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Serena Jost Simplifies With ‘Up To The Sky’

Serena Jost’s Up To The Sky finds the New York City-based cellist working in a new environment and without a band. Having completed two LPs with a full group, this time she set up shop in St. Peter’s Church, not far from her home. The result is a collection of composed and improvised pieces that marry her distinctive playing style with her otherworldly voice.

The recording appeals to fans of experimental popular music and those more comfortable in the classical realm. The material carries listeners through a variety of moods and settings that capture Jost at her most unadorned.

The classically-trained musician says that she may undertake more projects of this kind in the future and that the fast pace of the sessions and the room itself made for a memorable experience.

Jedd Beaudoin: You used something of an unconventional space to record this new album.

Serena Jost: I had made several records with my band and I loved doing that but I think we got to the point where we were scouring everything in the studio. I wanted to do something that was totally raw and unfiltered. I want to take a chance and do it by myself. Then I thought, “What if it’s not a commercial space or even a typical setting?” I went all over New York City looking at different churches and synagogues. I even went to New Jersey. Then I found a church about five blocks away from my house.

You can imagine someone letting me in with their big key ring. I went in and sang for a minute and thought, “Oh my God, this is it.”

What’s the audition process for a room like that?

It has to feel right. Some religious spaces can have a really good feeling and some of them can feel kind of heavy. I just wanted something that had a sense of possibility to it. The sound of the room definitely influenced me but after I chose it I found out that a lot of musicians record there.

How much of the material did you have before you went in to record?

About half the record is improvisatory pieces. I had songs that I had written and that I knew I could sing with the cello and it would hold up. Sometimes, when I’m playing with a band I might be doing sort of an ornament on the cello, so I knew that these were real cello songs. On the second day of recording I got really inspired because once I got in the space I could feel something like the presence of all the people who had been there 1838 when it was built.

I don’t know about ghosts but I kind of felt like there was this congregation of invisible people. I got inspired and just started improvising. My engineer, Adam Gold, was on it, so he captured it. So that was totally unplanned.

Had you done a lot of improvisation to that point in your career?

When I was a sideman, I would take a solo here and there. I learned how to do that. I had a short-lived thing playing some jazz where I realized that if I got into jazz improvisation was going to be my whole life, like 10 years of learning. [Laughs.] I guess as a kid I improvised when I was with my family. We would play trios or quartets, my brothers and my father. The bassline was sometimes kind of straightforward, so I would get bored and start creating another line within the quartet. So, I think I was always hearing something.

I guess the improvisations on the recording were really inspired by the space. Instead of trying to execute something to see what happens, you follow your impulse and you’re intuition. You’re kind of in the dark. When I think of improvisation that’s what I think of: Making friends with the dark, just getting in there and seeing what’s there.

I’m a really big believer in certain spaces being more conducive to creativity than others. You’re probably been in spaces where you walk in and now right away that it’s dead.

Completely. For me, sometimes, if it’s too polished, too fancy, I feel kind of trapped by that. I like a comfortable place for recording. Sometimes it’s an intangible thing. It’ funny, I guess we leave our marks on certain spaces. Sometimes you just go into a club and it feels amazing. There’s always possibility for magic if you’re open to it.

Did you record this album over a long period of time or was it a matter of days?

We did it in two days. It was right around the Fourth of July. Since we live in New York City there were some fighter jets that passed overhead. We didn’t use that take, so that’s OK too. The big job came with the mix. We had eight microphones going while we recorded: Vocals, cello, some back in the pews. We really had to get the right blend with those microphones so that we could get as close as possible to the original experience. Chris Butler, who did the mix, is really incredible.

Now that you’ve done this record in this manner do you think you’ll undertake more projects like this or do you think that doing so would minimize the specialness of this?

I have this idea of traveling and recording. I’d have to figure out a live rig for this but I thought it would be cool to play either at churches or just spaces of congregation, whatever that means. It might be fun to make a location-based recording. I could go to England or Switzerland, where my family is from. There are these incredible little chapels up in the mountains. That would be kind of amazing. I have no idea what would happen but it would be really exciting.

Or I could go back into the studio and make a pop record! [Laughs.]

Which came first for you, the singing or the instrument?

I definitely remember singing in elementary school. I started playing cello in the fourth grade in a public music school program. I was really captivated by that and I think that was maybe a little stronger for a few years. Then, in high school, I was singing a little bit in the choir. But doing both of them at home together, I feel so at home and gratified by that combination.

Your voice and the instrument complement each other nicely.

Thank you. I think they learned from each other. When you play the cello, part of the instrument touches your sternum. That’s one of the places inside your body that you’re singing from. There’s a join there or something.

It’s an instrument that’s a considerable presence.

I feel like I have an umbilical cord with my cello. It’s like if I leave it at home or something I can’t stop thinking about it. They’re very vulnerable. Inevitably, if you ask someone to watch yours or something, it crashes to the ground. I’ve just learned to keep it with me. My dog is very smart. She understands that it’s a cello from 1910 and that she shouldn’t get close it.

You got that cello under some interesting circumstance.

My family would go up north to Atwood, Michigan, which is by Torch Lake. We rented a cabin there from a family, the Smiths. We would play for them at an end of a week or two, give them a little concert. The older Mr. Smith said he had a cello down in his basement. We went down there and it was there in a brown-green blanket.

We got it and had it brought up to snuff by a maker in Chicago, Kenneth Warren. It’s been mine ever since. If you have a cello that’s been dormant for a while it’s like the sound isn’t released and the more you play it, the wood sort of lines up and it starts to sound better and better. I feel like I grew with my cello.

I feel like some walls have come down in recent years between the rock and classical world, or peoples’ conceptions of them. I think that when I was a teenager going to see someone perform an evening of music on cello would have probably involved some sort of vetting process.

I know. It’s absurd. Good music is good music. I think openness and attentiveness are the most valuable things in a listener. I love singing and when I’m doing that sometimes I feel like it’s not just me, it’s me connecting in this broader space that the audience is connecting into too. We’re creating this thing together. The audience and the performer are collaborators.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.