Celloship of the strings
“I started playing cello around 8 or 9 years old, but I quit the orchestra in the eighth grade because it was for dorks, and I wanted to be cool.” As dorky as Melora Creager might have felt hoisting her cello off the school bus as a young girl growing up in Emporia, Kansas, at some point, she did an about-face and made the instrument the cornerstone of her career. Speaking to Pasatiempo by phone from her Hudson, New York, home, Creager — founder and primary composer for melancholy gothic-chamber-pop trio Rasputina — couldn’t care less if you think she’s a grown-up band geek with a predilection for Victorian regalia and (at the moment) obscure northeastern American history. She’s happy with her creative choices, and she’s in control of them every step of the way. On Monday, Aug. 9, Rasputina performs at the Santa Fe Brewing Company in support of its latest album, Sister Kinderhook (Filthy Bonnet records), released in June.
After high school, Creager made her way to Parsons School of Design in New York City, where she studied photography. “That’s when I started playing in a band, because it’s a pretty common art-school thing to do I guess,” she said. “And that’s when I brought my cello back into my life.” She played with a small group called the Traveling Ladies’ Cello Society for nearly a decade, and when she started her own ensemble in the ’ 90s, Creager wanted it to be much larger than a traditional art-school rock group. She took out a classified ad looking for players. “I envisioned an electric-cello choir,” she said, “and I think we had seven women playing in the beginning. But I didn’t really know how to lead a big group. It all revolved more around the concept at the time, rather than solidly focused on the music; it was very disorganized.” Creager pared the ensemble down to three players — two cellist-vocalists and a percussionist — and Rasputina was born.
Sister Kinderhook takes listeners on a thematic journey through some of the oddball sagas of Creager’s current hometown and surrounding areas, spinning yarns about subjects both factual and fancied, like the Helderberg War (a 19th-century tenants’ revolt); a girl raised as a bird in an enclosed pen; itinerant portraitists; and the Native American Mound Builder giants of Illinois.
Creager sees Rasputina’s esotericism, both visual and lyrical, as more a natural response to the things she happens to be curious about than a chance to compensate for her former dorkdom. Earlier in her career, when she counted herself among members of Ultra Vivid Scene — a band that enjoyed heavy gothmusic cred due to its association with celebrated U.K. imprint 4AD — embracing the unusual might have seemed like a brilliant career move during the upward trajectory of labelmates like Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance. Now, however, it’s just who Creager is: mother, singer, songwriter, cellist, and a woman with a boundlessly curious mind. Add to Creager’s résumé touring with Nirvana on its last major hurrah before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, a stint on the road with Marilyn Manson, and session and touring work with Belle & Sebastian and you begin to understand that Creager doesn’t obsess about who she’s surrounded by musically, as long as they’re willing to play — and play well.
Having said that, what’s with the get-up? “The visual component of the band, the Victorian dress and all, sprang partly from my art-school background,” Creager said. “It was something I probably would have generated as a piece of visual art anyway, but in this case, I just broadened that concept to include fashion and music. And in the case of the new album, Hudson was a really active and vital region some time ago. I bumped into a lot of the album’s thematic material by pure coincidence and built on it to tell the stories I wanted to tell.” ( Sister Kinderhook was recorded at Creager’s home studio.)
Victoriana’s secret: Melora Creager
Rasputina: from left, Melora Creager, Daniel DeJesus, and Catie D’Amica