Becky Kapell Q&A

February 17, 2020
Becky Kapell taught herself to play guitar at age 42 and has since put out two critically acclaimed Americana albums.

“I started teaching myself guitar at age 42 just for something to do and then songs started pouring out of me. I was a single mom with a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter and I had no plan for a band or recording or even playing out at all. It has all just evolved from learning three chords and it is funny to think about that now.”

You were at First Avenue during the filming of Purple Rain. What was that like?

My brother and I had heard they were filming a Prince movie at First Avenue and were looking for extras so we went down there and dressed funky and there was a guy on a ladder and he literally pointed at people in the crowd and told us “chosen” ones to come back at 6 a.m. the next morning and dress like we were going to a show. We showed up and they ushered us all over to what I think was the World Theater across the street. It was winter… I do remember that. We hung out there until probably noon or 1. There were people just killing time breakdancing, singing etc. They fed us a nice box lunch with salmon salad sandwiches. Finally they ushered us back over to First Avenue and we were told to look sad as we stared at a single microphone on stage and they played “Purple Rain.” My brother and I are both in that scene (briefly) in the movie. Then Prince came out and they played “I Would Die 4 U” and he danced around to get us all dancing. We didn’t make it on screen for that scene but I am sure my dance moves were awesome. We got paid $36 for the day. I moved to Portland later that year and when the movie came out I became a minor celebrity because I would mention that I was in “Purple Rain.”

You’ve said that your super power is not knowing about music. Did that help you not over-think things?

Yes, definitely. I started teaching myself guitar at age 42 just for something to do and then songs started pouring out of me. I was a single mom with a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter (the marvelous Maddy Hickel!) and I had no plan for a band or recording or even playing out at all. It has all just evolved from learning three chords and it is funny to think about that now. First came the songs and then I shared those with musician friends during a visit to Portland (I lived in Portland from 1984-1996 and sang with a few bands) and once I heard other instruments on songs that I wrote I was hooked. Over the next couple of years I took several trips to Portland and recorded a 12-song CD called “For Now.” I had my CD release party there in 2012. But I didn’t live in Portland. I wanted to keep playing but knew no musicians here in the Twin Cities so I started going out to hear music, alone, to try to see where I fit in. It was often awkward but I met a lot of nice like-minded people and that propelled me. And then I started finding really fine musicians and music I loved, so going out became a lot more fun and less awkward. I always carried a few copies of my CD in my purse and handed them out like calling cards. I still had no plan but it just felt right to do that. Eventually I was asked to play various songwriter-type shows here and there and that was good but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to play alone. I wanted the interaction of playing with others and so I became focused on trying to find “my band.” My favorite guitar player in town was Paul Bergen who plays with Erik Koskinen, Molly Maher and his own band The Astronauts of Rhythm and Sound. It didn’t really occur to me to ask him to play with me until it did. I guess it seemed out of reach but he said “sure I’ll play with you!” and then I realized that really good musicians just like to play. And it turned out Paul really liked my songs. He wanted to produce a record with me so eventually we made my latest CD “That Certain Ache” mostly in Paul’s basement. Now we have been playing together for four years and I am just trying to get better and better gigs and grow my audience. And we are recording my next record and it sounds awesome! It was actually Paul who pointed out to me that my super-power was not knowing what I was doing and therefore I am not following convention on songwriting, guitar playing or even a conventional path in pursing music.

When did you start writing songs?

When I was 42. It never occurred to me ever before in my life to write a song. Melodies came to me and then words.

You have a fascination with how life can be tracked in seven-year increments. When did you start pondering that?

Ha! Back at age 42! That is when I was really pondering that seven-year-thing because a huge shift was happening within me. And I guess I had more time to ponder such things. 49 was when I was really starting to play out. I am 55 now so I guess 56 will be the start of my “super famous” years.

You spent many years in Portland. How does the Minneapolis music scene compare?

It is hard to say because I experienced the Portland music scene when I was in my 20s and early 30s and I am experiencing the scene here in my 50s. I think generally there is a lot more diversity here. I have only scratched the surface of all the music that is going on here.

While in Portland you were in a country cover band called Becky and the Belly-Achers. What were some of your favorite songs to perform?

Most of it was fairly obscure country stuff from the ’40s through the ’70s. I always loved singing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and still occasionally do that one. There were a couple Louvin Brothers’ songs that I loved doing, too. We used to do four sets on the nights we performed with that band. Now it’s all a blur and I can’t even recall most of the songs we did.

You’ve mentioned that you love the harmony qualities of country. Do you enjoy collaborating with others in both the writing and performing part of your music?

I love playing music with others. It’s the best feeling when you have that connection. And I love harmonizing and enjoy doing that with others or harmonizing with myself when recording. But I have never really collaborated on writing. Writing is more of a solitary thing for me.

I really loved the song “Just One Thing” on the new album. How did that song come about?

That was a song that came to me all in one piece while sitting in my mom’s condo in Florida. It was done in about 10 minutes! Some of my songs are so corny that I sit on them for a while thinking they are just too ridiculous. But when I finally played the song for friends they loved it so I made it a part of my set and then it made it onto the CD. A funny side-note about that recording is that we had drums, bass, and a couple of guitar parts on the recording but when Paul and I were mixing the song we were like “what does it sound like without drums? How about without bass?” We stripped away almost everything besides my voice and Paul’s guitar and it makes it pretty raw and powerful.

What are your pre-show rituals? Do you have to psych yourself into performing or do you love being on stage?

I don’t really have pre-show rituals because I am usually short on time. But I try to shower, put on make-up and make sure I have eaten something. Do some stretching if there is time. I warm up my voice in the car on the way to a gig by singing along to songs I like real loud. I used to get nervous but now I am at the point where the nervousness is more like excitement.

Are you working on your next album?

Yes! We recorded four songs so far at Jeremy Johnson’s studio in Maplewood one afternoon in November. Jeremy is a great drummer and guitar player and also has a studio so we had a session there where we recorded live to 2″ tape. Jeremy played drums, Paul played guitar, Erik Koskinen played bass and Tom Garneau engineered. The sound is really cool. I hope to get a couple more recorded and will release an EP in the fall.

— Photos by Nazara Matos and Shawn Sullivan