Rachel Grimes is a lifelong Kentuckian with a love of nature and an intuitive, expressive musical ability. Moving between the worlds of independent and classical music, she is a pianist and composer talented with both grace and technical abilities. She was a founding member of the pioneering indie-rock chamber ensemble Rachel’s, who released six records on Quarterstick Records and toured extensively. She has also collaborated with amazing artists such as Loscil, SITI Company, Astrïd and Sylvain Chauveau (to name a few) and her work has been performed by orchestras, symphonies, and ensembles around the world. Her new solo record The Way Forth (out November 1st on Temporary Residence, LTD) is a folk opera which encompasses lush layers of voices and orchestrations in an experiential, nonlinear investigation which highlights perspectives of Kentucky women from 1775 to today. Rachel was kind enough to take some time and talk with us about these projects, some fascinating experiences she has had over the years, and of course, her favorite hot beverages.
Hi Rachel, thanks for taking some time to talk with us. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a life-long Kentuckian, and I feel most comfortable near to the sounds and rhythms of nature. I have played piano from a very young age, and eventually figured out how to wrangle the musical ideas out of my head and hands and onto paper or the computer and work them into compositions. I really enjoy improvising and playing all kinds of music with other musicians. Film and music offer me endless adventures of the imagination.
You have been involved with a tremendous amount of artists and projects over the years, and I first learned of your work through Rachel’s, when Handwriting was released in 1995. How did you come to get involved with Jason and Christian?
While I was in college, I was playing bass in a rock band called Hula Hoop. We played shows around Louisville with Rodan and many other local groups. I got to know Jason through the music scene, and he and I started writing songs for piano and acoustic guitar just for fun. We were not really intending to start a band, but once we recorded a couple of demos, one thing led to another, and then we asked Kevin Coultas to play drums. Jason shared those demos with Corey Rusk at Touch & Go Records, who invited us to record an album. Jason wanted to include some string pieces he had recorded with Christian in Baltimore several years prior. I met Christian when we got together to learn and record “Southbound to Marion”, a piece for viola and piano, for that first album. It was only as the release date was looming in the spring of 1995 that we realized we needed to actually have a band so that we could have a release show. We played the first show with Kevin, John Upchurch on clarinet, Eve Miller on cello, and Bob Weston running sound, and occasionally playing trumpet and bass. We went on tour that fall with June of 44, with my brother Edward playing drums, and Greg King showing Super 8 films and playing vibes.
The official video for "Southbound to Marion" off of Rachel's "Handwriting".
I remember being somewhat surprised to learn that you were not the namesake of the project! How did the Rachel’s come to be called such?
Jason had a dark, neo-Goth keyboard and vocals solo project in the early 90's that he called Rachel’s Halo. The name was inspired by the replicant Rachel in the film “Bladerunner”. When Jason met Christian in Baltimore and found out that he was a viola player, they worked together to transcribe the keyboard parts into a low-end string quartet to create the string recordings at the Hat Factory. Those couple of songs were included in Handwriting and after some debate, we agreed to drop the Halo part of the name and go with the more obtuse (and forever confusing) Rachel’s.
Beyond Rachel’s, You have been involved in a multitude of amazing projects over the years, as well as had your work performed by several different artists. Do you feel that you have approached these musical projects from a similar place, or tried to achieve something different with each?
Every project and collaboration is a different adventure, influenced by who is involved and so many unique factors of that moment in time. Because I grew up listening to and playing all kinds of music, I am open to trying just about anything. I love having film or imagery to respond to, or a particular instrumentation, subject, or purpose for which to write.
With such an expansive body of work, could you please share some moments that have stood out to you over the years?
Getting to record three Peel Sessions at Maida Vale
Touring a swath of the US, opening for PJ Harvey
Driving the 15-passenger tour van down Lombard St. in San Francisco
Playing a Rachel’s show in Catania, Sicily to a packed theater of very raucous school children
Sharing tears with numerous people over the years who have opened up with the music
Watching my brother’s face light up with awe and joy as we surveyed the 30-some guitars that Jimmy Page brought to Abbey Road - Steve Albini was recording with Page and Plant at the time (I think it was 1997) but the artists were out for a meal, and we snuck into the live room to have a once-in-a-lifetime peek
Recording on an immaculately tuned Steinway in Antwerp - such glistening overtones
Playing the piano in the very center of the Louisville Orchestra with conductor Teddy Abrams, along with a 40-person choir, and numerous musician friends for the premiere of The Way Forth last February
What would you consider the biggest influences on your work, and how have you seen these evolve over time?
My life experiences play a huge role in shaping the direction of the music I am working on at any given time. I am often reflecting on things happening around me and in the world, and responding to other musicians and their ideas to build something unique to that moment. I am more and more interested in flexibility of style and technique, and remaining mentally open to whatever might take shape. The music I played along with my father and grandmother was influential on my interest in learning more early ragtime and jazz standards. All the records I have listened to time and again, too numerous to recount, have made their mark. And I’m deeply influenced by my piano teacher Doris Keyes who always emphasized the musical gesture and phrase of Debussy or Chopin or Bach, and never stopped encouraging me to follow my own voice.
Your newest release, The Way Forth, is coming out in November on Temporary Residence, Ltd. Tell us all about it!
Well, that would be a LOT to tell! It has become a very large scale project, following it wherever it leads me creatively since I started working on it in 2016. The piece is a folk opera and film, and can be performed live with a chamber ensemble and small chorus, or full orchestra and choir. There is live-operated film for the performance, and soon will be a feature length film version which has documentary style interludes giving some backstory to some of the characters and historical topics. The music came in response to a process of trying to organize and understand a treasure-trove of family documents, photos, and letters spanning several generations of several branches of my family. The songs weave back in time through a postcard, a personal account of a long life on a farm, traces of folk tunes, names, places, and rivers, all woven into an emotional fabric of yearning, nostalgia, grief, and the rich intimacies of everyday life. There are solo voices of women, narrators, a choir, strings, harp, percussion, guitar, banjo, clarinet, and piano with quotations and arrangements of traditional church music and popular tunes. The lyrics reflect on a place battered by greed, civil war, bigotry, and the exploitation of natural resources. Sooooo, kind of a big one….
I’ve always known you to call Kentucky home. Is that where you’re originally from?
Yes - born in Louisville, KY, and lived in the state my whole life. Both of my parents and generations of their families are from Lincoln and Madison Counties in central KY.
Do you feel Kentucky has impacted your work in any way?
This is a beautiful, nature-rich, ancient place, with complicated people and history. There are so many accents, terrains, styles and opinions. I never tire of driving the back roads and seeing how people live, the small towns, the barns and fences, rivers and streams, meeting so many unique characters along the way. My life and my family’s history is so tied up here, that I can’t objectively imagine what my work would be if I were from anywhere else.
Anything you are working on currently?
I am working/editing alongside friend and collaborator Catharine Axley to shape the rough cut of the feature length film version of “The Way Forth”. I’m also re-familiarizing myself with the soundtrack that Matthew Nolan and I created a couple of years ago for the Weimar-era silent film “People on Sunday”, which we are performing soon in Ireland. Just got out of three days in the studio with band mates in King’s Daughters & Sons - we were mixing three songs we recorded in early 2012 and are very happy to have had this time together to finally get these songs in shape.
What are you listening to these days?
I am listening right now to the sounds outside my window - gentle, late summer crickets and zooming and chirping hummingbirds. I need quiet for my brain to work smoothly, especially if I am practicing, writing, or editing music. I like to cook with NPR radio kind of shows on. I am stuck on using an old Boards of Canada CD for my mat workout routine. Been driving with the last couple of Loscil records, and the Selecter Greatest Hits, which my husband introduced me to recently - totally missed them back in the day. And the Kate Moore piano album “Dances and Canons” if I want to put something beautiful on the living room stereo - excellent pianist Saskia Lankhoorn.
Ok, it’s coffee time. Do you like that stuff?
Yes, as an occasional treat, especially with a sweet baked good.
What do you look for in a good cup of coffee?
Nice full, dark roast, with heft but no bitterness or burned overtones.
How do you make coffee at home?
I have a hot water kettle and insulated stainless press pot just for coffee. I must admit that I am actually a daily tea drinker, and so coffee is usually for weekends with friends or family visiting.
If you are grabbing a coffee at a cafe, what is your go-to?
Cafe au lait, latte, or mocha - whole milk, little bit of cane sugar. In the summer, there is this killer iced coffee at Red Hot Roasters in Louisville, made with coconut milk and dark chocolate, whirred up in a blender. Not strictly coffee but an incredibly refreshing pick me up.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creativity?
Coffee can be a real energizer that helps with focus. But I usually drink tea, black, oolong, or green since it is a bit gentler on the nerves.
We highly recommend checking out Rachel's website for tons of great content and information on what she's up to, but wanted to make sure you saw this video!