It’s an unexpectedly busy Monday night at Kingston’s Hoe Bowl on the Hill, and Laura Pepitone is offering lessons in Lane 8.
“Look down here, on the floor,” she tutors, her Noo Yawk-tinged voice cracking above the clatter of falling pins and two noisy busloads of after-school program kids. “Line yourself up with the middle dot,” she continues, “and then just go like this—all one motion.” Her gangly frame bends low and glides forward to release the ball. Strike!
Flash back a few frames to an earlier Monday night, this one in April 2007 at Oasis Cafe in New Paltz, and find Pepitone crouched low and locked in a very similar pose, only this time she’s holding a microphone, not a bowling ball. Sweating and decked out in a pair of garish, candy-striped tights and loud socks pulled up to her knees, she’s on stage with her one-woman “band”—The Laura Pepitone Show. “This next song is off my new CD,” the 31-year-old singer announces before releasing the pause button on a CD player set up next to her, “and it’s called ‘If You Are from Upstate, Be Proud.’”
The backing track kicks on and so does the songstress. In between hopping up and down, running in place, punching the air, and straddling the stage to rock side to side, she belts out the two-chord tune’s downstate elitist-baiting treatise. Like pretty much all of Pepitone’s music, the raw cut was recorded on her home four-track using basically just an electric guitar and her ubiquitous Casio keyboard/rhythm-keeper. It’s lo-fi pop magic, a crunchy bubblegum mix of two faves, Guided by Voices and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Standing still for a rare second during the next number, she points to an imaginary spot on the floor of the stage and deadpans, “Guitar solo.” Sure enough, the one-note solo plays, and then it’s back to the jumping around. Weird isn’t the word for this spectacle; the namesake artist and her infinite energy are almost too much—dizzying, inspiring, funny, and extremely entertaining, in one surreal serving. It’s safe to say that on a Monday night—or any night, for that matter—in the Hudson Valley, you’re not likely to catch another act quite like The Laura Pepitone Show.
“I used to call what I do ‘Laura-oke,’ kind of a play on karaoke,” Pepitone says and laughs. “Lately, though, I’ve been calling it ‘slounge.’ You know, like a combination of slacker and lounge.” In the mid ’90s, Pepitone found a guitar in the street in Woodstock, took a couple of lessons, learned a few chords, and got started playing local open mikes. “But I wasn’t too into that because I didn’t want to be seen as yet another chick singer with an acoustic guitar,” she says. “I was having a hard time getting a band together, though, and I didn’t know what else to do.” (Later on, Pepitone would play in a couple of area outfits, the short-lived Pull-Outs and her boyfriend Garrett Uhlenbrock’s ongoing Lazy Suns.) During a 1996 visit to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she had previously studied art at Marywood College, a friend gave her a Tascam four-track tape deck, a microphone, and a stack of recommended CDs, and dubbed her “the new indie rock goddess.”
Back home, she studied web design at Ulster County Community College, got to know the Tascam, and continued to play out, still accompanying herself on acoustic or electric guitar. In 2005 she arrived at the idea of performing live with backing tracks out of pure indolence. “I got tired of schlepping my gear around, or trying to talk people into playing with me. It’s just such a pain, you know?” she groans. “[Playing with backing tracks] is great, because everything’s so self-contained.”
Pepitone was born on Long Island, but her family relocated to the Hudson Valley soon after, when her father, a punk and new wave fan, took a position with IBM. Through her mother, a one-time keypunch operator, Pepitone was exposed to doo-wop and ’50s rock ’n’ roll; her older sister was into classic rock and heavy metal. In elementary school, she was the only female who signed up for drum lessons, and was asked by her teacher to take clarinet instead, “because girls don’t play drums.” When she wasn’t playing in the school band or singing in the chorus, Pepitone was feeding her budding pop-diva fixation, which started in the mid ’80s with Cyndi Lauper. “I dressed up as her for Halloween, and I did a book report on her when I was 11,” Pepitone recalls. “I got a B-, but the teacher still wouldn’t hang it on the wall next to all of the reports on presidents. So I tore a few of those down when no one was looking.”
By high school, in the early ’90s, she had acquired her second Casio keyboard and had been in and out of the marching band. She befriended WDST’s Saturday night DJ Jim Thompson, who allowed her and her friends to hang out during his program and pick out music to play. Then she made another pivotal musical discovery: Pavement. “I played [the influential band’s 1994 release] Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain so much that I literally burned a hole in the CD,” Pepitone remembers. “I just really dug the whole lo-fi thing; that you didn’t have to be some big, slick ‘rock’ band to make music.” While at Marywood, she made the requisite pilgrimage to CBGB, and, thanks to nearby college stations, discovered Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips, Fugazi, Liz Phair, the Silver Jews, and other indie touchstones.
After transferring to SUNY New Paltz and ultimately to UCCC, she dated a boyfriend who turned her onto the vanguard punk her father had missed (Patti Smith, Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, Wire, and the like) and old-school country (Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Jimmie Rodgers, others). At the close of the decade, Pepitone released a cassette album, 5:30 in the Morning Music (reissued on CD in 2003), recorded in her Glenford apartment and at her parents’ house in High Falls. The charmingly crude sound of a young, untutored artist learning her craft, the tape nevertheless was helpful in getting gigs locally and in the Utica area. In 2004, she met Uhlenbrock, a guitarist and songwriter who has penned tunes for both the Ramones and Marky Ramone and The Intruders.
“Laura writes from real life,” says Uhlenbrock. “Most of her songs are about people she knows or used to know. And her songs have really interesting parts. She comes up with things on her Casio—a pretty cheesy-sounding instrument—that sound really cool, not cheesy at all.”
With help from Uhlenbrock and drummer Adam Padula, Pepitone recorded and released a follow-up album, 2006’s The New Mixdown, a still gloriously primitive but comparatively refined opus. Sporting a hilariously incriminating cover photo of the singer in her high school band uniform, the disc is home to hoarse but highly hummable shoutalongs like “The Secret Art of Lounge Singing” and the sublimely bittersweet, cascading “Couple Skate.” While The New Mixdown’s muffled sock-fidelity song sketches may be an acquired taste to those who consider Coldplay adventurous, it’s a taste that’s been acquired by many more discerning local listeners. Among her area fans, Pepitone counts WKZE DJ Raissa St. Pierre, Chronogram and Daily Freeman music reviewer and guitarist David Malachowski, and inventive New Paltz alt-rocker Erica Quitzow.
“Laura’s music has so much spirit and energy,” says Quitzow, who performs solo under her last name and in the band Setting Sun. “I love her carefree nature and the fact that she worries less about technique and more about expressing herself. She’s really inspiring.”
In an upstate rock scene that’s far too dominated by cover bands and sleepy singer-songwriters, the refreshingly oddball Laura Pepitone Show is a gift from the rock gods.
“I don’t care what people think of me. If they laugh at me and have a good time when they see me play, that’s great. Actually, I want them to laugh at me,” says Pepitone, her clownish rented bowling shoes perfectly complementing her typically flamboyant ensemble. “Just as long as they also remember my songs.”
The Laura Pepitone Show will play Snapper Magee’s in Kingston on October 11. www.renegadesuperstar.com.