It could have been just another novel footnote in music history — Melora Creager's crazy concept for Rasputina, a society of Victorian-corseted ladies who play Gothic chamber punk exclusively on cello. But lo and behold, two decades on and the combo is still here, sounding as vital as ever on the new Sister Kinderhook outing for the singer's own Filthy Bonnet imprint.
"Rather than always being crafty and looking for money and fame, I think it's important to keep the spirit of a child in your creativity, to still maintain that innocence," says Creager of her survival strategy. "Because in my experience, that'll get you far."
It also helps to have a kid around the house. At 43, Creager gave birth last winter to her second daughter, Ivy, who giggles in her crib while mom conducts a hushed interview from her new home in rustic Hudson Valley, N.Y.
Born in Kansas, Creager went on to run Rasputina out of an antique-cluttered apartment in Brooklyn. But it was only on her secluded acre of property — surrounded by fruit trees and a raspberry patch — that she says she truly found herself.
"This is a really interesting small town," says Creager. "There are a lot of New York City expatriates, like myself, so there's a lot of culture. But it's very beautiful and very rural, and my house is called an eyebrow colonial, and it's very old — the original part of it is from around 1830."
The location also came with its own songwriting inspiration, thanks to an 1870s directory that listed every last county resident, along with job descriptions. "And their occupations were just amazing," she recalls of the match that sparked her latest album. "There was so much history around here, because it was really active and forward-thinking, a real hotbed of political activity around the Civil War, just like where I'm from in Kansas."
So the ardent collector of vintage daguerreotypes, textiles and embroidery began delving into local history, which eventually morphed into songs about Emily Dickinson ("Sweet Sister Temperance," "This, My Porcelain Life"), itinerant portraitists ("The 2 Miss Leavens"), and the Anti-Rent Wars of 1844 ("Calico Indians"). And then, of course, there are typical Rasputina topics like feral children ("Snow-Hen of Austerlitz") and the once-popular notion that giants were a real, but vanished, race ("Holocaust of Giants").
The stories — embellished by her fluid notes and subtly operatic vocals — are all true, she adds. In the 1800s, for instance, vagabond painters caravanned from town to town, sketching the citizenry.
"And there was a lot of mystery and anonymity around those people, because they weren't like the Great Artists — they were more like traveling salesmen who did portraits. The work isn't very polished, and they might have strange proportion to their human bodies. I just loved that."
The Anti-Rent Wars were no less visually bizarre, with opponents of an outmoded feudal system donning calico dresses and thick animal masks. "It was kind of like Saw in drag," she says, snickering.
Asked what she's learned over the course of her band's 20-year history, Rasputina's sole surviving member isn't really sure. But she's pretty certain of one thing: "I really like to write through a historical story," says the artist. "So maybe that's how I work out my own stuff."