Katie Toupin will always be grateful for her Kentucky roots, but these days, the singer-songwriter’s heart — and the sound of the music she makes — beats with a West Coast vibe.
Toupin — who performs next Thursday, Oct. 24, at Pretentious Beer Co. in Knoxville’s Old City — made her bones with the band Houndmouth, a gloriously ramshackle Americana outfit that combined Laurel Canyon folk, Crazy Horse-style thunder and classic soul- and blues-infused ’60s rock for a sound that earned it comparisons to The Band.
Toupin was part of it from the beginning, and when Houndmouth took the South By Southwest music conference by storm in 2012, shortly after forming, she and her bandmates got their first label deal. “From the Hills Below the City” put Houndmouth on the map and led to performances on late-night shows hosted by Conan O’Brien and David Letterman and appearances at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival. It also wound up on a number of year-end best-of lists, which made for high expectations going into record the follow-up, “Little Neon Limelight.”
That album was released in March 2015, but a little more than a year later, Toupin stepped away and left it all behind.
“It just became clear that it was over for me; I can’t really talk about the details, but staying became not an option and going sort of the only option, and so I left, without much of a plan,” Toupin told The Daily Times recently. “It’s been an interesting sort of journey since then.”
At first, she said, she even wondered: Did she even want to keep doing music? Fairly quickly, she added, the answer came to her.
“If I had all the money in the world, I would still go out and play shows and write songs, so it seemed very clear that I still wanted to make music,” she said. “So I immediately started writing.”
It also became clear, though, that a fresh start would be necessary in order to make a clean break from the shadow of her old band. At the time, she was living in Kentucky, and while the details of her departure from Houndmouth have been private, it’s clear that her exit is a touchy subject. At the time, both parties said that she left to “pursue other opportunities,” but in taking stock of her potential, she said, it became obvious that such potential wouldn’t be reached in the Bluegrass State.
“Everybody in the scene there kind of knew me and had ideas of who I was, but I didn’t know who I was, so I moved to (Los Angeles), where nobody knew who I was!” she said. “That was an important part of the journey, but then it was a battle of the chicken-and-egg situation. I thought there would be a lot for me, but when I got there, I realized I had no label, no manager — nothing. So I had to almost start over from scratch.”
And so began Toupin’s journey of self-discovery that has led to “Magnetic Moves,” her new full-length album that was released in June. From the opening notes of the title track — a dreamy, fuzzed out rocker that puts her soulful vocals on full display — Toupin puts listeners on notice: The disclaimer in all of her press and on her website, “formerly of Houndmouth,” means exactly that.
This isn’t Houndmouth 2.0. This isn’t recycled Americana. This is something shiny and new, and it’s reflective of an artist who has emerged from the chrysalis of change as a stronger, more determined artist with a new outlook on life and a new vision for her musical future.
“I really wanted to make a record that wasn’t strictly going to live in the Americana indie world, something a little more versatile and a little more open-minded,” she said. “I was looking for it to sound a little bit crisper and clearer than some of the other stuff than I’ve made. I wanted more pop, so we addressed what each song needed and went from there.
“Kind of the beauty of making this record is that we recorded 11 songs, and 10 of them ended up on it. There was never a moment in the room where we got stuck, and that was kind of amazing. It’s all a breakup record, so it has sort of a concept, and while we had the same engineer and musicians in the room for the whole thing, each song is different from one to the next, even though it all inevitably ties together sonically.”
While Toupin served as the writer, arranger and producer of “Magnetic Moves,” she didn’t land in L.A. with her indie do-it-yourself credentials spit-polished and ready to go. One of the biggest West Coast changes she made was getting sober. Then, she said, she had to figure out what she wanted to say and how best to get it out.
“I read ‘Coaching the Artist Within,’ which is a really fantastic book, and I basically adopted at a young age the idea that creativity, while it comes in little moments of passion, you also have to sit down and do the work,” she said. “It’s easier for me to be creative first thing in the morning, so I would usually write until lunch, and I did that probably five days a week for a couple of years, just sitting in a room by myself. While there’s a sort of formula that’s reminiscent of Houndmouth as far as the dynamics are concerned, what I think has been liberating is that it’s taken a while to get those other voices out of my head.
“I played with that group since I was 17, so I had to figure out what’s good and what’s bad and just formulate my own opinion, and that’s something I’m probably still venturing from. But it’s opened up endless possibilities of what I can make, and like a lot of things, it’s turned out to be really fun.”
She also had to get reacquainted with the stage, she added. As part of Houndmouth, live performance became second nature after an initial period of terror. (“When I first started, we were all terrified to perform, and we just stood there,” she said.) As the band grew more adept, so too did the members’ abilities to maintain an easy rapport with those in the audience. As a solo artist, however, she discovered that playing live was a different beast.
“I had to get comfortable with a lot of things outside of my comfort zone, but I enjoy pushing myself in ways like that,” she said. “I’ve come a long way as far as keeping the audience engaged, but I’ve had to tackle things that weren’t comfortable for me. In a live performance, I know how to arrange a set and keep the audience engaged, and I know how to perform now.”
Part of that audience engagement has been a more intimate use of social media. Toupin frequently engages in live Instagram chats with her followers, and a recent one featured a conversation with a Knoxville resident and University of Tennessee student who happens to be a saxophone player. On the spur of the moment, Toupin encouraged him to pick one of her songs, learn it and bring his sax next week to Pretentious to join her on stage.
Whether he will or not is up in the air. Whether it’ll be a lovely collaboration or a goofy train wreck also remains to be seen. Either way, Toupin believes, it’s all part of the adventure.
“I think it’s just sort of important as a solo artist for people to know exactly what my perspective is,” she said. “I can talk to anybody, and I love getting to know people, and I think I appreciate the fans and supporters that maybe I didn’t or took for granted before. When I invited that guy to come jump on stage, I thought, ‘Well, I’m in charge … I can do whatever I want!’
“And that’s a novelty to me. I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission. I can do whatever I want, and that’s a lot of fun when you can build your life in a way that you can do what you want.”