One of the first things I say to Anika Pyle—the vocalist and guitarist of the band Katie Ellen—is that if there's something she doesn't want to talk about during our interview that I won't press the issue. That may sound uncouth to most journalists, as part of the job is asking questions that make the subject uncomfortable in the hopes of pulling out some semblance of the truth in the process. But in the context of us talking about Cowgirl Blues, the full-length debut under the Katie Ellen moniker, I'm not just asking about a record or a band; I'm asking about the most private, personal details of her life. And even though those experiences fueled the creation of Cowgirl Blues, it feels like asking someone to relive these traumatic moments for the sake of a good quote or two.
But Pyle never shies away from a question. To say that she's transparent about the break-ups fueling the record—both a romantic relationship, and that of her beloved pop punk band, Chumped—implies that she exists in another mode, one where honesty isn't the driving force. One listen to Cowgirl Blues drives that home. "This is, at first, a break-up record. But it's a lot more nuanced than that," says Pyle, noting that anyone who takes a cursory pass would find more than enough heart wrenching lyrics and ruminative, aching compositions to get that impression. Perhaps no song drives that point home more than "TV Dreams," which has been on every Katie Ellen release up to this point.
"TV Dreams" carries a simple premise: Pyle is reaching out to her ex, the person who makes her miserable, because she doesn't know what else to do. Memories cloud her judgment, nostalgia sets in, and, before long, desperation drives her to reach out. "I guess I called to say you can call me," Pyle repeats as the band slowly builds momentum before running the song off a cliff. She repeats it over and over, building confidence that this is, in fact, a wise decision and she shouldn't hang up the phone right then and there. The more she says it, each time louder and more impassioned, it's as if she's trying to convince herself this isn't a reckless decision and instead a deliberate plan. If she can just say it enough, she'll convince herself of that, too. But as the song ends, she loses the plot and just blurts out what she really wanted to say all along—two words to an estranged partner that can either reopen a wound or, against all odds, allow it to heal—"Call me."
And sure, there's plenty of more supporting evidence that Cowgirl Blues is a break-up record. The lo-fi acoustic song "Proposal" effectively distills The Graduate down to a tight two minutes, rich with lines like, "I'm sick of fucking in our bed / Sick of imagining us fucking in my head." But to isolate these moments is a misreading of the full scope of Cowgirl Blues, and reductive to Pyle's experience and the art she created from it. This isn't a record just about losing a partner—or, to a certain degree, Chumped, which ended, quite literally in tears. It's about a total life-collapse, and the rebuilding that followed. "I broke-up with a lot of things," says Pyle, knowing that these messy details are all part of this story. But even though Cowgirl Blues touches on all of it, the album ultimately serves as a new chapter for Pyle, both personally and as a musician.
"I think that the most important thing to convey about this record is that when you have the opportunity to reimagine what your life looks like after significant change, that can be a really bad experience, but it's also an incredibly powerful experience, and one of the most important ones you will ever go through." That process is seen time and again as Cowgirl Blues plays out. Songs focus on the new normal, not the rose-tinted past.
Musically, Katie Ellen isn't entirely removed from Pyle's work with Chumped—due in part to Chumped drummer Dan Frelly joining her here. The bands share a common DNA, which is vintage pop music. But where Chumped sped it up, turning in records that could have fit in the Lookout Records catalog, Katie Ellen's sound predates pop punk almost entirely. At various points you can see the rich, soulful country of Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris. Elsewhere, there's the distinct swing of classic Motown singles. But more than anything, you can call out the influence of 50s and 60s girl groups like The Ronettes—though this certainly omits Phil Spector-esque production. And though Pyle doesn't sound giddily ebullient like she did with Chumped, it's impossible not to see the joy that comes from her finding a new version of herself with Katie Ellen. "I feel like I've grown so much writing these songs, both as a writer and a person. Writing this record, and going through the process of putting it out, helped me get to where I'm at currently. I'm really grateful for that," says Pyle.
But that grateful feeling was hard earned, and it certainly didn't come quick. Cowgirl Blues was recorded in June of 2016, and the songs started coming together well before that, with three of them originally released on the Wild <3 Demo before Chumped even called it quits. Revisiting it all now—both in interviews and playing these songs—Pyle seems to have found peace with it all, acknowledging that these songs will always be tied to a specific period of her life, but they don't define her. "I feel more comfortable talking about it than I would have a year ago," she says, "I have a lot of emotional distance from the content. I have perspective on it and can reflect a little more logically and thoughtfully and forgivingly than I could have right out of the gate. I think that allows me to probably talk about stuff without crying about it," she says, punctuating the thought with a laugh, then triumphantly exclaiming, "I haven't cried once yet!"
And though Pyle is quick to toss in jokes like this, she's just as inclined to shift the focus to the other part of Cowgirl Blues, the one that's fiercely political. As has been established, it's a break-up record, sure. But name another break-up record that has a song named after Lucy Stone, the 19th-century suffragist and abolitionist who shocked people by refusing to take her husband's name while fighting for marriage equality. And then there's "Sad Girls Club," which Pyle says is, at least in part, an attempt to address the long historicization of female hysteria. When the song was released ahead of the record, it was paired with a lengthy, expository letter, addressing the song's intent and the goals she had in mind writing it. These songs are just as personal as anything else on Cowgirl Blues, given that the fight against a sexist, misogynistic society will always be a political act, and an inherently personal one.
"The fact that I am a woman-identifying person makes getting up on stage political. It makes any decision I make about my body or my love a political statement. My gender is always politicized," says Pyle, and a song like "Sad Girls Club" gives everyone who shares in that a means to express it over a bouncing backbeat. It turns the repeated phrase of "Sad girls don't make good wives" into an empowering mantra, spitting back in the face of everyone who attempts to diminish people or make them fit into specific boxes based on archaic ways of thinking.
It's this balance between tone and tenor that makes Cowgirl Blues not just a great debut from Katie Ellen, but perhaps the best thing Pyle's done up to this point. On "Drawing Room," the album's opening track, she sings repeatedly, "I'll withdraw from everything but you." It's a loving, tender line, but it's circular in execution. She's been forced to confront shitty situation after shitty situation, but she's used them as a means to push herself forward, embracing herself at every turn. Cowgirl Blues just so happens to fall smack dab in the middle of Pyle's evolution, as she shifted her life almost entirely, finding new ways to write pop-focused songs without having them sound like extensions of her previous work.
So how does she feel about it now, a year after recording the record and having to promote it?
"I feel an incredible sense of closure and a desire to move forward," says Pyle. "Having the closure of releasing the record, I have a lot of emotional distance from the content." It's what allows her to talk about it openly and honestly, knowing that she's changed, and people can now find their own path forward in the songs she created, or at least some comfort in knowing that someone else made it through a similar journey. "I think the most amazing thing you can achieve through sharing your songs, especially when they're extremely vulnerable, is allowing people into the same space that you had writing it. [The album] doesn't belong to me anymore. Now that it's released, it's gone."
Cowgirl Blues may be Pyle's story, but she's happy to share it with all of us. No preface needed.