Kate 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 latest album, For The Wolfish & Wandering (out now), features her singular folk-style storytelling. The songs are grounded in a darkly melodic, reverb-washed sonic palette of dream pop, 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.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?
I grew up in New Mexico. Briefly, in elementary school, we had a music teacher come in called Mr. Musica. We thought it was a very funny coincidence, his name. I’m now more than slightly suspicious it was a pseudonym. Either way, he introduced me to music and different instruments and musicians.
I started playing flute at 8 years old and picked up guitar at 12. The writing was always there and so, when musical instruments entered the picture, songwriting was just a natural thing. I consider myself a writer first.
I went to Berklee College of Music, with the intention of studying jazz flute, but I found myself coming back from class and writing songs, so I followed that.
I didn’t really perform my own songs though, until I moved to NYC after graduation. It was scary, but I found a supportive open mic and went every week. Playing those songs in front of people for the first time were definitely significant moments.
As an artist, how do you define success?
I define success as an artist the same way I define success as a human. If I am able to challenge myself, get out of my comfort zone, even if it’s just one step, and create stuff I’m proud of, I am succeeding.
What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?
Similar to what I hear from other musicians, the simple concept of music as business can be a challenge. It’s not simple at all, really. It’s counterintuitive. As an independent artist, it’s great right now, because I have access to everything I need, I can do everything myself, for the most part. But that’s also the tricky part! As an independent artist, I am handling all this business stuff that, as a person who tends to favor right-brained activities, can be overwhelming and take longer to grasp.
What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?
For me, it’s to be genuine. That’s not for every artist or band. Sometimes the goal is to portray a certain idea or evoke a specific emotion. And there’s room for all of it. But for me, my constant goal is to be more present, more in-tune…oof, pun. All I’m trying to do is show up for the moment and be honest.
Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?
I hope most of what I do contributes to creativity, unless it’s total mind-numbing nonsense, which I do my best to avoid. I’m fascinated by mindfulness, I spend a lot of time with that. Mediation, running, yoga, I recently got into aerial hammock, these all contribute to a cleaner, more relaxed mental state for me, which allows me to open up space for creativity to move around. Saying yes to new things on a regular basis is important. I also have a lot of very talented, very creative people around me, so I’m pretty consistently inspired.
Photo: Jared Roybal