Big Ears 2014: Rachel Grimes

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Rachel Grimes is ready for spring. She’s just back after a jaunt to France, the Netherlands, and England to perform and record, and in Europe everything is full-on in bloom. But not in Louisville. Not yet.

Grimes has lived in Louisville, Ky., her entire life. Over the years, she’s become one of the most recognized names of the city’s storied musical scene, in no small part because of sharing the name of her former musical outfit, Rachel’s. The thing about that, though—it was pretty much a weird coincidence. Rachel’s wasn’t named for Rachel Grimes.

“It was first called Rachel’s Halo,” Grimes explains. “Jason [Noble] had made this tape of things he was working on and sent to all his friends for Christmas under that name. I didn’t start playing with him until later. It was a very slow and unintentional forming of a band.”

Noble, known for his noisy indie bands Rodan and Shipping News, titled the tape after his car, which he had named after Sean Young’s replicant character in Blade Runner, Grimes says. Sometime before their first performance, they dropped the “Halo” from the name but kept the apostrophe. The fact that there was now a Rachel playing piano in Rachel’s became a long-running inside joke.

Over the course of several albums on Quarterstick Records—Handwriting, Music for Egon Schiele, The Sea and the Bells, Selenography, and systems/layers, along with several EPs—the post-rock chamber-music group created haunting, ethereal pieces that were sometimes strange and sometimes sublime but always beautiful. It was classical music for the indie-rock crowd, but it was more than that, too.

At the University of Louisville, Grimes had studied musical composition with a focus on piano. She went to rock shows and saw bands like Slint and Rodan play, but she also spent years playing Cole Porter and other standards in bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, she was working on her own compositions.

Over the years, Grimes’ reputation grew. She’s performed at exclusive music festivals in Europe and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She’s scored films, like the documentary Gasland, theatrical productions, and multimedia exhibits at museums.

“It’s a pretty strange life,” Grimes says. “But it’s still a very DIY, indie lifestyle. It’s very difficult in the U.S. to find promoters and venues that want to book the kind of music I play. … Outside of New York, there aren’t really places that have indie classical scenes.”

Grimes’ most recent solo album, 2009’s Book of Leaves, is both stark and melodic. The short compositions echo the natural world (and use actual recordings of it), but remain accessible to a listener with no background in minimalist music.

“I don’t like to make 40 minute–long pieces that are impossible to play or listen to,” Grimes says. “And I’m finding that I’m less and less into electronics and more and more into modifying sounds by writing.”

Grimes is currently working on a joint album with the experimental French chamber ensemble Astrïd, but at Big Ears she’ll be joined by cellist Helen Money and saxophone player Jacob Duncan. There will be a few solo pieces, but most of the performance will be work written for the trio.

She also plans to play a Rachel’s piece or two in tribute to Noble, who died in 2012 after a three-year battle with cancer. But Grimes says writing a requiem for one of her dearest friends isn’t in the plans for now.

“There’s no way to prepare you for how grief takes hold in your life, and what it does manifest. … We just have such a brief time, and a brief chance at this life, so, yeah, that’s in there. These things add up in your life,” Grimes says. “But I write music as a different place to go in my head. I don’t always write music about what’s going on in my life.”

Rachel Grimes performs at the Bijou Theatre on Sunday, March 30, at 4:15 p.m. Visit bigearsfestival.com for more info and a full schedule.

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