|Rost and Agner practicing to record Violet Cusp, Lori Citro photo|
Last week a new album landed in my lap. It’s by Madison pianist Nancy Rost and Washington, D.C. – based bass player Eric Agner, and title is Violet Cusp. That sounds a lot like the hippie album titles of my youth, and there’s some of that feel in its six original tunes. I rarely write about records any more – the blogosphere ain’t what it used to be – but, full disclosure, Rost, who works out of Madison Music Foundry, is my piano teacher. I started playing again after 60 years, and her intuition for what I need to learn – and what songs I should be playing to learn it – has been absolutely spot-on. So I figured I’d give her EP a spin.
In a nutshell, Rost and Agner co-wrote, play, and sing lead on all of Violet Cusp’s six tracks; they’re joined by a slate of Baltimore and Madison musicians (details online), and a lot of the exchange took place across the 850 miles separating the nation’s capital from Wisconsin’s.
You can’t pin a genre on this disc. The title track echoes its hippie name – “the guitar part on that tune has a Byrds vibe,” Rost says. “Give You Everything” is folk-rocky, with Bob Dylan-esque vocals. There’s jazzy keyboard work from Rost on “If You Knew Me,” which has gospel undertones; “Ship that Sailed” is a nicely turned, bossa-leaning piece with haunting lyrics; “See You Again” is straight-up soul with a hint of New Orleans and a rhythm that reminds me a lot of Rufus Thomas’s 1965 R&B hit “Walking the Dog.”
Because arts journalism is so meager in this town – and because to grow the arts in Madison, local artists need more exposure than they usually get – I sat down with Rost to get the scoop on Violet Cusp.
CulturalOyster: How did you hook up with a bass player in DC to make an album?
Rost: Eric’s been in music a long time. He plays in several Baltimore bands including one called The Racket – they’re very active there, and he’s also made a couple of songwriter albums under his own name. We met through the February album writing challenge online – it’s an online community where people write fourteen songs in 28 days – on leap years, fourteen and a half! In 2008 that half was a collaboration I did with Eric and we really liked that first thing we did so we kept writing together although we didn’t meet till three years later. Over time we built up a body of work and finally decided it would be a good idea to make an EP.
CulturalOyster: What’s the process been like?
Rost: Songwriting is what really brings it together. When we first started he gave me lyrics he didn’t know what to do with, stuff he was writing on his own – rootsy folk rock he wrote for guitar – and I was giving him tunes that had more jazz to them. But the elements I brought fit what he was writing. We write in different ways but everything we did for this album began with his lyrics and my music, though in the process we added each other’s work, too.
CulturalOyster: Why did you name the album for the third track?
Rost: Honestly, it was the most interesting title. It has a nostalgic feel and the song has a lot of nostalgia – we’re both in our 50s and we like the music of our youth – a lot of that comes out in the music we make. The story behind it is that I had written a song called “Moonless” that had a line about the indigo cusp of July. Eric liked that and he thought I could write a whole song based on that line. So later, when we were working on new songs for the album I said why don’t we write Indigo Cusp, but it just came out Violet.
CulturalOyster: What was the hardest part about putting the album together?
Rost: Working long distance had its challenges. We met in Washington to lay down the basic tracks, with Baltimore musicians – we had a couple of days to rehearse and one to record – a twelve hour session. It was very concentrated and tiring, but also very exciting. And then Eric and I both did overdubs from home – I did some by myself and some with Kenny Koeppler at Sound Garden on Atwood. So there are some Madison musicians on the album – Elise Nims, who helps run the Foundry and who’s played in symphony orchestras around the state, plays oboe on one track, and there are Madison-based backup singers on several tracks –Bootsy La Vox, who fronts a David Bowie tribute band, and John Crossman works with me in our acoustic trio Two Johns and a Nancy, and Stephen Lee Rich, who used to be known as a yodeling cowboy.
To make everything work we had to learn to communicate about music with words – and it can be easy to misinterpret. The song “See You Again” has a call-and-response chorus at the end – I tried to explain in words where it needed to go and it got put in the wrong place. It took five or six passes to get everything the way we wanted it, but we just talked and emailed all the time and despite all the complications the sound is really cohesive.
CulturalOyster: What’s the future of the Rost/Agner collaboration?
Rost: I know we’ll continue to collaborate – there’s more to come, but it’s open-ended right now. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.
__________________________________ interview by SK
__________________________________ interview by SK