By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Sometimes being a rock band means headlining the Irving Plaza ballroom. Sometimes it means providing entertainment at the state fair.
This dichotomy is part and parcel for a popular touring act in 2015 according to Katie Jayne Earl, vocalist and percussionist of California natives the Mowgli’s. (Yes, that’s how the name is spelled.)
“Honestly, you just kind of get booked at all sorts of kind of unique and interesting gigs when you play music for a living,” Earl begins, taking me aback with her almost “aw-shucks” earnestness and the kindness in her voice. When we speak a few weeks ago, Earl and the rest of her bandmates are finally back in Los Angeles for a few days of rest after a heavy dose of Middle America.
“We just played the Du Quoin Illinois State Fair. Actually, I don’t even know if it was a State Fair – it was just a ‘fair,'” Early adds, quickly trying to temper any traces of disappointment in her voice. “But it was cool! There were some weird animals there, and, like, potentially not cool animal practices, which kind of made me sad.”
While competing for audience attention with a tractor pull in a field in Southern Illinois is hardly champagne wishes and caviar dreams, Earl maintains an unwavering enthusiasm that is threatening to infect me. As our conversation goes on, I find myself thinking in sepia tones about the old-fashioned symbolism of state fairs: cotton candy, meats on a stick, and deep-fried American values (read: a high probability of encountering Donald Trump supporters).
But Earl understands the reality of being in a rock band means long cross-country slogs, countless nights spent in anonymous hotels, and weeks on months away from friends and loved ones, all for the chance to have your art connect with individuals on a deeper level. The Mowgli’s aren’t above putting in the work necessary to leave their mark on the music industry. The slate of shows scheduled for the Mowgli’s upcoming tour – Atlanta’s Masquerade, Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, San Francisco’s Fillmore – indicates that they’re doing a pretty fine job of that. And, of course, they kick it all off with a Saturday afternoon at DC’s inaugural Landmark Festival.
As Earl puts it, regardless of the “where,” it’s all about the personal connection.
“You know, we just go there to meet people who are nice,” she says. “Good ol’ people going to the fair.”
Four of the Mowgli’s are from the Calabasas, California area. Do you guys feel like you all share a common background or musical culture of sorts? Or do you each bring a different perspective?
We all bring a different perspective, for sure. The shared perspective is actually that we all came from pretty religious backgrounds. We lived in a good neighborhood and there was a lot of money around us in the Calabasas, which isn’t to say that anybody in the band came from a ton of money, but our neighbors would be directors or producers. We went to school with, you the Kardashians! We went to school with these really big names, and you were kind of just exposed to a lot of music, a lot of different art. It’s a suburb of LA, so a lot of people who live there work in the creative world, whether it’s film or television or music. You’re exposed to that at a young age. So even though we all came from different musical backgrounds, in one way, I think the idea that grew up with that exposure is a shared influence.
A lot of people don’t have the luxury of growing up in an environment that fosters creativity to that extent and permits you to explore.
A lot of people just grow up getting music from the radio. That’s the music they know. We grew up with so many friends whose parents were in really great bands, and friends whose parents were studio musicians or the big acts – not necessarily radio acts but acts that you may not have heard if you lived in a rural area that had three radio stations
Do any of these bands or acts stand out for you from your childhood? Do you remember thinking, like this is so cool! when you were maybe growing up?
Los Angeles is four hours away from Las Vegas and my parents went to Vegas with a lot of frequency. Vegas has been weirdly a family-friendly place over the last twenty years – like, they got casinos and they got a water park! So we grew up having vacations in Vegas, and one of the things we did as a family was go to shows. One of the things that really stood out to me was seeing Liza Minnelli perform in a Vegas show when I was a kid. It just stayed with me my whole life, and it was such an incredible performance. It was so engaging. As an eight- or nine-year-old kid. I was as deeply engaged as my thirty-something-year-old mother, so you know that was something. She was just a true entertainer. I never forgot her gift of engaging us.
You wrote “I’m Good” as part of an anti-bullying campaign. Is that a subject that’s near and dear to the band? How did you get involved with that?
Well, if I’m being totally honest, yes and no. We got approached by a group of people that were kind of putting a thing together, and our message has always been spreading love and positivity. It totally aligned with our beliefs – not necessarily that we were on this anti-bullying kick but we definitely heard that this was happening and thought, “Yeah, this is something we’d be happy to be a part of, so, we got involved.”
We were writing the album, we got finished recording the album that week, and we were very excited about it. We thought it was totally done and we were like, “We gotta go in and do this anti-bullying thing tomorrow. We’ll just go in and do that real quick.” But we turned the song over to the label and once they heard it, they were like, “Change of plans. This is going on the record. We were like, “What? That’s not even what we wrote it for!” But they were like, “You know, it really aligns with your message, and it’s something that you guys could really do something great with.” So we ended up moving some things around and putting it on the record
Is it ever challenging to maintain that kind of positivity? Or is it kind of natural to you guys at this point?
I think both of those things are probably true. Right now, in particular in the world, there’s’ a lot of really heavy and negative stuff happening. It feels super overwhelming at times. I have this internal battle, like, what are we doing? We should be on a plane somewhere and doing something good, and sometimes we’re just in the van, driving to these shows. We could be doing something. If we were in one place, we could be doing something about it.
But then once you step on stage, you realize that the music has reached a lot of people who have been feeling the same way. It kind of makes sense. You remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.
There’s no two ways about it, though. There’s a lot of negative stuff in the world. We definitely don’t live in a bubble of sunshine and rainbows so far in our creative careers, but we’ve chosen to combat that negativity with positivity. We don’t know if it will always be sunshine and rainbows and stuff like that; we’re pissed about some stuff and we’re sad about a lot of other stuff. We don’t know how we’re gonna explore that.
It is a challenge sometimes to stay happy, but we are happy doing what we love to do and we are happy reminding other people to be positive and feel good, and when we step on stage, I think it suddenly makes a lot of sense and becomes clear what we’re doing
A lot of the most moving and impactful songs of all time express those kind of feelings of anguish or sadness or political injustice even in your own personal art and music. Is this something that you explore?
Definitely. We have some songs even on Kids In Love – there’s this song called “What’s Going On” and a lot of the lyrics were inspired by a lot of homeless people we see in L.A. There’s these lyrics – like, “I was on a walk / I saw an old lady talk straight to a clock / Her head must have been up in space” – and they’re real. There’s a woman that lives on our street and she talks to a clock all the time.
It’s hard to express these really layered issues in a few words, in a verse, in a chorus. That’s why poetry is such an interesting art form. It’s something we explore, and I think we’re always going to be growing as artists, individually and collectively. We’re all experiencing all sorts of things in life, and people in the band go through their own personal struggles, and we kind of universally go through these struggles as a generation, and all those things will continue to contribute to what we do next or what we put out in the future
Is there any kind of artist – not necessarily musician – that’s really captivating you presently?
I’ve been finding a lot of original programming – this kind of series television. Netflixing, if you will. It feels to me like it’s like film, which I love, but it’s kind of deeper. With a season of a show or multiple seasons, there’s character development that films don’t offer. It feels almost like you’re reading a novel sometimes; like you’re watching a really good show. Some of them are really great and it feels like you’re reading a novel!
I love reading, and I’m very inspired by it. There’s some incredible people in the world right now doing incredible things and I feel they’re the most incredible things, like Malala Yousafzai. It’s people like that that just blow me away. She’s probably one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known about. Anyone who’s willing to be strong in the face of great oppression or darkness and just combat it with light and positivity and strength, you can’t help but put them on a pedestal in your own heart and mind
What are the causes that you’re involved with personally? It sounds like animal welfare is something that matters to you, is there anything else?
Every tour, we try to link up with some type of charity. Our first big tour was called the Random
Act of Kindness tour, and we did some things with food banks in different cities we visited. Our last tour we teamed up with yellowribbon.org, which is a grassroots suicide prevention hotline, which makes itself available to people who feel like they need someone available in the moment. This tour, we’re talking about some pretty cool things. We haven’t exactly landed on anything, so I don’t manna give too much away but we’re definitely trying to tie in some kind of creative endeavour with the charities and causes. All I can really say for sure is that it’s really going to be geared towards a more global level this level.
With all of these experiences over the past six years, what’s been the most rewarding experience for you?
Anytime you do “Late Night” or anything, it’s really great. It’s really exciting. But I think the kind of moments that can bring you to tears or grow that frog in your throat is when you’re playing for a large crowd and they’re singing the words back to you and they’re words that were written to make people feel good. When you actually see them singing ‘em and smiling and feeling the lyrics it’s an incredibly powerful experience. I’ve never known anything like looking out to sing word to people and they’re singing them back to you
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.