New York Observer - August 1996
Three Woman In Corsets Playing Cello - What's To Get?
By Tracey Pepper
One night in the middle of the Macintosh New York Musc Festival back in July, three long-haired women dressed in turn-of-the-century underwear, their torsos wrapped up tight in corsets, took the stage at Fez. They sat down, picked up their cellos, propped them between their legs and began to play. The audience fixated on three pairs of hands - colored in blue, black and gold nail polish - flying up and down the necks of their unwieldy instruments. When the song ended, the singer, Melora Creager, a fair-skinned blond with an unusual drawl, announced:
"Hi, we're Rasputina, and we don't have any friends and we don't have any money, but we do have lots of cholera."
The crowd, which was large and made up mostly of music industry types, looked at each other and laughed. But what the hell was she talking about?
The other two women, Agnieszka Rybska, a curly-haired blonde with a cherubic face, and Julia Kent, a slender black-haired Goth with several visible tattoos and piercings, sat straight-backed in their chairs and smiled. Ms. Creager pressed on and told a story about the Olsen twins. she said the twins wrote the next song after their hardship appearing on the television show Full House.
This is Rasputina, three cellists who play music that is defintely not classical. In fact, it could be considered "indie rock" if only the band, as it were, weren't signed to a major label, Columbia Records, which has just released the group's debut album, Thanks For The Ether. They may not smash away on guitars, but their first single could sit comfortably alongside alternative-rock radio fare like Everclear and PJ Harvey.
"I think of it as rock music," Ms. Kent said later. "Even though the instrumentation is not conventional, the song structures are rock, with a verse, chorus and a bridge. But I mean, what is rock? It depends on your definition."
The sematics of rock aside, the music the three women make is unusual. Ms. Creager's high-pitched voice floats airily over layered cellos on Thanks For The Ether's 19 tracks. One cello plays a melody, one plays a bass line, another a rhythm with broken chords. It's one of the more original forays into the alternative to alternative rock these days.
But it's the group's penchant for looking like Dracula's artsy-fartsy kid sisters that tends to throw people. The idea was conceived entirely by Ms. Creager, a 30-year-old visual artist and jewelry designer who studied photography at Parsons School of Design. Dressing up in waist-strangling garments that impede movement isn't necessarily her idea of fun, but it's a look. Nonetheless, it makes one wonder whether she's gotten any flack from women for being antifeminist. "There's a lot of self-loathing in people, Ms. Creager said, firing up the first of many cigarettes. "To make a conscious attempt to look as pretty as possible in public is a strange thing to do. I don't think we appear as anyone's victim."
Indeed, before they head to a gig, Rasputina gets dressed for each performance together, with Ms. Creager often presenting several choice outfits to the others. "I don't want to force anything on anyone," she said. Doing up each other's corsets is part of the bonding ritual, like the burly men of KISS putting on their makeup in the same room.
"The corset does good things for your posture," Ms. Kent added. "I kind of like it, which is probably why the fetish..." she paused. "I guess the fetish aspect of it is a whole different thing." The corseted silhouette is meant to echo the shape of the cello and emphasize the fact that they can't move while playing. "I don't think people perceive it as three girls in underwear," she concluded. "If we were running aorund the stage dancing, maybe. It's a costume. I think it comes across more theatrical than sexual."
Actually, Ms. Kent is wrong. One of the intriguing things about Rasputina is their paradoxical image. If they think they're not selling sex, well, they are. Would Columbia have signed them if they sat around playing cellos dressed in sweat pants and baseball caps? Everything from the choice of cello - which is, let's face it, a big, honking piece of wood between your legs - to the fact that they're wearing one of the most fetishized objects in S&M culture is sexy. True, they hardly move on stage. But that makes Rasputina's sexuality stern, tightly laced and aloof, more headmistress than mistress. Ms. Creager may not be Courtney love jacking her foot up on the monitor to subtly clue you in to the fact that she's not wearing any underwear, but she looks great onstage.
Rasputina began five years ago when Ms. Creager, who studied cello growing up in Emporia, Kansas, decided to form a Ladies Cello Society. She met the Vancouver-bred Ms. Kent through an ad the The Village Voice, where Ms. Kent is a senior editor. Ms. Rybska, a bubbly, classically-trained cellost from Tarnow, Poland, was also discovered through an ad and was subsequently measured for her corset. "There's such a personal response people have to the cello," said Ms. Creager. "I have always loved this instrument. I just thought the power of a woman onstage with a cello...would be stunning."
The band rehearses nine hours a week in Ms. Creager's loft - a large, cheap space in a remote section of Brooklyn that is decorated with objects that Ms. Creager finds at flea markets. The walls are crowded with sepia-tinted photographs, a broken cuckoo clock, a snarling wolf's head crowned with a delicate blonde wig, candelabras, ornate picture frames, dried flowers, and a poster of a beatific-looking Sharon Tate. An old piano and a long rack of antique clothing stand on either side of a bookshelf, stuffed with biographies of Roy Cohn, Mary Todd Lincoln and Gypsy Rose Lee, and a book called Male Fantasies. Mounted overheard, poised in flight, is a stuffed goose. "To me, more is more," she said.
Not surprisingly, the most radio-friendly song on Thanks For The Ether is "Transylvanian Concubine," which has something to do with Ms. Kent and Vlad the Impaler. Ms. Kent describes it as a "Goth Cole Porter thing," because Ms. Creager strings the words in each verse together without stopping. There are also two covers: "Why Don't You Do Right?" (made famous by Peggy Lee) with its drunken, vaudevillian feel, and Melanie's tripp-dippy "Brand New Key."
Several spoken-word shorts keep things interesting, including "Kate Moss," which Ms. Creager imagines is what the supermodel would say if she were actually a very depressed intellectual. On a less uplifting note there is "The Donner Party," in which Ms. Creager connects the pilgrims with the ill-fated expedition out West that resulted in many hungry wagoneers cannibalized their loved ones. The lyric? "I would like to propose that cannibalism was indeed rampant among America's earliest settlers, the Pilgrims. For what does 'settler' imply, if not the willingness to settle?"
Back on stage at Fez, Ms. Creager told the audience: "an A is always an A." She plucked a string. "And everyone agrees that if aliens abduct you, they do some sort of very painful sexual thing."
Everybody laughed again, thought probably no one really wanted to know what she was talking about. "Melora is an artist!" exclaimed Columbia A&R guy Tony McAnany rather inanly. Then, sotto voce, he said, "I had been looking for a cello group to sign."
Ms. Creager said later that she always assumed if she ever signed to a major label, the suits would want changes, but she claims Columbia has let Rasputina be. The reaction from companies that decided to pass on her little cello society surprised her. "It was, 'My people don't get it. I don't get it. No one will get it.'" She rubbed out her cigarette. "What's to get?"