The weight of the world fell on Melora Creager all at once.
“Like all in one day,” says the leader and principal cellist of Brooklyn chamber-rock band Rasputina. She found out “that September 11th was kind of screwy; that climate change was pretty ominous and for real; that the war in Iraq was really a terrible, messed-up thing; that the government is corrupt … and I was in shock, like, ‘Oh no! Someone’s got to help us! Who am I going to call?’”
Laughing, Creager recalls how, after this initial sense of panic and dread, it dawned on her that “there’s nobody we can call to help us.” This realization, however, ultimately led to the creation of Rasputina’s most ambitious album to date, Oh Perilous World, released in June. Though Creager’s work has always been marked by a biting satirical edge, she had never followed the news or current events. World finds her addressing social issues and politics directly for the first time.
“My way of dealing with it all was to make something out of it,” she says. “That’s the best I could do.”
What initially started out as a feeling of being overwhelmed and discouraged soon gave way to a more academic type of interest. Creager, who says she can be “obsessive” when she focuses on a task, threw herself into pursuing information and deconstructing the news media.
“I got into following through to find out what happened,” she explains, referring to 9/11. She soon discovered that “it’s hard to find out about other countries, to have any depth to a story, because the commercial news in this country is pretty entertainment-oriented and America-centric.”
Apart from the lyrics, Creager’s discoveries also ended up shaping her approach to writing on a structural level as she began to draw correlations between formulaic news coverage and songwriting.
Ironically, spotting the rigid patterns inherent to broadcasting triggered an increased sense of creative freedom.
“I got really into analyzing the news,” she enthuses. “Like how do they write it? They have certain devices. From all my years in the music business, it had been drilled into me that I must have a chorus and I must try to get on the radio. That was subconscious in the back of my head whenever I was writing music. I was dumbing myself down without realizing it. Even though I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m pretty original,’ I was still trying to fit in, and using certain patterns and devices of rock and popular music. Then, when I got into the devices of news writing, I was also looking at musicals and cast albums and how those were put together and what kinds of devices they use. So I combined all that stuff and it was much more fun than trying to write a catchy chorus.”
Creager’s newfound openness dovetailed with increased freedom in the studio. When Rasputina recently scaled down to a duo while seeking a permanent replacement for departed second cellist Zoe Keating, Creager and drummer Jonathon TeBeest found themselves feeling less bound to capturing a literal translation of the band’s live sound. As a result, World bears the most heavy layering and sophisticated production values of anything in the Rasputina catalog to date.
TeBeest, a multi-instrumentalist with a distinctly flexible sense of rhythm and a deep appreciation for dynamics and texture, was delighted at the opportunity to stretch.
“I’ve now incorporated timpani and mallets and triangles and a lot of stuff that would sound hokey in other bands but in this band makes perfect sense,” he says. “I started piano when I was 6. I’m not just the dumb drummer guy who when he was 16 decided ‘I want to hit stuff and tour and party and screw.’ I have a lot musical background and I’m able to use it in this band, where in a lot of other bands I didn’t get the chance. On this new record I played a lot of piano, which is something else I haven’t been allowed to do in other bands.”
In fact, TeBeest landed his job in the first place because of his unorthodox style.
“I think Melora thought I’d know the songs a little bit better,” laughs TeBeest, recalling his audition six years ago. “I listened to them and went ‘Oh-kayyyy … I don’t really know what to do.’ I didn’t play the parts that she originally recorded, but Melora ended up really liking that approach. And that’s kind of how our relationship has been since.”
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
Rasputina performs at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Thursday, Aug. 2. 9 p.m. My Brightest Diamond opens. $12/$15. 232-5800.