A reformed wild child, in recent years Kate Vargas has traded the party for meditation, yoga, clean eating and a renewed focus on what she values most—her music. The New Mexico-raised, NYC-based artist is building ever more mindfully on her sound, and the music press is taking notice, Vargas receiving praise from a variety of respected outlets including Impose, The Boot and the Huffington Post, the latter assessing, “There is an unlimited amount of potential in this superstar on the rise.”
Vargas has packed houses from Ireland’s Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival to The Troubadour in London, The Mansion on O Street in Washington D.C. to New York’s Bowery Electric. Her upcoming album, For The Wolfish & Wandering (out July 27), features her singular folk-style storytelling. The songs are grounded in a darkly melodic, reverb-washed sonic palette of dreampop, dusty folk and junkyard blues, all carried by Vargas’ rough-hewn vocals and guitar playing. In equal measure, she channels a surprising array of artists, from Tom Waits and 16 Horsepower to Lana Del Rey and K. Flay.
On the new record, Vargas’ moody and deeply personal songs weave stories from her life with tales she soaked up from literature and also the rich oral folklore tradition with which she grew up. “You can’t get lower than the ground, but you can roll around for a long time,” Vargas sings on the album’s lead track “Roll Around,” a smoky, desolate number that hits hard, priming listeners for a wild jaunt into the emotional depths. The song, Vargas says, is about “being comfortable with discomfort.” While an air of unease permeates the new record’s narratives, Vargas explains, “Even though I get pretty dark, I always intend it with a smirk. I like being able to step back, detach and look at things as a fly on the wall.”
While Vargas’ sharp tractor-beam-like storytelling is a big part of For The Wolfish & Wandering’s draw, the music is every bit as strong. Before a recent European tour, Vargas found and fell in love with a vintage 1949 Marveltone guitar. “It has such a personality and sound,” she says. “I played it all over Europe and was so attached to it that I knew I wanted to make it the centerpiece of this album.” In late 2017, Vargas joined forces with producer Charles Newman, the primary engineer and co-producer for Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. Newman helped Vargas achieve the unvarnished sound she was looking for, peppering the album’s sonic landscape with simple, inventive percussion using everyday objects, from milk jugs and trash cans to rusted chains—even the body of her beloved Marveltone. The result is Vargas’ most adventurous album to date.
Glide is proud to premiere “The Affliction” (below) off For The Wolfish & Wandering, a stunning track that showcases a raspy and charismatic voice that is seriously in the pocket. Vargas reflects artists like Waits, Kat Edmonson, M. Ward and PJ Harvey that hone a vintage pop sound that summons a golden era when music was real and alternatively hip. Vargas answered a few questions about her song and her process below…
What inspired this track?
It was actually a whole lot of darkness that inspired the song. I started writing it after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. It came out afterward that the shooter struggled a lot with his own sexuality. He had also, like many other recent shooters, posted scary/hateful stuff on social media leading up to the horrific event. It was such an extreme reaction to a personal struggle.
And it really got me thinking about the ways in which we experience personal struggle in the age of social media. I find that people post everything, nothing is off-limits. This is the stuff that was reserved for the people closest to us, that we care about and trust. But now everything’s public.
Initially, the phrase that kept coming up for me was, “I want you to know that I have grieved”. We air our grievances publicly and get some sense of validation from that, but it’s never enough. We want bigger, more public. This idea of “I’m in pain and I want everyone to know it.” But everyone knows everything, so then it becomes “I’m in pain and I want everyone to feel it too.”
It’s pretty morbid.
What was the writing and recording process like? Where did you draw inspiration for the sound?
It came about one night while I was playing through some Tom Waits tunes, which I often do. The verses came instantly, but I kept getting stuck on the chorus. I was stuck there for a year! Finally, I made a conscious decision to put my judgment and perfectionism aside and simply see what would come out, lyrically. And “this affliction” kept coming out. My initial thought was “that’s too much. The word holds too much weight.” But I kept pushing ahead.The word made me uncomfortable but I decided to sort of bask in that – to bask in the ick!
In terms of sound, the subject matter I write about leans toward dark, but I try to take the music in another direction. Certainly not to make light of tragedy. It’s like a bitter pill that’s candy-coated, the Mike and Ike of songwriting techniques.
The recording process was a breeze, really. I got into the studio with Charles Newman (producer), Granville Mullings Jr. (percussion), and Matt Basile (bass), and recorded it old-school, live on tape.
What are some memorable stories along the way of getting the album from concept to actual release?
There’s a really incredible place in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin called the Holiday Music Motel, run by musicians and songwriters Pat Macdonald and Melaniejane. It’s a great place to stay if you’re visiting but, three times each year, they invite around 30-40 songwriters from all around the country to stay for a week. I was very fortunate to be introduced to them in October 2016. The first night there, we spin the bottle for songwriting partners and then write and record a song in 24 hours, rinse and repeat. At the end of the week there are close to 50 brand new, amazing songs that are performed on the weekend at the local playhouse. The songwriters involved are the most talented and solid people I’ve ever spent time with and being a part of that group has really had an affect on my songwriting and this upcoming album. Four out of the ten tunes are co-writes I did there.