Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon on poetry, their new album, and putting the Heidelberg Catechism to song

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Though they started off as the amateur pals of Sufjan Stevens who only recorded a debut because the musical megastar pushed them to as a pet project, Vito and Monique Aiuto have now been playing music together as The Welcome Wagon for going on sixteen years. They're seasoned musicians, and they've grown to take their career as The Welcome Wagon more seriously, even as Monique continues to work as a public school teacher and Vito, a Presbyterian minister, continues to pastor a congregation in their home neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While the duo's first album had Stevens' ornate folk arrangements all over it and their sophomore effort brought in more earthy gospel textures, The Welcome Wagon's newly-released third record, entitled Light Up the Stairs, is their most sonically diverse yet. Monique's downy-soft voice carries the quietly exultant opener "Galatians 2:20", while a surprising indie-rock vibe inflects tracks like the Yo La Tengo-esque "All These Trees".

Spirit You All spoke to Vito over the phone about recording Light Up the Stairs, his other other career as a published poet, and why seeing a series of Caravaggio paintings in Italy might help sanctify your soul:

SYA: Light Up the Stairs has much more of a rock feel than your first two records. Was that something you guys set out to do, or something that emerged as you were making it?

VA: It was both, but more the latter. I write most of these songs on acoustic guitar, and they tend to be pretty quiet, though they kind of got more dressed up in the orchestration that Sufjan provided on the first one. So we were all together at Dan Smith’s studio - Dan Smith of the Danielson Famile - where we recorded the bulk of the album, and our producer Jeremy [McDonald] did two things that sort of changed the complexion or the sonic palette of the record. One was he wouldn't let me play acoustic guitar on almost any of the tracks. He came over just as we were plugging in for the first song and he handed me an electric guitar and he said, "I want you to play this."

The other thing that was different was Anthony LaMarca from The War on Drugs played drums. He also played a ton of guitar - if you hear any good guitar on the record it's him, not me. But we recorded live with him playing drums for a great majority of the record. Both those things made it feel alive to me and vibrant and kinda rocky in a way our stuff hasn't before. I really liked it.

SYA: Your previous albums had covers of everyone from The Velvet Underground to The Cure to David Crowder, but I can't spot any on this album - are there any cover tracks on Light Up the Stairs I'm just not recognizing?

VA: Well, there's really only one, and it's of a song by Sufjan called "The Greatest Gift". We didn't print the lyrics - I can't even remember why, it wasn’t super intentional - but that song's not out yet. It's about to come out in two or three weeks, and it's an outtake from Carrie & Lowell. I had heard the song years and years ago - he played it at a wedding I officiated, and I had always thought about that song. And then I heard a recording that he made of it and I said, "Man, that's a lovely song. I really like it." And he said, "Well, I'm not gonna put it out. I might put it out in some EP or something later, but it doesn't fit with what I'm doing." And I said, "Well, can we do it?"

I'd always wanted to cover one of his songs because we're really close and, you know, I kind of made it a point to cover some of my other musical heroes like Dan Smith - we kinda reworked one of his songs - and we also covered Lou Reed and The Smiths... You know, in some ways it's kind of audacious to cover those folks' songs, but on the other hand... I don't know if "compliment" is the right word, but those people helped us so much, either from a distance or from up close. And Sufjan really helped us up close, so we were really proud to cover that song. And it's just an incredible song so we were super happy that he was gracious enough to loan it to us.

SYA: Speaking of reworking, you hear a lot of artists doing renditions of the Apostles' Creed, but I've never heard a musical version of the Heidelberg Catechism before.

VA: Yeah, that was really fun to write because there's no rhyme or meter to it. I've been rewriting hymns and gospel songs for a while now and, you know, oftentimes they line up and the chords fit in really easily and it can be done without too much trouble. This one was a lot harder to do, but it was good. You know, constraints provide the grounds for creativity, and that song is probably different than a lot of other songs I wrote because it just had to be. I tried to figure out how you could fit those words into something that you could sing.

And I just love that catechism. We sing that song in our church every week now - you know, it's so short. I was in church not long ago and looked over, and there was one of the children of our church who is three or four years old, singing the Heidelberg Catechism. And I thought, "Well, that's tangible proof that my life has not been a complete waste of time at this point. There's one child who has memorized the Heidelberg Catechism first question and it’s inhabited that person's heart a little bit.”

SYA: Has poetry always been a passion of yours? Did your experience writing it translate to songwriting at all? Are there any hopes you have for yourself as a poet in the future?

VA: I always have loved reading and writing, and I wrote some poetry when I was young, in high school and so on. So when I got to college what happened was I fell in with a group of friends who were all writing poems. I find that whatever community I'm in ends up influencing my life a lot. So it wasn't just that I wrote poems because the people around me were - it was something that I'd always kind of loved. But it was being in a community like that one - where somebody would write a poem and you would be excited by it or be moved by it, and then you would want to contribute to it and you'd want to send them a poem. And I was in workshops with lots of different people that I knew, and you'd be turned on by something that they did, or they'd turn you on to a particular poet... that was the fodder for those relationships.

And when I moved to New York, that happened with music. We knew a whole lot of people who were musicians and who had bands and whose lives were stuck together by making music together. I didn't grow up playing music - I grew up listening to a lot of music and really loved it, but I didn't know how to play an instrument. But part of the reason I learned was because I wanted to be part of that community. I wanted to participate. And some of the stuff translates over - you know, writing lyrics for a song is a kind of poetry. It's not exactly the same, but it's certainly similar. I think a desire to say something in a powerful way or in a disturbing way, or just to be heard... You know, I think that anybody who's a musician or a poet or anything like that - anyone who is a performer or an artist - there's something deep inside of them that wants to be heard. And depending on what medium you pick, you find different ways to say it or to be heard and to try to get other people to listen to you. Right now I do it more through music, but I still love to write.

One thing is time. I mean, I write a sermon almost every week, and that takes a lot of time, and I love to write songs and that's part of who Monique and I are as a family, so there's not quite as much time to write poems. But I still think of it as a part of who I am, and reading poetry is important to me.

But it depends. I mean, one thing about music that's - I don't know if you want to say "better" than poetry? - is that it's so much more accessible. It's accessible in that a lot of people can go to a club or you can all sit down in a living room. While poems can be a little bit hard to get into and they can be a little bit hard to share and, for right or wrong, a lot of people feel that there's a special language that you have to speak or a secret knowledge that you have to have in order to understand or like a poem.

And a lot of the poetry I wrote was pretty obscure... So, you know, I have aunts and uncles who bought the book of poetry that I had made and just sort of said, "Hey, I got your book of poems!" "Oh, you did?" "Uh, yeah." *laughs* And that was as far as it went. But when they bought our record... you know, a three-minute pop song is just easier to digest and it's easier to share and it's easier to put on when you're making dinner at night. And I'm not afraid to admit that I like that kind of accessibility, and I love the medium - it's influenced my life a ton and some of the greatest emotional connections I've had with people, or with God, or with myself are because of music. You know, listening to music was a huge coping mechanism for me when I was a kid, and it still is, too. I'm way off the track of what you asked, though. *laughs*

SYA: What’s going on with the album cover?

VA: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, our first two album covers were decidedly... straightforward? They were even a bit campy. And they very much communicated who we were as a band - husband-and-wife, pastor-and-wife... And I love those covers. But for this one, we didn't want be hemmed in by it having to be a picture of Monique and I - you know, smiling into the camera, or perpetuating part of who we are, which is that we are a band and we are a pastor and a wife. That conceit has already been established.

Monique is responsible for all the visual stuff for this record - so for this one as we talked about what some of the themes of the record were or what we wanted to say or how we wanted to be heard, we definitely decided that we wanted to be led by our own lights and by our own intuition rather than, "Well, we need to make it look like the other ones, or we need to communicate something or other..."

Like I said, on the first one there's a lot of text, and it looks like an album cover you would have pulled out of the gospel section of a used vinyl store in the 60s or something. This one, we want to put it in people's hands and let them appreciate it or love it or be confused by it without the constraints of, "Hey, we are this gospel band and this is our third record." I just wanted to give Monique the liberty to have the visuals communicate whatever she wanted to.

SYA: What’s that sort of glass box thingy? 

VA: We love the beach and we spend a lot of time on the beach and Monique started to make these molds for sandcastles, and one of them is on the cover and kind of sprinkled throughout. It's this plastic mold that she made that has the initials of the band and some other imagery that she wanted to include in it. We just started playing with that a lot. We were on the beach in New Jersey and a bunch of kids came and gathered around. Because it’s kind of weird - what we were doing with it was a little odd, and it drew a crowd.

SYA: Your first two albums were both with Asthmatic Kitty, but this one was Kickstarted and now released through Tooth & Nail and Gospel Song Records. What was the reason for the switch?

VA: Asthmatic Kitty was contracting a bit - getting a little bit smaller. It wouldn't surprise me if we did a record with them in the future, we still have such a great relationship with everybody there... But when it came time to do this record, we knew we had to do it a different way. So we did the Kickstarter, and our original intention was just to self-release it. But after we raised all the money - I mean, it was so much work to even just do the Kickstarter. As you know, trying to do a pet project that you care about when you have another job or when you have other things that are going on in your life is really hard to do. Making the record and writing songs and playing and recording - those are all things we have some proficiency in, but I didn't have any idea how I was gonna, you know, sell it.

I mean, we don’t have the stuff for the Kickstarter yet, but when it gets sent to us we’re gonna have to send it all out. And I thought, I can’t do this for the next year. You know, two or three times a night, mail out three or four vinyls or CDs or whatever. *laughs* And I just didn't have the first idea how to do it. So coinciding with this we started talking to the folks at Gospel Song and Tooth & Nail and they were gracious enough to say yeah, they'd come and do this with us. It was a little bit of a different arrangement than in the past because the record was already made, and we'd already put it all together.

So we'll see! It feels funny - and I've said this to the folks at Gospel Song - it feels weird because with the first two records on Asthmatic Kitty, I knew everybody and it was just a bunch of friends doing a project together... I don't think I ever signed a contract with Asthmatic Kitty. I really don't. I may have signed one for the second record, I don't really know. They've certainly been more than kind to us and generous and... I mean, the very fact that I didn't sign a contract and they still sold our record... *laughs*

SYA: Is it a conscious decision for you guys to have no official Welcome Wagon fanpage or social media accounts?

VA: It's been an official decision based on omission. I mean, neither of us are on Facebook, and I suspect we may have shot ourselves in the foot over the years by not having those things. I think if we started doing that when the first record came out, we probably would have built up more, you know, connections with fans and connections with organizations that can help but, you know, we never did that. And a large part of it is that we've both always had full-time jobs and a family, and it's just really hard to do. I know people that do it, but maybe I just don't have as much energy. Or maybe I'm lazier than most people, which is entirely possible.

It just hasn't happened. Like I said, I know people who do it, and the thought of getting on social media and doing these things... the person who did PR for us for the second record told us to do it. You know, "Send something out every two weeks. Do liveblog or, you know, vlog every few weeks and that'll really help you." And she was entirely right, you know. Totally correct. But we are persisting in our strategy of releasing records every five years and then being strangely silent in the interim. That really works well.

SYA: What's the last piece of art you experienced that really captivated you, that hit you like a bolt of lightning?

VA: Oh, I know exactly what it is. So this summer Monique and I and our son were in Italy, and we went to a church that has a side chapel in it that has three Caravaggios in it. And they're all around the life of St. Matthew. And the one on the left - in the chapel, it's over on the left wall - is The Call of St. Matthew, where they're in a pub or some kind of tavern and Jesus has come to the door and he's pointing right at Matthew. And actually I think Caravaggio painted himself into the painting - I think he's behind Matthew. But Jesus is pointing at him and there's a ray of light coming through. And then in the middle - I don't know what the title of the second one is, it's maybe The Inspiration of St. Matthew? - but it's Matthew writing his gospel. And there's an angel above him and he's receiving this inspiration. And then the third one, on the right, is The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. And he's on the ground about to be crucified and there are all these soldiers around him.

And so there we are standing there, and to look at this art you have to drop a euro into this little slot and then a light comes on for ninety seconds. So there’ll be like sixteen, eighteen people standing around - all these tourists, people from Germany and Japan and different places… and then the light would go off, and then someone else would go over and we’d all take turns putting coins in to look at it. And it was just… It was incredible. It’s different than seeing things like I’ve always seen them in art books. Which is fine, but it’s not the same thing as seeing them up close and seeing the craft behind them and also seeing just the visceral power of what the works are communicating.

And, you know, I’m a Christian, and so if you look at those three paintings, that’s the arc of the Christian life: Jesus calls you, and then you have work to do, and then you die. *chuckles* And those three things are actually happening all the time. You know, I’m being called today, and I have work to do that I did yesterday, and I’m dying right now. Trying to die to myself. And there’s death involved in your life all the time, every day. It’s permeating your life.

I wish I could go back. I wish I could see that once a week. I think I’d probably be a better person if I could see that once a week.

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Light Up the Stairs is out now on Gospel Song Records and Tooth & Nail