Friday, June 1, 2012

Interview with Vito Aiuto (The Welcome Wagon)

Pastor and musician, husband and wife, folksy acoustics and eclectic orchestration, inward heart and outward life, sacred hymns and 80’s new wave covers; The Welcome Wagon is all about blending together these things and more into comfy cohesions that produce beautiful results. The indie-folk duo comprised of the Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique are getting ready to release their sophomore album Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices on June 12 via Asthmatic Kitty Records and if you’ve not yet hopped on The Welcome Wagon, I’d like to (preciously) remedy that.

Here’s the cliff notes… Their stunning debut album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, was released in 2008 and was produced by fellow kindred songspirit and longtime friend Sufjan Stevens. This impressive batch of quirky, melodic folk songs perfectly mixed hymns, originals and a few tasty covers into courtly bedfellows. They had a few extra songs leftover from the recording sessions and ended up putting out their Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing EP the next year. This four-song collection continued in the tones and themes of their debut and 100% of the proceeds went to Freeset, a ministry located in Kolkata, India that provides exploited sex workers with the opportunity to start a new life and regain their dignity within their community by learning a new trade and starting “a journey towards healing and wholeness.” Music and ministry, comfy cohesions.

Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Vito about The Welcome Wagon’s new album, his work as a pastor and the journey that merged those two roles together. I have to say, not only is Vito gracious with his time, he provided me with one of the most honest, well-spoken and thoughtful interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of. If you weren’t able to hear his heart enough through his songs, his answers should certainly do the trick.    

Presbyterian pastor by day, alt-folk duo by night. How did this unique combination of roles come to be for you and how do you keep them comfortably existing together?

Vito: On the one hand, it’s not something we planned to have work out like it did, but on the other, these are two things we are passionate about so it makes sense that they are both a big part of our lives.  I love our church and I love being the pastor here and it’s a privilege for us to be able to serve here, and to be served.  But we also love art, we love music and creating things.  Monique is a visual artist, she has been painting and drawing and making stuff since she was a child.  So these are the things that our lives are made up of.  But we are always trying to figure out how much time and effort to give to these things and to balance it all with paying bills and seeing friends and cleaning the house and praying and making dinner.

Part of your story consists of moving from a self-described agnostic to planting Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn and serving as the senior pastor. What led you from point A to B and what have been some of the other influential points along the way for you? 
Vito: That’s been such a long path that it’s hard to identify just a few points that have been the most influential.  While I wasn’t always that involved, the church that I sort of grew up in, First Presbyterian Church in Tecumseh, Michigan played a huge role in defining who I am.  That’s where I was baptized, and the people took an interest in me and nurtured me and listened to my questions about the Bible, that kind of thing.  There was this family who taught Sunday School, and after church the dad would take me and a bunch of the other kids to play basketball on Sunday afternoons.  Years later when I was trying to sort my life out, I’m sure it was their love and care that ended up influencing me a lot.  So many stories from the Bible that were still banging around in my head, that influenced me a lot.  

Has your co-jobs as pastor and musician been a specific point of connection with your congregation? Has it ever been a point of conflict?
Vito: My view on that is that I’m just supposed to do the things God has called me to do and then God can sort out the rest.  We don’t make our music a focus of our church, and we almost never play there.  Sometimes we do, but our music does not define our church.  God’s love defines our church.  The fact that Jesus got raised from the dead defines our church.  But we just make our music and some of the people from our church like to come see us play, some of the people in our church play with us.  Others don’t care much about it.  But I try not to worry about it too much.  I just want to be a faithful pastor here, and I also want to try to make strong, beautiful music that people enjoy. 

As someone who has gotten some strange looks when I mention actually enjoying working with my wife, I love the fact that you and your wife Monique work together and create music together. What are some of the key things that help make that successful for you guys and what are some things you have to watch out for?  Vito: Whoa!  It can be a pretty difficult process, but it is worth it.  I love working with Monique, and our having band together is an intentional way for us to spend time together and create together.  We both came from artistic disciplines that are pretty solitary.  I’ve written poetry and she is a visual artist, and when you do those things you’re almost always working alone.  Making music allows us to work with each other, and with other people, and we like that.  Music is also usually enjoyed in a more communal way than poetry or visual art, and that’s something we like being a part of.

But having come from these solitary disciplines, it’s hard to then cede control to someone else when you make something.  So we have to watch out for pride, and we have to watch out for a desire to control things.  When I write a poem, I get to say where all the commas  and line-breaks go, I get to do whatever I want.  But when I write a song and bring it to Monique, it introduces this opportunity for conflict.  It’s a great opportunity for collaboration and compassion and generosity, too.  But it takes God’s help.

Having your debut album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, be produced by Sufjan Stevens and be released on Asthmatic Kitty, a label known for its championing of creativity and artistic freedom, is kind of a grand slam at your first at bat kind of opportunity. What did it mean to have the support of Sufjan and Asthmatic Kitty at such an early stage in your musical career?    
Vito: Well, first and foremost Sufjan is a friend of ours.  When we were making our first record it wasn’t as if we thought, “Which big-name producer can we work with?”  God just knit our lives together, and we were friends long before he even released Michigan or Illinois, and we started working on music together because it was a good way to spend time together.  Having a project is great context in which to build a friendship.  I remember when I was little, my dad and his friends, they would always be roofing each others houses, re-wiring each other’s houses.  They’d bring a case a beer over and someone would make food and they’d get this project done.  That’s kind of how we made the first record.

Having said that, having Sufjan’s support and getting to be on Asthmatic Kitty Records is one of the greatest blessings of our life. The label has been sort of unreasonably supportive and generous.  Sufjan is incredibly humble, and he’ll do just about anything for you.  He gave himself in a really generous way to our first record.  He’s helped us move about three times.  He’s very diligent.  He’s very good at schlepping boxes.  

Welcome to the Welcome Wagon was recorded over an 8-year span and your new album, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, was recorded in 5 days. What were some of the main differences within the two recording processes and were there any similarities?
Vito: Well, to be honest, Precious Remedies took longer than five days.  But all of the basic tracks were recorded in five days, and it was part of our ethos for this record to try and get it all down quickly, and let the limitations of time define some of what the record would be.  

For an acoustic guitar-led vocal duo, your songs are enhanced by a variety of ornamental instrumentation including banjo, horns, piano, electric guitar, harmonica, drums and more. Do you hear additional orchestrations in your head while writing/arranging your songs or are they just created naturally while recording? 
Vito: I’ve started hearing those arrangements in my head.  I didn’t always.  But I think I learned a lot of that from Sufjan.  He wrote a majority of the arrangements for the first record, and it was really instructive to see what he did to the songs we gave him.  When I started writing the songs for this record, I tried to begin to build things in my mind.  For a long time, I had 4-5 songs from the new record that I would play in my head while I was in the shower.  This is before they were recorded, and I was trying to imagine how they would sound.  And it was like there was a tape of them in my head and I’d play them and I’d try things out.  I’d add a horn part or I’d add a choir part and I’d sort of listen to it.  And if I liked it, then it sort of stayed on the tape in my head.  It was like ProTools in my brain.

But some of what you hear comes from the musicians we work with.  On this record, and on the last one, oftentimes I would go to our guitar player or our bass player or whoever and say, “I think this kind of thing would sound good, but I want you to bring what sounds good to you.”  Sometimes I would have a very specific part I’d want people to play and I’d say, “Play it just like this”, or “Play this counter-melody.”  But just as often we let people go where they felt led to go.

Your original songs fit perfectly, lyrically and thematically, alongside the hymns and sacred songs you cover. Do you feel an intentional drive to modernize these traditional songs and also to add your own new ones to the lot?
Vito: In terms of the lyrics and themes, I’m really only interested in writing songs about God and faith and doubt and relationships and how hard it is to love and how great it is.  I only want to write about important things.  So the songs I write match up with the hymns we cover because the content is the same.  But for any covers we do of hymns or other songs, I never feel like I am trying to “modernize” them.  I just want them to sound good.

Speaking of cover songs, in my personal opinion your taste is absolutely impeccable! What inspired you to reinterpret “Half A Person” (The Smiths), “Jesus” (Velvet Underground) and “Sold! To The Nice Rich Man” (Danielson Famile) on your first album and “High” (The Cure) and “Remedy” (David Crowder Band) on your new one?

Vito: Each of those songs came about for different reasons.  I’m not sure there is a common thread.  We ended up covering, “Rich Man” the way we did because I love the original, but I couldn’t figure out how to play it like the Danielson Famile does.  We covered, “Remedy” after David Crowder invited us to play a festival he put on in Waco, TX, and he just blew us away with his kindness and thoughtfulness.  I wanted to cover, “Half a Person” because I think the chord changes are so crazy.

The title of your new album, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, is based on a book written by Thomas Brooks in the 17th century. What is the correlation between the two and what do you hope listeners will draw from it?  
Vito: I’ve read that book on and off for years.  Sometimes it’s gone right over my head and other times it’s been really helpful.  It’s this devotional manual that is sort of like a spiritual how-to book.  It’s really practical, but it’s also really deep.  The whole thing is made up of these scenarios the author gives, like, “OK, if you are being tempted to believe God doesn’t love you, here are 6 remedies to consider for this spiritual ailment”, and then he gives 6 different thoughts on why we can know and believe that God loves us.  He’s basically saying that a failure to see how good God is and how much he cares for us is a sickness that needs a cure  Or he’ll give an analysis of what Satan does to attack us, he’ll say, “Here is how Satan tries to convince you that it’s just fine to ignore people in need around you, or ignore praying to God”, or whatever.  And then he’ll point you to these remedies from the Bible.

I’m not sure that our record has the same kind of value as that book.  Maybe it’s not greater or lesser, but it’s different for sure.  But we’re operating on the premise that we all have broken hearts and that we all need God’s presence and power in our lives, and we hope that our music might one way that God will help heal us.  

"Oh Christ, Our Hope" - The Welcome Wagon (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing EP)

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