Washington D.C.-based Lisa Moscatiello is something of a musical chameleon, with roots in folk and jazz, but a wide range of interests. A former lead singer for The New St. George, she now performs solo, with her own band, with the New York-based Whirligig, and occasionally with other performers like the Irish folk group Ellis Island and Celtic harpist Sue Richards. Recently she released two CDs -- a repackaged Second Avenue with several new songs and a live album with cellist Fred Lieder. She and her friend and colleague Bev Stanton perform together as the Space Dots and Lisa performs vocals for Bev's Arthur Loves Plastic as well.
I interviewed Lisa by telephone as she was driving her new car across the country to appear in Peter and Wendy at the La Jolla Playhouse. Every time she passed between mountains, our cell phones would disconnect and we would have to call each other back, so the conversation, like her route, was long and winding.
Are you going to Roswell on your trip?
I thought about going to Roswell, but I ended up going to the Y instead. I think I'm near Area 51. Maybe that's the cause of the static on the line.
I believe they're here, anyway, and I don't want to meet one!
Is that why the Space Dots are named the Space Dots?
No, we're named the Space Dots because Bev is from Florida -- from Orlando -- and if you talk about the space program, she starts to cry. If you ever want to torture her, all you have to do is say, 'One small step for man...' We went to the Kennedy space flight center one time when we were down there, and they were selling these little candies called Space Dots -- the ice cream of the future. We thought it would be a good name for a band.
You're working right now as Arthur Loves Plastic's singer, Whirligig's singer, with the Space Dots, with the Rosedale Trio...
Oh, we made a couple of recordings to get ourselves swanky private gigs. We do mostly my material. One of the reasons that Dave [Chappell] had quit the band before is that there's always this problem playing at folk coffeehouses with electric guitar. Some people, if they even see an electric guitar, they freak out. I finally decided that you can't fight City Hall and I couldn't constantly put him in the position of people saying, 'Oh, you've got to turn down that guitar.' That gets really annoying after awhile. So musically, what I do when I play at a coffeehouse, I usually just bring Fred and Sue if I can afford Sue. When we play at a place like the Birchmere, at a festival or a club, I bring the whole band with Dave and Rico. So I don't put Dave in that awkward position of people constantly pointing at him.
Do you think that affects who listens to your music? Do you get people who want you to do more jazz, or more American folk? When you think of the music, do you think in terms of voice first, or which instruments you want?
I try to go on a song by song basis and give every song the treatment it seems to want to have. Some of the songs on my album are just guitar and me, some have harp, and when we perform them, because you can't have every person on the record with you, you make some compromises. I really like playing with the whole band. I think when we have that in really optimum circumstances, like the Birchmere, I love that -- it just gives me so much energy. I love all the guys. They work really well together, and I just feel so excited when we do 'Throw It Away'' and the drums kick in. It's like riding a wave. I wish I could do that all the time -- that's my goal.
Of the boxes that you get put into, folk, jazz, whatever, is there one you think you wear better, or you would like to?
I hate those boxes. I hate it! I wish I could just play music. I think it's fair to ask. I always tell people 'File under folk.' I think it's always going to be uphill for me because my basic challenge is that I don't hear that many songs that really thrill me, so when I hear a really good song, I just want to do it and I can't care about what type of music it is.
What do the songs you care about have in common?
You know that old adage about how the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location? I feel that the most important thing in a song is melody, melody, melody. If it doesn't have a great melody, I have no interest in singing it. I don't care about the message.
Actually that's not true. You know what -- I actually care about the lyrics just as much, so they have to have both. Which is why it's so hard to find good songs. The lyrics have to be the kind where you can see them, taste them, feel them. I hate abstract nouns in songs. I like songs that rhyme and scan well. I hear so much music that seems so self-indulgent! What makes a good poem is not the same thing that makes a good song. So I guess I'm kind of old fashioned in a lot of ways. Bev's music for me is very progressive yet I think she has a great pop sensibility. She writes lyrics that have a sense of humor. They're very simple.
You're doing one of her songs live now. Do you find that you enjoy doing your own songs more or other people's?
Well, whenever I write a song I feel like I have money in the bank because people really expect you to write songs, especially if you are in folk. There are a few songs I've written that I really enjoy a lot, but when I sing, I don't think that the fact that I've written a song makes me enjoy doing it any more or less. It's just a song once it's out there. I'm always relieved when I have a bunch of songs by me, but I find that songwriting is the hardest thing in the world.
What's your favorite of your songs?
'Bed By the Window.' I love that song. It's about a real person and it's something that I felt a lot of emotion about, felt very sad about. When I wrote it, it really helped me, and when I sing it, it helps me. And I like singing 'Fugitive' a lot even though I was not very responsible for it. I like 'Second Avenue' a lot too.
'Second Avenue' has one of my favorite lyrics of all time. 'Love is an affliction, love is a disease.'
Camille Paglia was the inspiration for that one. That book Sexual Personae has a chapter called 'Love As An Affliction,' and I was reading it and I said, 'That's right!' And that one's about a real person too.
It kind of reminds me of 'Diamonds and Rust' with a sense of humor.
Oh no! I hate that song!
Because it's ponderous and depressing? 'Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there'? 'Second Avenue' is basically the same idea, but witty.
There is actually a sixth degree thing. When I wrote the song, as far as the phrasing of it, I really was thinking of that Dylan song, 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.' It's on the album with 'Tangled Up In Blue.' I think the words are in that same cadence and I told the band I wanted it to be like that song, so maybe it is related to 'Diamonds and Rust.'
Are you sick of any of your songs?
I don't want to be one of these musicians who, when they're interviewed, don't want to say anything negative about their own work. I never get sick of 'Bed By the Window' and I never get sick of 'Fugitive.' I need to give my songs a break sometimes and I wish I could think of more songs to write. I write songs better when I'm really miserable, but I'm not miserable right now! I've been trying to write songs about stuff that's less personal. I tried to write a song about that train wreck in Silver Spring [Maryland] a couple of years ago. I have half the song written, but it's like a cross between 'Deportee' and 'City of New Orleans.' I've got to work on that one.
Do you have any 9/11 songs?
No. I felt kind of weird about 'Fugitive' for awhile because I thought people might think that was what it was about, so I didn't do it for awhile. But right after 9/11, I think people really wanted to blow off steam, and that song people really liked. I think maybe 'In the Here and Now' is kind of a 9/11 song. I asked Bev [who wrote it] about it, because the first line is, 'What once stood tall must one day fall.' She kind of admitted that yeah, it was, so if I do have a 9/11 song, that would be it.
What are you doing to Second Avenue, the re-release?
I've rearranged the songs and added a few. The serial killer song is getting bumped, mostly because every time I send the CD out to a folk coffeehouse, I think, oh god, they're going to hate this. They're going to hear this and think oh boy, someone trying to be Ani DiFranco. It's not that representative. I put it on first because I thought it would be the big radio triple A hit, and actually when I look at which songs have been played most, that one actually hasn't been played as much as the slower ones.
Every song is kind of different. It was really hard sequencing it, because I was thinking, 'I don't want people to think I'm this or that,' when in reality it probably doesn't matter that much. I think a lot of people do only give you one song, and if they don't like that one song, they won't listen to the rest. So I resequenced because I thought maybe 'Fugitive' was a little misleading. I made 'Biloxi' number three. 'To Meet You' is first. Initially, 'To Meet You' was my first thought and I second-guessed myself, even though they say that your first instinct is best. So 'To Meet You is first,' 'Little Maggie' has been added and 'In the Here and Now' -- that's last.
The reason I'm re-releasing it is that a lot of things happened in the record industry when Second Avenue came out. I don't want to go into it because I don't know the details, but whatever happened, there was some kind of shakedown and Wind River decided to cut their promotional budget. Around the same time, Dave Chappell quit the band, and that was really devastating. I was just heartbroken. I should have been putting my own resources into promoting it myself, but instead I was lying on the floor weeping. Then he came back, but we went for a year without playing together.
And now it's two years later, and the album was only reviewed in a handful of publications -- Dirty Linen, Billboard, The Washington Post and that's about it. The woman who was supposed to do radio promotions for Second Avenue when it first came out is a woman named Kari Estrin. She was going to promote it and she got laid off. I called her to do consulting about what I should do about my career, and she loved Second Avenue and really thought it would be a good idea for me to get that to a wider audience because it really died on the vine everywhere but Washington. But she said, you can't put out an album that's two years old and expect people to review it. You need to re-release it, and put on new artwork and put on some new songs.
So that's what I'm doing. I'm going to have her promote it because she's been in the music business for a long time and she has a lot of good energy. I'm putting it out on Bev's label, Machine Heart Records, because I want more people to hear Bev's music too -- and Bev doesn't do gigs which is the main way most people get their work out because you have a whole publicity thing when you have your gigs. I'm hoping we can help each other; her audience can get introduced to my music and vice versa.
Let's talk about Second Avenue Detour.
Second Avenue Detour is Bev's take on Second Avenue. She takes samples from Second Avenue -- it's not remixes of whole songs, though one or two tracks are. For the most part she takes parts totally out of context and mixes them through the blender, creating her own songs around them. Bev is not a trained musician -- she doesn't really know, 'Oh, you can't do that.' She just takes what she thinks sounds good. So its entire harmonic meaning changes.
I've heard parts of stuff I've done and thought, 'Is that me? Is that Fred? Is it a little bit of me, a little bit of Fred or Dave or Sue Richards?' It's using the ingredients from Second Avenue and making new compositions out of it. I love 'If I Fell Off This Earth Tonight,' that's really cool. Some of them I like better than the originals.
Tell me about Peter and Wendy.
The play is by this company called Mabou Mines, an avant-garde theater company from New York. I think this might the most accessible thing they've ever done. They also did Gospel at Colonnus a few years ago. I hooked up with them through Susan McKeown, an Irish singer/songwriter who lives New York. She's the one who normally does this part, but last winter she couldn't do some of the shows because she was on tour, and they asked me to do a few of the shows. Then Susan got pregnant, so she's out, and it's up to me.
Liza Lorwin adapted the book Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, who is a Scottish author. Because he was Scottish, they wanted Scottish music. They got Johnny Cunningham, the great Scottish fiddle player, to write the music, so it's very Celtic. There are songs that are interspersed, and the function of the songs is like a Greek chorus. I don't actually play a role. There's one woman, a fabulous actress named Karen Kandel, who does all the parts, all the voices. It's Karen and these very beautiful puppets based on Japanese puppetry, bunraku. Three people have to work each puppet.
Karen does the voices of Wendy and Peter Pan and Captain Hook, but Captain Hook and Peter Pan are represented by puppets. I saw another show by Lee Breuer, the director, in New York, and he often has different people playing the same role. Everything's constantly shifting. It's a very fluid way of telling a story. There are different things going on at the same time. In Ecco Porco, the show I saw in New York, there would be videos going on at the same time as the main 'action' between the actors. It's sensory overload; he's got a very childlike sensibility, he wants to have fun. It's very fantastical with sets that are really beautiful and sensuous.
Anyway, I'm not acting, I'm singing. It's really more for adults; it gets into the relationship between Peter and Wendy, which is disturbing! The story, whether or not it's depressing, it really rings true. I find myself being really attracted to this Peter Pan puppet! He's this little shit who does whatever he wants, and he has a certain appeal. I might do his spring cleaning. I think a lot of women are attracted to guys like that -- the Peter Pan syndrome. I think women are taught to stay close to their mothers and do the dishes, and boys want to be on the backs of motorcycles.
Who do you find is your core audience? Do you have certain people who show up anywhere you go?
Yeah, I do. And they sometimes become people I end up hanging out with. Some of them are musicians, local people, and I'm always really glad to see them. I don't know if there's a certain demographic or anything like that. It's equally men and women. I guess it's a lot of baby boom generation but that would represent a lot of the folk circuit in general.
Do you get feedback from people, whether they would prefer to see you in an intimate coffeehouse type place or they're happy at big festivals?
A lot of people really like the band. I play at 49 West up in Annapolis with just Fred, and there are definitely people who like Fred and want to hear a lot of the cello. Fred has a diminished role when he plays with the band, he does basically fills and coloration, but when he plays with just me, he does everything. He's the entire band. We're actually putting out a live duo album very shortly of just me and Fred, and we'll find out if people come out of the woodwork, 'I'm so glad you did this.' Usually the folk audience is pretty vocal about what they like and don't like.
Is this new stuff you're doing with him on the live CD?
Some is going to be new and some is going to be stuff we've recorded before. We did a show a year ago at the Institute of Musical Traditions, and David Eisner, who runs the series, recorded it, and he thought it was a really good show. He recorded this concert and offered to put some money into producing it and putting it out. So we didn't have to do anything except editing it. The goal was to have this one done by November so when Fred and I had a gig at Iota with Sloan Wainwright, it'd be out by then. That will get more people out to see what's on it. 'I Saw Your Face' is on it.
I saw you in Columbia doing Irish music with Ellis Island.
The banjo player I work with, the accordion player not so much. Sometimes I feel depressed because what I do is so based on the market. But I have a friend who's in the classical world who spends all her time writing grant proposals. She's at the mercy of all the little individual axes people have to grind. That's almost more arbitrary. It would be nice if some of these concert series that I go to had more money.
What about the Washington scene? Do you think the politics affects the folk scene?
No, I don't think so. It's a very nice scene; everyone's very nice to each other. The guy that I'm traveling with is from Philadelphia, and I've read that in some towns they really are biased, the people who book the series tend to almost penalize you if you're from the area, they'd rather have someone from somewhere else. But I think the people who book the concert series here have always drawn from the local scene, and the musicians are in a very collegial environment. I don't feel all this backstabbing. It's a very friendly music scene.
I grew up there and I think Washington is a really unglamorous. It's not a very sexy place. But I can always identify people who have grown up in Washington. People who are natives are very cynical! We don't get excited about things. But it's comfortable. Like a blanket. Like a low-grade depression we all have! I really would like to go to New York at some point. I love New York. I spent a lot of time there because of Whirligig, and when I did Peter and Wendy there, I loved every minute of it. I love being in sensory overload. I love all the food, I love the Italians and the Jews and my people. I think people are friendly there -- they have such a reputation for being unfriendly, but I think people are much more unfriendly here. People are snippy. There it's like we're all in this together, and a stranger will strike up a conversation on the subway. Bill Cosby did a routine about it -- how you don't have to go to a show, you can just get on the subway and it's like a show.
Who inspires you?
I was just listening to Patsy Cline. I love singers who have a lot of emotion. They don't even have to be really good singers. I almost prefer singers who don't have good voices because it's not the meat, it's the motion. I love Marianne Faithfull. She's a great singer and she has this scratchy voice that just thrills me. And Bev turned me on to the whole Dusty thing. When Dusty died, Bev had this flashback -- her parents are English, and she remembered that her dad had this record of Dusty Springfield that she was fixated on, so we had to listen to Dusty 24/7. Emmylou Harris I'm excited by. I like listening to instrumental music and stuff that I could never have thought of in a million years, like this Miles Davis album, In A Silent Way. Judy Garland I love, Sarah Vaughn.
I was at the gym today at the Y, and I was reading an article about Paul McCartney's new wife, and I thought, she would be a good person to write a song about. And it would appeal to Bev too, so you never know. She's scrappy, she's a scrappy orphan. She's interesting. I like people who feel like they have a right to survive. I don't always have that feeling, so I admire people like that.
Where do you get that from?
I think a lot of people aren't sure. My mom was a depressed person, and I think that translates onto kids when you're like that. I think she had a hard time justifying her own existence sometimes.
Was she musical?
She was a big music lover. She had really good taste. She introduced me to a lot of really great music. She was smart -- she wouldn't tell me what to listen to, she would just have it around. She listened to Peter, Paul and Mary records and I still love them to this day. I actually met Mary Travers once, through a friend, Robert Corwin, who's a photographer, their official court photographer. He invited me to come along with him once and carry his equipment, and I got to meet them. I was so star-struck by Mary Travers! My mom had a good voice but couldn't carry a tune, but if my mom had been a singer, I think Mary Travers would have been her voice. I was actually dumbstruck. I just sat there for two hours, and she's like 6' tall. Those songs, that first album, I still thrill when they sing 'If I Had a Hammer.' I love how they run on the stage.
I was born a folkie! But when I was a little kid, in my kindergarten, there was this song that we would walk around the room and clap to, and I would be transfixed by this song. I found out later it was old Joe Clark song. And we had to do square dancing! Maybe because this was in Virginia.
If you weren't a musician, what would you do for a living?
This is going to be too exciting for words. If I weren't a musician, I think I would be a librarian. I've always worked in libraries, I love books, and a friend of mine who's a librarian said to me once, 'It's a lazy person's way of getting an education.' You see all types of people and you can help them but you don't have to take them home at night! You can hide there and look up everything and nobody judges you. All kinds of things go on in libraries. People are shocked about all the stuff people can find on the internet -- you read about how they saw a man looking at the internet in the library and masturbating -- but man, people have been masturbating in the library since Alexandria.
I always find librarians to be sexy, anyway -- that whole stereotype. A friend of mine is becoming a librarian and she put the word 'librarian' into an internet search and all these X-rated sites came up. They have that arch sense of humor. Everyone has to stand in line because librarians aren't impressed by anybody. I almost did it, and I used to work at the Library of Congress and I loved it, but I just can't make myself get that degree.
Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
Yes I do. One time Bev and I were driving to the Eastern Shore, and you can't get that much on the radio. And they were playing Celine Dion, and we were both silent, and afterwards I said, 'I just thrilled to that!' People think she's so tacky. She's a little over the top, but that's the only reason, because people think she's so lowbrow. I feel guilty admitting it.
Barbra's another guilty pleasure. I was watching videos down in Florida, three performers in a row. The first was Julie Andrews, who I thought I would love, but I hated this video. I've always really liked her as a singer, but no. Peggy Lee, and she was in her freakish stage in this video, she had no eyebrows and was really overweight, so that was kind of disappointing. But then we saw this Barbra Streisand special, one of the shows when she was on her big U.S. tour, she was in California and she was really funny and personable and her voice was amazing! Most of the songs she chose were really good. I was blown away. 'We're not worthy. Like buttah.' Barbra invented this completely unique way of singing! It must have something to do with her nose. She just resonates in there. She has a completely different sound than anybody you've ever heard before. You hear her for one second on the radio and know exactly who it is. I think maybe Celine modeled herself after her, because her voice is that same kind of resonant, ringing kind of sound.
What are you listening to on your trip?
I was listening to a recorded book of Huckleberry Finn, the Miles Davis, Ernestine Anderson, Carmen Mcrae, and some classical stuff I got out of Wheaton Library that made me feel virtuous. But that made me feel depressed. Smaller. I was trying to make my phone play 'Hava Nagila' when it rings. I'm using one of those hands-free phone things and I found this goofy way of hooking it up to my glasses. I hope I don't get pulled over. I decided after 9/11 that I really wanted a hybrid car that runs on electricity so I'm doing about 50 miles per gallon.
Do you still learn new instruments?
I'm taking piano lessons right now. I'm thinking that maybe I should go back to school because I think I'm a frustrated arranger. I always wanted to be a conductor, which is what my brother does. I'm really into that process of cool arrangements. Surprising things. I do think about instrumentation a lot. It would be nice to have more orchestral bells.
Tell me your big life ambition. If you had a million dollars...
...I would take my band on the road with me. The five guys. If we could play every night in a nice hall, it would be a blast. I love those guys, I love the way they play, I think they're all sexy, and I think the world would love to hear us. Dave is an amazing musician. They're all amazing. I think people would get it. That's the challenge, to get people to get it, and if they could hear that, they would get it and I would have fun. I would be in heaven.
You don't mind the travel?
I love to travel. I love everything about it. I love being in the car. I love the truck stops. I love listening to a.m. radio. I love smelling people's b.o. in the back of the car and having fights with everybody and being tired. Maybe if I did it for months and months at a time, I wouldn't love it.
You're totally indulging me right now because I'm doing my two favorite things -- talking on the phone and driving at the same time. Talking about myself! I'm driving in between two mountains. You know those things that Roadrunner is always kicking Coyote off? I just passed one of those. A mesa!
Lisa Moscatiello's Web site
Whirligig's Web site
Arthur Loves Plastic's Web site
Machine Heart Productions
Green Man Reviews