrifying and lonely and I was broke—but once the night fell, there was music. If I could just get to sunset, things will look good. I guess that feeling’s stuck. You want the night to last forever. It’s the aesthetic of the album, the thing I picture when I close my eyes.” Neyla Pekarek, the cellist and classically trained vocalist formerly of The Lumineers, was in college when Rattlesnake Kate first rocked her world. She happened upon the true story of the frontierswoman, who singlehandedly killed 140 snakes as they encroached on her and her son, at Greeley, CO's History Museum. For two hours, Kate shot at them and bludgeoned them with a "No Hunting" sign after running out of bullets, then made a flapper-style dress, necklace, and shoes out of their skins—also on display at the museum. "It was one of the weirdest things I'd ever heard," says Neyla, admiringly. Still beguiled by the legend, the musician turned to Kate as muse for her solo debut, Rattlesnake (out January 11 on S-Curve Records/BMG). "She lived outside from what women were expected to be," Neyla says.

The album is at turns rollicking and moving, journeying from Americana to blues and even doo-wop, the latter an extension of her previous stints in award-winning barbershop quartets. Produced by M. Ward (She & Him, Monsters of Folk), Rattlesnake is, in her words, "a song cycle with storytelling." The itinerant folk-pop "Train" is its first single "is about opportunities: Kate had a lot of dreams when she was younger," says the Colorado-based Neyla, who recently performed the album live while touring with Andrew Bird. "It's also about how this record is a next step for me. Kate gave me a door to opportunity."

She penned "The Attack", Rattlesnake's first song, a few years ago and used to play it for friends at gatherings. The song is a foreboding, swaggering exercise in minimalism, it doubles as a narrative calling card for Kate. Receiving positive reactions and encouragement, Neyla hunkered down and started writing more songs. She soon wrote the wistful empowerment ballad "Western Woman" and "Better Than Annie," a rousing, anthemic nod to Annie Get Your Gun, which sparked Neyla's love for musicals. "There was no road map for what I was doing," she says of this liberating process. "I just wrote songs that sounded good to my ears."

She wrote most of Rattlesnake while on tour with her former band. "I was looking for a creative outlet," explains Neyla, who was on the road for a mind-blowing 600 days over two years. (She spent nearly a decade in the band, whose self-titled debut went multiplatinum and follow-up, Cleopatra, went platinum.) Yet inspiration supplanted any fatigue. "I spent a lot of my free time crafting demos."

The idea for "Train," for example, came to her in an Uber. "I was on my way to the Denver airport, which is all grasslands and flat plains—the topography Kate lived in," she recalls. "Watching this go by, the melody popped into my head. So I made frantic voice memos into my phone." In contrast, she penned the moody lullaby "Hold on Tight" from a Parisian hotel room, a day after the U.S. presidential election. It was written, sorrowfully, on her cello—the only instrument she had on hand.

She recorded Rattlesnake with M. Ward in Portland over three different sessions. He played guitar; she played cello. They built out the rest of the sounds through hired hands on the piano, pedal steel, trumpets, electric and upright bass, violin, and drums. "I was basically flying off of tour directly into the studio. One time, I actually flew from Latvia straight to Portland," she recalls. "I had one day to rest and then jump back in. In some way, that mania can be good in getting ideas out. I'm quite creative in chaos." Still, she found great solace in the process.

While doing her research, Neyla dove deep into Kate's life by reading through hundreds of letters Kate wrote. The song "Letters to the Colonel," a piano-pop duet with theater actor Brian Cronan, immortalizes Kate's epistolary romance with Col. Charles D. Randolph, aka Buckskin Bill. Though they never met, he'd become her long-distance paramour of sorts for 40 years. "Kate was married and divorce six times, and didn't have a ton of close friends," Neyla says. Those confessions echoed the musician's aspirations to step into the spotlight as a solo artist: "I connected to her wanting to feel less invisible."

This brings her back to venom. "Snakes are symbols of rebirth and transformation. They shed their skin," says Neyla, who hopes to bring Rattlesnake to life as a musical next year. "It all felt really symbolic for me in this new adventure." But at its core, it's cathartic. "There are," she adds, "battle cries on this record." ‘Laughing with the Reckless’: A Unique Heartbreak written by Joey Ryan – The Milk Carton Kids

I’ve met a lot of people in a lot of places. I’ve gotten to know them for a half a night or half a day. I’ve performed in their towns. Tiny shows, usually, with sparse crowds. I’ve slept, after the shows, on their floors, couches, and in their spare rooms. I’ve pet their dogs, drunk their wine, met their kids, their parents, their neighbors, their roommates, stayed up drinking with them at their colleges, learned about the new floors they planned to put in the kitchen when their kids finally left the house. I’ve heard them take off early for work in the morning and found their penciled notes telling me to help myself to the cereal in the pantry. I’ve been for rides on their boats and tractors, been treated to meals in their kitchens and restaurants. I’ve listened to the songs they write in their spare time and heard about the bands they used to be in before they became teachers or bankers or social workers or UPS drivers.

Often I’ve imagined living their lives — wondering if I could be happy in that house there in Utah or Georgia or Idaho. I’ve meditated with a Shinto priest in a freezing river beneath his shrine at six in the morning wearing a loin cloth and chanting Misogi. That time I didn’t wonder. If I think about it for 20 seconds I can recall the people I’ve gotten to know briefly but intensely in Iowa, Oregon, Arizona, Ohio, Texas, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington, Maryland… time’s up, but there are more. For years I lived a life that led to this kind of fellowship. The life of a troubadour, essentially, in the classic sense. Singing for whoever would listen, whoever would pay enough for gas and offer their hospitality as a bonus. It was the greatest time of my life.

Jay Nash, now one half of The Contenders, introduced me to that life. The troubadour’s life. He and I traversed the country together many times in the mid 2000’s. Most of the people I recalled meeting above, I met with Jay. He had been at it longer than I had, and was showing me the ropes. How to put together a livelihood with a guitar and a rental car. How to find healthy food at a truck stop. How to quiet a dive bar crowd. He introduced me to his troubadour friends, many of whom I would come to share rentals cars and couches and guest rooms with in the years that followed. We became friends in a way that’s only possible for people who have driven at least 50,000 miles together. A Platinum friendship. I know all of his songs and most of his secrets. And vice versa.

A peculiar perspective developed in me after all those hundreds of days and nights spent getting to know all those different people in all those different places. It’s a perspective shared by Jay Nash and Josh Day and every troubadour I know, and everyone who’s ever spent a lot of time with strangers in intimate settings: I began to take for granted that people everywhere are much more alike than different. It’s not that we don’t come from different backgrounds, have different religious and political beliefs, different skin colors, different financial means, of course we do. But I’ll say it another way: the things that we all have in common are the things we all seem to care the most about, and the things we disagree about… are not. I’ll be the first to point out that insisting our commonalities outweigh our differences always seems vacuous when hollered, as it is so often, by politicians seeking to engender goodwill in a campaign speech or by celebrities peddling hashtags. But after all the years spent getting to know the people we’re talking about, it is the most salient truth I’ve come to know about our country.

The Contenders have made an album that only this brand of troubadour’s optimism could have inspired. A tacit assumption, based on experience, that people are generally good and want the same things. But there’s a flip side, and “Laughing with the Reckless” is basically a sad album, as it deftly conveys that unique heartbreak that comes from having allowed oneself to be so hopeful — from being intimately connected to so many different kinds of people, knowing the joyful communion that comes so naturally when we’re together, and confronting the reality of how often and severely we fail to live up to that potential. For a troubadour, observing current American political discourse is like watching two brothers bludgeon each other in a fistfight, or two best friends get divorced. The people screaming at each other these days are not strangers to us. We know them. We’ve slept on their couches.

So “Laughing with the Reckless,” with all its infectious rhythms and sublime 2-part harmonies, grew out of those moments that are only possible when people “come together,” a phrase which, crucially, is not used on this album as a platitude. It’s meant literally. When Jay Nash and Josh Day sing, “if we all come together, we can see the light,” they mean actually, physically come together, as they have done with so many people for so long. They mean sit, eat, drink, talk, laugh, brag, embellish, confess, ramble, share, and reveal parts of ourselves we never meant to. The parts we might not even reveal to those who think they know us best, choosing instead to entrust our best secrets to the safekeeping of a stranger. When we do that, we find that our religion, our politics, our grievances almost never come to the forefront of the conversation, no matter how much of each other’s whiskey we drink. Our families, our work, our adolescent missteps, our friends, our sick parents, our hobbies, our songs, our favorite bands, our dreams — these are what are shared, because these, apparently, happily, are what actually define a person.

Not many people know what it feels like, I fear, to be in so many strangers’ homes sharing music and stories, food and drink. But the troubadour knows. We do it all the time. And The Contenders mean to let you know it’s real, it gives them hope, and, lately, it breaks their hearts.