Rasputina’s formidable back catalog is like an old history library, the tiered kind, with sliding ladders, stained-glass windows, and oiled wood, where gilt-embossed titles catch the late-afternoon sunlight glinting from leather spines. Yet when these library books are opened, rather than giving you a straight account, they hold your hands fast, taking you on a wild spin through the human psyche, carried aloft on the music of cellos that saw and roar and murk and shriek and groan and thunder and rock your nerves.
Have you heard of cello rock? Baroque pop? Chamber goth? Well, Rasputina, the brainchild of Melora Creager, invented it: the first rock group to make the venerable cello the main instrument, turning it into something ferocious that sounds like thunder and rain, something that can sound by turns gentle and creepy, precious or sinister. By means of distortion pedals and amps, the cellos are untamed.
Creager, who hails from Kansas, is the leader and main vocalist of Rasp (the band’s affectionate nickname). She plays more of the bass parts in its songs. The beneficiary of an era when public schools encouraged students to take up instruments in fourth grade, Creager started playing cello at nine years old. But it’s a long way from nine to now. How did she cover the distance from being a precocious middle-schooler to becoming a pioneering bandleader?
When she was a teenager, Creager temporarily quit playing cello because, as she confesses, “orchestra was not cool.” However, in a different setting, it became extremely cool and in demand. Once Creager’s friends at Philadelphia College of Art and Parsons School of Design heard that she played, they begged her to take it up again, to accompany them in their projects and performances. So “Rasputina was basically an art-school project come to life,” she explains.
Yet in rock performances, guitars would swallow the sound of the cello. So Creager got to thinking, Everyone says they love cello, yet it keeps getting drowned out by all these other instruments. What if it was the main instrument? She began to conceive the idea for an “all-girl electric cello choir,” which would eventually become Rasputina. “I essentially did it to make friends,” she says. “To meet other weird girls
who play cello.”
A lifelong student of history and enamored with czarist Russia, Creager named the band Rasputina as a tip of the hat to that love affair. Historical situations and literary subjects inform the bulk of Rasputina’s songs: Topics veer from a global volcanic winter, in “1816, The Year Without a Summer,” to the life of Howard Hughes, to a disquisition on the Donner Party. The lyrics often take up marginalized, archetypal female figures and stories—a feral child kept in a cage (“The Snow-Hen of Austerlitz”), a unicorn horn mounted in a big-game hunter’s trophy room, leechwives, and the working women who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. There are songs in which natural history crashes up against speculative flights of the fantastic, like “Holocaust of Giants,” about the prehistoric mound builders of Illinois and Ohio, or “Saline, the Salt Lake Queen,” where a teenage girl conjures green fire in the bed of an ancient, dried-out basin. And there are things that may or may not be fairy tales, like “Stumpside,” or a black mass incanted around a scary doll that a girl and her friends found in a field (“Gingerbread Coffin”).
Creager’s fascination with historical subjects began earlier in her life than she can rightly remember. Growing up surrounded by her family’s library of history books, she knows that by age seven she was already composing “sad and spooky” songs about old photographs and Lizzie Borden. There is a way of “exploring ourselves through historical situations,” says Creager, “of asking, Why do people do what they do?”
Rasputina’s music “feels like a time you can’t place but somewhere close to you,” says the band’s percussionist, Luis Mojica. “It has a sense of ancestry, yet combined with something very modern.” Mojica adds keyboards and an undergirding of percussive effects, such as tambourines and beatboxing, to the multilayered storm of strings supplied by Creager and the band’s newest member, Polly Panic (a.k.a. Jenette Mackie), who joined last August.
Mojica initially joined Creager for her 2014 “Calico Indians” project, and then came onboard as a member of Rasputina for the group’s 2015 tour, which covered 44 cities and culminated in a performance at the Vampire Ball in New Orleans. He was an established fan, moving in the same circles as Creager for years before the two finally caught up to each other at an open-mic night where they became fast friends. Out of the band’s prior catalog, Frustration Plantation is Mojica’s favorite because of its warmth and the clarity of the cellos in the recording.
Similarly, Panic and Creager had admired each other’s work over the years (“There are not that many singing rock cellists!,” says Panic, so of course they knew of each other), making feints and efforts to connect professionally that took several years before the timing was absolutely right. “I had been a Rasputina fan for a long time,” Panic says. When she heard she made the band after her audition, she says, “I was so thoroughly excited I was vibrating!”
The members of Rasputina, each an accomplished solo performer and composer in their own right, welcome the sharing that ensemble play affords: the way it stimulates the growth of one’s musicianship and leads to choosing from Rasp’s catalog material that suits the skills, abilities, and preferences of the individual players, helping one another carry the night as a team.
“To go in someone else’s rhythm, and to do that in front of hundreds or thousands of people,” says Mojica, “is etheric. Everyone’s tuned in. You’re a trio.” “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done, playing complex music with two other people,” adds Panic. “But the energy and power that come when you do something right—it takes everybody, including the musicians onstage.” The band members laugh about the psychic link they seem to share from traveling so closely. Coming out of dressing rooms in their individually inflected Rasputina regalia of dried flower crowns, corsets and suspenders, pantaloons and bloomers—and in Mojica’s case, Eastern turbans and tunics—they will often find they have done their makeup like one another, sight unseen: “You put a white stripe down your nose, too?”
The band’s latest tour, which wrapped this past winter, was a celebration of Thanks for the Ether, Rasputina’s debut album of 1996. Revisiting twenty-year-old compositions necessarily throws one’s evolution into high relief: As Creager revisits older songs, she sees her own growth as a bandleader and composer as well as an individual.
Creager realizes in hindsight how technically difficult she made some of her early pieces. (“Ether is hard to figure out by ear,” Panic corroborates.) “Rock music is actually really easy!” Creager says, laughing. However, her accompanists found their own potential in the playlist and rose to the occasion: Mojica, by discovering where in the DNA of the songs he could lay in percussion; Panic, accustomed to playing solo, by training herself in the technical, intellectual aspects of musicians’ interaction with one another in performance.
Whether or not the human condition has evolved over the centuries covered by Rasputina’s songs, Creager reports with happiness and relief that she has evolved over twenty years of performance. Singing early songs has allowed her to reflect on her personal growth. “Those songs were written from the point of view of a poverty-mentality person in her twenties,” she relates. “I was depressive, very ‘poor me,’ embarrassed to write about happy things.” She has a more encompassing point of view now, which allows her to perform the songs in a historical mode: “Something I really felt twenty years ago becomes a character,” she says.
And the Ether tour affords the same for the band’s earliest fans—people Creager knows from the message boards of her website in the days before social media—who have been attending shows (called “recitals” by those in the know), tracking their own evolution against music they have known since their youth.
For those looking to connect with the latest from Rasputina, its most recent recording, Unknown, exists only in 3-D form, to be sought via mail order or at shows. Creager refuses to release it online, allowing it to enter the world as a physical CD, something very tangible and old school, a clear line between real and alternate reality. After an internet hacking incident, Creager sorted out her identity, recording the songs for Unknown solo and raw, channeling narratives and music in a “dank basement.” Although Unknown speaks through disparate characters, in the style of other Rasputina projects, it is “the most personal thing I’ve ever made,” says Creager. “It’s really authentic. That time caused seismic changes in my priorities.” In retrospect, she reflects, “it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
Since cello music is played literally on guts, that may explain some of its visceral power—especially the way it is performed in Rasputina. Mojica describes its depth as being “in a storm, on a ship, trying to find your way to land.” Certainly diving into its timeless friction together has been a transformative experience for the band.
For instance, Panic describes the evolution of her solo persona into someone who could encompass more aspects of performance. “I’d made myself as hard as I could, protecting myself in a certain anger or rage,” she explains. To protect her sensitivity, Panic had “driven to the hard side. I always wanted to shock people! To say, See? A cello can be this hard! I kind of trapped myself by doing that. Playing with the group has inspired me to search those other paths.” Panic sees Rasputina as “between light and dark,” she says. “It tells stories, an indirect analysis which actually gets to the heart of things better.” It’s a quality that appeals to Panic’s strong Southern Gothic sensibility. “I truly value the ability to tell a story, to skip the definition, to describe the human condition, real battles that everybody faces.”
This year will be a break for Rasputina, as the members take 2017 off to nurture their solo projects. Creager is working as a therapeutic music practitioner for people in crisis and directing music at a “huge, old, Gothic” Methodist church, where she commands their band and choir and plays her cello. She contributed voices to Tigtone, a fantasy parody that will air on Adult Swim in March. She also is scoring the accompanying music to The Dark Mirror, a 1920 psychological thriller, for the Library of Congress. “It’s not cheesy at all,” she says, “as some silent films can be.”
As for the reading that informs the vast library of Creager’s imagination, she is currently immersed in Tibetan Buddhist texts, for their blend of the practical, the personal, and the “way out there”—the myriad other worlds and levels of reality they describe.
Whatever complicated human themes are carried out in the historical situations Creager writes and sings about, one overarching theme in Rasputina’s own story is authenticity: being willing to do the hard work to discern what is really yourself. “Melora is always raw,” says Mojica. “She is what a lot of people strive for—pure rock and roll, through and through. Playing with her imparts to me the good wisdom of doing for your own happiness what it is that you are expressing.”
Panic confides that she is “still learning to be myself in someone else’s music that has meant so much to me, that I’ve loved for so long.” But after many hours of meticulous practice trying to get her performances from Ether note-perfect, she realized, “I won’t feel like myself if I copy someone else from the past. And getting it right is not necessarily what Melora is thinking about. It’s my interpretation of it that matters.”
The scene? Athens, 1010 AD. Nymphs, dryads, gloaming in the misty dawn. Minding their own business… when the goddess Vesta appears, hill-top, 12 o’clock.
Vesta: Oh say you nectar drinkers, pray, have you seen thy goat-god Pan? Because I am looking for him. For him, for him I have, a couple of quest-i-ons.
Nymphs: I see him just down there. He’s down there at the bottom of the hill—Just down there—He’s down there at the bottom of the hill. She’s Vesta, and she is now from Latmos Hill descending. She puts a candle to his face. The flickering light shines hard. He looks scared!
V: Pan, what do you know about Shepherd Tony?
V: Liar! Liar! Goddamn it Pan! DO you know anything about Shepherd Tony? There comes the sound of shifting—Pan shifts on his toadstool seat.
V: So you do—you do know something about Shepherd Tony. Tell me then—tell me now!
Pan: Well Vesta, it goes a little! something like this….
[Pan-flute solo] V: Oh my God—that makes me crazy! Do it again! Do it again!
[more Pan-flute solo] Vesta puts out. She puts out the candle with her fingertips. Tssst.
By Melora Creager, ©Filthy Bonnet 2015
BY LAURIE MARJORIE MILLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEVE PARKE
HAIR AND MUA: NIKKI VERDECCHIA, NV SALON COLLECTIVE
Discover more about Rasputina at meloracreager.space
Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, magic, myth, ocean conservation, the arts, and other soulful subjects. Her work has appeared in such places as Parabola, Utne Reader, Yankee Magazine, and the Boston Globe. Find her on Twitter @bluecowboyyoga.
Visit steveparke.com for more of Steve Parke’s photographic work.
Visit NV Salon Collective at nvsalonco.com.