Glow - 1995
Epiphany By Way of Cello
By Andrew Killmorgen
It's nice when three cello toting songstresses who weave dark, fable-like songs and make regular rounds of the downtown medium-brow club circuit turn out to be more than your run-of-the-mill cello toting songstresses. All too often, attempts at this sort of hybrid, high-art genre (which is not in short supply in downtown NYC) come across, well, a little pretentious.
Rasputina, which features the cello stylings of Melora Mather, Julia Kent, and Lisa Haney, (able musicians all) is a refreshing exception. This lively and not altogether predictable trio avoids the pitfalls of many of their ilk the old fashioned way, through solid songwritingand actual talent. They also deck themselves out in the kind of nineteenth century, ornate gowns and accoutrements you'd expect from a band named Rasputina, except in this case they do so with unusual attention to detail and authenticity. And they have the good sense to break form, or heighten the form, in various ways. They do not, for one thing, eschew drums and amplifiers (and thus volume), nor are they above throwing in some blues or big-hits-of-the-70's rock anthems. These Victorian renegades, all of whom have done their time on the downtown scene and taken part in other noteworthy projects, know how to work with an audience.
Mather's stage patter, which serves as a kind of narrative thread for her original compositions, often takes the sort of odd turns that is further brought forth in the songs themselves. Her ongoing themes are growing up in Kansas and the evils of agribusiness (one of her favorite words, used pejoratively of course), but her subject matter ranges far and wide. She sings of a child's homicidal impulse and a tragic fire at the Lower East Side Triangle Shirtwaist factory, but also of wee creatures of the forest congregating under moonlight and relationship trouble. Mather's writing is full of dreamlike sequences and nightmare imagery, often rooted to a story, and her voice is strong and clear enough to carry the emotional heft of her material. She can even be downright unbridled. The effect is, at times, a bit overly evocative of Kate Bush, but enough new ground is broken to avoid outright mimicry.
What all three women contribute to Rasputina's growing reputation, in apparently equal parts, is a lean, unfussy and uncluttered approach to the music that is perhaps their greatest strength. These are highly crafted songs, maybe even pop songs, that refuse to bog down in extended free-form meanderings or self-indulgent blather. They sustain their own brand of ethereal quirkiness without drifting too far from an audiences' attention span. For the most part, the musicianship alone is worth your time. While there's only so much you can do with three cellos in a pop-music vein, Rasputina does most of it. The music lilts [sic] and soars, by turns hypnotic and jarring, a meld of strings and voice that canrattle your bones as well as carry you off. Rasputina, much to their credit, is interested not in edification but in entertainment (in the largest sense of the word). And if a little consciousness-raising or eye-opening happens to seep in, what's the harm?
I see this recurrent theme of constraint, of frustration, maybe, in your songs. Then, sometimes: release. Am I seeing that correctly?I think you are, I'd have to agree. The cello itself is so inherently sad, it can capture such complicated feelings, and lyrically it's too common to write about my feelings; who cares? Everyone has these feelings about their love life. What makes me feel excited and passionate is usually something I'm reading about, a historical character or a city at a certain time; and I think if I write about that, it's inescapable that my feelings are going in there. And the drier the book, the more I get to use my imagination; that's what gives me pleasure.
Were you particularly interested in Russian history? Is that how the band got its name?We had a song called Rasputina; I was just into Rasputin at the time, and it seemed to have all the perfect connotations for who we wanted to be, or what we were trying to do.
Do you have a favorite era?My favorite is around the 1840's; if I see a picture and say Ahhh, that's my thing, it turns out to be from then.
Are there other historical incidents that have inspired songs besides the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?That took place in this neighborhood [Soho]. There's the Medieval Greenlanders theme in one song. Transylvanian Concubine; a lot of it has to do with Vlad the Impaler. We have an Ophelia song...
I know that you're originally from Kansas; what brought you to New York?I lived my whole life in Kansas, I moved here in '84 to go to Parsons, I did performance art in college, you know, the King Tut's Wah Wah Hut and Pyramid Club; steadily this has grown out of it.
When did you take up the cello?When I was around eight or nine years old. I stopped during high school, and then took it up again in New York.
When did you start Rasputina?About three years ago, in 1992.
How did you end up playing with Nirvana? Are you a session player?I went to college with Michael Lavine, the photographer, and he was friends with those guys, and they were looking for a cellist, so...
Did you like it?Everyone was very young, and they seemed like someone I would know as a friend. Very intelligent, good senses of humor...We traveled so quickly, I spent most of my time in hotels, so I just practiced.
You've said that you aren't well versed in the classical repertoire, but, nevertheless, I hear very specific stylistic elements, especially from string quartet arrangements, and from different eras. Not that your compositions are derivative, but still, what do you listen to? These constructs didn't come from Nirvana.They do! He was a genius! I think that I'm a natural sponge. That's why I avoid listening to too many things, knowing that they're going to be there anyway.
Do you ever write poetry or prose, not to be set to music?No. I've tried it a little bit, but it always sounds false or pretentious. In a lot of prose writing, you can see that the writer is aware of an audience; it's not necessarily that honest. It's a little manipulative, and I see myself do that.
Do you compose best at a certain time of day?I live in a loft where the walls are very thin, and you can hear everything. It's very embarrassing to me to be working out ideas that all my neighbors can hear. So I work in the day when there's lots of other noise.
Do you compose to tape?Actually, I write it out on staff paper, and we start from there.
Are there always three cello parts?Yes, always.
Do the parts go with the player, so to speak?Yes, Julia's very strong rhythmically; a more intricate unchanging passage is good for her, where as lyrical, interpretive things are better for Lisa. And I have to take whatever I can sing and play at the same time (laughs).
Is that why, on your recording, there are all these great vocal harmonies which aren't present when you perform live. You're the only one singing.Yes, it's so physically difficult to play and sing, that Julia and Lisa aren't interested in trying.
I'm sure that you would love to make and sell a lot of records, but how do you lean as far as the size of the audience versus the quality of the audience and the quality of what you present?I think we have the potential for a broad appeal. But we don't know how to get that done.
At a recent performance, you said to the audience, "All right, we're Goth." It didn't sound like you meant it.I was being sarcastic; people struggle to classify us, and it's funny to us. We've never even discussed it. I was just trying to make the other guys laugh. Sarcasm in a performance is such a weird thing because most of those people don't know me, and they have no reason to think I'm joking. Luckily it's never come back to haunt me...
Commercially, there must be certain things that you don't want to see tampered with. What are they?You can probably guess that different people have said, well, "This will totally work, we can sell this in a second, if you just add a little guitar, a little more this, that..." I just say no to that. I'd like to do a debut record with nothing else, just presenting the idea...
Are you very much a band?Yes. We like to rock out.