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Ra Ra Cello

Our latest episode of All Songs Considered features the New York rock group Ra Ra Riot. I've always been a sucker for the warm sound of a cello, and the band's new album has plenty of it. ("I Am the Walrus" by the Beatles and "10538 Overture" by E.L.O. are a couple of others.)

I wrote a note to the cellist of Ra Ra Riot, Alexandra Lawn, to see what it's like to play cello in a rock band. She sent back this wonderful little note:

"Cellists sit. Sitting with our instrument is as important as our bow-hold or our left-hand technique. We sit in orchestras, quartets. We are the ones that require the wedding planners to make sure they have an extra chair for us. We sit well. We sit right. We can bob our heads furiously and shimmy in our seats, but that's where the cello dance ends.

"I guess I got 'Angelina Ballerina Syndrome' (the ever and always ballet-dancing mouse) when I began playing cello in Ra Ra Riot. Here was this group of people who could jump, whirl, rock out... WHILE PLAYING... what? I was not going to just sit there. I'd look like a bobbing turtle. I was going to stand, too. I found a block of cement that I began bringing to every show with me so that I would have something to stabilize myself and the cello with. Think Captain Morgan stance. Eventually, I graduated: No cement block needed here. We played and toured so much that it became a very intense practice for standing and dancing with the cello. Some might say it looks dumb, but it's more fun than sitting. Now it feels as if I have my 'electric-cello-rock-goddess' (right, Allie) technique, as well as the 'I'm-still-a-classical-
cellist-dammit!' technique. Whatever the reaction to my new technique and lack thereof is, I am having the time of my life."

I shared this story with producer Robin Hilton, who immediately remembered a scene we both love from Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run:

Got any great moments in cello history?



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"Mockingbirds" by Grant Lee Buffalo. The cello that kicks in after the first chorus seals it. I love to crank that bass on that one.

But the greatest cello piece ever is, without a doubt, Bach's "Suite No. 1 Prelude."

Sent by rh | 3:54 PM | 8-27-2008

I just saw the Avett Brothers perform and their cellist has adopted a similar method to Ms. Dawn. He even manages some head banging while playing.

My high school orchestra teacher had multiple assignments as the band, jazz band, and marching band teacher. Therefore he'd through some saxaphones in orchestra, violins & violas in Jazz band and even the cellist in marching band. Although they rigged a strap to carry the cello while marching.

Sent by foglite | 6:51 PM | 8-27-2008

Ben Sollee is making some amazing music with his cello.

Sent by jc | 8:05 PM | 8-27-2008

When it comes to a rockin' cellist, in my opinion, nobody beats Gretta Cohn. Up until 2005, she shredded her strings with some serious style in the Saddle Creek band, Cursive. She left to pursue other musical endeavors, but not without leaving her mark. Her cello parts in the album "The Ugly Organ" are violent, haunting, and mesmerizing all-together. Her cello adds another element to every song on the album. Listen to "Art is Hard" and "Driftwood." You've never heard cello like this.

Sent by Holli Hale | 12:25 AM | 8-28-2008

So is Trevor Exter:

He did a great cover of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, but I haven't found a recording of it yet.

Sent by Ben | 7:11 AM | 8-28-2008

and so is nick ogawa!

Sent by a fan | 12:21 PM | 8-28-2008

Dunno if it counts -- not least 'cause it's mostly Ron Carter playing a bowed bass, though I think there's at least one other string player sneaking in there -- but the second and third verses of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," from Roberta Flack's debut album, First Take, represent one of the most sublime pop/soul string arrangements ever.

Slow, spare, simple, and just ... rapturous.

Sent by trey | 2:18 PM | 8-28-2008

No rock cello list could be complete wihtout [href="]Apocalyptica[/url] which started out as a Metallica cover-cello-quartet. They've long since come into their own by creating their own Metal creations. Often haunting and energizing in turns, I heartily recommend them.

Sent by Mertseger | 3:36 PM | 8-28-2008

I Gave Cello Submarine, a German all cello band (12 I believe), a revisit the other weekend, and was a tad bit disappointed. All Beatles on this recording, but I've been listening to too much Jordi Savall, a French viola de gamba maestro, to be wowed by their arrangements, however much I love the Beatles and the cello.

Sent by Niklas Andersson | 4:48 PM | 8-28-2008

Rushad Eggleston is a completely wild and atypical cellist, check out his bizarre cello stylings; he's all over the stage while playing (I'm jealous).

Erik Friedlander is a fantastic improvisational player, too. Check out his work with John Zorn's Masada.

Also, the New Directions Cello Association is a group devoted to contemporary uses of the cello.

Sent by PR | 4:55 PM | 8-28-2008

How can one talk about cellos in music without mentioning Vampire Weekend? There debut album is full of super awesome cello bits and M79 is one of my favourite cello songs.

Sent by Lauren M | 10:30 PM | 8-28-2008

I absolutely love Margot and the Nuclear So and So's. Their name is a mouthful, but they are really great at incorporating the cello into all of their songs. "Skeleton Key" is a great example.

Sent by Meri | 11:04 PM | 8-28-2008

Ward Williams - Jump, Little Children. A bit old school, but beautiful.

Sent by Robyn Olejniczak | 11:29 PM | 8-28-2008

Got to show love for Isobel Campbell of Belle and Sebastian.

My favorite cello moment is the James Bond movie "The Living Daylights" when 007 is sledding in an open cello case with a gorgeous cellist while being chased by skiing bad guys with machine guns. They cross the Swiss border and say, "I have nothing to declare. Only this celloooooooooooo...."

Sent by colin | 12:03 AM | 8-29-2008

The Indigo Girls cover of Neil Young's "The River" on he 1200 Curfews live disc. Amazing,gut wrenching Cello solo.

Sent by Bill Ritchotte | 3:38 PM | 8-29-2008

alexandra really does know how to move with a cello, as does ra ra riot's violinist. they're a sight to behold! at every performance i've been to, the band members deftly navigate to within inches of serious bow-to-face injuries. stay safe and congratulations on the new album!

Sent by anthony | 10:47 PM | 8-29-2008

It's one of my personal goals in life to introduce the incredible musician Jorane to as many people as possible. She's an extremely talented cellist and vocalist, singing in English, French, and a wonderful wordless vocalise-style language. Her music is very powerful and ranges from pop and rock, to alternative, to music written for imagined films. Enjoy!

Sent by Owldaughter | 11:46 AM | 8-31-2008

My pick for great cello player is Patricia Blanchard from the roots-folk band A Cat Called Cricket. I just discovered them within the past six months and was so impressed, I picked up their CD. I don't often do that, either, but I liked the way her cello really drives the music.

Please, Bob, bring this band to more people's attention. They just went on hiatus and I don't want them to break up... I want another CD! :-)

Sent by Christopher??? | 3:05 AM | 9-1-2008

Cursive's "The Ugly Organ" has the best use of cello in a rock context.

Also check out Matt Pond PA's album "Several Arrows Later."

Oh and I almost forgot Murder by Death!

Sent by kyle | 4:39 PM | 9-1-2008

Madigan Shive of Bonfire Madigan has been making cello-based indie rock music for quite some time. She was recently featured as on-stage musician for American Conservatory Theater's production of "Tis Pity She's a Whore"

Sent by Larry | 4:07 PM | 9-3-2008

The best use of a cello in any rock song is "A Quick One While He's Away" by the Who!

Sent by Jason | 6:21 PM | 9-3-2008

Be The Air We Breathe by Lewis and Clark - cello and guitar/singer duo. I discovered this group on the Daytrotter website and I just loved this song.

Sent by Jeffrey | 6:43 PM | 9-3-2008

I don't think anyone has mentioned them yet, but the first band that came to mind was Rasputina. Electric cellos, drums, and amazing music, along with a good dose of wit makes them one of my favorite acts. If you get a chance to see them live, don't miss it. It's a very interesting performance.

Sent by Iluska | 8:35 AM | 9-8-2008

Can't agree more about Ben Sollee. Soulful and beautiful.

Sent by Rebecca | 12:13 PM | 9-8-2008

In the show you request bands with cellos. A Northern Chorus out of Canada is a little secret piece of cello goodness. They'll make you stop and think for a minute.

Sent by Melissa Lane | 5:34 PM | 9-8-2008

I'm glad to see that they've already been mentioned, but when the question was first asked, the first bands that came to my mind [besides Ra Ra Riot who I've been following pretty much since their start and have fallen completely in love with] is Margot and the Nuclear So & So's as well as the band Rasputina and their cellist Zoe Keating who also has some solo stuff out and appears on Amanda Palmer's new solo release. While Rasputina certainly wouldn't be for everyone, there is no denying that Zoe is an incredible cellist with a very unique taste of what her instrument can do.

Sent by Brandon C | 8:28 PM | 9-8-2008

if you really want a good rock band w/ cello, check out Murder By Death. She grabs your attention at their live shows with how intense she plays

Sent by Jason Lott | 9:30 PM | 9-8-2008

A great band featuring cellos is Break Of Reality, a NYC collective featuring three cellists and percussionist. To quote their website (, they "combine the beauty of classical music with the energy and chaos of rock". I first saw them playing in front of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park and was just blown away. They all have classical training and met at the Eastman School of Music. I believe they are currently at work on a new album.

Sent by Steven Lederman | 8:12 AM | 9-9-2008

Groups that feel an occasional need for cello but don't want to commit to one full time seem to like Audrey Riley. I first knew her from the Troy Tate version of The Smiths' Pretty Girls Make Graves, but she's worked with a load of my favorite groups.

Sent by Tom Cronin | 10:52 PM | 9-9-2008

Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots from Denver didn't just use a cello in some of there songs, they had an actual band member, the gorgeous Rebecca Vera and two others on violinists along with an upright base and guitar. There last and, unfortunately, final album was released in 2004 and can be purchased on iTunes. Such a fun band to see live. You couldn't help but stomp your foot to the music which could be wild and somewhat aggressive, which was such an amazing experience coming from string instruments. I think their website is still up at

Sent by Jill Fox | 3:46 AM | 9-10-2008

No discussion of the use of the cello in rock and roll music would be complete without mentioning the excellent work of Brian Standefer on most of Alejandro Escovedo's records.

Sent by Mike Giauque | 8:48 AM | 9-12-2008

There's a great cello line in the Cloud Cult song, "That Man Jumped Out the Window." It also comes in prominently on their new record, which isn't as good as it could have been, but, it helps some of those songs take off considerably. Crying and such.

Sent by Matthew Garcia | 10:25 AM | 9-12-2008

I had to find the blog and see the Woody Allen clip again. I use that line all the time: "He had no conception of the instrument. He was blowing into it." Thanks Bob and Robin for that memory!

Sent by jonathan clauss | 8:17 PM | 9-14-2008

Sarah Balliet of Murder by Death. Simply amazing.

Sent by Dave | 11:35 AM | 9-16-2008

My personal favorite example of "chamber pop" is Matt Pond's The Green Fury. Measure 3 is about as perfect of a pop song as you can find.

Sent by Brian Flores | 2:14 PM | 9-16-2008

I can't believe no one's mentioned Portland, OR's amazing Gideon Freudmann! He's also part of the Portland Cello Project and terrific Portland band called Caravan Gogh.
Worth driving many miles to hear!

Sent by Carolyn | 11:05 AM | 9-17-2008

"Murder Ballads and Love Songs for Cello and Voice."
I just put it out:

Sent by Josiah Altschuler | 10:40 PM | 9-18-2008


Sent by Chris | 1:05 PM | 9-19-2008

the lovely ladies of Matson Jones. if you are not familiar, you should find out what you've been missing.

Sent by odd_s_c | 4:18 AM | 9-21-2008

I've enjoyed Mysteries of Life with Geraldine Haas on cello, but I believe recent incarnations of the group no longer feature Ms Haas.

Sent by Peter Donaldson | 9:11 PM | 9-22-2008

Fling - Built to spill....real nice

Sent by mf | 1:35 AM | 9-24-2008

In 1975, after playing classical music for 8 years, I was ready for a new challenge. So, in my junior year, I joined the newly formed Jazz Lab. Electric guitars & bass, full drum kit, other percussionist, sax, trumpet, keyboard & me; also, the only female. Heavily miked, I began a year that introduced me to Dave Brubeck & John Coltrane, among others. After playing orchestral arrangements, being asked to improvise was a test of faith & the ability to throw caution to the wind.
I don't know if I was very good but what I lacked in skill, I made up for in pleasure. Being unusual, we played many gigs for the public besides the ones at school. We were the cool kids on campus. So much so, that when the next school year began, enough kids had enrolled for the class, there were enough for 3 groups! I bowed out after the first week. There was no way to be heard over all of them, even with mikes! So, I did what any self-respecting musician would do. I completed my senior year doing a self-study on the school's newly acquired Moog synthesizer. Sadly, that was the last time I played cello. With no group to perform with, I lost interest & stopped playing in 1979.
A choice I deeply regret.

Sent by Cat Burton | 10:54 PM | 9-24-2008

... and don't forget Echo & the Bunnymen. Can't think of a specific song at the moment - maybe "Never Stop"

Sent by Dan | 12:25 AM | 9-25-2008

I thought i'd throw in a couple lesser known ones- Not exactly classical cello playing, but lindsay mac does some interesting sounding stuff with her cello- played like a guitar. Also judgement day- who does string metal with a violin, a cello and drums- really interesting stuff- they are touring with margot and the nuclear so-so which someone else mentioned.

Sent by Maria | 12:23 AM | 10-6-2008