Philly Punks Katie Ellen Are Using Power Pop For Self-Discovery On Their Debut ‘Cowgirl Blues’

Anika Pyle has already proven herself to be an artist down to her core as the amusing and inimitable vocal behind critically-acclaimed pop punk band Chumped, who quickly gained traction after the release of their 2014 record Teenage Retirement. But with the disbandment of Chumped shortly thereafter in the fall of 2015, Pyle sought to find another outlet for writing music and teamed up with Chumped’s drummer Dan Frelly to create the beginnings of what is now Katie Ellen. Her upcoming debut album with the punk outfit will likely be an even bigger breakout for her creative endeavors.

Last year, the duo put out a 7-inch called TV Dreams and later this week, on 7/14, Katie Ellen are releasing their first full-length debut, Cowgirl Blues.

Cowgirl Blues is not just another record about heartbreak and loss — it’s about renewal, enlightenment, and the reclamation of independence that comes out of going through and conquering strife and hardship. Pyle took a more of a self-reliant approach to music with the formation of Katie Ellen, and simultaneously became more reliant on and trusting of herself as a woman. Pyle says writing Cowgirl Blues was essential for her process of navigating identity, truth, and the way those things are challenged by societal norms and expectations.

Last week, I chatted with Pyle about the formation of Katie Ellen and her badass grandmother who inspired the name, along with the inspirations behind their debut and the current state of DIY music spaces. Read our conversation below.

Can you give me a brief background on the disbandment of Chumped and the formation of Katie Ellen for readers who may not be familiar with the trajectory of both projects?

Chumped officially disbanded in the fall of 2015. We went pretty hard on the album cycle for Teenage Retirement and in the lull time, I started writing with the intention of having an alternative outlet, either alongside Chumped or instead of — at that point, it wasn’t instead of. So, Dan [Frelly] and I started playing — before Chumped played our last show — as a two piece just experimenting for the sake of playing. At that point, we weren’t doing much as a project. So, we put that demo together that we put out. Then we wrangled in Anthony [Tinnirella], who is still actively playing lead guitar in the band, and our friend Eric Sheppard played bass on the record, mixed it and added a lot to the process during recording. We are all in different places now geographically, but the intention was to write songs and experiment with different formats. So sometimes I play songs alone, sometimes Dan and I play them, and sometimes Anthony and I play them. We’ve kind of got a rotating cast of friends who fill in on bass – so yeah, kind of an experiment.

I’ve heard there is a story behind choosing the band name Katie Ellen as well, can you talk a little bit about that?

When I was writing these songs I had a big debate about what to call the project. I started to play some shows under my own name but came across this story about my great grandmother whose stage name was Kaytee Ellen. She was a radio personality at a radio station in Denver called KTLN and adopted this name for her radio persona. She later tried to take that name to other career endeavors and there was a discrepancy with the radio station as to who owned her identity. She underwent a legal battle with them and lost and that kind of ended her career in journalism and performance. I emulated her growing up and always looked up to her. She was a writer, a dancer, and a performer so I related to that a lot. But I didn’t know that background, so when I was experimenting with my own identity and trying to find a sense of empowerment in this project, I felt really moved by the idea of calling it her name — not her real name, but her stage name. I understand that choice comes with a whole set of other interesting assumptions if you don’t know that my name is not Katie. It kind of gave me a space to practice some of the qualities that I imagined she embodied and that I wanted to invest in myself at the time.

Yes, that’s so empowering. How did you find out about the story?

You know, it’s really funny. I was super bored one night and all alone and started Googling everybody in my family just for fun. I actually came across a JSTOR article that was my great grandmother’s real name vs. the radio station and I guess it was a precedent case in the use of acronyms, copyright, and trademark. So, I called my grandma and was like ‘What? How come I never heard this?’ And she told me her version of the story which was really interesting because I never knew that part of her life. It was kind of like ‘I’m gunna take back the name because f*ck this patriarchal, capitalist system that took ownership over my great grandmother’s identity and career.’

Hell yeah. So, what was it like to make your first full-length under the name Katie Ellen? Did your experience with Chumped help or was it an entirely new experience?

You’d think it would help, but honestly it felt entirely new. I distanced myself a lot from the experience with my previous project because it was important for me to get out of my comfort zone and try different things and form new relationships and grow from that. I found a lot of autonomy in that process, but making this record has been one of the most rewarding and deeply challenging things I’ve ever experienced. I really needed to write these songs and I really needed to share them. It’s a really vulnerable record for me. I think anytime you write from your heart and share it, it’s scary, but I think trying to make my life fit into music, especially in regards to the music industry really defeated me in a lot of ways. It made me feel like I made a lot of mistakes. And this record is about letting go and feeling free and empowered. I kept hitting these roadblocks along the way where I found myself beating myself up, stalling the process, not knowing what the right thing was to do, and not trusting my intuition.

But through that process and coming out on the other side and finally looking at it, I feel like no matter what happens to the album or the project in the future or whether the name changes or whether I never write music again — no matter how the future looks, I learned so many valuable lessons. Time has a funny way of turning mistakes into lessons to be learned. It took me a while to get there and I am still grappling with that, but I really do feel grateful for the way that I feel like I f*cked up in this process because it has taught me a lot about what I want and what I don’t want. In that way, it was really different than writing my first full-length record (with Chumped) which felt a little more off-the-cuff and kind of giggly. The writing process for me is never really like that because I write mostly to process difficulty, but the act of creating Teenage Retirement was very different from this record which I think is good.

Yeah, change is extremely important to acknowledge. It clearly shows on the new record how much you have grown.

Yeah, I had a friend tell me a story recently about Jeff Mangum calling every record a snowglobe that kind of encapsulates a specific moment in your life and you can look at it and you can hold it and you can shake it up and then you can put it back on the shelf and you don’t have to think about it again, but each one looks different. That really spoke to me when thinking about that whole process.

Wow, that is such a great image — Jeff Mangum at it again. So, what were your goals for Cowgirl Blues as an entirely new record? It is out this week, are you nervous or excited? How are you feeling?

I had a very specific goal while writing this record which was to write a record. The writing process was incredibly quick — I mean some of these songs were poems that I had written 12 years ago, but in terms of putting the songs together I started in July of 2015 and by May of 2016 we had finished the record. And then, I freaked out. So, that is kind of what took so long. Honestly, I feel like once the record is out and it is no longer mine and I give it to everybody, I will feel a huge sense of relief. And I hope a sense of accomplishment, because I did write the record. I don’t necessarily think that the songs I wrote on my last project were not political but these songs on Cowgirl Blues are a little bit more transparent in that regard. I wanted to explore and challenge the normative assumptions that go along with love, personal empowerment, transformation through pain, and rebirth after the loss of significant relationships whether they be with projects, people, or places, and to heal myself. I would say that I achieved all of those things with this record so I feel good about that.

Along the same lines, this record is clearly about heartbreak and navigating through independence and freedom what with tracks like “Proposal” and “Sad Girls Club.” Can you talk a little bit about the story and inspirations behind the overall theme of the record?

It is not thematically, but loosely inspired by receiving a copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (by Tom Robbins) at the time when I was inviting a narrative of strong, feminine protagonist who was defying expectations and seeking their truth. The book just kind of hit me and tied together all of these things that I was thinking about and experiencing. I haven’t so vehemently taken notes anecdotally about my own life and also on a piece of literature, a novel in a really long time. I found myself weaving a web of the idea of a cowgirl and all of the imagery that that evokes and the barren and harsh, but open possibility of the landscape of the desert. Although none of that is explicitly said in the record, it definitely follows the story of freeing yourself. Following your personal truth is not an easy process and it takes a lot of rebirth. Birth is hard and painful, but on the other side you make life out of it and are better for it.

So I know you were originally going to have one of your record release shows at Suburbia in Brooklyn but obviously that had to be moved because the venue was shut down. What are your thoughts on that and the state of DIY in Brooklyn and nationally right now — given that you’ve been such a huge part of DIY for so long?

It was really really devastating hearing about Suburbia. I have had every record release show I’ve ever had there — they basically groomed my musical career in New York, they were my home. I know that the people who run that space, which was one of the most kindly and efficiently run spaces I have ever been to. Between that and almost every other space I grew up seeing shows at in New York, it all just feels very heavy. I recently played the very last show at VLHS in Pomona and I was really relating to everybody’s experience there. This band Leer were having their last show and I was very kindly invited to play. I ended up in tears by the end of the night just thinking about these spaces that build a community for us freak people, and how important it is to form relationships there.

Those spaces are built to help people who are on the road and they can do that by not charging a whole bunch of money and not being run by a production company, but to have people who are really dedicated to their love of music. I can definitely say that about Suburbia and VLHS and probably every other space that has closed. You hope that people don’t give up once the curtain comes down and that there will always be another space and you accept the reality that you are doing something defiant and not necessarily legal. You gotta just keep going underground. That it is why it is so important to maintain the secrecy of location and to be respectful of spaces like that and understand that they are run by normal ass people who put a lot on the line in order to do that.

Yeah, I help run a DIY space in Ann Arbor and we are facing similar difficulties so I understand how tough it can be.

It’s so hard. I understand that the rhetoric is that it is a safety issue but I think that it is a lot more layered than that. It’s such a bummer. Thankfully, our release show has been moved to the Safari Room at El Cortez which is a new venue. I have never been there, but there will be burritos!

Yum! Speaking of shows, do you do your own artwork? Because I love the collage work that is signature to your show announcement flyers and album artwork.

Yes I do. It was really important to me to have sort of aesthetic control over this project because I just wanted to experiment. I like the idea of using a lot of traditionally feminine imagery and exploring that as part of this project. It’s fun, everything is just covered in tiny pieces of paper.

So you have the two release shows next weekend, but do you guys have any plans for a summer or fall tour in support of the Cowgirl Blues?

We will be playing some shows in the fall that are not announced yet. We don’t have a very aggressive touring schedule for this record as of right now. We are all trying to be thoughtful and kind to ourselves when it comes to being on the road, which is a bit of a harsh environment. I don’t want to go to crazy, but there will be more shows happening.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s hard to do these interviews and talk about all of this emotional stuff I did when nothing exists in a vacuum. So, here’s the acknowledgments section of the interview. I just can’t stress enough the amount of people who were patient and encouraging and helped me find my voice and supported me during the craziest moments, especially my three collaborators who made the record with me, Kyle who recorded the record, and Mike G who was really the first person who helped me get these songs somewhere. I have to thank Jeff Rosenstock, the team of people who I have been working with at Lauren Records, Neil from Anchorless, and Talia from Brixton. My large music community in Philly were also really supportive. It takes a long time to make a record and a lot of people help out with it and I think it is important to acknowledge that.

Here is the full tracklist for Cowgirl Blues.

1. “Drawing Room”
2. “Wild Heart”
3. “Lucy Stone”
4. “TV Dreams”
5. “Proposal”
6. “Sad Girls Club”
7. “Han”
8. “Houses Into Homes”
9. “Cowgirl Blues”
10. “Bleeding Heart”

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