Music

Masked Serfs, Feral Children, and a Traveling Portraitist: An Interview with Rasputina

Erin Lyndal Martin

Playing the drunken air cello? Serf warfare? Recruiting new band members via e-mail? All in a day's work for Rasputina's Melrora Creager, who talks to PopMatters about the band's new album and oh so much more ...


Rasputina

Sister Kinderhook

Label: Filthy Bonnet Recording Co.
US Release Date: 2010-06-15
Amazon
iTunes

Rasputina, led by Melrora Creager (the band's only standing member and songwriter), has constantly proven themselves as innovators not only of the cello rock they pioneered, but of changes within that genre. Though their career has included a prolific body of work, survived many lineup changes, and featured a wide array of lyrical subject matter and instrumentation, they've somehow managed to remain below the radar of many listeners. "I feel like we've been stereotyped as a goth gimmick or we're not given a chance by hipsters," says Creager by phone from her Hudson Valley home.

For those who've not given the band a fair shake, it's their loss. Formed in 1991, the band has released six albums, including their most recent record, Sister Kinderhook. Add in three live albums and numerous singles, and there's quite a back catalog. While these albums were being created, Creager -- a former jewelry designer -- somehow also found the time to play cello with other bands, including Nirvana and Belle & Sebastian. Considering that she's played the cello since she was nine years old, such a busy schedule may seem natural for Creager. Yet, she remains a perfectionist, sticking to the same setlist at many concerts in order to produce flawless concerts. "We're not jammy at all, and the music is, I don't know if I would say difficult, but I feel like we can get tighter and tighter, better and better rather than just play anything from this huge back catalog and do it kind of messy," Creager says. She adds that she likes the band's concerts to be "very intimate and connected. It's clear how important our musicianship is to us, that we're good musicians challenging ourselves and doing our best. It's a good combination of lightheartedness and earnestness."

Putting together an ensemble cast for Rasputina hasn't always been the easiest task for Creager, who originally conceived of the band as The Traveling Ladies' Cello Society. When first starting out, she wasn't sure how many cellists was too many, and eventually her live show so rigidly featured three cellists that one show was performed with one of Creager's friends playing air cello:

"When I very first started, I envisioned a big cello choir and I had as many as seven or nine women playing with me and it just sounded like a mess. I was just starting too, and I didn't know how to lead a group, so gradually we pared it down and pared it down. We had three cellists in the beginning for quite a few years, and it's difficult to sound really, really tight with three cellists. We tried two cellists the first time because somebody quit and just didn't show up the day of a show. We were just in desperation. I had a friend fill in on air cello. She just faked it because I thought I had to present three. She did a really good job faking it. She had to have a drink beforehand to get her nerves. Then the two always worked to have it be a trio with the two cellists and the drums. With the trio, you have to carry your weight and everyone has to be important. There's no fudging around."

On the band's recent record, Sister Kinderhook Creager made the somewhat controversial decision to include a male cellist, Daniel DeJesus. The decision seemed further odd because DeJesus joined the band after simply sending an email to Creager.

"I needed a new person and put [a notice] out on the internet; I guess [that's] how he heard. He never thought he's get a response, let alone a positive one. I never thought I'd consider a guy; that's against the whole philosophy of the band. But he's just so talented and so excited about the whole thing and, because he grew up listening to my music, he knows it all already. We have a lot of chemistry together."

This change in gender balance was further offset by Creager adding a female percussionist, Catie D'Amica. D'Amica, an old friend from Creager's jewelry designing days, was chosen in part to keep the band's female majority in check: "If I had only men in the band, that would be really against [the band's philosophy]. I must have a female drummer if I have Daniel around."

The new lineup isn't all that's new with Sister Kinderhook, though there are many elements of classic Rasputina. This is the first Rasputina record to feature a banjo, an instrument to which Creager took easily. "I had a banjo. That's all it takes," Creager laughs. "The banjo I have is a tenor banjo, so it's set up like a cellos, whereas the regular bluegrass banjo, I think, is set up more like a guitar, which I don't know anything about playing." Creager is quick to add that the banjo might be a welcome change from their previous album's (O Perilous World) instrumentation. "Some people were very annoyed at my dulcimer playing on the last record, so I thought this is another instrument that I could try that won't be as annoying to some," she says.

But there are also turns back to early Rasputina, leaving behind some of the effects featured on their more recent work. Of Sister Kinderhook, Creager says it is "a return to the Rasputina roots of sounding more organic and orchestral. We've gotten pretty far away from distortion pedals and cymbals." This return could be, in part, because of Creager's decision to let her new home, the Hudson Valley, inspire her with its scenery and history. "I've lived in the Hudson Valley now for about four years, and this is just where I am and what I'm inspired by. When I was in the city so long, I don't know that I was inspired by the city specifically, it was still a kind of internal inspiration, what I chose to bring around me and be exposed to. But nature is a big deal, miraculous, and that's all around me."

Creager, who often references history in her songs, says she is also fascinated with the way her new home has shifted throughout time. Once a "hotbed of political activity," she says that it's "pretty quiet and backwards now. I like the idea that the personality of an area can change. I'm from Kansas, which is a pretty conservative place, but around the Civil War, it used to be a very progressive and forward-thinking place. These things shift."

The history of the Hudson Valley is very much alive on Sister Kinderhook. Take, for example, "Calico Indians," which was inspired by the little-known Rent Wars of 1844. The skirmish was caused by an essentially serf-and-landlord schism in the Hudson Valley, one that fascinates Creager. "It's interesting that there could be a serf situation in the United States. Just what they [the uprising serfs] wore captivated me, and I put a lot of details about that in the song. I saw this one photograph of the rebels, and it's so crazy because they're wearing dresses and crazy masks. The thought of them riding around on their horses in the crazy outfits is so exciting."

The fashion of uprising serfs was not the only bit of history that permeates Sister Kinderhook. Some of the songs feature a change in locale from actual history, such as the "Snow Hen of Austerliltz", a song inspired by Creager's interest in a European feral child known as the Snow Hen. A traveling portraitist also found his way onto the album, being represented by "The Two Miss Leavens":

"I got into a traveling portraitist who worked in this area a lot named Amy Phillips, who's a man, and he did a really beautiful portrait of a teenaged girl named Harriet Leavens, and I wanted to find out her story but could find nothing on the internet about who this girl might have been. I did find a girl named Kylie Leavens. She did somehow; she had a MySpace page. I was really into the mystery. The two girls look similar, both very very pretty, and looked about the same age, so that's what I was into."

Despite Creager's fascination with history, she claims to not even remember having high school history classes. Rather, different stories and images have caught her attention over the years. As a single mother of two, including a six month-old, Creager spends a lot of time at home, which helps permit her to do some of the research that ends up in the songs. For a Victorian-inspired rock cellists, Creager leads a surprisingly normal existence:

"I have to get up every morning at seven to get Hollis to school. This baby, Ivy, is really easygoing, so I'm able to just hang out with her, do a little work, work on the computer, make a little music. I'm just in my little bubble of work and Ivy during the day. I've worked at home for so many years, but I've always gotten dressed and put on makeup because if I was just in sweats, I'd feel like a bum."

It's partially due to motherhood and her own routines that Creager has never felt like part of the music business. "When I had Hollis ten years ago, my contract was over at Columbia at the same time and it was more scary and frustrating, like 'Who am I? What happened?' Having Hollis helped me put career stuff in perspective. I'm pretty competitive, and when you have a child, you have to put somebody else first and I don't know if there's anything else that teaches that lesson." Rather than steer Creager away from her rigorous career, motherhood helped edify her already passionate love of music: "It made me know I just really want to do music and create things. That's what I need to do. It doesn't matter if I succeed commercially or anybody hears it. I just really want to make things, and I'll find time to do it."

Though she often ends up second-guessing her music, Creager is happy with Sister Kinderhook, as she should be. "This record, I'm really thrilled with it," she says. As she should be, for a cello-and-banjo rock album featuring masked serfs, feral children, and a traveling portraitist.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image