Melora Creager is a survivor. Her band, Rasputina, has lasted for nearly 20 years, through the alt-rock explosion of the mid-1990s, a surprising stint on a major label, the novelty of cello rock, and numerous lineup changes. And now, with a couple of new players beside her, she's just made what might be her best album.
Sister Kinderhook, released in June, is Rasputina's sixth studio album. The cello that dominated previous discs is still integral to the band's identity, but here it's surrounded by other instruments, stringed and not, including the banjo and harpsichord, and surprisingly subtle and inventive percussion. Creager recruited an entirely new backing band—cellist Daniel DeJesus and drummer Catie D'Amica—for the album, replacing long-time collaborators Jonathan TeBeest and Zoe Keating; the result is something folkier than Rasputina's mid-'90s cello rock, when Creager and her producers incorporated elements of industrial and electronic music into the band's sound. D'Amica left the band after the recording; her spot was taken by Melissa Bell, who, despite her background in punk, is key to the band's new subdued sound.
"Melissa is a beautiful young girl who is used to playing rock music, and I've got her on an odd kit with a concert bass drum and a djembe," Creager says. "I was just tired of rock music and didn't want to hear cymbals. Cymbals have always covered the cello and hurt my head. I was glad to be rid of them."
It's still Creager's band, though. From the start, when she first placed an ad for an all-cello band in Manhattan in 1989, Creager has envisioned Rasputina as a rotating cast, with its personnel based on the particular needs of each album or performance.
"I am really glad to be hearing from a lot of people, ‘Oh, this is my favorite lineup ever,'" she says. "That's really good to hear, because people were really attached to Jonathan and Zoe back in the day. When I started, a lot of the records I made myself, but I wanted to present the image of a band, like the Monkees. It seemed like a good idea at the time, ‘I'm going to present the idea of these girls who are uptight but are playing rock music on the cello.' Rasputina is my project for communicating my artistic ideas, and performing live is a big part of it. And that does take working together with talented people."
Creager's become adept at tracking down cellists for her band over the last 20 years, but finding DeJesus was still a special kind of surprise—and for DeJesus, too.
"He grew up alone in his bedroom listening to my records and playing the cello with them, so he knows all the songs," Creager says. "He's the first person I've met who's a real cellist/singer—he grew up playing the cello and singing at the same time. I didn't have to coax him into it."
A consistent artistic idea running through the Rasputina catalog is Creager's interest in folklore and history. On the band's website, she regularly uses 19th-century dates for contemporary events, and Victorian-era imagery has been a running theme for the band. On Sister Kinderhook, Creager focuses on 18th- and 19th-century America, with songs about Emily Dickinson, slavery, an 1844 tenants' revolt in upstate New York, and colonial politics. There are two particularly weird songs—the stark banjo ballad "The Snow Hen of Austerlitz," about a girl raised by birds, and "A Holocaust of Giants," a jaunty tale about the legendary giant mound-builders of the Midwest.
"I'm always interested in the human aspect of history," Creager says. "I read a lot of dry stuff, but I'm always looking for human aspects in those stories—how people remain the same and have the same reactions and same kind of emotions to these kinds of situations. They're like odd ideas that get my imagination going. Like, what if that's really true? Wow! When I talk about this with people, I just pretend it's true."