Neyla Pekarek (BA-10) trusts her intuition through band’s rise to stardom
By Dan England, Photography by Barry Guiterrez
It was just three years ago when Dana Pekarek walked into her house with her arms full of groceries to find both her daughters, Neyla and Romi, bawling and her husband, Rodger, trying to reason with them.
Neyla wanted to go on tour with a band she joined a year ago after answering a Craigslist ad for a singer and a cellist. Dreams were fine, but the problem was, dreams, or the tour, wouldn’t pay off the debt Neyla acquired at UNC, where Rodger graduated in 1970. Neyla had just graduated with a degree in Music Education after switching from studying vocal performance and musical theater a few semesters earlier.
“‘Dad, I’ve got a really good feeling about this,’” Neyla would say over and over. Her parents could see why Neyla liked her bandmates. Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites were from New York but carried a small-town vibe with them: Colorado seemed to fit them better. They were unpretentious: In Neyla’s tryout, they said they liked Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, not a bunch of edgy underground bands in an attempt to impress her. They were hard workers: They had a catalog of songs at the ready, just one example of many that they were about the music, not the partying, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
Even so, quite frankly, her parents didn’t see what Neyla saw. The band played in dive bars, and when Dana and Rodger went to see their youngest daughter play, the acoustics were always terrible. Rodger had cosigned on the college loan. He had also worked as a letter carrier for almost 40 years and was ready to retire.
But Rodger knew what it was like to work a job, and sure, Neyla could do that. Neyla had a way of surprising them. She began playing cello over her starter instrument, violin, even though it was much bigger than she was. Her freshman year of high school, Neyla was so bashful, when she sang in the school choir, she couldn’t look up from the floor. Her sophomore year, her teacher gave her a solo, and she not only looked up, she filled the room, belting it out like she would as a kid when no one but her family was around. It blew them away.
Rodger didn’t want Neyla to carry regret like he carried his sack of letters and packages for decades.
“I’ll give you a year,” he told her.
After a year of sleeping on floors and bumming breakfasts from the boys’ brothers, the Lumineers released a CD in April 2011. They came back to play the Bluebird Theater in Denver a month later. Her parents just hoped a few people would show up. Instead, they were shocked. They were a completely different band. The crowd was going wild. Dana, who played guitar and sang, thought Neyla was good, but so many others were saying that as well.
“We thought the whole balcony was going to come down,” Dana says. “It was the most fun night we’ve ever had.”
That’s when it hit them that their daughter was right. Their band was going to be big.
Really, really big.
They were nominated earlier this year for a Grammy for Best New Band, one of the most prestigious awards. You’ve heard “Ho Hey” at least once because every radio station, from adult contemporary to alternative to all-hits, plays it.
The band didn’t develop its sound to sit in the corner pocket of the new folksy, rootsy, quasi-rocky movement led by bands such as Mumford and Sons (though the band respectfully cringes at that comparison). But they came at the right time, just like Def Leppard did back in the ’80s when hair metal began to take hold.
The Lumineers are playing all over the world now and have millions of fans. Neyla had to get rid of her Facebook page because it got too crazy.
But it was just a few years ago when Neyla was a singer and a music lover and a bubbly, energetic girl who had both a goofiness that was perfect for children’s theater and a quiet intelligence fed by National Public Radio. No one saw “rock star.”
“We didn’t think she would ever have that courage,” Dana says.
She could sing even as a little kid, when she would hit notes that Dana never could,
and in private, when only her family watched, she was fun and funny. But as a high school freshman, she was tiny, shy and quiet.
After her solo the next year, which surprised everyone, not just her parents, that shell cracked. She eventually played the lead in her Aurora high school’s production of Les Misérables.
When she went to UNC to study vocal performance and musical theater, many fell in love with her beaming, positive personality and were surprised to learn that she was once shy. She seemed a natural for children’s shows because she was animated and full of energy.
“She was so great in those kids’ shows,” recalls Mary J. Schuttler, UNC professor of Theater Arts who had Neyla as the lead in one of those plays, The Incredible Journey of Fenda Maria. “She was always smiling.”
Classmate Samantha Provenzano got to know Neyla in another children’s play, and the two would meet at 6 a.m. to ride together on a tour of elementary schools.
“She was one of the best people to do that with,” Provenzano says. “She was really funny and had all these crazy voices.”
Still, Provenzano admits to being as surprised as many others when she saw her college friend’s band take off the way it did.
One of Neyla’s best friends since their freshman year in high school, James May went to UNC and pursued musical theater because of her.
“I have a ton of really talented friends, and many deserve success,” May says. “But you know, does it always come out that way? No. I’ve seen Neyla’s band many times, from the times they were playing the house parties and the dive bars and in people’s living rooms, and I’ve always thought they were amazing.
“I think she brings an elegance to the band. It has this folky, grassroots look to it, but she’s also elegant and beautiful. A lot of other folk bands are uniform, and she stands out in that way.”
Neyla convinced May to audition at UNC after he spent some time at a college in Los Angeles. He loved theater but didn’t consider it a practical choice, even though he knew he had talent.
“She convinced me I was wrong,” says May, who now travels with the national touring production of Beauty and the Beast.
Imagine his surprise when Neyla told him, a yearand-a-half into college, that she was switching to Music Education. She was the one who always seemed to love it. But it didn’t seem to fit her. She later told the Greeley Tribune that she didn’t think she was good enough. She wasn’t a good dancer, she said in the interview, and she began to think of musicals as a job.
She got her degree in 2010 and spent her last semester student teaching in Littleton’s public schools, where she hoped to forge a nice career. The district wasn’t hiring once her semester ended, but she could be patient. She would find things to keep her busy while working in restaurants.
That’s why she answered the Craigslist ad from two guys who played rootsy, revival music. They wanted a cellist. She didn’t play much cello in college, but she remembered enough from her childhood for wedding gigs that helped pay her bills once she graduated. She’d never played in a band before, but a job was a job.
After a while, the band didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and she told the guys that. They told her they just needed to do one more tour, and if that didn’t work, they could call it good. She couldn’t shake that good vibe about the band, and so she agreed, and that’s how she found herself crying at the kitchen table with her father and her sister when her mother walked in.
After that gig at the Bluebird, Neyla’s parents were right. The Lumineers got big. No one thought the band would get THAT big, though, in such a short time, not even Neyla. It was the kind of rise that inspires VH1 specials, a rise that happens for only a handful of bands every year. The Lumineers played all the talk shows and “Saturday Night Live.” That last gig may have impressed her parents the most. They remember watching SNL before they had Neyla. Now their daughter was on it. “We still find ourselves surprised at it all,” Rodger says. “I remember that conversation I had with Wes. ‘Just hang with us,’ he told us. There wasn’t a lot of reason to think success was going to happen. But we’re glad we did.
“We’re just enjoying the ride like she is.”
The ride is fun, though it’s also a long and tiring one. The traveling remains exhausting, even if they aren’t sleeping on floors any longer. After their shows, there are still times they have to get up early for promotional work. They need to find time to write songs and do sound checks and practice.
“Going from where they were to where they are,” Dana says, “there’s always going to be stress. Sleep is their biggest thing right now. It’s hard to come by.”
Neyla could gripe. But you could also say her life is like a Broadway dream come true.
“We’re playing music for a living,” she told the Tribune.” “I’m very aware that I now have the best job in the world.”
Besides, Neyla seems to be handling it well, her parents said. She finds yoga studios to drop into and brings healthy food with her on the tour bus. She uses a juicer a lot.
“She told us the other day, ‘I’m not into all the nightclubs and meeting all the big celebrities,’” Dana says.
She never was. She values her time alone.
“She’s still the exact same girl,” says May, who has been her friend as long as anyone. “Her life has changed a ton, but Neyla hasn’t changed.”
Well, Neyla’s changed in one way since her days in high school. Perhaps May’s favorite video of the Lumineers comes from “Falling,” not one of the Lumineers’ bigger hits. Neyla usually plays her cello and sings backup, but in those videos, she sings for the first time, and the crowd goes crazy.
It reminded him of the time when Neyla was that tiny sophomore who looked like she belonged in sixth grade, singing that solo in concert. She was no longer looking at the floor.
“It floored all of us,” May says, “and you can hear that same reaction from the audience.”
In that video, Neyla’s looking out to the audience, her head held high, with a big grin on her face. That shy girl disappeared long ago.
In her place now is a rock star. NV