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