"Esther, why don't you let our new guest have the big-girl chair?" Katie West says to her youngest daughter, a 4-year-old, blond-haired gumdrop. Esther bashfully slides out of her place and climbs into a plastic, child-sized seat.
She slices bite-sized pieces of a miniature pie on the farmhouse-style dining table in the three-story Lawrence home she shares with her husband, Mike West. The two are also partners in the folk duo Truckstop Honeymoon, and the house is a stone's throw from her husband's recording studio, 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor, where she recorded last year's 40 Watt Dreams, her debut solo record.
Twelve-year-old Sadie and 6-year-old Julian gather eagerly around the pie (10-year-old Vega is at a friend's house), chattering as they have been since I entered this cozy, chaotic house. After they finish their treats, Katie West directs them upstairs with easy matriarchal authority and relaxes into her seat at the dining table.
This pause — this silence — feels like a small, hard-won moment. West has a small frame, and she has tucked her choppy brown hair into a knit cap with a crocheted flower. Her hectic home life seems somewhat at odds with the material on 40 Watt Dreams, an album filled with guitar- and banjo-driven tunes that carry on with punk spirit.
"I was nervous," she says of recording by herself. "I was like, 'I don't need a solo album,' but I was so tempted. It's empowering. It's hard — there's a lot of personal stuff in there, and it was hard. Like, am I really ready to process some of this stuff?"
Since late 2002, when the couple met in New Orleans and formed Truckstop Honeymoon, life has consisted of music, family and miles. It has been a busy decade, during which the couple toured the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, and relocated to Lawrence following Hurricane Katrina.
"The whole time we've been growing this career, I've been pregnant or nursing a baby," West says, recounting nights when she rushed offstage to breastfeed between sets. But 40 Watt Dreams, she says, gave her a chance to breathe.
"I just sort of had a year where I was processing some pretty intense layers of emotional stuff, from just years and years of just being alive and experiencing things and moving a lot and running a lot," she says. "And finally, we were here, and I was feeling so sad and just lost and at a weird point in life. We had gone through this big flood. We had been touring all these continents. And we had had all these children. It's just been full-on. And the songs came — they were a product of finally being forced in a rubber room with myself."
In the second song on 40 Watt Dreams, the title track and the backbone of the album, West sings about slamming the door on her way out of her "one-horse town" at age 16 and trying to find what home really meant.
"I just went sort of on intuition and whimsy, through a lot of wonderful journeying around, trying to find places and people that felt good," she says of her departure from her North Carolina hometown. "You're kind of a gypsy spirit or something that makes you wander a bit. That was kind of my thing, being from a smallish town that sort of restricted personal growth, and I wanted to check out the world. I had big balls when I was young."
It's not like West has lost them. Dreams is wild and wonderful, simultaneously varied and cohesive. Truckstop Honeymoon is a mostly acoustic affair; as a solo artist, she turns the volume up and plays with distorted chords and electric guitar.
Her real power, though, lies in the songs themselves. She is a natural storyteller, and in conversation she describes events with the same relaxed lyricism of her songwriting. Some of the songs are sad or reflective — "Hurricane Song," her ode to Katrina, is one such track. But even when she is angry, as in "Should've Burned It Down," West leaves herself space for detail and nuance.
"The way I write songs now, I go through days of agony, of processing something really dark, and then a song will come together, and I'll feel like a bird has flown out of my chest," West says. "I'm relieved of whatever it is that piles on you emotionally, that makes you feel like you really need some cathartic thing to happen to you, so that you can continue to exist."
She doesn't wait around for things to happen to her. West is booking a summer European tour for Truckstop Honeymoon, on which the kids will join their parents. And after all the rushing and moving of the past few years, she has made one more change. If you go looking for 40 Watt Dreams on shelves and online, you'll notice it's under E: Katie Euliss, as she remained known in Truckstop Honeymoon after she and West married. In the past year, she officially adopted her husband's surname.
"Ten years later, and I was like, 'Yeah, he's my guy, I'm his girl,'" she says and laughs.
Her guy is in the background in 40 Watt Dreams, the band Katie has formed to play her new songs live. He plays banjo and acoustic guitar alongside Danny McGaw on electric guitar, Paul Schmidt on electric bass, and Colin Mahoney on drums. Katie didn't expect to perform songs off 40 Watt Dreams live, but she says she has found joy in working out this new configuration the past year.
"I've got some rock and roll in me that needs to get out, and I think this last album was a little payoff for me," she says. "And it's been a really nice way for me to just reconnect with that part of me, the little wild streak. I feel that energy — that rushing of stuff, that emotion when we play — and I love it for that. A little bit of lightning is good for me, and I'm so grateful for it. It's made me feel whole."