An Interview with Lara Hope: Rollicking Queen of Roots, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Rockabilly Twang!
“I’ll never forget being onstage for the first time, coming out for the bow at the end of the show and hearing the applause and loving that feeling,” says Gretsch-endorsed artist Lara Hope. “I was only nine and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”
Hope has come a long way from landing that child lead role in the musical Oliver and taking her first onstage bow. Today, the reigning queen of good-time roots, rock ‘n’ roll, and rockabilly twang is busy fronting two popular bands: Lara Hope & the Ark-Tones, and The Gold Hope Duo (an acoustic twosome with her upright bass-slapping husband, Matt Goldpaugh, who also plays bass for the Ark-Tones).
As a kid growing up in Long Island, Hope’s world was full of singing and musicals and community theater. “My folks were more into show tunes and folk music than rock ‘n’ roll,” shares Hope, “But at least they liked the Beatles, so I remember listening to the Beatles a lot growing up.”
Although she had been playing guitar at home for years and writing songs since her teens, the first time Hope played and sang in public was at an open mic event the night before she left for college. It went well and the hook was set. At SUNY Albany, Hope started performing more in public and was heavily involved in the open mic scene on campus; she even helped to organize and run them.
After transferring to SUNY New Paltz to pursue a marketing degree, (New Paltz is 20 minutes from where she and Matt currently live in Kingston, NY), she hosted a number of open mic nights in the area. “That’s how I met a ton of musicians and started getting comfortable playing in front of an audience,” says Hope. At one point, Hope was hosting three weekly open mic nights in the area. This continued for several years until her touring schedule got in the way of being able to host these events on a regular basis.
Hope played in and also formed several punk rock power trios before discovering the world of rockabilly and psychobilly (some of her favorite bands were The Cramps, the Dead Luck Devilles, and the Arkhams). One thing led to another and Hope was asked to be the lead singer of the Champtones, the Hudson Valley’s top rockabilly band. The group released an EP in 2010 called Heartbeat, but soon thereafter both the Champtones, as well as the Arkhams, started unraveling.
But from these two bands, a new band, dubbed Lara Hope & the Ark-Tones, was formed. Their first CD, Luck Maker, was released in 2014, and the band packed up their Gretsch gear and hit the road, bringing their sassy, high-energy show to clubs, festivals, and events across the U.S. and Europe. Lara and her fellow Ark-Tones have toured nationally with the Brian Setzer Orchestra and enjoyed popular regional tours with The Blasters and another Gretsch-endorsed artist, the Reverend Horton Heat. They’ve also opened for such notables as Joan Jett, Tiger Army, America, Gary U.S. Bonds, and performed at a variety of festivals including Viva Las Vegas, Ink-n-Iron, and The Nashville Boogie.
The band’s second full-length album, the rollicking Love You To Life, was released in 2017, the same year Hope won the prestigious 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Female Rockabilly Artist. As 2020 started, Hope, Goldpaugh, and the other Ark-Tones (lead guitarist Eddie Rion and drummer Jeremy Boniello) were in the studio finishing up their third album, Here To Tell The Tale. In February, Lara and Matt did a month-long duo tour across Florida, and in March, Lara and Matt closed on a house the same day they were set to leave on a West Coast and Canada tour with Tiger Army. It also happened to be the day the Covid-19 quarantine started, meaning the tour and other scheduled live dates were canceled, and the new album’s release would have to be pushed back to late summer or fall.
“I’m really trying to make the best out of it. I’m enjoying the down time because we’ve been on the go for as long as I can remember,” Hope says. “Matt and I closed and moved into a house the day the quarantine started, so I’ve had the time to unpack and to make this 100-year-old house a home. I also feel calmer and more inspired here. I have a yard for the first time in more than a decade. Plus, I haven’t slept in the same place for these many days since I started playing music.”
Lara and Matt have been keeping busy building a home recording studio and writing and recording quarantined-themed songs for a soon-to-be-released EP. They’ve also been performing a fun, weekly Gold Hope Duo Facebook Live Stream Show from their Living Room every Monday from 7-8 ET. We caught up with Lara at her home for a phone interview to talk about what it’s like touring with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, being married to your band’s bass player, why she plays a Gretsch Rancher, and lots more…
For starters, how did your band get its name?
I wish it was a cooler word that we made up, but when Matt and I met, he was in a band called The Arkhams and I was in a more traditional rockabilly band called Lara Hope and the Champtones. So, we fused our former projects together into something new, the Ark-Tones.
How would you describe the music of The Ark-Tones?
It’s a little bit long, but what I’ve been saying is that we’re roots, rock ‘n’ roll, and rockabilly twang. I think that kind of encapsulates everything because there’s definitely some traditional rockabilly, but there’s definitely a lot of old country, and there’s definitely rhythm and blues, and blues, and sometimes a little jazz sneaks in too.
Matt Goldpaugh is your bass player as well as your husband. How did you meet and what’s the secret to making a musical marriage work?
We first met and got to know each other by being on tours together with our old bands, so we’ve never really known another way. I don’t know, for me it just feels right. The first tour we went on as a duo was for nine weeks playing all up and down the West Coast. And we were in a minivan 24/7 and got along famously. After we got back from that tour we said, “Alright, if we could live in a van together and get along this well for nine weeks, I think we can get married.” But you can’t just love each other, you have to like each other. Matt and I are friends, first and foremost.
What made you choose a Gretsch guitar?
About eight or nine years ago, the guitarist in my old band, Jeff Kadlic, who is a luthier and owns Champtone Guitars, recommended the Gretsch Rancher to me. So, just based upon his suggestion as a luthier that I trusted, I went to the local music store called Alto Music, and got an orange Gretsch Rancher. It was perfect for me and what we were doing with that band. I had it pinstriped at a booth at the Heavy Rebel weekend in Winston-Salem (NC). It was a birthday present from Matt. And I played that until I got the Black Falcon Rancher two years ago.
How did the Gretsch endorsement happen?
To be honest, it happened with a lot of emails, and messages, and photos, and videos, and invitations to shows sent to Joe Carducci at Gretsch over the years. I wanted him to know who we were and what we were doing and let him know we were out there and touring and already playing Gretsch guitars. We got to meet Joe and a lot of the Gretsch reps when we were touring with Brian Setzer in 2018 and we also saw him last summer when we performed at the Gretsch Day celebration at StreetSounds in Brooklyn. That was a real fun show. They’re all just really such nice folks; they’re so kind.
Tell me about your colorful stage persona and having fun with your audience.
Personally, I think if all you’re going to do is listen to a band, you could listen to them on your record player, or on TV at home. If you’re going to go to a live show, it’s because you also want to be visually stimulated. I think it’s important to have a rapport with your audience and it’s important to have a connection with your audience. I’m lucky in the fact that I feel very comfortable onstage. I feel like my best self when I’m onstage. I tell people, it’s the driving and the setting up that’s the work. Once you’re onstage and you get to play, that’s the fun part.
Your red-framed glasses, red lipstick, and red and black stage outfits have become your signature look. How did that start?
The red and black image kind of just happened more than it was planned. I’ve always been drawn to those colors since before I even knew about this kind of music. And I think a lot of the things I like just happen to have fallen in that style, rather than I saw that style and I tried to copy it.
What is it about the 50s that you still find cool?
There was so much character in fashion back then. Not just what people were wearing, but the cars, and the home décor, in everything. I really don’t know what characterizes us now. I feel like everything’s a little bit bland. Everyone’s just concerned with their iPhones.
Who and what influenced you musically growing up?
I had this Fisher-Price record player in my bedroom when I was a kid. I still have it and believe it or not, it sounds pretty good. I remember having a Ritchie Valens 45 that my mom probably bought me. It had “La Bamba” on one side and “Donna” on the other side. I loved that record. I was probably under ten when the Great Balls of Fire! movie came out and I remember loving that movie and I’ve had a crush on Dennis Quaid my entire life since he played Jerry Lee Lewis. Somewhere on VHS, there’s a video of me as an eight-year-old doing karaoke and singing “Great Balls of Fire” at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Plus, my mom liked the Beatles a lot, so I’m sure that seeped in too. I also loved Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Those country ladies were definitely big influences.
What do you find yourself listening to these days?
I listen to more roots music and less heavy stuff these days. Most of the stuff I listen to are female singers. I love Eilen Jewell, Imelda May, and The Secret Sisters are great too. I was very excited to tour with Tiger Army. Not that they have a female singer, but I’m loving their stuff, old stuff and new stuff, and it’s been fun watching their direction change over the years. And of course, Brian Setzer has been a big influence on me and my songwriting.
Was there a particular moment when you felt you had found your singing voice?
Once Lara Hope & The Champtones started performing years ago out in a traditional rockabilly style, I started to feel like I had found my voice. The audience reaction was telling, and the opportunities started to grow. I kind of knew that there was no turning back for me at that point and I continued to write and perform in a retro-meets-modern approach.
How do you approach songwriting that stays true to your music of roots, rock ‘n’ roll, and rockabilly twang?
I don’t want to write songs that have already been written. That’s one of the things Brian Setzer liked about us. He liked that our sound was kind of fresh and kind of different while still having a throwback element.
There are only so many songs I can hear that are, like, “Oh, baby, baby, baby” or songs from a woman about how my man has treated me wrong but I still love him. There’s enough of those. So, I’m trying to keep a sound that is familiar with people but trying to put a new spin on it. Trying to write songs with interesting topics. I’ve written my fair share of love songs in my life. Not to say that I won’t ever write one again, but I’m trying to keep the topics interesting and positive.
What usually comes first? Lyrics? Melody? Noodling around on your Gretsch guitar?
I don’t have a formula. It’s still a mystery to me. I have a folder of song ideas on my phone and pretty much, when I think of something like a good line or a good topic for a song, I write it down before I forget it. So, I have a pretty large list of song ideas, so that part is never my problem.
I’ll usually start with that and when I’m feeling motivated or feeling inspired, I’ll go into that list and pick something that can capture my mood and I’ll go from there. Occasionally a melody will come into my head right away, but usually it’s the topic and then I can say, this topic would want to have a more slow, somber feel or this is more of a party song based on the topic, or this topic, well, of course, it has to be a country song, it just makes sense. I don’t think anybody’s got a formula where they write each song the same way because inspiration comes in different manners, in different ways.
What songs have your written that are popular with your fans?
I didn’t know “Love You To Life” would be such a crowd pleaser. I think it’s a favorite because people can relate to that one line so much, “I love you more than I did yesterday, ‘cause yesterday you kind of pissed me off.” I didn’t necessarily invent that line, it’s just a line I put to music and made it a catchy chorus. We have t-shirts that say that, and everybody seems to want one for their wife or their husband, or whatever.
I like the songs that have the funny or the interesting message. On our upcoming album, there’s a song “I Drink To Your Health” which was based on an old Irish toast that my old Jewish grandma would always say. So, I took that and made a song out of it, and it’s a fun one to perform and one that the audience really gets into.
You’ve been touring heavily for more than a decade. Does any particular tour stand out?
Touring with the Brian Setzer Orchestra on their Christmas Rocks! Tour in 2018 was, without a doubt, THE most amazing experience. It was at the whole next level. We’d never toured with 30 people, and a crew, and five buses, but it was so professional, such a well-oiled machine. Even our dog got to tour with us.
It was a big group, but they really were like family because they had toured together for so many years. They loved each other. Seeing all that comradery was so nice, so inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, touring with the other bands over the years that were bigger than us were all very special, but this was, like, when you got on those stages, you felt like you had made it.
What was your favorite venue from that tour?
I think playing at the Ryman was the highlight of the tour and probably my favorite show of my life. I got to use the Women of Country Music dressing room and the walls were covered with photos of Dolly, and Patsy, and Loretta, and I almost cried, or I might have cried. And I got a picture of my dog, Dolly, laying on the couch just underneath a big photo of Dolly Parton. And if the night wasn’t already fantastic, I remember we got a standing ovation, and then Matt got down and kissed the floor of the stage.
Lastly, what real-world advice would you give to the next generation of aspiring musicians?
Don’t have an ego. We say it concisely: show up on time and be nice. Be nice to the booker, be nice to the sound person, be nice to the bartender, be nice to the other bands on the bill. I think that’s the most important thing you can do.
Enjoy “Love You To Life.” The fun, sassy spirit of Lara Hope & the Ark-Tones is captured perfectly in this fiery, tiki pool party video, a crowd favorite and the title track off their second album.