“There’s just some intense stuff to read about and imagine experiencing in the South.”
Melora Creager, the woman behind cello-rock band Rasputina, broke a two-year silence last April with the release of Unknown. The album continues the Rasputina tradition of Gothic tales with a historical bent but reveals a rather personal, primal side to the frontwoman who recorded it entirely on her own in a dank basement. Creager took some time before the fall leg of Rasputina’s tour to talk about the emotional traumas that inspired Unknown, making a living as a musician in the age of Spotify and Halloween.
You had unofficially retired and taken a two year break from touring—what prompted the “retirement” and, now, your return?
I was very, very tired of touring. I’ve toured hard and at about at the same level for a lot of years, and so I was just burnt out from that. And that’s always been the way that I’ve made my living. And I was just kind of frustrated with my place in the world. I wasn’t taken seriously or respected as an artist and thought of more as a Goth musician or something. But that’s not really how I see myself, so those were my frustrations.
You’ve spoken a bit and posted on your site about certain events that happened prior to your writing and recording Unknown. Can you describe the inspiration and recording process for your latest album?
I believe that I was hacked, and it was like the interior of my brain was looked at because I keep all my journals and all that in my computer. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but the events made me very paranoid and making the record was a good—really quickly and all by myself a very intense process—was therapeutic for me. It was a therapy for me to get all that out of my system.
Would you categorize Unknown as a sidestep from the themes, mainly historical, of previous
Yeah, as far as some historical themes and history re-worked and re-fantasized, but it’s definitely the most personal work I’ve ever done—even if it is cryptic and you can’t tell exactly what I mean.
Also, is there any particular meaning behind the title Unknown? Reading about your experience being hacked, I had this idea in mind that it somehow related to an “unknown file.”
It’s got many meanings; I think anything that’s meaningful does have many meanings. It’s unknown who did that to me, if it even happened, what happened. There was a file put into my website that we were unable to open and know who did it. It has a lot of meanings. A previously unknown part of myself.
This is the first time that you’ve done a CD-exclusive release. Do you have any nostalgic affinity for CDs or is it more or less a reaction against the music industry today, given the ubiquity of services like Spotify and iTunes?
Those—what are they? Are they organizations? Companies? Spotify and Pandora have been very, very destructive to music as a business and to independent musicians. And people don’t know much about that. But I’m absolutely uninterested in whatever word of mouth or attention they get for me because I know that a smaller one-on-one relationship with my audience is more meaningful to me and better business.
Do you feel that releasing it in such a way—making it a purely physical record—inherently makes it more intimate?
Yeah, and it was really interesting. You know, I did it just as kind of an experiment—you know, what I felt like doing—and people have a really hard time waiting for anything because music is so instant and so disposable. Like the whole anticipation, waiting to get an album, that’s an unknown feeling to people nowadays. But it was really fun for me to make some people do that.
That’s kind of what you always hear when you talk to people about vinyl these days. That whole process of actually putting the needle on the record and listening to the whole side is vastly different from the way people listen to music today.
Yeah, it takes longer and you just love it that much more for having waited for it. Possessing it has meaning, whereas with the digital single and that whole world there’s just so many Kleenex songs. You know, music has become that.
Staying in the same vein with you trying to create this relationship with fans, you’ve released a lot of limited albums that you actually made by hand. Not many musicians put that kind of time and effort into their craft. How would you describe your relationship with the fan base? Do you feel that all the physical effort of crafting album covers and playing small venues and even releasing CD-exclusive albums that you mail yourself pays off?
It does for me. This is just my unique life and my unique career and how it turns out to work. I think I’m really, really fortunate to have the audience I do. They’re small but dedicated and want to buy what I make, so that’s a really nice little cottage industry, a really warm kind of relationship. And I like to make things. I’m good at making things, and I’m just lucky that that is how it works out.
And, actually, how long did it take you to record all of Unknown?
It was a really fast process. Including the writing, it took about three weeks. It just poured out of me. I was really in another realm when I made that record.
Well, since you recorded the album entirely on your own, how do you find the songs translating into your current touring trio?
I didn’t think about performing them at all when I made the record, which is a nice freedom because a lot of times we think about how we’re going to do this live and let that constrict the music we write, and a lot of people do that. But I wasn’t concerned with that at all. They’re really great in the show, and we love performing them. That’s something else, though, something that’s underappreciated as time passes and you get more seasoned. You can’t replace that—experience and time. And the songwriting’s better from all the years. That’s really neat. That’s like, “Practice works. If you practice, you’ll get better.” Spend 25 years at something or 40 years or whatever I’ve done—it gets better.
And right now you’re touring with Carpella Parvo and Luis Mojica.
They’re a really wonderful band. We’re so fond of each other and, musically, are very intuitive. It’s a really good lineup.
In the past, you’ve incorporated dulcimers, banjos and erhu (air-hoo) into your songs, what prompted the inclusion of Luis Mojica and his keyboards and beat-boxing?
Sometimes, I’ll meet young people who’ve grown up listening to my music or they can just play all of it by ear, and he’s one of those people. I love him through and through. The beat-boxing is so organic but so modern. It’s a wonderful contrast, and we don’t have to lug around all those drums or a drummer’s ego. And that’s really good.
What’s it like working with Carpella Parvo again? How did the two of you reconnect before this tour?
Of course, we reconnected through Facebook. That’s how anybody does anything social these days. She’s a lovely woman. She did suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome from playing the cello so much, and we lost track of each other for years. But she’s all healed up and has improved her playing posture, and I’m blessed to have these guys with me.
Every time you go on tour it seems like it’s new people that you’re playing with. Does that kind of rotating lineup have an effect on the way you work, on the way you write songs for Rasputina?
I used to think so. It more just has an effect on the repertoire. I’ve written so much music now that who I’m playing with dictates which songs we do in a show or on a tour. It’s really stressful to have to find somebody when a tour is in place because there aren’t very many singing cellists in the world. It’s also something that…I think I’m a good leader and a nice person and perhaps it’s normal for—you know, this band has gone on for so long and people tend to like to tour with me when they’re younger. And they’re always people who have a lot of ideas and talents of their own, and that means they go put out their own music. So it’s normal for people to come and go but it makes me sad and uncomfortable that it might look like “Oh, people are always quitting that band.” But it’s been almost 20 years or more.
I wouldn’t say that I necessarily look at it as people quitting. But you saying that the people you’re touring with kind of dictate what songs you play, I was going to specifically ask about that.
Yeah, by their skills, what they’re good at, what they’re not good at. We let that control what we present.
Do you think with the current touring trio, does that add any flair when you play older songs?
Yeah, definitely, it makes everything that’s old more fresh for me because both Luis and Carpella like the first album—the best maybe—and they can whip stuff up real fast. And sometimes as you sing, they don’t even bother to re-learn the cello parts, and that’s really freeing. And it sounds good.
Well, I have to say, a friend of mine is a really big fan of yours. I was told specifically to ask if you’ve been playing “The Mayor” recently.
I’ve played it with different groups of people locally last year. I played it a lot, but we’re not playing it on the tour this year.
Too bad. Now, in the past you’ve played some huge shows alongside names like Marilyn Manson. Lately, it seems like you prefer a more intimate venue. Was the change a necessity or your preference?
We’ve opened for a lot of big people, and that’s something that’s better for a younger band in that you get exposure but no money. And I don’t feel a part of the music business or I don’t care for any more exposure. And I want to make money at what I do, so opening isn’t really right for us. Besides, the crowd that we can draw is small, and that is fine with me.
Well, since I’ll be seeing you play in Mobile, AL on October 30th, is there a reason you’ve played a lot of shows in the Deep South? I mean, it is unusual for a non-country group and one originating in NYC.
Well, I think Mobile is a really romantic place, and I’ve just always loved New Orleans and the deep history of it, and I’ve read a lot of history. I personally think it’s an evocative region.
Frustration Plantation drew a lot upon Southern Gothic, and you wrote a song about the survivors of Katrina as well (“We Stay Behind”). Do you really feel like you have a connection to the South beyond just admiring the emotions that it evokes?
Not really, I’m just fascinated by the history, and the reason that I’m fascinated by history is that I like to try to put myself in the people’s place and through really dry reading try to feel the humanity and the feelings of people because I think the feelings of people don’t change much over time, even though situations do. There’s just some intense stuff to read about and imagine experiencing in the South.
And, finally, this fall tour is ending in New Orleans on October 31st for a Halloween show. Do you have anything crazy planned for that night?
I never get a big costume worked out because we wear such elaborate costumes every night and since it’s the end of a tour…but I’ve been thinking Cave Woman.