DC-area cellist Natalie Spehar is already familiar to you all because she’d appeared previously on here with cello-metal band Primitivity. We will get into that and her other projects. In the meantime, Natalie sat down with us via Skype and explained her background, and how she is so well-versed with multi-genres.
“I have an interesting upbringing. I have a bunch of musicians in my family, mainly rock musicians. I was in the studio at age four singing on children’s albums and things where family members could fit me into recording projects. My mom used to sing backup for a children’s singer that toured around a little bit, so I would go to concerts and watch her sing. My dad plays accordion, and is a trained classical singer, and I had an uncle that I was really close with–Jack Chesterfield, who was a brilliant rock musician, and I spent just hours with him in his basement listening to Gentle Giant and a bunch of great 70’s and 80’s rock. He had a recording studio, so I also spent a lot of time around there, and then when I was old enough and playing cello, I was roped into playing on some projects that happened in his studio, so I’ve always been around music. I played piano between 4-16, and then when I was about 10 I picked up the cello. I was really excited when the high school orchestra came to play for the elementary school, and I just immediately fell in love with the cello, and asked one of the cellists if I could try the instrument out, and then went home and informed my Mom that I needed a cello right away to start lessons! I started classical training as well, and I was fortunate enough to live 45 minutes away from Cleveland, so, I was able to take part in things like the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, and a lot of serious endeavors for young musicians in that area, and I studied with some Cleveland Orchestra members. I had a classical upbringing, but always still had rock and folk projects. I was also thrown into a folk christian group when I was 11, which was where I started improvising, because I was literally just thrown in and I was expected to play along. That was good practice too!”.
Ravel: Cello Sonata (II: Tres vif; w/Francis Liu, violin; Canton, OH 12/17/11)
With the strict guidelines music teachers have in the classical world vs. the more liberating atmosphere of basically any other genre, I wondered if this presented Natalie with any issues from her instructors about her work ethic. “I’ve certainly had some teachers that were not interested in hearing my rock and contemporary projects at all, and I had one teacher that actually told me I have to be careful because if I play a lot of rock music, that I’d pick up bad habits, meaning it would make me not play properly, which now I know is not true if you’ve been educated otherwise. I feel like all the different kinds of music only enhances each other’s performances. I’ve had a lot of wonderful influences in the classical world, and I’ve been able to take the best of each teacher and put it together in a way that’s really helped me to become my own teacher and problem solve, which is kind of the whole point of studying anyway. I can use the same practice techniques from classical for both folk and rock music as well, because there are a lot of really intricate things like high-speed fingering and bowing patterns that have to be done, especially in metal and also in folk and bluegrass. It pays to know how to practice!
It sounds like an overwhelming amount of things, but I only do what I’m great at. I have a bunch of these influences, but they all really come together especially in my contemporary playing. I feel like it mostly uses a lot of the rock and folk lingo that I’ve used before, and certainly has classical playing involved, but I do feel like I have a pretty consistent personal sound, which is exciting that I’m able to incorporate all of those influences into my own thing, but there’s something for every mood, I guess, so there’s always something to look forward to!”
Does that mean she saves Primitivity for when she’s pissed-off?
“Actually, no! That’s like very joyful music for me! To play metal! [both laughing] Basically, Primitivity has had a couple of lineups, but mostly with symphony musicians that didn’t have time, like a freelancer would, to donate a lot of effort and time to the project, so Loren was hoping to kick it off again, and had a jam session or two with Devree before, and played with Robbie before. People became hip to the fact that I was really into rock and I had done that thing before, and I had studio recording gigs set up immediately upon moving here, and I kind of eased into this area of rock. Either Loren or Devree asked to come over and have a jam session because they were hoping to read through some older arrangements of songs by Primitivity, and it just took off from there.”
Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin cover by Primitivity; Takoma Park Folk Festival 2012)
“I know a lot of musicians that can play another genre well–It’s like growing up around someone with an accent. It’s less often that you play with someone and you feel like they’ve just known that kind of music they’re whole life. And you can study the accent, especially if you’re listening. That’s what a lot of jazz players do, listen to a bunch of records, and try to imitate things, and it starts to open their ears up, but I don’t know that a lot of classical musicians have really taken the time to sit and treat other genres that way. I think a lot of classical musicians that play rock think it’s really cool and it’s a fun outlet for energy, but I don’t know that they all have that accent developed. And bluegrass and folk actually are sort of jazzy, I find, from a theory standpoint, there is a lot of similar stuff going on, especially in bluegrass. But folk, for me, has crossed over into pop-folk alternative rock artists too.”
But apart from Primitivity and the occasional recitals and concerto performances that she does do from time to time, Natalie’s main gig is Great Noise Ensemble, with whom she is playing at Symphony Space in NYC on April 16th and premiering a work by ETHEL’s Cornelius Dufallo (soloist for the work as well) and other new works by composers such as Alexandra Gardner and Mark Mellits.
The other outfits she has are the contemporary duo Élan (with saxophonist Doug O’Connor), and the Low End String Quartet (3 members of Great Noise and a guitarist), and with this group she has two great premieres in VA on April 14th. “We’re premiering works of Zoe Keating and Sarah Lipstate. Zoe’s premiere is really exciting for us, because this is the only piece she’s written that hasn’t been for herself, so she’s writing my quartet. This is the first time she’s written for other musicians. We’re not too far off from what she does anyway. The Low End String Quartet is amplified cello, violin, upright bass and guitar. So, we have effects too. I think it’ll be a good transition for her because we can accomplish what she does, and also because it will be really neat to see how she uses that instrumentation. I’m expecting a workout for the cello!
I have pieces picked out that are special to me, most which have been written for me, that I’m starting to record for a solo contemporary album, that’ll be a 5-piece thing, so that is in the works, but that is pushed back because I have such a busy chunk of the season right now, but I’m hoping to wrap that up sometime in the fall.”
Orie Sato: Unbekannterweise for solo cello (5/9/10)
Natalie is also working on an indie singer-songwriter CD (it’s currently titled Broken Logic), and you can actually hear one of the songs on her webpage (It’s a piano ballad titled “Cold”) Along with the vocals and piano she is “…sticking in some cello playing, I also have an upright bass player on a track, so I’m just sort of making a record of a bunch of alternate pop-rock songs before I forget them all. That’s just something I’ve always kind of done in my free-time, I have a notebook, and I’ll be inspired to write something once in a while. I’ve been working with my cousin, who is a really gifted singer-songwriter and guitar player, and he’s kind of taken over the studio that was my uncle’s studio, so, that’s where it’s being recorded, and I do it in snippets each time I visit Ohio. I have a few tracks sitting there and we just need to finish it and get it out.”
Natalie’s official website