By Dawn Duncan
This month, Scene talks to four of the regional music scene’s string divas.
Alana Rolfe is a well-known member of indie rock band Fierce Bad Rabbit, as well as the three-piece act Stella Luce. In these bands, Alana’s strong viola presence, along with her signature vocals, put this often mislabeled instrument in the limelight. Amy Morgan is the cellist in alternative rock band, Post Paradise. Her fusion of classical cello instruments interwoven with the band’s unique orchestration of edgy rock, coordinated light show, and Nick Duarte’s vocals is a key piece of the band’s sound. Sara Rolfe is predominantly a violinist and currently in the bands Talisker Skye and Northpaw. Kira Lynn Sands is a cello and guitar player with multiple acts, including The Tramps, Shaley Scott, Talisker Skye, Kira and the Orifice, the Murderarrs, and Hermanas de los Muertos.
Scene: Tell us about your training and how you got to this point.
AR: I was given my first violin at age five and was trained in the Suzuki Method. When you first start out, you’re actually given a cracker box that has strings attached to it and you learn to hold the piece correctly. I can remember learning to handle the piece in order to prove I was ready for the real deal. When I was 12, I was in junior orchestra and was asked to do viola parts. I got into the C string on viola and when it shook my jaw, I fell in rock & roll love! It was then that I switched to viola. I learned flute in band, classical guitar in high school, and I’m self-taught on banjo, mandolin, sitar, oboe, and clarinet (rather poorly on a few of these).
SR: I was also Suzuki trained starting at age five with violin. I learned to read music from my mother, who taught me on the piano. I also learned trombone and ended up in the concert band, jazz band, and marching band. I’m self-taught on mandoIin and guitar. I bought a cheap guitar during college and learned Indigo Girls songs and my roommate and I would sing them. I also played in the Iowa State Symphony Orchestra in college.
AM: I started out being classically trained and took what I learned into Post Paradise. I began playing when I was eight, learning in school and taking private lessons through high school. I played in the Colorado Youth Symphony and CSU Symphony prior to Post Paradise. The band has been my biggest training ground by far.
KLS: All of the instruments I play are completely self-taught, with the exception of my father showing me some guitar chords. I play cello, guitar, piano, Celtic harp, and the macaroni box. The cello is something that I always wanted to play but, could never afford. I found one on Craigslist for $250 and it was love at first sight; I even recorded a song with it that first night. I have only been playing cello for five years.
Scene: Did you always foresee being a musician?
AR: Yes. When I was in first grade, we had a class project where we wrote a little book of our own. In the author section, I wrote, “I’m Alana Rolfe and when I grow up, I want to be a rock star.” It all started there. On the school playgroun, I would play “band,” and recruit people to be in my little music troupe. When I was 12,another kid,(Brett Boswel), and I founded a band called Psychobabble. We played for the D.A.R.E. grad ceremonies and at Iowa State dorm parties (as in big stage, no people there). In high school, I had an all-girl band called Sluts With Problems (SWP) and was also a folk singer at coffee houses. My mom would drive me to the venues and I would make $40 in free coffee.
SR: According to my mom, I would sing solos in church at the age of three. I’ve always had lots of music in my life: church, school, campfires, square dances and sing-alongs. I didn’t really consider being a musician as a profession until I was in the middle of my master’s thesis in college. The first band is so exciting and you’re sure you’re going to take over the world, define new types of music, and make your mark. I managed to finish my thesis and that probably paid off the most over the years. Currently, I like the mix of science during the day and creativity in music at night. I’m free to do a wide range of creative projects.
AM: I started out playing cello very young, but it wasn’t until I joined Post Paradise and was able to experience writing my own music and playing in a rock setting that I truly fell in love with being a musician. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
KLS: I knew by age 3 that I was born to be a “rock star”. I had a little play microphone and a boom box with a “Barbie and the Rockers” tape. I put on shows for all of my parents’ friends. I even did my own backup vocals. I grew up around bikers, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It was definitely not the best environment but it most definitely shaped my style and me as a person.
Scene: Explain the transition from classical training/music to the rock world in relation to string instruments.
AR: I don’t think people realize that the symphony world is very exclusive and sometimes intimidating. There are lots of expectations and people in it practice constantly. It’s very serious. I’m not sure that the classical world fully embraces the rock world when it comes to our classical instruments being used so differently, but this is probably changing with the surge of strings in the modern music world. Usually people have to make a choice to go the classical route or the rock route, as there isn’t time to do both. I’m grateful for my training and that I can apply it doing what I love.
AM: It was a strange transition going from the proper, classical world I was used to, on to rocking out on stage and playing in bars. I enjoy the change, though. I have more freedom to be myself on stage and enjoy playing for people who may have never heard a cello otherwise. I honestly heard from a lady at one of our shows that she didn’t think people played the cello anymore!
SR: When you play classical as a violin, you play the melody. But learning to play other types of music required learning to blend in the background for most of the song. Bluegrass allows more violin melody overall but if you have other talented players, you have to learn how to contribute without blocking their solos.
KLS: Since I am primarily a guitar player, and not classically trained, there really was no transition to rock. All I had to fuel the beginning of my cello journey was my love for old blues, punk, and metal, which you can clearly hear in my songwriting style. The first song that I ever learned was “Reign in Blood” by Slayer. I taught myself how to play it after many shots of whiskey in my friend’s apartment with all of the windows open around 2 am. Someone called the cops, and when we answered the door the cop said, “Ladies, can you please turn down the classical music.” I took that as a compliment.
Scene: What does the future look like for strings in the rock world in your opinion?
AR: There is a massive rise in strings being in rock bands. I was 14 when I first played strings in a rock setting—which was 16 years ago. That was a big deal back then, even 10 years ago. We live in the postmodern era where everything has been played, so it adds a unique element and rounds out the sound overall. I think there’s a huge future for violin, viola and cello; you can make them shred and add a strong rock edge to the music.
AM: Strings are definitely gaining popularity. We’re seeing more cellos and violins in contemporary music here in Colorado, but also nationally. I think it’s because strings add a beautiful and soulful element to the music and people are longing for that, for something genuine and heartfelt, and a bit different from the standard bass/guitar/drum ensemble.
SR: When I started playing, almost all bands had guitar, bass and drums, maybe keyboards. And usually all men. I used to get “are you in the band or with the band?” all the time. As the sound recording has dramatically shifted to better DIY capabilities, also sheet music writing/midi programming has become more available as well. Now, with minimal effort, I can convey a part to a saxophone and clarinet player,(that they can read off the sheet music due to their classical training). I look forward to the future where strings may make even more drastic changes to the way we expect rock to be put together.
KLS: I think that the strings translate so well into rock that they will always have a place there. I also think that people are getting sick of everything being so digitally/manufactured. There is no integrity in “auto tune,” and I think what people really want is raw, unfiltered, and uncensored passion.