From Dirty Linen #122 (Feb/Mar 2006)
by Pamela Murray Winters
"I'm purposely giving my CD away to people I know have nothing to do with folk music,” said Lisa Moscatiello of her latest release, Trouble From the Start. “Like security guards at the Library of Congress.”
That’s where the singer has her day job. Her better-known career, her musical vocation — like that institution — speaks volumes about her diverse endeavors. When she was starting out as a teenager, she built a reputation in the Washington, D.C., area as a Celtic trad singer. Then she joined the folk-rock group the New St. George. Not too shocking so far — but next she launched a solo career, with an album that contained both the traditional “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle” and Morrissey’s “Driving Your Girlfriend Home.” She brought the B-52s’ “Revolution Earth” to the world-music band Whirligig. She subbed for Susan McKeown in Johnny Cunningham’s theatrical piece, Peter and Wendy.
Not enough variety for you? Try her move into the techno world with vocals on the recordings of Bev Stanton, a.k.a. Arthur Loves Plastic — including that languid alto rubbing up against a jitters-inducing electronic tempo on a version of Sandy Denny’s “By the Time It Gets Dark.”
For years a staunch singer-not-songwriter, Moscatiello began writing with then-girlfriend Stanton. Then she turned around and made a fairly straightforward folk-duo recording with fiddler Rosie Shipley. And now, the genre she calls “acid cabaret.”
“I have fights with my manager over whether to send it to folk or jazz stations,” she says of the eclectic Trouble, released in September 2005. “So if I have to drop it out of airplanes like MREs….”
Those who catch her CARE packages will encounter a number of songs that were originally done by Arthur Loves Plastic. (Of working again with Stanton, Moscatiello said, “We were always like best friends. We’ve never been afraid to tell each other that something sucks…We look forward to seeing each other and working together.” And, since the breakup, she laughed, it’s a lot easier to work together.) In an unusual approach, Moscatiello’s band, whimsically dubbed the Space Dots after Kennedy Space Center’s “ice cream of the future,” performed songs that Stanton had originally created on her computer.
Take, for example, Stanton’s melancholy yet hopeful “New Year’s.” “This was actually one of the really challenging ones,” Moscatiello recalled. “It was hard to get the right feel for it…Marco [Delmar], the producer, kept saying that this is a really good song, this has a great hook, and it’s really important.”
In the studio, “we played it to Bev’s electronic drums. Robbie [Magruder] actually played exactly what those drums did. We found the right tempo — ’cause that’s the tempo that she wrote it for — but I actually had Robbie come in and do something that’s really hard for a drummer to do. It’s hard for a drummer to play drums over music that’s already been done. But because Robbie is such a pro, he just came in, and he did another track that just has a lot more humanity, a lot more personality to it.”
Moscatiello has high praise for the Space Dots, particularly Magruder, who’s best known for his work with Mary Chapin Carpenter. “I wanted [the band] to be a hybrid. I knew I didn’t want a jazz guitarist.” Enter Erik Wenberg, former lead guitarist of the rock band emmet swimming, whom Moscatiello praises for his “juicy, hooky guitar lines.” Her bassist, Jon Nazdin, and keyboardist, Harry Appleman, are “more jazzy.” And the resulting music is hard to define —“acid cabaret” comes close — but it’s easy to enjoy.
Moscatiello laughed about a student booker for a recent college show who said: “I actually like your music!” Backhanded compliment aside, the former wunderkind from Takoma Park, Maryland, now in her late 30s, is coming to enjoy younger audiences. “I’m not what’s current and hip that they’re listening to, but that’s okay. I’m old enough now that I’m not intimidated by people that age. A lot of kids that age, their parents listen to interesting music.
“I’ve heard that there’s a rebellion against what they’re fed by big corporations,” she noted. Count folk among other “indie” musics: “I think there are people who would enjoy folk, but they think it’s gonna be boring.”
To dissuade that crowd, Trouble offers a rich, heart-rending version of Polly Bolton’s “Exile,” a song Moscatiello last sang in the tumultuous final days of the New St. George in the 1990s. It represents a coming-to-terms, of sorts: The group played a delightful reunion show in 2004, and Moscatiello sometimes sings with NSG bandleader Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra. She also goes out as a duo with cellist Fred Lieder and sings at holiday time with musicians from Maggie Sansone’s Maggie’s Music label… After all, why be tied down?
Moscatiello has no trouble finding the common thread in the music she likes. “I went through this period where I listened to this Loretta Lynn greatest-hits album for like an entire year. She did so much with so little.
“I was drawn to traditional folk music because it was really simple and to the point.” But it’s also mysterious: “All those British folk ballads, you can read whatever you want in it. Rosie [Shipley] and I did a song called ‘Here’s a Health to All True Lovers’: ‘The cocks are crowing/ But we are servants, and I must away.’ What does it mean? ‘Servants’ to mortality?” Then she notes the economy of pop music: “ ‘You can’t hurry love/ You just have to wait’—You can just project your own imagination onto [those words].”
About Stanton’s work, she said: “A lot of techno music is kind of vibe-oriented and ambient. She does her share of that. But she grew up listening to Shirley Bassey and the Fifth Dimension.” Moscatiello calls such music a “rapier-like musical statement — not necessarily with poetic lyrics. It’s poetic in a different way. It’s like haiku.” (What she doesn’t like: the sort of fare Stanton calls “psycho-babble set to music.”)
Simplicity and directness are becoming more and more important to Moscatiello. She’s recently become more open about being a gay woman, for example. And one of her biggest struggles is with the sort of “enforced listening” we in the music business fall prey to: Sometimes, she admitted, “I can’t tell if I like something.”
“I listen to things I enjoyed when I was a child, because I don’t have that judgmental attitude toward it. I like to let myself loose and do what I want.”
Pondering her rebellious nature, she emitted a rich chuckle. “I should be listening to the current crop of singer/songwriters, but I’d rather listen to Emerson Lake & Palmer!”