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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011

Rasputina Marches On

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Rasputina was born two decades ago from songwriter Melora Creager's vision of a cello-driven rock act of women clad in Victorian corsets and bloomers. The band was at once elegant, dramatic and surprisingly aggressive, and with her unusual sensibilities, it wasn't long before Creager was backing Nirvana on their fateful final European tour, her band scored a major label deal, and she found herself collaborating with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna.

But as quickly as that attention materialized, it disappeared. Just before the millennium, after a couple of albums and a pair of EPs, Columbia cut Rasputina loose. Creager was pregnant with her first child and wondered if she could keep making music. "I found I still had to make music," she recalls. "I just had to do this, no matter if I have a record contract or have an audience."

She retreated to the indies and forged on, releasing a pair of albums for Instinct, 2002's industrial-tinged Cabin Fever and 2004's swampy, Southern-fried Frustration Plantation, before striking out on her own with 2007's Dubya-informed political operetta, Oh Perilous World. Creager's a history buff. Most of her songs are keyed to historical events and eras, and often offer some kind of commentary or historical context on present-day issues and attitudes. These range from dark meditations on "The Donner Party" to "Girls' School," which surveys 19th-century educational approaches, and the pretty feral-children ode, "Snow-Hen of Austerlitz," off last year's Sister Kinderhook, a collection of songs informed by the history of the place she now lives, Hudson Valley.

When the band began playing in the early '90s, there was nothing else like their chamber-goth, and Creager's success inspired similarly spirited artists such as The Dresden Dolls and Emilie Autumn, who now enjoy an even greater profile. Creager can't help but betray a little regret. "It feels great to have influenced people or have inspired them," she says. "But it seems like sometimes people who are influenced by me might be more successful, and that makes me feel sad."

And though Rasputina remains a sturdy touring act with a dedicated following, the band hasn't quite been able to break back through since parting with Columbia. Part of that's due to the double-edged sword of self-releasing, which lets artists keep more money from each album they sell, but doesn't give them much of a promotional support system. That's one of the reasons that the lineup has mutated nearly as much as the music from album to album. More than a dozen cellists have joined Creager's ranks over the years, some just passing fancies, others sticking around for several years.

"It's not that lucrative, and it seems very fun at first," she says. "I need really talented people, and those are people that have their own stuff going on, so eventually when they have some experience under their belt with me, they'll want to go off and do their own thing."

That's what makes Creager very thankful these days to be working with cellist Daniel de Jesus (Rasputina's first male cellist) and drummer Dawn Miceli. Both are big fans of the band, in it for the joy of it. Some may know ex-Wisconsin resident Miceli from her wife-husband podcast, "The Dawn and Drew Show." Miceli asked to use Creager's music on their show, ended up interviewing her, and finally set about filming a documentary on the band, Under the Corset. She was so taken by the project that when the opportunity was presented to join the band, she jumped at it.

"Dawn and Daniel both come at it from being intense fans that just know all the songs and listening to the recordings so much, so that's a great head start," Creager says.

For all her struggles as an independent musician, Creager's happy with the career she's built. She's taken chances and followed her muse all the way. True to form, it's still leading her in new directions—at times on Sister Kinderhook, even toward happiness, a subject that's largely been absent from her songs.

"When I was younger, I was embarrassed to express positive things, happy things like love," she says. "I've gotten older and wiser, and fortunately I've gotten happier, too. It's a good challenge creatively to express happier things. It's not easy. It's still kind of embarrassing, but I'm trying."

Rasputina plays Shank Hall with Smoke Fairies on Sunday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m.

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