Rachel Grimes knew how to play the piano before she learned to walk.
“My dad and grandmother played, so I was always sitting beside them following along, watching and listening in wonder at how they could make that magic,” the composer/pianist told me recently from the home she and her husband, educator Alec Johnson, share in the rustic countryside north of Louisville. “I took piano lessons, but mostly played by ear, movie and TV themes. I got a little more serious about classical music in middle school, though I was never interested in competitions. When I was 15, I was working part-time in the record department of a book-store and joined a rock band formed by the music department manager.”
A decade later, in the mid ‘90s, Grimes gained wide-spread notoriety beyond her native Louisville by fronting a ground-breaking chamber ensemble that bore her name but was minted without her in mind. She’s been busy ever since, and now plans to release her second solo outing, a collection of chamber ensemble and piano music tentatively titled The Clearing, in May 2015.
Rachel’s first, though. The group — which founders/core members Jason Noble and Christian Frederickson named after a cassette recording, Rachel’s Halo, they circulated among friends as a holiday gift in 1991 — easily could lay claim to inventing or, if not, perfecting avant-classical, the expansive genre born from seemingly disparate strands of indie-rock, Impressionist harmonic language, jazz composition, avant-garde textures, and the cinematic scope of film scores. The music was delicate but bold, towing the lines of various genres’ scope and idioms while somehow dancing between raindrops, never settling on the dusty cobwebs of tired forms or formulas. The members went on an indefinite hiatus in the summer of 2006, after releasing roughly a half-dozen records through Quarterstick Records and leaving behind a breadcrumb trail for others to follow. Grimes’ piano was central to the sound.
If Rachel’s never existed, it is difficult to imagine dozens of other ensembles, in the U.S. and abroad, blending electronics or rock-oriented guitar chords with strings and classical themes — not to mention the composition-minded leanings of more mainstream artists like Bryce Dessner, the Cincinnati-bred, Brooklyn-based composer who plays guitar in Clogs and The National, and whose work was recently recorded by none other than Kronos Quartet.
“Without her and [Rachel’s], artists like Max Richter, Johann Johannsson and even Sigur Ros would not have found such a wide and receptive audience,” BBC’s Spencer Grady said in 2009.
“I really enjoy that there are ripples – more solo pianists, some going toward synth, others towards ambient, more and more string players really messing with their sound,” Grimes mused. “And then more people [are] digging deeper into the romantic notion of written chamber music, ensemble playing, to be experienced live.”
Now, Grimes is back. But she never went anywhere.
Grimes’s first solo piano record, Book of Leaves, was written at a remote, circa-1810 Kentucky monastery and appeared in 2009, three years after her ensemble, Rachel’s, quietly went dormant. It was at times plaintive, at times shimmering, but always a compilation of tender storytelling.
The record was far from her only foray back into classical composition. Grimes wrote three ensemble pieces to score the silent 35mm film Our Day, which Wallace Kelly shot in Kentucky in 1938, and premiered the works in Catania, Sicily in December 2011 with Orchestra Kandinskij of Palermo. She wrote orchestral variations, dubbed Last 100 Yards, as the soundtrack created for Donna Lawrence Productions for a a National Infantry Museum multimedia presentation covering seven American wars. In 2012, she worked again with SITI Company — the theatre company for whom Rachel’s recorded a 2003 opus, Systems/Layers — on Café Variations, arrangements of George and Ira Gershwin’s songs.
Recently, Portland Cello Project commissioned her to write an Elliott Smith-inspired composition for a tribute LP it was recording. The record, to e.s., came out via Virtual Label earlier this month, with Grimes’ “For The Next Time” closing the proceedings.
“I think [Grimes’ song] creates the most wonderful farewell to the album,” Doug Jenkins, the ensemble’s founder and principal arranger, said to me. “It’s perfect, the melancholy that makes you want to rewind and start again.”
When Grimes was not writing or recording, she toured, gaining her first New York Times coverage for a Le Poisson Rouge show in New York City in 2009, and performing her Our Day score, which she titled Marion County 1938, in Taiwan with the ensemble Cicada in October.
Those only following Grimes’ discography in the years since Technology Is Killing Music, a limited-run EP that became Rachel’s final physical release in 2005, also didn’t have to look far.
On If Then Not When, the 2011 LP by her homespun Louisville post-rock group King’s Daughters & Sons, Grimes provided honey-sweet harmonies and alto-tinged backing vocals, as well as piano that served, alternately, as a kind of rhythm and lead guitar, supplementing Michael Heineman’s and Joe Manning’s fragile acoustics and more propulsive figures. Last year, she also appeared on piano on the new-age-inflected debut LP from WATTER, drummer Britt Walford’s first band outing since the early- to mid-90s heyday of Slint and Evergreen.
The newest recruit to work alongside Grimes? The Vancouver-based ambient sound structuralist Scott Morgan, who records under the moniker Loscil, is set to appear on six songs, known colloquially as “The Airs” cycle, on Grimes’ forthcoming record.
“I’ve got one leg in the producer camp, adding color and texture to some of her recordings, but that’s not the right word for my contribution,” Morgan told me, in an e-mail that hit my inbox around the time Kranky released Loscil’s excellent Sea Island LP in November. ”I like to think of myself as working like a matte painter in a classic Hollywood movie picture. I provide some background, some color, perhaps some depth.”
Grimes said the duo’s collaboration on “The Airs” started last summer, when she wrote a short modal theme for solo violin, and then added piano and string accompaniment.
“The idea was to provide a setting for the album’s various pieces that had its own connective tissue, a sound quality and mode of its own, symbolizing the air and sky,” Grimes said. “I went to the studio and recorded the basic violin solos, several tones and sounds to create sound beds with, recorded some piano and strings at home, and sent Scott the initial basic mixes with notes for what I hoped would take shape. We had a really delightful back and forth over the next few months, sharing ideas, and mix versions of the pieces until things really felt right.”
Despite the Internet Age sophistication of her collaborations with musicians like Morgan, Grimes exudes a calming, almost otherworldly or other-timely air that seems to fit nicely around the bucolic Kentucky woods she now calls home. Serenity and the persistence to find it, even amid the deafening sprawl of urbanity, are themes one can imagine as narratives to her best work, which calls to mind the chordal melodies of Debussy and the gauzy meditations of Satie.
Grimes looks the part. She stands five-foot-eight, slightly tall for an American woman born in Generation X, but is unassuming, even muted. She speaks without a Kentucky accent (aside from the cornerstone pronunciation of Louisville as “Lull-ville”) and has porcelain-fair skin, piercing blue eyes and striking, shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, often pulled back, that cuts through winter doldrums. When she is photographed, she infrequently looks right into the camera, and often appears engaged but somehow removed from it all, the pose of someone daydreaming or taking solace, like the refuge of a warm blanket on a cold day, in a distant thought.
“By exploring her music, I find quietness and peace, a way to escape noise and to heal, while simultaneously experiencing and appreciating a huge spectrum of emotions,” said Carissa Stolting, Grimes’ business partner, who manages a small but eclectic circle of musicians from her home base in Tennessee. “[Her] most influential impact will be reminding listeners it feels good to lose the self into something much bigger and more beautiful.”
Grimes’ modus operandi was not always “much bigger and more beautiful.”
This next part of the story started in 1985.
In Lemonade Hayride, Grimes’ aforementioned first band, comradery – and the energy it produced in a garage or on the stage of a local club – trumped tone. It also reflected the feeling of being on the outskirts of everything; Grimes trekked from Louisville to the small town of LaGrange, Ky. to take part in practice sessions and rehearsals with a fun-loving trio of older guys – Eric Stoess on guitar, Don Kaufman on drums, and Tim Barnett on vocals – who already were pretty tight-knit, even insular, both musically and socially.
“We had been close friends since kindergarten, and in a farm-based community like LaGrange, at that time, with a population of 2,000 or so, our interest in movies, music, books, et cetera, created a bond that was nurtured in a fairly eccentric community. We were happy and proud to be outsiders of any Louisville scene,” Stoess said. “Rachel was the little sister who made our gang complete. It was rare that an outsider could be brought into a group that had grown up together, knew the references, and had no regard for how we were perceived, accepted or appreciated outside of our little universe. Rachel was rare because she was such an organic and natural fit.”
“She made us better and was easily the most mature member and musician in the band, despite her youth,” Barnett, the band’s singer, said recently. “Dedication and discipline are tired adjectives, but cannot be ignored.”
Grimes’ weapon of choice in those days was the bass guitar.
“These years for me were learning what it is to be in a band – a very delicate, always shifting balance of personal goals and expectations, with those of others, along with the real-world balance of process, money, and schedule,” Grimes told me.
Even then, Grimes’ talents were clear. While playing in the band and its successor, Hula Hoop, Grimes was becoming more adventuresome as she studied – and later graduated with a degree in – music at the University of Louisville.
“I’m certainly not surprised by her arc or what she’s accomplished,” Stoess said. “In hindsight, the path seems obvious, natural, and deserved.”
It is now the second year of the 1990s. We are in Baltimore. Enter Jason Noble and Christian Fredrickson.
“We started working on what would become Rachel’s in the spring of 1991, after Jason saw me play a viola recital. He mentioned that he had an idea for a song that would sound good with strings, and I responded that I knew a lot of string players. We did a session with Tony French at his Hat Factory loft studio, for which Jason traded a painting, and that song was the seed for Halo. It’s also called ‘Seratonin’ on Handwriting, without the vocals Jason originally sang for it,” Frederickson said. “[By 1994] Jason had been doing a lot with Rodan, and also working on some new music with Rachel. I vaguely remember rehearsing ‘M. DaGuerre,’ probably at [Grimes’] house on Frankfort Avenue, before we recorded it in Chicago. Or at least it seems like that’s something we would have done.”
In 1994, Noble passed a Rachel’s demo to Corey Rusk, owner of Touch & Go Records and Quarterstick Records. The two were working toward the release of Rodan’s Rusty, its first and, sadly, last record for Quarterstick, and getting into hours-long conversations about music.
“Up to that point, he had never mentioned Rachel’s because Quarterstick and Touch and Go were seen largely as ‘rock’ labels and he didn’t think I’d be interested. He had no idea that my musical tastes were much more diverse than the roster of my labels would seem to indicate,” said Rusk, from the headquarters of his Chicago-based labels. “We released Handwriting out of love of the music and love of the people involved, but honestly, in 1995 I had no idea what sort of demand there would be for it.
“After Handwriting was released, we were thrilled at the response,” Rusk told me. “The popularity of Rachel’s steadily grew almost from the start. Handwriting was one of those rare releases in which the timing of a brilliant album was perfectly in sync with the yet-to-be realized desires of a certain type of listeners.”
Rachel’s debuted live, around the time Handwriting was released, on July 27, 1995 at Bop Shop in Chicago. By the end of the year, the ensemble, centered around Grimes, Noble and Frederickson, had toured four states and Washington, D.C., and had appeared alongside such indie-rock acts as Parlour, Trans Am, Rex and June of 44.
The band — and Grimes — was not without preconceptions. First, there was Louisville, which, by the mid-90s, had heralded two waves of punk and post-punk, producing Babylon Dance Band, who appeared on the cover of Village Voice, the virtuosic and widely celebrated Slint record Spiderland, and a host of prolific and engaging musicians from Your Food, No Fun and Malignant Growth to Squirrel Bait, Languid & Flaccid and Maurice. Grimes said it’s fair to admit she and musicians like Noble, who had achieved his own degree of fame outside Louisville with Rodan, were aware of what had come before them — and what was going on around them.
Then, to top it off, there was the weight of classical music, which comes loaded with its own celebrated histories, weighty critical readings, and preconceived notions.
“I have always said that it seems pointless to write piano music after Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy,” Grimes lamented. ”But, then, they each tried it, so we must keep forging ahead with our own voice.”
That “voice” was unique to Rachel’s but one that was shared among its members, Fredrickson, a Juilliard graduate, said.
“Rachel and I could connect very quickly and easily because of our training. We could both read music, knew a fair amount of music theory, and could hand each other written parts as a starting point for what we would play,” he told me from New York, where he now writes music and manages sound design for off-Broadway plays and Downtown contemporary dance. “The one interesting exception, in the early days, was the song ‘Frida Kahlo.’ The first half of the song is an idea I had, which I played for Jason at some point. He later played what he remembered for Rachel and she added the second half, making a whole song out of the beginning of an idea. It was kind of like a musical game of telephone.”
Grimes also contributed to one or more “sequence flowcharts,” part of the ephemera that any dedicated Rachel’s fan would die to collect. On this long, horizontal roll of paper, the ensemble’s performers laid out visual diagrams of their songs, complete with Post-It notes, inspirational photos, inside jokes and evocative phrases.
Their songwriting, deepily emotive but not, to borrow a phrase from Gastr del Sol, “blues subtitled either no sense of wonder or no sense of scale,” reached for crescendos as well as slow, simmering moments on such LPs as the Pablo Neruda-influenced The Sea and the Bells, and Selenography, as well as the illuminating Music For Egon Schiele. That last piece was written by Grimes to accompany a live theater/dance production on the short life and enduring work of Schiele, a 20th century Austrian artist; an LP of it later was recorded and then picked up for distribution by Quarterstick.
For anyone who’s ever lingered over Schiele’s psychologically charged paintings, Grimes’ music was dead to rights, edgy but intensely organic and, foremost, human.
“Schiele’s work drew me in immediately because of its honesty and delicacy. I dug into each phase [of his life] through improvisation, both by myself at home, and also in rehearsals with the team and created some musical themes for each subject: family, love interests, outside-slash-community, personal work and development,” Grimes described to me. “These themes had key centers, or rhythmic ideas, or chord progressions that could be used in a variety of ways but would hopefully lend a thematic continuity to the piece as a whole.”
Working slowly and using tape recorders and pencil-and-paper to score the work, Grimes still was developing or changing some of the music when the show opened, and has yet to transpose every piano note. The result, however, was hailed by critics.
“At times, the emotionally rich compositions work as effectively as any ballet score to tell the artist’s tragic story,” Bret Love wrote for AllMusic. “It is to pianist Rachel Grimes’ credit that her pieces convey a stirring sense of drama and vivid imagery that perfectly match her subject. Highly recommended.”
Rachel’s, though, always was widely lauded.
Sputnik Music said they made “extremely emotional, carefully crafted, and downright gorgeous” music. Tiny Mix Tapes called the group’s debut “classical music for the rest of us.” PopMatters coined the band a “stunning chamber music collective.” The Wire’s Joseph Stannard called Grimes herself “one of American independent music’s few truly inspired technicians” – not praise to be taken lightly.
“Rachel and Jason both had a very infectious energy.” That’s Corey Rusk again. “They were hard working, relentlessly creative, and always fun to be around and work with.”
“Everyone gets to have a few transcendental moments like this in their life, and mine was made possible by Rachel’s,” Joe Tangari wrote in Pitchfork in 2003.
The record Tangari found “transcendental” was Systems/Layers, Rachel’s most abstract and – alongside Handwriting, its debut – perhaps fully realized effort. On the 19-song outing, songs and even elegiac asides sprout from found sounds and a non-diagetic musicality, and full-chamber orchestration lurks around unsuspecting bends. It’s as if we’re in the heads of the composers as much as we are hearing the score they have created, a musical and thematic Ouroboros.
On “Moscow Is In The Telephone,” the group toys with placing strings atop the exhalation of a drone, and on “And Keep Smiling,” they flirt over electronic whistling with an upright bass, a lurching drum line and, later, a tremulous solo for strings. On the more linear “Water From The Same Source,” a viola weeps over a quietly persistent piano measure, all driven by the titter-tatter of a high-hat, calling to mind Rachel’s epics like “Lloyd’s Register.” On “Last Things Last,” one of the group’s most devastating and resolved pieces, contributing musician Shannon Wright offers hushed, somewhat smoky vocals, a welcomed anomaly among the group’s largely instrumental output.
“I hope that last thing’s last, a hook or a flake,” Wright sings, her voice quivering, “to hold on so you don’t break.”
Each record has its stories. With Handwriting, for the noirish, jazz-after-midnight sound of the song “M. Daguerre,” the group enlisted Chicago new-music band The Coctails.
“[We] begged The Coctails to come bring all their instruments, upright bass, vibraphone, clarinets, so we could make that crazy ‘M. Daguerre’ sound. There were actually three bass players on that song,” Grimes laughed.
“And then there was the hand-made packaging that Jason [Noble] envisioned and made possible with the letterpress skills of John Upchurch and off-set press of Greg King,” Grimes continued. “The initial 20, 30 LPs actually had Jason’s handwriting in dark red-brown ink for the title instead of the letterpress, and, in preparing the ink, he cut his finger and, for Byronian effect, added a little blood to the jar.”
Noble was long one of Rachel’s muses, just as he served as a driving force for post-rockers Rodan and Shipping News, his solo art-rock/ambient project Per Mission, even his pastime as a visual artist, captured most memorably in the pseudo-docudrama Half Cocked. He died on Aug. 4, 2012, age 40, after a hard-fought three-year battle with cancer. He passed as a result of complications while undergoing treatment in a clinical trial, according to his Caring Bridge blog.
“Losing Jason and watching him struggle with the disease and its side effects was extremely painful for us all,” Grimes told me recently. “Death is a staggering force. It is direct and non-negotiable. Grief appears sometimes when I do not expect it, coming from the background into the foreground like a spear. I think about him every day, miss him greatly, and wish that this story were not so. It is just so unfair. I am reminded more than ever to be grateful for every minute and opportunity in this beautiful life.”
His loss was felt wide.
“Those Louisville bands made their own universe,” the Chapel Hill, N.C. band Superchunk said in a 2012 Twitter post, “and Jason was in the middle of it.”
Noble was diligent about making backup hard-drives of the many projects he juggled, even while not feeling well – lots of Per Mission pieces, Shipping News songs, and some Rachel’s material, according to Grimes. While future releases could be in the cards, Rachel’s does not intend to regroup or go on any sort of reunion without Noble, she said.
The sorting and sifting of Noble’s recordings, however, has led Grimes to cut and polish another facet of her solo career: archivist. And this is where we find her collaborating with the Louisville Underground Music Archive (LUMA) at the University of Louisville, whose mission is to document and preserve the region’s unique contributions to the world of indie rock, predominantly in the years spanning 1970 to 2000. To this end, Grimes serves as collection donor and advisor.
“Louisville’s music scenes was influential beyond the Ohio valley, making it an area of interest beyond our immediate community,” LUMA archivist Sarah-Jane Poindexter told me, in a recent e-mail.
“The Rachel’s collection includes materials that document their craft – how they wrote their songs, how they produced albums, how they interacted with their fans and one another, as well as the logistics and business of touring and sales,” Poindexter said. “It includes artwork, layouts for album packaging, recordings, photographs, correspondence, tour programs, et cetera.”
“[Grimes’] contributions to the LUMA advisory board have been significant but her work with us as a collection donor has been invaluable,” she added.
“I have been slowly re-organizing the Rachel’s materials, both things I had, and things Jason had at his home, and placing them into plastic bins for storage and archiving,” Grimes said a couple of weeks ago.
“This is the first of what will hopefully be several donations we make.”
Again, for Grimes and her listeners, the future appears bright.