An Incomplete History of Well-Placed Cellos in Pop Music

From "Yesterday" to Ra Ra Riot's The Orchard.

1965 Paul McCartney records "Yesterday" with the help of a cello, two violins, and a viola. George Martin's string arrangements make the song sound unlike anything the Beatles had previously released, while also giving it an added sense of melancholy. Guinness World Records has named "Yesterday" the most recorded song in history.

"A lot of times in music today, string players are used as, like, definitely textural—as sort of an added-on arrangement-type thing," said Wes Miles, lead singer of Ra Ra Riot, whose sound is largely defined by the string arrangements of cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller. "But in our band, it's evolved in the way we write any song. [Lawn and Zeller] write their own parts, they interpret what they want to as opposed to sheet music."

1966 Sonny Bono writes the cello-drenched "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" for Cher, and the song reaches #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

1996 Scottish pop band Belle and Sebastian release their debut album Tigermilk. Cellist Isobel Campbell appears on four studio albums before leaving the band in 2002. Since then she's released two more solo albums and three with Mark Lanegan.

2006 After forming at Syracuse University, Ra Ra Riot gains a spot on the CMJ Music Marathon, playing venues in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

"Milo, our guitar player, he brought everyone together and knew everyone from different channels in college," Miles explained. "I was trying to start another band at the time, and he just sort of invited me over and said 'You should play with us.' "

2007 Ra Ra Riot loses their drummer, John Pike, when he drowns in Buzzards Bay, off the coast of southern Massachusetts, following a show. A month later, the band releases their eponymous EP, heavy on string arrangements.

"The girls really want to and are interested in writing their own parts," Miles says, "and as far as a conversation about what each song needs or [what] we want to hear from it, there's a dialogue between us."

2008 Ra Ra Riot signs to Seattle-based Barsuk Records, recording their vigorous debut album The Rhumb Line at Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville.

2011 Drummer Gabriel Duquette, who replaced Pike, announces he's leaving the band to teach drum lessons before their upcoming tour in support of last year's sophomore effort The Orchard—for which Chris Walla mixed nine of the album's 10 songs. Cellist Lawn takes her turn at lead vocals on "You and I Know."

"She had a specific idea for this song and sang on the demo and had an idea of where she wanted to take it, so it made the most sense for her to sing," Miles says. "It makes the album more dynamic and the recording process more dynamic, too."

bmcgrath@seattleweekly.com

 
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