Interview

Q&A: Katie Ellen On Life After Chumped & Their Debut Album Cowgirl Blues

Katie Ellen was born of the bones of a band called Chumped. You’ve probably heard of them — they stormed 2014 with an album called Teenage Retirement, which we named one of the best of the year and remains one of the best albums about twentysomething disillusionment. After Chumped played their final show at the DIY space Suburbia in Brooklyn, a lot of fans wondered whether or not that would be the last we heard from charismatic frontwoman Anika Pyle, the outspoken writer and performer who came to mean so much to so many.

In the years since Chumped disbanded, Pyle ended a long and involved romantic relationship; she moved to Philadelphia and started taking collage classes; she also continued to write music on her own, and continued collaborating with Chumped’s drummer Dan Frelly. The two formed a band they named Katie Ellen and released a 7″ called TV Dreams last year. From there, Pyle started workshopping songs that would be included on Katie Ellen’s debut full-length.

On Cowgirl Blues, Pyle sings about this transitional period in a way that’s at once familiar and wholly different from her work with Chumped. Yes, she still writes with the same no-holds-barred honesty, but Katie Ellen doesn’t resemble a pop-punk project. In fact, it has more in common with singer-songwriters or girl groups of a bygone era than it does Chumped, and the content of these lyrics are deeply personal and unfettered in a way Pyle didn’t feel totally comfortable writing before. Cowgirl Blues is an album about rebirth, and over the course of 10 tracks, Pyle explores what it’s like to start over when you’re nearing 30. At times, the experience is painful and isolating and straight-up bad. But there’s a transformative power to be found in feeling truly alone for the first time in your life. On Cowgirl Blues, that spirit of independence shines through.

Stream Katie Ellen’s new single “Houses Into Homes” and read a Q&A with Pyle and Frelly below.

STEREOGUM: Chumped’s rise was super fast. I’m curious, from a band’s perspective, whether or not a lot of media buzz ever became too overwhelming or put too much pressure on that group of friends.

PYLE: At that moment I don’t think we could feel the pressure. We could feel the excitement but then you just keep making these decisions, like, “Oh, we’re going on a three and a half week tour in Europe.” I mean, we all had like salaried professional jobs before we started Chumped. We quit them to go on this crazy ride.

FRELLY: There was no pressure because there was no expectation. We just always kept saying, like, “Well if this is the last thing we do at least we got to tour Europe.” We just kept saying “yes” because we thought it was fun. We weren’t ever like, “OK, we’re going to start a band and try and make it.” We just liked to play and people kept asking us to do stuff and so we just kept doing it. It sounds cheesy and cliché but it’s really what it was.

STEREOGUM: The best bands never think they’re going to do anything.

FRELLY: It was all of our first times doing that stuff too, so there was no jadedness. We were all excited and people seemed to like us and it made it even better.

PYLE: I don’t think it was until after the album cycle was over — which was never a term that I would have even considered before — when we got a breather, that [I realized] my life had been completely turned upside down. I hadn’t had any time to think about it or reflect… You have to take [opportunities].

In starting Katie Ellen and something new, there is a different perspective on the pressure [when you put music out into the world] because you can’t do anything in private. I remember the first thing we ever posted about Katie Ellen got picked up by Brooklyn Vegan because I just posted [the music] on my Facebook. I remember that being the first time I felt the pressure of having your art and process sort of publicized, not against your will, but without your consent.

FRELLY: You’re also going to get compared [to your old band] no matter what. It’s not a bad thing, but it kind of comes with whatever you do after.

STEREOGUM: Where did the name Katie Ellen come from?

PYLE: My great grandmother was this very interesting figure to me because I had a personal relationship with her. She died when I was eight, and growing up I would hear stories about her. She wanted to study journalism in a time where women were not really encouraged to pursue higher education. She did that and ended up having a baby in the middle of it, and that sort of derailed her. She eventually continued to pursue a career in journalism and got hired on at this radio station KTLN as, like, their main personality.

The historical legacy is a little bit unclear, but she adopted the moniker Kaytee Ellen and adopted this persona along with it. Her checks still said her real name but also “aka Kaytee Ellen.” That was her identity. She was offered a television spot and tried to take the name Kaytee Ellen to other aspects of her career beyond the radio station and the radio station was not having that and sued her — or she got let go at some point. It’s a bit of a family legend. She fought the station and lost. It really devastated her as far as I’m told by my grandmother. It changed her entire life — she went and sold china after that, it ended her career.

I was really inspired by this story because I never knew any of that until I Googled it and found a JSTOR article about it. She was just a person who I saw as a feminist who was a performer, and I identified with that a lot. I used to wear her clothes and jewelry. She wrote in a lot of spoken word, was a writer, was a dancer, was a creative type. I thought her story was really powerful because she was essentially robbed of her identity by a system that prioritized profit over people’s personal lives. When we first started playing, I felt empowered by the idea of playing under that name; these songs felt a lot more personal and songwriter-y but I don’t think I felt super comfortable playing them as myself. It felt in some ways that I was taking it back on behalf of a person I admired and it gave me some space to emulate qualities that I want to foster in myself: strength and confidence and ambition. It was a way to experiment in carrying myself differently. It’s confusing sometimes because it’s hard to name your band after another person’s name. People are just always going to assume my name is Katie when we play.

STEREOGUM: When you were writing this new record were you consciously looking to new influences to make it sound different than Chumped?

PYLE: You’re inevitably informed by your influences whether or not they’re immediately obvious. My biggest influence in writing these songs were ’60s girl groups. That’s the music that I love. I was listening a lot to Patsy Cline, Amy Winehouse, too, stuff that could have translated in some way to our previous project and still come out sounding kind of punky. A lot of these songs can be played in various formats, and they translate well when I play solo, and that was definitely intentional. Whereas the last record we worked on for Chumped I wouldn’t say the same. Chumped wrote a lot of songs together, and most of the songs on the Katie Ellen record were already written by me and then Dan gave input and helped with the arrangement and then Anthony and Eric came in and the record further blossomed.

STEREOGUM: I can imagine it’s pretty intense to be sharing your words and thoughts, uninhibited by anyone else’s input.

PYLE: Yeah, this is a very vulnerable record. I was processing a lot of heavy emotional experiences, as many people do when they write a record. It’s a lot to [put those emotions] into song, which is why you bring in people that you love and trust and feel comfortable with. I always find it weird, getting onstage [to perform personal material], especially when you’re playing to all your friends and they’re analyzing what the song is about. You’re trying to empower yourself by sharing things that are vulnerable because that’s the power of music — you exchange things that are ethereal with other people and you commune on them in a performance. It’s really incredible, but it’s also really scary because you’re laying it all out. I’m not a metaphorical songwriter.

STEREOGUM: What was going on in your life when you wrote the album?

PYLE: The ending and beginning of the most significant relationships in my life. A romantic relationship and a relationship with my former band and self, too. The record is called Cowgirl Blues because I was experiencing this moment in my life where I felt a lack of self-trust and a very serious [detachment] from decades of what I’ve defined myself by. I was searching desperately for self-trust and self-confidence and the ability to be alone and be independent; I was analyzing my sexuality, my womanhood, my future, my goals. That was both an incredibly liberating experience and a sad one. Any time that you experience loss it’s like [experiencing] a death; you grieve and it’s sad. And any time you experience birth it’s like, fucking painful. Rebirth is not easy. It hurts to fucking be born.

The album title references Tom Robbins’ novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. I had been gifted that at this very significant moment, and it just spoke to me. I love Tom Robbins, and I love the story. A fucking cowgirl quits her life, moves to a ranch full of lesbians, falls in love with a freaky dude on a mountain. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: When I was listening to Cowgirl Blues at first, I pegged it as a breakup album. But the more I listen, the more I think of it as an album about independence. Freedom, even. There are a lot of references to marriage, stability, wives, and white dresses. No matter how far we progress, there’s still a grounded expectation in our society that once you’re done being wild and young you kind of chill out. You settle into your life and you do it in a conventional way.

PYLE: Yeah, you reach a plateau. You grow up… which means you stop growing.

We finished the record a year ago, so I had a lot of emotional distance from the content, and sometimes it’s hard because to listen back because it’s like, “Why did I say that? That’s a stupid breakup song.” Everybody has the right to write them, and I had never done that before. But I do appreciate looking back on where I was at the time. I’ve grown a lot as a person since I wrote this record. The hope for any song you write, or at least for me, is that someone listens to it and connects with it because it helps them through their current experience. If [a song I wrote] brings someone peace even if it makes me cringe sometimes, that’s OK. That’s what music is for. [These songs] don’t belong to me anymore.

Katie Ellen

Cowgirl Blues is out 7/14 via Lauren Records. Pre-order it here.