When Neyla Pekarek answered an ad in 2010 to join a Denver-based band led by Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, she was merely looking for a gig to fill some time and earn a little pocket money. Instead, she has been part of two hit albums, and is set to play some of the biggest stages in the United States later this summer.
"I had just finished school. I was going to be a music teacher and I had just moved back home," recalls The Lumineers cellist/bassist. "I had never been in a band before. I'd been a cellist. I wasn't a guitarist or a drummer or something. It didn't really interest me, to be honest. But I went to shows a lot and had friends in bands. I basically was looking for anything to keep me busy while I looked for a teaching job."
By the time Pekarek came into the picture, Schultz (lead vocals, guitar, piano) and Fraites (percussion, piano) had already spent eight years laying the groundwork to take the Lumineers beyond local band status. Based in New Jersey for most of that time, it wasn't until 2009 that they decided to move to Denver. By then, Schultz and Fraites had grown frustrated at their lack of success back east, as well as the high cost of living there.
Things began to click in Denver. By late 2011, a self-titled debut album, funded by the group's management, had been recorded, and the Lumineers were starting to tour. And in December of that year, their first break came when the song "Ho Hey" was used in the season finale of the CW television series, Hart of Dixie.
The song became an online hit and soon attracted major-record-label interest. But the group instead opted for indie label Dualtone. Their debut album, The Lumineers, came out in April of 2012, by which time "Ho Hey" had already begun its climb up Billboard's Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 3. The group was soon being touted as America's answer to Mumford & Sons and a leader of the resurgence of folk music.
"I think for anybody that reaches that amount of success, you're in the public eye and the people around you sort of start to feel differently about you. It's an intense thing to go through."
The challenge of following up on a massive hit album also weighed heavily on the trio, especially songwriters Schultz and Fraites.
"Basically Wes and Jer were holed up in a house in Denver for about six months and wrote the record," Pekarek recalls. "It was kind of mysterious. I didn't hear any of the tracks until about a month before we went into the studio. They were keeping it pretty close to their chests."
And it worked. Released in early April, Cleopatra debuted at No. 1. The sophomore album retains the folk rock feel of its predecessor, but it's darker lyrically, and also a bit heavier and more electric. But the sure-footed melodies of songs like "Sleep on the Floor," "Ophelia" (which has some of the stomp and cheer of "Ho Hey"), "My Eyes" and "Angela" carry the day, delivering on the promise of the first album.
In retrospect, Pekarek says each album came with its own special anxieties. "I think we felt pretty pressured on the first record, as well, especially because we were kind of putting all our eggs in one basket at that point. It was like, 'Well, this is our one shot." It was basically all the best songs Wes and Jer had written up to that point and hoping it takes, and it did, which was really exciting. And I think this time around, the fact that we even have fans waiting for the music, is really exciting. And luckily, this one, too, has taken well."