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7.24 Kate Vargas at 7p ET

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.”
Always challenging, For The Wolfish & Wandering is peppered with restless moments,
from the aforementioned “Roll Around” to “Mountain Song” (which pulls from the New
Mexican story of the “Taos Hum,” pondering the value of knowledge gained) and
stripped-down acoustic ballad “Madeline” (a 19th-century yarn about a troubled
patient at New York’s Willard Asylum). Whether drawn from folklore or direct
experience, Vargas injects an intimate feel into each song via her poetic lyricism and
jagged vocal delivery. On “7 Inches,” based on a chord progression Vargas had been
toying with since she was just 16, her vocals are at once sultry and ominous, imbuing
the song with a subtle tension. “This Affliction”—written in the wake of the tragic
shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub—juxtaposes a creeping rhythm, a bleak melody,
clinking percussion, mournful dobro guitar and ghostly whistling with striking lyrics that
question the role social media plays in revealing ourselves to others. “Pick apart my
lonely heart,” Vargas sings, “it’s a morbid motif but I look pretty from a distance and the
rest is history.” Drawing from a deep well of tragedy, Vargas damn near hypnotizes, her
compositions seeping to the edge of the subconscious, hardwiring listeners to ponder
questions that, in other contexts, might make them squirm.

While Vargas’ sharp tractor-beam-like storytelling is a big part of 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.
Vargas’ childhood in Corrales, New Mexico, had a profound impact on the woman and
artist she would become. This artist and farming village just outside Albuquerque was
populated with Mexican-Catholic families like hers, as well as creatives and a variety of
seekers. It was a community rich in oral tradition and folklore, steeped in tales of good
and evil, ghosts and witches, sin, The Devil—even extraterrestrial visitors. “It was a
strange and wonderful place that I’ve really come to appreciate as an adult. There was
a culture of storytelling, and the stories were often dark—the way I write songs now is
rooted in that tradition. The paranormal and the supernatural always seem to make
their way in. It was a great place for an imagination to run wild. If I told my mother I was
bored, she’d tell me, ‘Go outside and pretend something.’”
Still, the slow pace of rural small-town life was excruciating at times for Vargas, who
longed for the action and possibility of the big city. She began playing the flute at a
young age and by the time she was in high school developed an interest in jazz that led
her to Boston where she studied music at Berklee. Once there, she consistently found
herself coming back to writing and guitar after classes. Upon graduating from Berklee,
Vargas relocated to New York City, playing an open mic night every Monday at the now
defunct P & G Bar on the Upper West Side. “People responded really positively to the
songs,” she says, “ and that kept me coming back.”
Eventually, the club gave her a showcase spot and more gigs followed. With people
continually asking her for a CD, Vargas knew the time had come to make an album. Her
debut, the DIY affair Down to My Soul, was released in 2014, hinting at the promise of
a vibrant new voice. Her follow-up, 2016’s Strangeclaw, was recorded at New York’s
Mercy Sound Studios (Blondie, Macy Gray) and mastered at the legendary Abbey Road
Studios in London, capturing Vargas’ impressive growth as an artist in gorgeous
fidelity. With Strangeclaw, Vargas had begun to come into her own, laying a foundation
for the unique and textured sound she continues to refine on For The Wolfish &
Wandering. Now hitting her stride, Vargas’ affecting story songs stir the emotional
cauldron, blazing a genre-bending path that is both sonically and lyrically daring.