Becky Kapell brings a classic country sound into the present with That Certain Ache
“Love is silly,” Becky Kapell says to me one night at the 331 Club, as Dan Israel sings about that same silly subject on that well-worn northeast Minneapolis stage and thirtysomethings all around us dive in, put the brakes on, and maneuver through love and lust and all the stations in between. She says it with a who-gives-a-shit tilt of her head and the same matter-of-fact wisdom that informs the warm melancholia of her new record, That Certain Ache.
Miss Becky (to use the longtime moniker she’s only recently shelved) has dropped in to the 331 for a beer after band practice, and now here she is finishing up a story about love gone wrong, talking about how sure, good love can grow and bloom more good love, but yeah, because of everything it promises and puts us through, ain’t love silly?
“Did I say that?” she asks a few days later in the living room of her St. Paul home, which sits across the street from Como Park. “Frames of mind are like that. Which is what a song is, too. A song is just a moment in time. It’s not the answer to everything. But gosh, yes. I was talking about...”
Love. Heartache. Loss. Love, silly love.
“Yeah, that,” she said. “The title track, ‘That Certain Ache,’ is super sad, a song about the loss of love, or the end of love—‘My heart is missing that certain ache.’ I guess there are a couple breakup songs on there. There’s a song called ‘Say Goodbye’ that’s more rollicking and fun, but it’s a breakup song that I wrote at the beginning of my last relationship. And ‘Spend My Time’ is that idea that love that’s never quite realized is kind of a cool thing. There’s a lot of good things about a suspended love that can kind of just vibrate in that space.”
Produced, recorded, and mastered by Minnesota roots-rock all-stars Paul Bergen, Erik Koskinen, and Tom Garneau, That Certain Ache is the sound of an assured singer coming into her own, and Kapell likewise discusses the ups and downs of her life with nonchalant joy and midlife wisdom. Which brings us to another one of her favorite bar-chatter topics—the number seven.
“Every seven years is a different phase of life,” she says. “At seven, you’re in the middle of your carefree childhood, then seven years later when you’re 14, now you’re at the beginning of your angsty teens, and then at 21 you’re an adult. When I was 42 is when I got divorced and started playing the guitar, and I had fairly young kids and was a single mom. When I was 49, I was just a year away from being an empty nester, theoretically, and my music really started moving forward, like, ‘This is a focus of mine.’ I’ll be 54 at the end of May, so when I’m 56....”
A native of Mahtomedi, Kapell sang in choir and messed around with banjo during short stints in college and while working in Wisconsin and California. In 1983, she was 19 and living on St. Paul’s East Side with her brother Dave (founder of Magnetic Poetry, which Becky now runs) at a “seriously depressing time” of her life when they got word Prince was making a movie. The brother-sister duo responded to a call for extras.
“They told us to look sad and stare at the microphone,” she recalls. “We’re in the movie during the song ‘Purple Rain.’ Shortly after that I met a guy and moved to Portland, and when the movie came out a couple of times I nonchalantly mentioned to people I was in Purple Rain and it cemented something. I was this girl from the Midwest. I was almost an instant celebrity in Portland.”
In Portland, she started singing with Oregon groove-rockers Ed and the Boats. She also got married and gave birth to her children, Sam and Maddy.
“With a couple of friends, I eventually started a country cover band. We played once a month at a tavern that is still there, that all my friends still play at. It’s when smoking was allowed in bars, there was smoke everywhere, we’d do four sets a night and I was married and I sang through both my pregnancies and it was great. My band was Becky and the Belly-Achers.
“That’s when I really started loving and learning country music. But I didn’t play an instrument, and I didn’t write songs. I just did old country cover songs that nobody ever really heard of before.”
The business side of Magnetic Poetry was ramping up, and Portland was growing too expensive, so in 1996 Kapell moved to the house she lives in today. In 2007, at 42, she started playing guitar and writing songs as she walked around Como Park, and five years later she traveled back to Portland to record her debut CD, For Now.
“I didn’t know anything about the music scene here, but I started going out,” she says. “I’d always keep three or four CDs in my purse and I’d meet someone and they’d go, ‘I’m a musician, too!’ and I’d go, ‘Well, here’s my CD!’ You know? I don’t know. I’ll tell you what, that was hard—just forcing yourself to go out. Maddy was in high school, and I had fun, but it was hard going out alone as a woman.”
Guitarist Bergen (Astronauts of Rhythm and Sound, Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers, and the Erik Koskinen Band) was one of the musicians who dug For Now. Kapell recruited him for her band and started playing regular gigs at the Dubliner Pub in St. Paul. Then, last year, “over lots of Jim Beam and lots of Paul smoking cigarettes at two in the morning,” the two crafted That Certain Ache in Bergen’s basement studio, with finishing touches at Koskinen’s Realphonic Studios.
The result is a classic-country crooner record built around songs like “Capable Man,” “Such a Fool,” and “Hungry Dog” that recall the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline. Recorded with a slight but haunting slap-back echo, Kapell’s voice is rich with the sort of longing that wouldn’t sound out of place on any classic-country playlist. But don’t pigeonhole her as an old-timey act.
“I love old country music, but—and I’ve talked to the Cactus Blossoms about this—I am not a retro artist,” she says. “I’m definitely not trying to be like ‘Da-der-da-der-da-der old-time country, I’m gonna wear my boots and big skirt.’ I’m not doing that. For me, I love the harmony part of country music. I feel like my songs take turns that you might not expect, and for me it’s all about the melody.”
Not to mention silly love, silly heartbreak, and silly romance.
With: Javier Matos
Where: The Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge
When: 8 p.m. Fri. May 18
Tickets: 21+; $12/$14; more info here