Just because she’s living the rock-star life doesn’t mean Neyla Pekarek has forgotten her roots. And those roots lead directly back to school.
Pekarek is the cellist for folk-pop band the Lumineers, whose 2012 single “Ho Hey” propelled them from humble Denver origins to global mainstream success – a platinum album, two White House appearances, a firm foothold as one of the top live acts in music today. For her, it all started as a brief detour from a planned future in the classroom.
“I just sort of thought I would pass the time with something fun until I got a full-time teaching job,” Pekarek says from Pittsburgh, in the middle of a new world tour, describing how she first hooked up with her band-mates. Having just graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in music education, the then-22-year-old spotted a Craigslist ad posted by fledgling songwriters Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, and decided to audition. She had been playing cello since the third grade.
The competition was minimal – “I think there was one other person,” Pekarek remembers, “an older man who worked at Radio Shack.” But finding her place within the band’s stripped-down sound was no guarantee. “I don’t think they even quite knew what they wanted in a cellist,” she says. “They kind-of wanted a bass element that was easy to travel with.”
What Pekarek had going for her, besides chops and an easygoing attitude, was that academic background. For one thing, she had studied everything from show tunes to orchestral arrangement, which gave her the know-how to stay flexible as the Lumineers’ sound emerged and evolved. For another, her years in classrooms had honed the ability to collaborate – as she puts it, “You’re in front of people everyday and learning how to communicate, how to listen, and I think all those things are really important in a band.” Meanwhile, working with students had imparted tangible know-how in the art of getting on stage: “I think teaching is performing.”
After some initial creative “struggle,” she and her mates eventually started to click, and to generate a few sparks of industry interest. Around that time, Pekarek received her first job offer to teach. Although she didn’t exactly foresee the Grammy nominations or the sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, she felt strongly enough about the band’s direction to stick with it. Soon enough, “Ho Hey” hit.
No, she doesn’t regret the way things have gone, but in her view, it wasn’t simply a black-or-white career choice. “I think I would’ve had a great life as a teacher,” she says. “The reason I’m a musician is because of the teachers I had – incredible teachers and mentors that I still keep in touch with. I knew so many kids in school, especially in music classes, that’s where they thrived. They wouldn’t have come to school otherwise.”
These days, Pekarek is walking the walk by finding time to teach some classes, to get up-close-and-personal with those who remind her of her younger self. And if anything, it’s this mode of performance that now gets the unexpected pop star’s butterflies fluttering. “I’ve done some workshops recently in schools and things like that,” she muses. “And I think I’m more nervous for those than being on stage in front of thousands of people!”
The possibilities of the cello:
A cello is super-versatile. I think you can put it in a lot of different settings and immediately it kind of ups the drama of a song. It can be percussive, it can be super-melodic and super-musical. It’s a really cool instrument to add to a lot of different kinds of music.
What makes a good instrument:
For a touring instrument, durability is important for sure, and finding that balance of something that sounds really rich and nice and that is durable. It’s often hard to describe why I like the cellos that I do – I kind of have to sit down and play it. It is such a personal instrument, there’s something so human about it. And each one plays a little bit differently. It’s about the tone and how it responds.
Paring it down:
There’s a real mantra of minimalism in this band in general. The thing that I think is strongest about the Lumineers’ music is the stories that are being told. There’s always a way to record more and more sounds, and I think Wes and Jer are very mindful to not do that, to kind of let the lyrics breathe. So all the band members kind of have to put their egos aside – it’s really about the bigger picture of what fills the song.
The band’s sudden rise:
Everything sort of happened simultaneously. It happened really fast. Within about a one-month period we did “Saturday Night Live,” the Grammys, and our first European headline tour. It became so regular so fast to go to Paris multiple times a year. Things like that. It was hard to take all that in at once.
When I joined this band and the music industry in general I had never been so aware of being a woman, especially an all-male band. I think it’s hard to be the only anything in a group of people. If you’re the only vegetarian in a group of meat-eaters, you often feel like you’re being left out, like people aren’t considering your feelings… It’s such an important thing right now. It’s a very hot topic – which is good, I’m glad it’s a conversation.
Denver native and classically trained cellist, Neyla Pekarek tours full time with The Lumineers proving the cello can be at home in any environment, ranging from front porch clap rock to a sold out concert arena.