Neyla Pekarek might be the only cellist to ever break a Billboard-chart record. The 27-year-old is one third of the folk-pop trio the Lumineers, who broke out from playing local coffee shops last year on the strength of their sleeper gospel-stomp love song “Ho Hey.”
Dwelling somewhere in the intersection between pop, nouveau folk, and bluegrass, the Colorado-based group met through a Craigslist ad. Childhood friends Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites had moved from New York to Denver and were looking for a cellist; Neyla had just finished a degree in music education and was scrolling through the site looking for jobs. The trio soon put together a self-titled, home-recorded EP that got them a management deal; a few years later they released their first full-length album, which led to two Grammy nominations (for best new artist and best Americana album) this year.
I talked to Neyla a couple of weeks ago, right before a Lumineers show in Vancouver, about random luck, being the the only woman in a band of dudes, and how fame has shifted her definitions of success and failure.
CAITLIN WHITE: How did you start playing music? What drew you to the cello?
NEYLA PEKAREK: Music was the one thing that always came naturally to me in school. I remember a demonstration in elementary school when they told us you had to be in fifth grade to play the woodwind instruments, and you had to be in fourth grade to play a stringed instrument. So I went with cello because I wanted to get started sooner. I fell in love [with the cello] as soon as I started playing it.
Your band met in such a random way. Did finding one another on Craigslist feel like fate?
It is very random. I was right out of college, and I was kind of perusing Craigslist for anything that could hold me over until I found a full-time teaching job, and I saw an ad for the Lumineers. What ended up happening was not what I expected, that’s for sure! I wouldn’t even recommend the steps I took to any young girl looking to start playing music. Meeting two strangers via Craigslist probably isn’t the best way to get started! [Laughs] But it just kind of worked out. It went very quickly, and it continues to be that way. I think in a couple of years I’m going to look back and think, What the hell just happened? It’s just been really crazy. None of us expected it to get to the caliber of where it is. Since [our first meeting] we’ve had a lot happen. Our first goal—to play music for a living—happened about two years ago, and that was a huge success for us. Then things like the Grammys and Saturday Night Live and touring Europe—one of those things would have been a really huge surprise for us, but all of them kind of happening at once has been really overwhelming and really exciting.
Were you disappointed when you didn’t win the two Grammys you were nominated for?
No, I think we were all sort of relieved. Even just attending the Grammys themselves, we were a little bit out of our element. I think we were really overwhelmed by the whole thing. And if we had won—I think the pace that we’re going is already breakneck speed, and a Grammy would’ve just increased all of that. We just felt like we were really proud of this record and we were really excited to have the nomination, and that was plenty for us.
You weren’t disappointed?
Not at all. I think it’s the reality of what this career is. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of time away from home—we spent almost 300 days on the road last year. I think that’s the biggest challenge of it, learning to live this lifestyle. I went to school to be a musician and I got trained to be a singer and a cellist, but nobody ever trained us to address the lifestyle and to deal with the pressure of whatever this fame is. It’s a weird industry and a weird lifestyle, and I think it can change you. All of us are just trying to stay very humble and really grounded and stay the same people that we were—and I’m pretty proud of that.
How is it on tour being the only girl in the band?
It is a struggle. I’ve learned so much more about myself and about being a woman because I’ve been surrounded by men. The music business has so many strong females in it, but it’s still very much a male-dominated business. [As a woman] you have to talk twice as loud and perform twice as hard, and you have to wear heels! I see myself working really hard to make everything equal between all of us. The boys are learning a lot about it and they’ve been really supportive, but there’ve been some growing pains.
Anything else you want to let people know?
I was super excited to do this interview, because I love Rookie. I didn’t know about it until I read an article about it in a fashion magazine. I think it’s such a good thing to have. I wish I’d had it as a teenager. ♦
Caitlin Cristin White is a writer who lives in New York City. She likes puppies and poetry but hates phonies. She lives in praise of the mysteries.