Synthesis - 2004
Creative Instinct: Rasputina's Rock Recipe
By James Barone
Hoopskirts, bloomers and cellos are not the first things that come to mind when formulating a rock band, which is only part of what makes the longevity of a band like Rasputina so curious. Perhaps it’s not so surprising when considering the driving creative force behind the group, Melora Creager. A cellist from age nine, and mother of one daughter (Hollis), Creager began Rasputina in 1991, and despite never etching the band’s name in the mainstream’s collective consciousness and constantly retooling its lineup, she has managed to keep her vision focused.
Sustaining a tight-knit group of hardcore fans, Rasputina has not had to slog along in complete obscurity. The group released two full-length major label albums on Columbia back in the ‘90s and their history has been entwined with names like Marilyn Manson, Belle & Sebastian and Nirvana. However, speaking with Creager over the phone from her Brooklyn home, recognition doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of her concerns. Not only is Creager the primary songwriter for the group, she also conducts all of Rasputina’s creative pursuits, going as far as designing images for the band’s Web site and liner notes as well as crafting their merchandise. "It all feels the same to me — the same fun of making things," she says. "I don’t care which one I’m doing; I like it all. Whether it’s making a Web page, or writing a song, or playing a show, it’s all the creative stuff I like to do."
Given the amount of work she puts into her group, it’s obvious that Rasputina is a highly personal endeavor for Creager. Still, she does maintain a certain separation from her material. While her songs give insight into her vivid imagination and sharp wit, Creager prefers to keep her personal life out of her lyrics. Sometimes, Creager turns to literature for inspiration, citing author Franz Kafka as one of her favorites for creating situations that are both frightening and somehow comedic; but she claims "really dry history" and "trying to picture those people and picture what they’re going through in these crazy situations" spark her creativity. “I’m not comfortable literally writing about my own feelings and experiences — that seems boring and embarrassing — so if I write about these other situations, my own feelings and experiences seep in there,” Creager admits.
For Frustration Plantation, Rasputina’s latest and second for Instinct Records, Creager found her inspiration in the sights and sounds of rural Louisiana of the 1800s.
"When we started, Joe Bishara, who produced [the album] with me, had me sit down and really try to verbalize the theme I was going for," Creager says. "From him getting me to verbalize that as best I could led to me and Zoë [Keating, cello] researching exactly what that meant. A lot of times in the past, I'll have some theme or some historical idea, and I’ll write about it, then later, I’ll look up to find out exactly what it means. I don’t know so much what I’m talking about. But on Frustration Plantation, we really looked into it — trying to find out what the music was like, where did it come from. It was really exciting." For example, Creager adds that some of the songs on the album she’s most proud of — "smaller songs" like “Wicked Dickie” and “When I Was a Young Girl” — were taken from old slave songs. The album’s theme may be its most noticeable feature, but also Creager mentions that Frustration Plantation is more of a group effort than Rasputina’s previous offering, Cabin Fever, which she mixed and recorded herself in her own home.
Creager confesses that she’s not easy to work with and says it’s difficult for her to work with others, though she believes it’s much healthier to do so, but perhaps her camaraderie with her current bandmates has helped soften the blow. On Frustration Plantation, Rasputina’s head mistress is joined by cellist Zoë Keating and drummer Jonathon TeBeest, who is the first permanent drummer in Rasputina’s history. Creager says that she has forged a strong relationship with her current cohorts by doing a lot of touring together; she also doesn’t expect Keating or TeBeest to "pull any surprises — like quit with no notice." She also admits, that for the first time since her long-time bandmate Julia Kent, Creager feels influenced by the other members of her group.
"I don’t feel that influenced by all the people who have been in the band," Creager says. "Julia years ago was certainly a big influence because we played together for so long, but people who come and go quickly don’t have much influence on what I do. But the group I’m playing with right now does. Jonathon is such a rock drummer, and his love of rock fuels my love of rock."
"I know there’s definitely something good about when we play live, and we really wanted to get that going on the record," Creager continues. "A lot of times, our records are really different than how we play live; I wanted to get that energy that comes partly from Jonathon’s great drumming. And Jonathon and I play really well together, thinking of ourselves as a rhythm section from a normal rock band. I think we’ve got some of that on there."
Creager hopes that the band will hold together in this form for quite some time, admitting that this incarnation of Rasputina is her favorite. Even if the band’s history of upheaval holds true, though, Creager probably won’t let it hold her back. She admits she’s been working in music for so long that “working in an office is really glamorous and exciting,” but also, the pull to satisfy her healthy curiosity and have an outlet for her vivid imagination is too strong. Though her lyrics may not be filled with intensely personal musings and reflections, Creager’s quirky tales definitely come from the heart, but she’d rather leave what her songs say about their creator’s personality open to interpretation.
"I’m sure they do [say something about my personality]," Creager says with a laugh. "But it should be obvious. I don’t have to say. Whatever you think."