Rasputina Builds a Great American Gingerbread House
One of my longtime favorite bands, Rasputina, has just released Great American Gingerbread, a collection of rarities, demos, and other “forgotten songs,” along with a DVD showcasing the band. The album features treats like a cover of “I Go to Sleep,” a song written for a Neil Gaiman tribute (“Coraline”) and a song (“Lizzie Borden”) written when lead singer-songwriter (and only standing member) Melora Creager was only seven. Here, we chat about Emily Dickinson, Robert Johnson, and Greek mythology.
ELM: I was reading a feature with you where you talked about meditative walking, and how you like to use that time to compose. Are you familiar with the Zen practice of slow-walking?
MC: No. That sounds interesting.
ELM: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Natalie Goldberg, the writing instructor. I took a workshop with her, and we did some of that. It’s where you walk very very slowly and it’s quite meditative. I had an image of you slow-walking with baby Ivy on your back, composing the songs.
ELM: I also read that you’re a big Emily Dickinson fan. Do you know her “Master” letters?
MC: Yeah, I have a really neat copy of those that I got at her house. It’s a copy of those printed really nicely and then there’s an envelope in the back with the same size printed in her writing. It’s so cool and weird. Very lovely.
ELM: What do you think about the letters? What’s your theory?
MC: I think they were probably fantasy letters to a real man. That’s something I like about her. You know, people think she’s kind of prissy and she never left the house in her white dress, and I think she was really active and fueled by fantasy, and I can relate to that.
ELM: Who are your other favorite writers?
MC: I don’t know. I think I get more into reading about people. I got really excited about Emily Dickinson more from reading about her life and how it fit together with her work. Right now I’m reading about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and I’m not even so into his writing. I think it’s the way that I’m fantasy-based, I like to read about other people’s lives more than fiction.
ELM: Especially when you have people out there like Zelda Fitzgerald who are so interesting to read about. Do you ever get any form of a creative block, yourself?
MC: Not really. I’m always kind of scared of it. I don’t try to force things, but sometimes if I don’t feel really inspired I’ll try to practice classical solo pieces or something. I don’t have to invent everything every time. If I study something else, I’ll learn new things and get on my track.
ELM: This is a question that came from your fans, by the way. In the past, you’ve mentioned an instrumental album. Is that project on hold or is it yet to come?
MC: Much like Great American Gingerbread that I put together and then it sat for a while while I did other things, I put together instrumental stuff a long time ago, but it’s not the right time to put it out right now.
ELM: With Sister Kinderhook, that was the first time your fans had heard [second cellist] Daniel DeJesus and had a man join the Ladies’ Traveling Cello Society. Was he received well?
MC: I think it was a rough start because most humans don’t like change, and it was so radically different to have a male, and people were pretty hard on him. They made fun of his lisp, which I had never noticed. I didn’t think he had a lisp. They said they didn’t like his Jackson Five singing. I just love his singing and what he does, and I think he and I have a lot of chemistry, so I knew it worked out, and he is accepted now.
ELM: Do you think that, going forward, you’ll stick to the more acoustic sound of Sister Kinderhook, or you’ll stick to the more distortion-heavy sound as you have on certain records in the past?
MC: I think the more natural sound will hold on because I’ve been looking for ways to express heaviness through the songwriting rather than effects or equipment, and I think that’s working out. I like to do the most with least. The less equipment we have, and the less trickery we use, the better. It’s all constructed, and it’s all faked in its way, so people just have to try to figure out for themselves what’s true.
ELM: I really like your cover of “I Go to Sleep.” What made you decide to cover that?
MC: It’s just a beautiful song, and I have loved The Pretenders and Chrissie Hynde’s voice since I was a kid, and it’s a beautiful song, that’s why.
ELM: Is that how you decide what songs you’re going to cover?
MC: I have to feel comfortable with the lyrics, whatever they are. If they’re oblique, something I’m not down with–I always use T-Rex as an example of music that I love. The lyrics are just not me full enough. I’d be embarrassed to sing them.
ELM: Do you plan to do any more cover EPs or a full record, or do you know yet?
MC: I don’t see a full record coming. I have been learning Robert Johnson’s music, which is really difficult to get on the cello. I would like to do some kind of bigger Robert Johnson project. Maybe an abum of his songs, I don’t know. Something very academic.
ELM: Neat! Will you sell your soul at midnight?
MC: I think I will have to to get everything he’s playing on one cello. That’s the only way he could have done it!
ELM: I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but what are your thoughts on it?
MC: I’m really pleased with it. Dawn is a really creative, neat person, and I like that she portrayed just how hard we work and that we’re pretty innocent people.
ELM: I read that “Lizzie Borden” was written when you were seven. Was it called “Lizzie Borden” at the time?
ELM: Tell me more about that.
MC: I am still the same person.
ELM: So you just got up and were like, “I’m gonna write this cello song and call it ‘Lizzie Borden?’”
MC: It was on the piano because I hadn’t started studying cello yet. I wrote songs pretty much from the time I started music when I was five or so.
ELM: And did you have a fascination with Lizzie Borden?
MC: Yeah, I’d seen a tv movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery from “Bewitched” about Lizzie Borden, and that stayed with me. I’m really strict about what my daughter watches and listens to, so when I think back, that was no problem for tiny Melora to watch the Lizzie Borden show, and I was obsessed with this woman who murdered her parents and was really violent. I’m glad my mom supported my interests from the get-go.
ELM: Would you let your daughter watch a Lizzie Borden documentary?
MC: I would now because she’s almost 12 and quite mature, but I wouldn’t have at seven, no.
ELM: What other historical figures fascinate you?
MC: I think you can find them in my songs. Mary, Queen of Scots was a great one that I’ve never written about. I am interested in women, just because those histories are harder to find, and I’m a woman. It’s more people overcoming adversity, and it’s quite shocking that a women could even be a ruler, so I find that interesting.
ELM: Switching subjects, I saw that “Loom” was written for a short film. How did the song arise from that premise?
MC: It’s an animation, and there’s a character playing the cello, so the animator was going to have to make this animation match the playing, so he had to coach my playing: ‘Now play louder! Faster! Slower!’ so it would fit that sequence.
ELM: And “Mysterious Man Monkey” was for Daytrotter? What was the exact assignment that you had?
MC: Just to make anything. Read a cereal box, just anything. Just the spoken word-music freestyle. I had gotten really into this story on BBC Online about this man-monkey monster in India, and it didn’t really fit onto any of my albums, so I did it for them.
ELM: I haven’t seen On My Knees, but I saw that you were in that as well as being on the soundtrack. Did you enjoy the acting part?
MC: Not really because I went into it like I was experienced at it because I’m experienced in performing and in giving an interview, and it feels like acting. But actually it’s something totally different. With what I do, I control all of it, but acting is, you know, a director directs you, and you’re told what to do, and you have to do it over and over and over. So I really don’t like the process, but I like all the people involved and the project. I just felt like acting is not for me.
ELM: Also, I read that “Death in Disneyland,” “Skylark,” and “Children’s Reform Hospital” were all demos. What were they demos for?
MC: I think they were working on Frustration Plantation.
ELM: Is there a reason they didn’t make the cut?
MC: I’ll work on lots of stuff at the same time, and not everything comes to fruition. Or maybe I’ll forget about that, what I started that day, and I’ll go on to other things.
ELM: What’s the story of your ‘Black Hole’ cycle?
MC: That’s just more demos, and I thought those examples showed how I write a song, ’cause you have these ideas, and you change the notes around, and you try to make a different section for the song, and for O Perilous World, I was using news as lyrics, and that’s an example of that.
ELM: Like in the Osama bin Laden song, “Choose Me for Champion?”
MC: Yeah, yeah.
ELM: This guy I dated in grad school, I took him to one of your recitals. He was always saying ‘you know so much about music, take me to a concert with you.’ And I said ‘do you like cello-based metal?’ He thought I was joking. I took him to one of your recitals in Birmingham, and he became a big fan, especially of ‘Choose Me for Champion.’ He started writing historical poems in a very Melora-esque style.
MC: Good luck to him with that!
ELM: I feel like the answer to this question is ‘yes, of course,’ but have you met Neil Gaiman in addition to composing ‘Coraline?’
MC: No, I haven’t met him. I don’t know that he was involved in that project. I hope he heard it, but I don’t know.
ELM: Have you even corresponded with him?
ELM: Do you associate yourself with any mythological charcters?
MC: No, I don’t know much about the subject. Hollis, [my daughter] however, is completely obsessed with Greek mythology, so she might know.
ELM: Does she have a favorite myth?
MC: She just did a report on somebody. Who’s the woman who’s an archer?
MC: Yes. And there are a lot of teen books, but they’re based on Greek mythology, they’re kind of cartoony. There’s a lot of products of Greek mythology for kids. It’s like Bratz dolls but they’re Greek gods. I didn’t see it coming.
ELM: I have a couple of fan questions left. How is the Halloween project coming? [This is a project in which Melora is writing a song sequence to accompany a friend's snapshots. She thinks it will be out by Halloween 2011.]
MC: I’m very excited about it. I’m working on it all the time. I feel like it’s the next big project for me, but it’s really hard for me to write music with this baby, so I’m just trying to make that happen, but it’s very difficult. To write music, I need a lot of hours of freeflow brain to get warmed up, get inspired, travel among ideas, and a baby just doesn’t go with that.
ELM: Even though you play with only two cellists now, do you still write three cello parts?
MC: It’s really hard for me to keep the parts down because I just love harmony. I like to keep the harmony and have a lot of voices with the instruments, so, yeah, like on Sister Kinderhook, there’s lots of parts.
ELM: Is the graphic novel that Image is working on still happening?
MC: I haven’t heard about that in a long time. I don’t know. There are a lot of projects for other people. They’re like ‘can we use you for this?’ ‘Can we do that?’ and they don’t always come to fruition.
ELM: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
MC: Just Halloween project, Halloween project, Halloween project!