[A new dimension for HR's new site is a focus on Art, Theology and Culture. Chris Breslin will be leading our forays into the world of music searching for lyrics and tunes that wrestle with the raw realities of life and faith, and sitting down with artists and practitioners who are doing some of the wrestling...]
Vito Aiuto is one half (along with his wife Monique) of the band The Welcome Wagon, and also the pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. The Welcome Wagon releases their sophomore LP, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, today via Asthmatic Kitty Records.
Hopeful Realism: In terms of being a recording artist and a pastor, what amount of attention are you able to give to your music?
Vito Aiuto: That’s been changing over the years. The first record that we did was completely apart from my job. I would take vacation or I would do it in my own time. So at that point in time we didn’t ever really think of it as anything that we would give a lot of energy to, besides just enjoying it ourselves. The more that we did it and then when we put the record out and it was received pretty well, we just fell in love with playing together and playing with other people. Now the elders of the church and our leadership have decided to have me set aside a little time each year to pursue stuff with music. A couple weeks out of the year, I’ll spend recording or writing or putting on a concert, and we’ll probably tour a little bit if we can find a time. But we’re still figuring out what role it plays in my life and the life of my church, and I want to try to have that balance as well as I can.
HR: It seems like your church is really receptive and discerning on this part of your ministry. I think I read on one of your bios that you’ve said the new record has kind of a liturgical structure to it. And I know that you’ve contributed to some projects like Bifrost Arts’ album and Cardiphonia’s Songs for the Supper project, so how much of your music is or isn’t used in your local church?
VA: Almost none at all. That’s something that may be changing as we continue on. It’s not used at all for a couple of reasons. One is, from the beginning we’ve always had a good music director and we’ve always loved what he’s done. And in an effort not to make it be about us or have a show about us, I’ve wanted to keep a distance. So that’s one reason we haven’t used much of our music. Another is, I think that writing congregational songs is a particular kind of art and I never aspired to it, maybe until recently. It’s not something I ever thought of, like what Bruce Benedict does or what Isaac Wardell does with Bifrost Arts, or what Kevin Twit or Christopher Miner has done with RUF, and there are lots of other people, especially at the beginning. Then I found out that some congregations I knew were starting to sing them.
There are a couple of songs, like the one I wrote that was on one of the Cardiphonia things for the Lord’s Supper, which is called “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord,” I did try and sort of write that as a congregational song and I know some people have used it. But on the other hand, it’s in two different meters. And I didn’t really mean to do that. I didn’t realize till I heard people sing it. I sing it at home, and Monique and I are used to it, but it sometimes lurches from 5/4 into 6/8 in the middle of every verse. I just kind of idiosyncratically write songs and I think you have to be really mindful of how that’s going to sound and how that’s going to play out.
HR: In terms of the album’s shape or aesthetic, it shares a title with a book written by Thomas Brooks. How much did that play into how you conceived this or was it happy coincidence with the “Remedy” cover track?
VA: It’s not directly related to Thomas Brooks. I like that book and I’ve enjoyed reading it over the years. They don’t bear a direct relationship to each other, but one way they are together is that I liked the idea of “spiritual sickness” and “spiritual medicine.” Trying to be healed by something. And he offers a bunch of remedies in there against Satan’s attacks or against spiritual malady, and so our hope really is that our music will be used by God to heal people and I think it has been used to heal us to a certain extent. This is going to sound crazy, but I didn’t really make the connection with the title of the record to the David Crowder cover until it was already all put together. I know it sounds absurd, but it was totally lost on me.
David Crowder invited us down to Waco to do this worship music conference and he was so gracious. I had a couple really great, long conversations with him on the phone and long emails where we would just discuss music and stuff and I got it in my head that when I went down there I wanted to find one of his songs and kind of do with it what I had done with other songs from Isaac Watts like 200 years ago. So I just went online and looked at a bunch of his lyrics without listening to the music. I think I listened to about half of “Remedy,” once, before I wrote a remake of it. I sort of flipped it right off, because I didn’t want to hear at all what he had done with it. We didn’t get it done in time for the performance in Waco. But I sent him a demo and asked if we could use it and he said, “Yes.” He’s one of the most gracious people that I’ve ever met. He was so gracious to us in a number of ways.
HR: Talk to me a little bit about the nostalgia or irony that shows up in your art. I’m also thinking particularly of the packaging of the debut: incredibly ironic, but somehow endearing, still having a kind of honesty to it. How do you approach that?
VA: There’s an essay by David Foster Wallace called Television and U.S. Fiction. It’s about how he thinks that irony is destroying fiction and has almost destroyed art in the West. It’s decimating it and has made a wreckage of our ability to interact with art. And at the end, he basically says, ‘Well, I think the next thing is going to have to be sincerity.’ And he says that it’s basically going to have to be a sincerity that goes through irony. Because you just can’t do sincerity anymore because it’s already kind of been ruined. So you have to pick the flower up off the floor and do something with it even though it’s been stepped on. You can’t find something that hasn’t been sullied by irony.
So it’s not lost on us that the packaging of the first record is kind of kitschy. But at the same time, for the first record, every single last piece of art on that record actually came from Monique’s grandmother’s house. She was raised in that, and everything on the record, we believe. It’s not like there is anything on that record that I would disown, or even the packaging. Some of it is overtly earnest and even kitschy, but I am pretty much ready to stand by that stuff. I think this is true of a lot of people; I’m really tired of irony. I’m tired of sarcasm. I’m tired of interacting with my friends, where we make fun of each other to show each other that we love each other. I’m totally scarred by that. I’m tired of it and I don’t want to do it. I really just want to make music that’s really honest and is almost embarrassingly sincere.
HR: I see a lot of parallels with songwriting and preparing as a preacher. In some way you have to crawl inside of the idiom that your congregation will understand and incarnate it in a new way so that that word is effective for them. Have you found that your life as a songwriter and a preacher intersect?
VA: I think I’ve grown as a preacher the more I actually talk to people that I know in my congregation. The more you interact with and talk with and weep with the people in your congregation, the more you’re going to know them and what they need to hear. It takes a long time, because sometimes you know what they need to hear, but you just can’t say it. Or you’re not going to be able to articulate it in a way they can hear it. I think if you ask God, he’ll help you and the longer you’re at it, he just matures you and you can get at it a little bit better.
As a songwriter, it is a little bit different. For me, most of songs I have written have started with music. They all start with chords or a melody line, or it starts to serve something that I’ll just emote or I’ll speak words that don’t mean anything. So I’m kind of starting with more raw feeling than I am with ‘I think my congregation needs to hear this.’ I think there are a lot of parallels there, but I have an easier time talking about it when it comes to preaching because I’ve been doing it longer. Music’s just a little more mysterious. I think preaching is really mysterious too, but there’s something about music that touches people in a way that’s hard to describe. With preaching there’s a heart-to-heart kind of element where you’re just looking people in the eyes and telling them Good News. I want to do that with music, but there’s something mysterious about a pedal steel guitar or one chord sliding into another that says something that’s hard to put a finger on.
HR: Describe some of the relationships you get to grow and experience as a result of your music.
VA: I think one of the things that I’ve fallen in love with in regards to music is that it’s a really communal thing. When you get even two people in a room, let alone, we just played a record release show and there were fourteen people in our band…so everybody has to find there place in that, everyone has to work together, and you’re all gathered around and in this thing. I really love that. It’s a really powerful thing to participate with someone else in.
Getting to do it with Monique is a great blessing. It’s also really hard, because we’re both really pig-headed and prideful, so when we write a song, play or rehearse together it’s an arena in which we’re being tested by the devil and by one another to see, are we going to be generous to each other? Are we going to forgive one another? Are we going to believe all things and hope all things? If she makes a funny face when I present a new song to her or if I snap at her are we going to forgive each other? So music is an arena in which all that happens. For us it’s like a small business and a really awesome hobby and an outworking of our marriage all melded into one. When I was in college I was writing more. I was writing poetry. As a pastor I write a lot; I write sermons. One of the great things about music is that you’re making it with other people and that you have to depend on other people and they have to depend on you. With writing, you can kind of just be an egomaniac; you can just do the whole thing yourself.