When Katie Jo Oberthaler interned at KMUW as a high school student, she says she never expected to end up on the air.
More specifically, she never expected that songs she'd written would wind up on the airwaves at that very same station.
But her new album, Pawn Shop Queen (recorded as Katie Jo), is changing that. The record, tracked in Long Beach, California, is already earning her critical acclaim and airplay.
The record itself is deeply in tune with country music of a bygone era, adorned with pedal steel guitar and the singer's authoritative and authentic voice. In some ways, it harkens to the country music that came out of Los Angeles in the early '70s via bands such as The Flying Burrito Brothers or as heard on early albums from Jackson Browne and the Eagles.
But there's something that goes even further back, into the music's rural roots. The lyrics are untouched by trappings of contemporary life: There are no references to heartbreak delivered via text message or old flames reignited thanks to the wonders of social media. Instead, the songs emanate from the most timeless of places: the heart.
Joined by an impressive cast of musicians, Katie Jo has delivered a debut album that connects on a deeply human level and leaves the listener spinning their own ideas about the threads that connect the material on Pawn Shop Queen as they return for multiple listens.
You started writing songs fairly recently.
I started out playing the banjo because I went to the Walnut Valley Festival when I was in college, when I was going to KU. I just fell in love with the banjo there and that whole scene. I was doing that as a casual hobby for a long time. When I moved to Los Angeles, I became integrated with the whole bluegrass scene here and that led to the country music scene in the broader region. After doing that for a little while, I wanted to write my own songs. I was playing in a folk band with a couple of friends and when that ended I had all these songs that I'd written. I started figuring out how to be a musician.
People don't necessarily think of Los Angeles as a place for country music, but there's a long tradition of it in that city.
There's quite a bit more out here than one would expect. There's obviously Bakersfield and, then, in more recent years you have Dwight Yoakam sort of continuing that line. I think that's never really stopped. There's a really cool scene here called the Grand Ole Echo, which sort of tries to be an outpost, like a rowdier version of the Grand Ole Opry. That happens every summer.
There are quite a few bands out here that are still doing this kind of sound and, for me, it was really helpful to kind of get linked up with that.
Because you can find high-quality professional musicianship almost any day of the week. People don't think about L.A. as being this like country music hub, but it's definitely still going strong.
Tell me about the material that wound up on this album. Do these represent songs from a specific period of time or did you cull things down from a larger batch of tunes?
When I went into making this album, I was playing live a lot, just wanting to get my performance chops up. I had a bunch of songs that we had played. I wanted to move away from being a rowdy bar band and give these songs and the stories behind the songs a way to shine. I met with Chris Schlarb, who runs Big Ego Studios here. We talked a lot about selecting songs that had stories behind them since country music is all about storytelling and authenticity. I wanted to select songs that really resonated with my personal experience. Things I had been through and songs that were really written from the heart. We talked about how to clear the sonic space and let all that shine.
This isn't a concept record but all of these songs are definitely cut from experiences I had gone through. I'd been through some trauma and heartbreak, your standard experiences for country music. I wanted this to be a record of my experiences and mindset.
You're a really fine lyricist. Writing directly and simply is hard work.
I don't think I could go back and write these songs now because some of these songs were some of the first I wrote. I wasn't thinking about, "Oh, I'm writing songs for a record" or, "This is a statement about me as an artist." I was just writing new songs. I was always into writing in some form, so songwriting was a natural progression. For a long time, I just wanted to be a songwriter, move to Nashville and write songs for other people. Everything else came after the fact.
I had to sort of learn how to play guitar and sing and really improve those skills to be able to record these songs. When I was creating them, I was definitely attached to the lyrics and telling a story, being obsessive over metaphors and imagery in the songs rather than what they would sound like on the record. It was definitely a lot of me toiling away in my bedroom alone, not really concerned with, "What are people going to think of this?" I was trying to write the best songs possible and express myself.
It's interesting that you say the songs come from personal experience. I was listening to "Are You Coming Home Tonight?" and thinking, "That had to hurt but at least she got a great song."
[Laughs.] Sometimes there's that, like, sadistic part of your mind. You're going through something awful and songwriting feels like a superpower. You're like, "Well, at least I can turn this into something else rather than just heartbreak or depression."
When you were growing up here, did you have aspirations of being a musician or did you think, "You know, I'd really like to become a botanist"?
[Laughs.] I definitely did not expect to be a country musician. If you'd asked me like 10 or 15 years ago, when I was in Wichita, that I would be talking to someone at KMUW about music that I made, that would blow my mind.
I would sit in my bedroom in suburban Wichita and listen to World Café on KMUW and other programming. That was my first experience with music outside of Top 40 commercial music. I got into these alt-country bands, indie folk, and I would write [their names down] in a notebook. Then I would go to Borders -- which I don't think has existed for a number of years -- I would go into the stacks and look through these albums and listen on headphones. It's what started to influence my musical taste.
But I have this very clear memory of driving home one night, and I don't even know what station it was, but that was the very first time I heard Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin'." I think I just pulled the car over. It was, like, "What is this?" I had never heard someone sing like that before. Looking back, that was the moment when country music got incepted into my mind, hearing that very strange yodeling sound. I think there were elements of growing up and formulating my own musical tastes but I certainly never expected to be performing and writing my own music.