A new generation of cellists is pushing the boundaries as singer-songwriters

“There’s always been a place for the cello in pop music,” says Rachel Johnston, a cellist with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. “Cellists were often part of a band’s  backup—as their tone complemented the usual mix of vocals and guitar—but some began to sing and compose, too. Being restricted to the role of accompanist isn’t always satisfying!

According to Johnston, who’s been researching cellists who sing: “Not all early adopters were particularly good cellists, singers, or pop musicians; and some commentators dismissed the idea as a passing novelty. But the form has persevered, and there’s now an explosion in the numbers of musicians with a level of artistry in both singing and cello playing that enables them to create a hybrid that is its own complete expressive form.”

Singer-songwriter—the term evokes an image of a pop musician singing soulfully to the self-accompaniment of a guitar or piano. Until the 21st century, it was rare for a singer-songwriter to use an instrument other than guitar or piano. But unlike the strumming guitarist or chord-tinkling pianist, this new kind of singer-songwriter often brings along an arsenal of classical cello chops.

Ben Sollee, Johannes Bergion, Ian Cooke, Helena Espvall, Rushad Eggleston, Madigan Shive, Nathaniel Smith, Ariel Friedman, Tristan Clarridge, and Matt Block are some of the top cellists doubling as singer-songwriters in a wide range of styles, from twee-folk to avant-pop to hard rock.

One of the most influential pioneers is the cello-driven band Rasputina,” says Johnston. “Their founder, Melora Creager, is a kind of polymathic creative. She was performing lead vocals while playing cello, using live effects pedals—basically adopting the role of lead singer-guitarist—and [using] multitrack recording techniques to compose and perform early on when that technology was still in a developmental stage. Rasputina’s combination of goth, steampunk, and alt-rock mixed with a multi-cello timbre has given their music a distinct sound and fed the growing audience of listeners who like their grunge-pop with a classical edge.”

Creager’s innovations came to the forefront in 1993 when she accompanied Nirvana on that influential grunge band’s widely viewed MTV Unplugged episode. It motivated a new generation of classically trained cellists to expand into the music of rock, pop, and beyond.

New York cellist Jody Redhage, who composes and performs for the chamber-pop band Rose and the Nightingale, was one of them. “I thought Melora was inspiring!” exclaims Redhage, who started composing cello-accompanied songs at 19.

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“I was interested in a quirky art-pop hybrid,” she says. “At first I got other singers to sing with me, but I realized I was always singing along with the vocal parts so that they could learn it.”

With no formal vocal training other than a bit of choir experience, Redhage taught herself to sing and play at the same time, beginning with Bach chorales. “I have a good range, so I can sing tenor parts and soprano parts,” she says. “I played the bass line arco with my cello and took turns singing the top three parts.” Although she wanted to maintain the resonant cello tone prized in classical music, Redhage had to alter her sound to blend its overtones with her voice.

In some of her compositions, such as “It’s So Beautiful,” the cello accompaniment is pizzicato. In others, such as “Butterfly,” she employs a richly sustained, highly vibrated arco as accompaniment to the delicate quality of the vocals.

Redhage describes the process of finding a sound that works as “never ending,” but explains, “I want to make music from a creative rather than re-creative standpoint.”

That sentiment is echoed by the British cellist Laura Moody, who just released her debut album, Acrobats.

A conservatory-trained musician who also studied singing, she was dissatisfied with the world of classical music. “Conventional training is aimed at achieving what has gone on before,” Moody says. “I struggled with that, because I felt music was being taken away from me.”

To find her authentic voice, Moody had to “exorcise” her classical training. After taking an online course on “speech-level singing,” she expanded her vocal range to a vast four octaves.

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“When I play and sing, the cello has an extra octave that I don’t have,” she says, “but my range allows me to explore the similarity between the cello and the human voice.”

In her compositions, which she describes as “essentially pop songs,” Moody incorporates aspects of avant-garde–classical vocal music, citing composers Cathy Berberian, Luciano Berio, and John Cage as major influences. In her signature song, “Oh Mother,” Moody uses a kaleidoscopic range of extended techniques for both cello and voice, from wild slides to inventive uses of ricochet and col legno bowing, as well as tapping her windpipe with the stick of her bow while she sings to create an extraordinary, almost nonhuman sound effect.

The spirit of experimentation was also a driving force behind classically trained cellist Kevin Olusola, a member of the Sing-Off winning, a cappella group Pentatonix.

He was invited to join the group after his “celloboxing” version of “Julie-O” (composed by Mark Summer of Turtle Island Quartet) went viral on YouTube. Olusola had taught himself to beatbox and began to combine it with the cello while studying abroad in China.

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At first he was hesitant. “I was afraid people would say I was tarnishing this beautiful instrument with its hundreds of years of history,” he laughs, “but I thought we had to find a way to make classical music relevant to this day and age.” With influences ranging from Kenny G. to Stevie Wonder to Usher, Olusola experimented broadly by exploiting  the cello’s capabilities in a variety of popular styles.

In his video performance of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” he plays the vocal line on the cello while beatboxing a rhythmic accompaniment. Motivated by a desire to change the status quo of music through his own unique sound, Olusola delved into many other types of music with his cello and voice.

“I explored jazz, I explored worship band,” he says. “I played the cello in all those avenues. The cello is close to the human voice. From a philosophical standpoint, I explore, I emulate.”

His favorite cellist? “Jacqueline du Pré, by far,” he says without hesitation. “She put an element to her playing that was so raw and organic—it wasn’t just this beautiful esoteric thing.”

Although Creager, Redhage, Moody, and Olusola can hardly be more different as artists, their advice for would-be cellists exploring their singer-songwriter side is remarkably similar.

All stress the importance of listening widely to popular music of all kinds. “Listen and emulate,” advises Olusola.

“What music do you like? How can you incorporate it into your own music? Emulate the feel and texture of a hip-hop song. Take the vocal feel of a singer you like, and put it on the cello. Explore your own unique feeling and touch.”

Says Redhage, “Listen voraciously. Go to live music, support the musicians, buy actual CDs. Find a band to play in, and improvise in whatever style comes naturally.

“Then learn how to read charts, chord changes, and jazz bass lines. The landscape of today’s music is rapidly changing shape, so the more genres you can play adeptly, the greater chance you have to make a go of it.”

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