“My drunk and disorderly Avenue B, you feel cold and everlasting, I keep coming back on account of my head, on account of my bad design.”
-Kate Vargas, “Mighty Fire”
The room should’ve had a haunting cloud of smoke resting heavily above the stage and crowd. The spotlight trapping the dust in the dimness would have to do. Kate Vargas smiled as she flicked her long colored nails against the strings of her acoustic, admiring the non-traditional clashes and brushes of her drummer’s small set of random extensions. Her sultry rasp bounced off the old concrete walls, echoing the darkness from within that she needed to share.
Kate Vargas has emerged as a major player in the alternative/singer-songwriter scene. With the support of a small ensemble of talented and established musicians such as Eric McFadden, the creativity behind her sound and the uniqueness of her vocals have fetched great accolades and some flattering comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits, Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey.
Yet, they are them and she is her. Vargas digs deep into her past to converse with demons and make her lyrics personal and emotional while maintaining relatability to her listeners. Her approach is pure, dabbling with and revitalizing instruments found in heaps of uselessness and fortifying the deep imagery of her past and present.
Vargas said, “What I really want to do is just write songs and survive, and I’m doing that.”
She’s dark. She’s fun. She’s undeniably herself, which is something fresh and needed in the music world.
Corrales, New Mexico is a small pseudo-rural cluster that borders Albuquerque, an escape from everything but within a tumbleweed’s roll of the chaos that hovers around. The eclectic villagers have clear views of the mountains rising far above and beyond the lush trees of the Bosque to the east and desert grounds sloping upward to hold the top of orange and purple sunsets to the west. It’s unlike anywhere else.
“It’s an artist and farmer village,” Vargas said of Corrales. “They have a pet parade and people will walk their pets down the road and sometimes dress them up, and there are llamas, and donkeys, and emus, and all kinds of things, and whoever wins is elected mayor for the day. That really sums up the vibe.”
Within the diverse beauty that each individual contributes to the village, Vargas embraced the arts and the scene that her personal boundaries would allow. She was, and still is, a classically-trained flautist. There was a fire inside that needed to be released, however, one of independent expression. It wasn’t a dislike of the flute that drove her to the guitar, it was her love for all music and determination to find the correct outlet. From the village’s studio where she learned to be a musician from Darryl Dominguez to community recitals showcasing her original material to Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space, Vargas had the resources to follow her passion.
“I had these adults in my life who were very supportive with what I was doing musically. [Darryl] really encouraged my writing, encouraged me to play a song that I had written at a recital. It really didn’t occur to me to do that.”
However, the raw juvenile mind can be a dangerous seductress. The support wasn’t enough; she needed a way out from something. One such break booked her a trip to a boarding facility out of state as a teenager.
Vargas spent part of her adolescent life in Utah, away from her family in an attempt to curb her wild side, erase her days as a troublemaker. The temptation of vices was too strong as she constantly searched for an escape. Through her early obsession with Harry Houdini, it proved there was something that had troubled her for some time.
She explained, “There was like a rumbling, a deep rumbling. We all have stuff growing up, and it just seemed like an easier way to not have to look at it or deal with it. None of us really want to be uncomfortable or face things that don’t feel good. It’s hard being a human, especially when you’re growing up, learning what it is to be alive.”
Her upbringing, influences and mind attribute to her songwriting, but it was music that served as her life raft while the demons clawed and dragged her below the surface. She was moving too fast like a bullet train teetering on the edge of worn cracked rails, spiraling, drowning in doom, giving into the darkness she had become accustomed to relying on.
She’s now 10 years sober and counting.
“I remember that moment, it’s something I kind of have to remember. I had this real moment of clarity. I just saw myself as this kid growing up and where I imagined myself, and then I had let that kid down. I was actively harming myself and hurting the people in my life just because I wasn’t present. That was the big motivator.”
Though there was an unexplainable issue, the solution was always present. Reaching an epiphany, or multiple epiphanies at that, is important for an artist to accomplish. Vargas has roots as well as deep-seated psychological inspirations, negative and positive, she can access, whether consciously or not, to help her create. It comes out through her stories and poetry in songs about religion, addiction, relationships and just general musings of life. She’s not only a creator but a listener and absorber of stories, which helps her relate to audiences. Accepting and overcoming turmoil can be therapeutic for everyone.
“One day you will understand, the things we cherish most, we’ve got to hold them close, keep them locked away.”
A variety of contrasts have emerged from fans and critics, but that only supports the uniqueness of Vargas because it’s a diverse group of artists. McFadden, who is featured on Vargas’ 2021 album Rumpumpo, has worked with many amazing musicians and writers in his career that has spanned decades and revels in her matchlessness.
“Kate is pretty high up there,” McFadden compared Vargas’ abilities to other greats. “She’d have to be in the top two or three songwriters that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I think she’s one of the best songwriters of her generation.”
McFadden, who also spent a good portion of his life in New Mexico, has toured with the likes of George Clinton and Eric Burdon and collaborated with artists ranging from Bo Diddly to Les Claypool to Pat McDonald among many other famed musicians and writers. The guitarist also has an extensive solo collection that he continues to build.
The New Mexico connection isn’t what brought McFadden and Vargas together at first, but it certainly helped strengthen their bond quicker. The two met at the Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until their third festival together that they finally collaborated on a song.
“I was really taken by her,” McFadden said, “I thought, wow, this is brilliant. Her whole presence, and the lyrics, and her voice. There’s a lot to her creatively, a lot to her personally, emotionally; there’s a lot to know. She runs deep.”
Vargas’ ability to tell a story in minutes is a talent, just like for any singer-songwriter. To put it in perspective, authors claim that 100,000 words still isn’t enough to completely tell a story, but musicians only have around four minutes to convey their tale. No word is wasted, but when complemented with a musical virtuoso such as McFadden, it adds that other element to the story. Take classical music, for example. There are no lyrics, but a tale can still be heard within the notes.
“I’m learning a lot about writing and growing as a songwriter myself just from being in such close proximity to her. She’s honest and she’s authentic, but she’s also brilliant, she has great insight.”
Together, McFadden and Vargas mesh extremely well. During the pandemic, they started live streaming jam sessions and discussions on their show “Live From The Red Couch.” His invaluable industry experience, her vast musical knowledge and both their immense talent have created something special. The pair have perfected Vargas’ sound, and their passion and exceptional songwriting ability are on full display in her music.
Vargas released her first three albums as an independent artist. It has become a strategy of many creators of late, and if they possess the perfect combination of uniqueness and quality, then they will be discovered. Her style has been labeled as dreampop, dusty folk and junkyard blues, but to bring simplicity to all the sub-genres that seem to appear with each new act that becomes popular, Vargas is a folk singer-songwriter.
Now, to contradict the above, she also has a southern gothic sound present that you find from artists such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Parker Millsap and Grace Potter. She captures the topics, deep lyrics and catchy bluesy rhythms, but adds her irreplaceable vocals. Though comparisons are the best way for the industry to describe an artist, especially an emerging one, Vargas truly constructs a range of elements that make her authentic.
This process, this genuineness and creativity, charmed Bandaloop Records founder Bill Hutchinson. He started his company in 1998 with the goal to seek out great lyricists, melodic composers and live performers, giving unknown artists an opportunity to showcase their talents to more audiences.
After listening to musicians slated to perform at AmericanaFest in Nashville, he came across Vargas during his scouting and knew he had to talk to her immediately, even before seeing her perform.
Hutchinson said, “Kate stopped me in my tracks. Then there was her distinctive voice. She had everything I was looking for. Songs, great lyrics, a great live show, a winning personality, and the desire to put in the work necessary to get ahead.”
Hutchinson praised the amount of energy she has in the studio, and that is shown through her passionate lyrics and artistic composition. Her drive, focus and hands-on involvement during recording have proven her dedication to her craft, and she set the tone early for how far she wants to grow in the industry.
“Kate’s just getting started and, really, there’s no limit to what she can accomplish,” Hutchinson expressed.
The major outlets and big names have taken notice, and her music is rightfully raved within many circles—even when it comes to lowly independent journalists. There’s a certain respect due.
The pandemic was rough on Vargas. Any artist knows that their mind is in desperate need to be occupied and spending too much time with their thoughts can be detrimental. She found herself in Los Angeles with her hands on Jackson Browne’s guitar and her mind on Newton’s first law.
Her constant motion helped guide the release of her label debut with Bandaloop Records, Rumpumpo, this year. It is her first album in three years, fourth overall, and the intention was simply to provide audiences with good, well-executed art. Rumpumpo gives listeners everything they need to know about Vargas in 11 songs—if they are willing and ready.
McFadden said of Rumpumpo, “Kate’s album is a gem. Anyone that stumbles upon Kate’s latest record is like finding a buried treasure.”
The title track not only displays her distinct sound and the creativity involved but how open she is about vices and addiction and the ability to tell a story, almost masking the depth of the words with a whimsical beat that doesn’t fit the lyrical content. That is on purpose and it’s very difficult for musicians to achieve. It eases the heaviness in a way so the listener can withstand processing each little bit, lyrically and musically, without being deterred. In addition, around the 2:30 mark, a Spanish-influenced solo is inserted into the jazzy, gypsy-like beat that on the surface doesn’t make sense, but strangely fits. Her influences, past and style are all on display. Maybe the listener doesn’t actually need 11 songs.
Luckily for them, there are. “Honeydipper” showcases her flexibility as a vocalist. The rasping isn’t an act but can be contained, and there’s a hint of southern twang that comes out at times. “Left Shoe” continues her ability to keep an infectious beat, and then she slows things down with “Everything Forever,” the first ballad on the album.
“After the song is done, it’s exciting,” Vargas said about the writing process. “I said something that I’ve wanted to say or I expressed this thing in a way that feels really true to me. It’s really like a birthing. It can take anywhere from, for me, a couple days to a couple years.”
She wants to get to the heart of each song while in the studio, which helps create an experience with each track and album. Structure and balance are vital to both. Vargas is able to capture the essence of her own music and give listeners something of everything. “Animal” and “Split 3 Times” bring back to the toe-tapping melodies and thought-provoking lyrics, but then the overlooked hit of the album emerges.
“Someday” is a seemingly basic slower track, but it’s the subtle build-up throughout that enchants the listener. Also, the lyrics aren’t overpowered by tempo or rhythm, allowing them to absorb the message clearer. If there was ever a song to either wander a dusty trail as the sun curves from horizon to horizon or sit in a rocking chair on a front porch and stare up at the clear stars while pondering life between long blinks, this would be a contender.
“Church of the Misdirection” and “Glorieta to the Holy Place” sandwich the descriptive track “Lighter” on the listing, but the two religion-based songs have drawn attention—especially from New Mexicans. Vargas dives deep into the memories of her childhood and the role Catholicism played during her upbringing, using that southern gothic sound that complements the topic flawlessly. Though it’s been concentrated on in regard to Rumpumpo, Vargas has done this before, even back on her first album in 2014, Down to My Soul, with the track “Sisters of Loretto.”
This is something that makes Vargas special. Unintentionally, she immerses listeners in a situation from a child’s perspective, which is to be considered innocent, to try to make sense of life aspects that are confusing then and now. On the contrary, when it comes to her time as a teenager and the dark years that followed, she uses her experiences to create stories and provide clarity and hope.
Rumpumpo ends with “Like Apollo” which sums up everything the listener just experienced with a bluesy rock conclusion to this specific part of Vargas’ journey. And it’s left with an open ending like any good series.
Vargas has evolved without abandoning her sound. However, nothing sounds exactly the same which some acts fall victim to. The subtle progression within one’s own catalog is an art in itself.
After Down to My Soul, Vargas released Strangeclaw in 2016 and For the Wolfish & Wandering in 2018 which includes her most popular song, “7 Inches.” Each album contains a fitting first track, especially “Roll Around” off For the Wolfish & Wandering. It possesses the same personal tone as the title track off her debut back in 2014.
This proves her commitment to her sound and lyrical intention, but she also is not only influenced by her experiences but time periods, and also by the changeability of emotion. “The Truth About the Heart” has a ‘90’s rock feel all over it, and “November” is a prime example of her ability to capture the essence of a slow emotional song. Both tracks can also be found on For The Wolfish & Wandering.
No matter which point a new listener starts their journey into Vargas’ catalog, they will receive everything she’s about.
Vargas wrote about her future in her essay “Self-Help is an Oxymoron” in Atwood Magazine, explaining that her inability to meet her potential is “a temporary state that’s lasted my whole life thus far” before promoting confidence to overcome her back-and-forth thoughts.
What a fantastic saying. Perhaps this must be said because it eases the battle with her ego. An ego doesn’t always boast conceitedness but can also express negative feelings toward oneself because of failure to meet what the ego believes is the bar. She has been open about her feelings and issues, even away from the stage, but no matter the internal debate, the outside world recognizes her impending success.
McFadden added, “Kate is an artist who I think will have longevity and keep rising because of her talent. She’s the real deal.”
Vargas is an enigma in a sense when it comes to the way she writes. Her music is a necessity, not just for her fans, but for herself. This is in no way a professional psychological analysis, but how she changes perspective to drive home a point, whether intentional or unintentional, is interesting. The confusion she addresses about religion from the pure mind of a child, the damaging vices she battles in the midst of teenage angst, and the reflection on the past that only an adult who has found clarity can offer are all present in her lyrics at some point—and there’s a lot in between as well.
Vargas said, “When I was on the path of total self-destruction, I wasn’t writing that much, and when I was, I wasn’t writing the way that I wanted to. Nothing really felt true to me. I was not doing what I was meant to do, I wasn’t doing it at all, and now I am, and that feels right where I want to be. I just want to survive.”
Her darkness, her eclectic perspective and her passion for her craft combine to create something utterly distinctive and of the utmost quality. Music: the answer was inside all along for Vargas. She has shared her solution and her calling, and will do so for a very long time to come.