Strings - January 2003
Good Goth Almighty! Rasputina takes the cello to new heights in an indie-music world
By Kevin McKeough
In many ways, she was like most girls who play the cello when they are little, in her case so little that she had to drag the instrument behind her while making the long walks to her lessons. (Eventually, she wore off the lip on that side of the cello, which she had borrowed from school; her teacher was very unhappy.)
Only the odd little songs she made up as a child gave any indication of the direction Melora Creager would take. "I remember a 'Ballad of Lizzie Borden,' where I hit the piano with my hands, like I was chopping," she recalls. "That was my five-year-old taste."
That mixture of childlike playfulness and dark humor is a hallmark of the music Creager makes today with Rasputina, the world's greatest female cello Goth-rock trio. Whether singing about burial rites for broken dolls and crushes on boys at state fairs, wearing corsets and bloomers as stage costumes, or collaborating with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, Creager has shaped her fanciful artistic vision into an ensemble that's unique in both the worlds of rock and stringed music.
Growing up, like Dorothy, in Kansas, Creager was entranced by the cello's size and expressiveness. She began studying piano at age five and cello four years later, and played in youth symphonies and competitions. After putting the stringed instrument aside as a teenager – "there are so many social connotations with orchestra, and I wanted to be the coolest thing," she admits – Creager resumed playing cello while attending the Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Creager began performing with various rock bands, but found herself frustrated at being drowned out by the other musicians. She formed Rasputina in 1991 to give her instrument the prominence she felt it deserved, experimenting with lineups as large as seven women before settling on a trio-plus-drummer format. (The other members of the group have changed frequently.)
Except for percussion, the cello remains the only instrument in most of Rasputina's songs. In popular music the cello usually is limited to providing solemn accompaniment on poignant ballads from the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" to Nirvana's "All Apologies," but in Creager's hands it encompasses everything from delicate chamber music to corrosive rock and roll.
"This is what I know best, playing the cello," she says, "so this is what I'm going to do instead of learning a more common instrument to rock out on."
Despite her ambitions with Rasputina, Creager continued playing in traditional rock bands and accompanied Nirvana on its final tour in 1994. She could be heard on Nirvana's high-profile MTV Unplugged concert and its best-selling soundtrack. The suicide of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain motivated Creager to work harder at her own music. "He was an artist," she says, "and the world wanted to hear what he had to say, and he shut it off. You can't do that."
Rasputina released two CDs in the late '90s, Thanks for the Ether and How We Quit the Forest, plus Transylvanian Regurgitations, a four-song EP of recordings remixed by Marilyn Manson, with whom the band toured at the peak of his Antichrist Superstar infamy. "To play for these huge rough crowds was so hard," Creager says, "but by the end of it we were able to get over with our fragile instruments."
Then again, the cello hardly sounds fragile on Rasputina's latest CD, Cabin Fever! (Instinct), released this past spring. While the neoclassical string arrangement of "A Quitter" would make Beatles producer George Martin envious, Creager also uses distortion effects to create glam-rock staccato riffs on "State Fair" and the hornet's-nest buzz of the industrial rocker "Rats." Even if she can make her instrument snarl like a hard-rock guitar, though, playing the cello keeps Creager and the rest of Rasputina in the very un–rock-star position of sitting while performing. Hence, the corsets. "It provides some visuals," Creager explains. "The corset is like armor and bloomers are like supergirl pants."
Cabin Fever! marks Rasputina's return after a break prompted by the birth of Creager's daughter Hollis, now three years old. Juggling motherhood and a career as a touring musician is always a challenge, and music presents its own unique complications. Creager describes having to use a breast pump while in the recording studio – "Am I the first person to ever do this?" she wonders – and setting up an amplifier at a gig with her daughter in a baby sling.
For all the complications she faces being a woman and a cellist, Creager takes pride in having succeeded in playing rock music on her chosen instrument and on her own terms. "It's something I have to do, and I feel so fortunate to get to do it," she says. "It's a great feeling to look around me and realize that I have years of experience and knowledge that you can't get any other way."