In October, Lori Goldston released a new solo album called High and Low. KEXP’s Dusty Henry spoke with Goldston to walk through her career and learn more about the inspiration behind the new album. Listen to an audio version of this story on the Sound & Vision podcast or read an extended version of the story below. Subscribe to Sound & Vision wherever you podcast.
Cellist Lori Goldston has been carving her own path in the world of rock music for over three decades. She’s performed and recorded with some iconic artists like Nirvana, David Byrne, and Cat Power among many others. She is also an unsung hero of Seattle’s music scene, continuing to work with new artists across genres. In October, she released a new solo album called High and Low.
Goldston grew up in Long Island. It was there that she began her first forays into music in childhood. She first started on guitar, a hand-me-down from her brother. But it was in fifth grade when she joined the school orchestra that she first was united with the cello.
"I think it somehow suited me better that cello was a little bit more unchartered waters in terms of not being an orchestra player or sort of getting out of this kind of standard repertoire," Goldston says. "So that was frustrating and difficult in some ways. But yeah, I think it suited me better to just have to kind of, you know, bushwhack through the weeds on my own instead of sort of figure out a slot or, you know, you have to on guitar. And lots of people have very original voices on guitar, but it's really hard, I think to kind of like really stake out, stake your claim on guitar I found anyway. I still play guitar and love it and listen to it all the time. But there's yeah a lot of guitar players out there not as many cellos and kind of have my, it could exist in my own realm."
Goldston continued her study of cello all the way through college but dropped out before getting her degree in favor of finding her own musical path.
"I de-trained," Goldston explains. "It is a little tricky. I think maybe people, I think they're, it's less universal that people who play orchestral instruments tend not to learn improvisation. I think that's changing, but certainly, when I was coming up, the pedagogy was exactly the same as it was in the 19th century, basically. I mean, I did some 20th-century repertoire when I was in college, but it was, you know, if somebody puts a piece of paper in front of you and that's what you play and you're not really encouraged to kind of strike out on your own beyond that."
In 1986, Goldston made her way out to Seattle. A city on the verge of its own musical breakthrough.
"I just came out on a lark, and I didn't think I would stay. But everything, I just liked it here and things just worked out for me," she says. "Kind of one thing after next. Like the doors always opened for me. And it's a great town for music, you know, it's, I mean, it's good, it's a famous music town for good reason. There's always good, good stuff happening and great players and great bands. I think it was nice for me here on the. Like I had lived in on the East Coast, in Boston and Vermont, and New York and I liked that people were less reliant on institutions here. I think that was part of what was appealing was that people just kind of made things happen and didn't really wait for permission. They just kind of did stuff."
While Seattle at this time is most often associated with grunge, Goldston didn’t feel constrained to one musical scene. She’d find like-minded improvisers around the city and found herself frequenting the University of Washington’s musicology department. It wasn’t long before she found like-minded musicians and formed her first group, Black Cat Orchestra.
"We gave it this name of orchestra but it was really a small ensemble, but we were trying to get this kind of grandiose result with what we had to work with," she says. "We were basing the instrumentation more on sort of the personalities of the people or who we wanted to work with or how they played more than their instruments. So it had this kind of funny randomness to the instrumentation, but it worked out also that we had a yeah, we had a cello, accordion, both kind of big-sounding instruments."
The group would put out two albums and would collaborate on albums with David Byrne and K Records icon Mirah, collaborations that happened she joked "despite my best efforts at being a terrible businessperson." Outside of Black Cat Orchestra, Goldston found herself collaborating with rock bands around Seattle.
"When I started doing rock stuff, there were not too many people with. I mean, a few, once in a while there's some you'd add like saxophone for a song or something like that, but wasn't really happening too much," Goldston says. "There were a couple of us, but not too many. But I've never really been, I've always been sort of a lurker on the edges of many scenes, so that suited me fine. Yeah, cause there are a lot of music scenes here. There were and are a lot of different kinds of music scenes. So I had friends in punk bands, had a lot of improviser friends, some composer friends, some early music friends, and people studying stuff at the UW here and there. I've always been a little bit light on my feet in that way, and I like a challenge. I like to be learning stuff all the time. So if somebody asked me to do something and they don't know how to do it, I'm excited to figure out how to make it happen."
In 1993, Goldston found herself performing with arguably the most famous rock band of that time. Nirvana asked her to tour and perform with the band in support of what would be their final album, In Utero. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic became aware of Goldston through a mutual friend who’d recently hired Goldston to perform at a performance around the Balkan war. The same friend had also hired Goldston as a chimney sweep. Now she was connecting her with arguably the biggest band in the world at the time.
Goldston describes her work with the band as collaborative, given creative liberty with her cello arrangements and finding common ground with the band.
"At that time, there were way fewer cellists or classical players of traditional classical instruments around town who were able to improvise and knew how guitar players function," she says. "And I had played guitar, so I kind of had a leg up in that way that you could, you don't have to write stuff out. You could hum stuff, I could make stuff up, you could talk about chord changes or whatever. And I kind of knew that language and that way of working too."
While the music came easy, jumping to such a huge stage was an adjustment. Goldston recalls playing her first show with Nirvana in New York.
She recalls some of those earlier shows, saying, "The Roseland one was really exciting because it was just such a weird new experience and I was really nervous about it. And then, I don't know, I did that show or maybe one or two more, and then I just was never nervous about a show again, like I just got it at. I just was so nervous. I just kind of got it out of the way. That was exciting to also to be back in New York and I'm from New York. And the did same thing with The Unplugged, which was in New York. And so and some of my friends were there. And that also, though, was very nerve-wracking because I was very confident by then. But then there were all these cameras everywhere and that whole big weird thing of like, there's celebrities in the audience or whatever. So that, that was a little bit of a out-of-body experience. Yeah, I was pretty nervous. I was yeah. I was nervous about the, the cameras and that whole situation."
Nirvana was just one of many collaborations Goldston would have with Northwest artists across numerous genres in the ensuing decades. She’d briefly joined drone metal legends Earth as a full-time member. She's frequently collaborated with songwriter Clyde Petersen of Your Heart Breaks, even touring as part of the live band behind Petersen’s stop-motion, queer punk coming-of-age film, Torrey Pines alongside Kimya Dawson. She's also performed on Tacoma artist Guayaba’s Fantasmagoria, a kaleidoscopic epic that fused hip-hop, bossa nova, gothic, and avant-garde music. This is also just scratching the surface of Goldston's impressive career.
"It's really nice that people in a lot of different genres and a lot of different ages really get what I do and appreciate it. I feel more and more understood, which is cool," Goldston says.
After collaborating with other artists across three decades, Goldston finally began releasing solo material in 2013. Her first release was Film Scores, a compilation of commissioned soundtrack work. Goldston’s released numerous solo recordings in the decade since. But something felt missing to Goldston. Her latest album, High and Low, is meant to show a different side of her artistry.
"A lot of the shows that I played in my life in recent years had been sort of, you know, loud, noisy, distorted, amplified solo shows and that was kind of underrepresented in my recorded output," Goldston says. "And then also thinking about sort of how I try to play where there's like a lot, it's like a deep growly instrument and then a lot of high overtones. And also that sort of sits in this weird place between what's considered kind of high art and low art, which again, yeah, is kind of an offensive convention and people sort of split things in that way. So I was thinking of it in that kind of broadness. Yeah. Thinking of it in this, trying for as much of, as much sort of broadness and bandwidth as I could pack in there."
The tracks on the album are split between two ideas – high and low. The “high” portions of the album center on Goldston performing alone. These tracks were recorded live at the Good Sheered Center Chapel Performance in Seattle as a part of a tribute to the late Geneviève Castrée. Castrée was an acclaimed artist, writer, and musician from Quebec who became an intrinsic part of the Northwest Music scene. She was also a close friend to Goldston. The two toured together several times with Earth during which time they were roommates.
"Sort of a sad assignment for myself, also very cathartic," Goldston reflects. "And it was also like kind of set to sort of, set the, a high bar. She's such, you know, such a sort of refined musician and just sort of smart, perceptive person. And I understood her music, I played with her a bunch and I understood her music taste very well. So also part of it was to like try to do a show that she would really, really like."
I asked Goldston if she keeps an image in her mind during a performance like this.
"I think I've gotten more that way," she explains, thinking on her process. "Where there's, it's a little bit more like explicitly transportive for me. And then I think also that it's, that I do have this kind of like very filmic take on things in general and think about film a lot in set, often like very abstract film. So yeah, in that case I was thinking about, I don't know just this sense of keeping somebody's spirit sort of aloft while you're, well, once they're gone, kind of keeping it like floating there."
The other half of the album, the “low” songs, see Goldston performing alongside drummers Dan Sasaki, with additional contributions from drummer Dave Abramson and trumpet player Greg Kelley. While still meditative, these songs have a much more palpable tension to them.
"I've just been in Seattle a long time, so I like noisy, distorted, growly, psychedelic, amplified kind of metally, amplified music. I just it's in the water here, and then it's certainly has gotten in my playing," she says. "No doubt my playing would be very different if I had lived anywhere else all these years. So yeah, so it has that spirit. But yeah, it's a little weird. I'm playing the cello, so most people don't do that kind of music on cello. But I think of it in a way like a whole band, in a way, yeah."
The songs with Sasaki came from a project they were commissioned for in 2017 to coincide with the new seawall built on Seattle’s waterfront. Goldston remembers that process of collaboration:
"We just went into it without talking about it at all. But we knew that that's what the assignment was. And then later on it was real. It was a really nice session. It was, yeah, just felt pretty magical and then afterward, when we talked about it, we realized that we'd been thinking, we'd had the same images in our heads without any prior discussion. And so the one that was on there, was, like I said, it was right when the, it was like maybe when they were just starting to drill or maybe when the drill got stuck for a really long time and everybody was wondering if they would ever get it out of there with it, would it ever actually make the tunnel. So we were thinking, we were both thinking about that drill. Just for that one piece.
"Other parts we would think about like the water or maybe the air, also like it was really busy place. I think certainly in the early times of when settlers came here, I think also it was very busy place when it was, you know, like pre-European settlers. So, you know, I think, so it had always been this kind of hub there. So we were thinking about that and sort of these ideas and goods being exchanged."
Both the “high” and “low” parts of Goldston’s latest album speak to a bigger function of her music – transporting the listener.
"I think a lot about when people come here from other places and play, is this kind of like whiff of this place comes in and I mean, sometimes more than others, but certainly there's often a sense of somebody being from a scene and there's a certain way that people do things or think about things or approach things or the way that live shows happen, or and you can sort of get this really beautiful whiff of somewhere else," Goldston says. "And I think about that also that in some way there's, my sets sort of illustrate where I'm from or they sort of bring this "here's where I'm from, here's what it sounds like, here's what it feels like." Sometimes maybe somebody can even get a sense of what the air here feels like on your skin or what the smell is like or what the feeling is of walking down the street or in the woods or whatever. I think, I think about that pretty often when I'm playing. Here's where I'm from, here's who I am, here's where I'm from, here's what I'm bringing."
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