Colorado's Best Kept Secret: Stream Roo & The Howl's Debut Record, 'Me/We'
How a former church girl in Colorado Springs is breaking out as one of this year's most compelling folk-pop purveyors.
"I was literally cleaning other people's shit," Bekah Wagner laughs over the phone from Colorado Springs as we reminisce about some of her less than ideal day jobs. The 25-year-old musician is self-releasing her debut record Me/We tomorrow, but she's done everything from cleaning toilets to bartending in order to support herself in the meantime. Wagner has lived in Colorado for a long time, and there's a simplicity and familiarity to her music that suggests a woman comfortable with her surroundings. But the choice to stay in Colorado Springs instead of decamping to say, Los Angeles or New York might be the reason why most people haven't heard Wagner's elegiac, blues-flecked project Roo & The Howl. It runs in the same vein as records from Daughter, Alela Diane, or Laura Stevenson.
Noisey is exclusively premiering the first listen of Me/We today, but to say the project has been a long time coming would be an understatement. Wagner has been dabbling in piano, guitar and singing for the past 20 years, and this album is the result of all that. This album doesn't sound like the work of a self-taught musician releasing music without a label, though. Me/We is a fully-formed portrait of a woman grappling with the spiritual and existential crises that all mid-20s millennials are facing. Listen to the record for yourself below, and get to know Wagner in our interview. She's been opening for the likes of Courtney Barnett and Nikki Lane in Colorado, and from the sounds of the album, Wagner won't need a day job much longer.
Odds are most Noisey readers don't know anything about you. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up, how you got started making music.
I grew up in Colorado, in Colorado Springs, and I'm still here obviously. My family is super musical especially on my mom's side—her dad was a classical guitarist named Alan Dodd. When I was 4 or 5 my mom began teaching me piano, and then I found this classical guitar in the closet that he had given my mom as a gift. Every time he came to visit he would teach me a couple chords and little by little I learned just having like two lessons a year. I also grew up singing in church and singing with my family and my grandparents, and now, I'm finally doing the music that I want to be doing. This is my first record and it's totally self-released, we're doing vinyl and it's available digitally.
What's the back story on your band name, Roo & The Howl?
It's funny because the story of that that means is kind of an afterthought that somebody else brought up. Roo is the old English word for quiet, and then it contrasts with howl—but basically how the name came about was "roo" was my nickname from my family, they always called me "Bekah-roo" when I was growing up. I wanted to change my performing name and have a moniker, but I didn't want it to be something I didn't connect with. So I decided to keep that, then the howl part just happened through various things. It's super personal to me and it is me and I try to do it as honestly as possible, but it's just nice that it's not like, me.
Didn't you release an EP before as just Bekah Wagner?
Yeah and it's very different. I was doing church music for a long time so it's more along those lines. So its like completely different stuff than I'm doing now.
Really, I'm doing music that I've always wanted to be doing. It just kind of accidentally happened that I was singing on records for church stuff and doing all that kind of stuff. So I did an EP that was a little bit of a stretch from that stuff but not so much. So kind of in the last year, changing to the Roo & The Howl name, I just wanted a clean break to make music that I wanted to make without any pre-conceived notions about me or doing "church music" basically.
Have you completely abandoned religion then?
I hate black and white answers about it. In the Christian faith if you don't believe this or that or that, then you're "lost" and that's just such a derogatory statement. It kind of says that you don't know what you're doing. I know a lot of people aren't really familiar with that language but it's very familiar to me.
It's familiar to me too. I pretty much left organized religion, that's part of why I asked.
It's not something that I think about often and it's not something that I worry about. So yeah, in a lot of ways I've abandoned that. But I also don't think it's a black and white answer for me, because I would say that I'm a very spiritual person. But I'm not like a religious one. I don't know really how to describe it. I'm very in process with life and I don't have answers for myself or other people but I am very comfortable for that.
So you grew up in Colorado Springs and still live there, did you ever think of leaving? I feel like if you were in New York or LA, people would be paying a lot more attention. Have thought about leaving to "get discovered" or whatever?
I'm in Denver every other day practically so I consider Denver my half home too. I would love to move, it's really a timing thing. My husband and I have a house and we've just been here so long. But, we talk about moving like every day. At some point, yes we will move; it's just a matter of when. I would love to be in New York or LA or Nashville, some place like that.
You and I were reminiscing about juggling our "day jobs" with actually pursuing the art that we want to pursue while setting up this interview. What are some of the jobs you've had?
Oh man, I quit an office job like, it's been like almost five years. I was working for this music school basically and doing marketing and managing interns and random stuff. So I just quit and I cleaned toilets for two or three years, I cleaned houses. I was literally cleaning up people's shit—I've done everything. I've done retail, I've worked in restaurants, I've bartended. Through the last five years I've always taught students private music lessons too. So I've done that full-time and part-time and now I just do it for a couple students that I really like every week. So, the ones I liked the most are probably bartending, and depends on the day if I like teaching. But I never miss working in a cubicle.
You've done several covers, a Father John Misty cover "Funtimes in Babylon," the Dusty Springfield classic "Son of a Preacher Man" and a Rolling Stones cover, "Good Times, Bad Times" made this record. What would you say your process is for choosing what you cover?
It's always a song that I connect with. Some nights we'll play "Jolene" live, we've arranged that, and we're getting ready to do a Zeppelin song. It's just stuff that I like the sound of it, also I kind of tend to view music and lyrics on the same level, whereas a lot of people tend to put one above the other, mainly music. So if I connect with a song and I want to sing it, or I like the sound or we can rearrange it or whatever, I want to play it. And I think it makes it interesting to play other people's songs and not just all of your own.
As far as your own songs though, "Catch It Faint" is the first track on the record and really sets a tone and that phrase is such a unique one, what was the impetus behind this song?
My manager Cameron and I wrote that song and we'd never written a song before, and actually, we haven't since. So that was his first song to write and he just started on ideas for lyrics and things and stuff and I think we wrote it in a few different sessions. I don't know if he came up with that phrase or I did, and it just kind of sounded right and felt right with the melody. I'm not sure if I even understand what it means, but I think it fits.
The other one that I've liked for a long time is "To the River," what was going on when you wrote that song?
I wrote that song a long time ago now, probably three years ago? The more I play some of these songs the more I'm also discovering what they're about. There's discipline to writing and there's also discovery to writing, sometimes you just sit down and it just comes out—you work on understanding it later. So that's how I feel about that song. It was processing a lot of things going on with me growing up in church and a pretty extreme culture, and then leaving that. It's life and religion and God and relationships—it's a lot of things, probably too many things wrapped in a song.
I think a lot of those dynamics come across really well actually. For you personally, what's your favorite part about this record?
I feel like the record takes you on an emotional ride because some of it is nonsense and some of it is sarcastic and some of it is super serious and spiritual—it's all over the place. "Swim" I love because I don't even know what the fuck that song is about. I just wrote it and liked it. Then, "Walk On" means the most, with what we were talking about before, growing up in a church and living in the same town of that church that I grew up in—there's a lot of dynamics there and that song alludes to a lot of those things. The other one that I like is "Lay Me Down" is about death even though everybody thinks its about sex. "Into the Wild" I think is just the epitome of the record, even though a lot of people will probably get there and think 'what the fuck?' and skip it over.
Caitlin White has worked a lot of shitty jobs, too. She's on Twitter - @harmonicait
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