You’ve heard Vito Aituo before. He’s been a contributing voice for projects by Sufjan Stevens and Danielson for years, but never before has he enjoyed the spotlight. With Asthmatic Kitty’s The Welcome Wagon, Aituo is finally receiving a fair share of indie folk fame.
Released toward the end of 2008, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon missed a chance for last month’s Top 10 lists by a few days. It’s a beautiful, hopeful album, full of religious imagery and ambitious multi-instrumentalism. In just a couple weeks, the label actually sold out of The Welcome Wagon album, and has only recently received a new stock.
A full-time pastor in New York City, Aituo spoke with RELEVANT about his part-time music project and how he balances his ministry with his art.
RELEVANTmagazine.com: Thanks for talking today, Vito. One thing we have to clear up right away—was that your voice in the commentary for The Danielson Movie?
Vito Aiuto: Sonny Aronson, the director of the movie, asked me to do the director’s commentary with him. That was a funny experience, but yeah, that was me. I think he wanted me to do it because I was in the margins of a lot of those scenes. And I got to know Dan [Smith] around the same time that Sufjan did. I played in some of the early incarnations of Sufjan’s band and I was at a lot of those shows, so I think Sonny wanted somebody who knew a lot of the folks in that scene. I ended up feeling pretty useless in the execution of the director’s commentary, though. I wasn’t really sure of my purpose there.
RM: Speaking of Danielson, they did a show a few weeks ago and they played the song “Sold! To the Nice Rich Man.” But on Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, there’s another version of the same song. Who’s covering who here?
VA: It’s a Danielson song, for sure. Dan wrote it, and I just arranged some new music for Welcome Wagon. I loved that song for a long time and when I was learning to play the guitar, I tried to learn it. When I tried to play it, I would always botch it though. So I eventually decided to make it my own, in a sense. Dan sings it so prophetically, he’s like a stomping prophet. My wife and I do it differently and we like the way it comes out … but I do like Dan’s version better.
RM: That song is of Danielson, but the album overall is very influenced by Sufjan Stevens, correct?
VA: Everything we’ve done, recording-wise, is indebted to Sufjan. He produced this record, mixed it and plays a bunch on it. It sounds like Sufjan because he’s on it a ton. I’m not surprised by that though, I’m glad when people say The Welcome Wagon sounds like Sufjan’s stuff. I love his music. If it’s unfair to anybody it’s him, because he put himself in the position of a servant to us in making this record. We made a lot of decisions that he wouldn’t have made, but he put himself at our service.
RM: Sufjan wrote a song about you a few years ago. Talk about that story.
VA: Yeah, when I was ordained as a pastor in 2001, I asked him to play at the ordination service. Back then, I knew him more as a writer because that’s what he was pursuing in New York, but I’d heard him play a few songs and he had some that were sort of spiritually oriented (a lot of them ended up on Seven Swans). So I asked if he would play and he said yeah. I didn’t have any idea that he would write a song that would be specific to the ordination service but that’s what he did. Eventually that song ended up on his Michigan album [“Vito’s Ordination Song”].
RM: A lot of people have probably experienced you in ways they were unaware of. You’re in a lot of Sufjan’s Christmas EPs, too. It’s actually hard to tell when you’re singing lead and when Sufjan is.
VA: A lot of people have mentioned that. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by how he sings, but it’s not intentional. Maybe our ranges are the same, and we’re both from Michigan, so … I don’t know. He sings a couple of songs on The Welcome Wagon, too. It’s not credited either, I wonder if that goes by folks as well …
RM: It’s hard to tell! Now, you both live in Brooklyn, where you’re a pastor of a church. Your cover art is funny—it looks like an old album you’d find in a bluegrass record store in the Smoky Mountains or something—but coming out of Brooklyn, maybe it’s just ironic?
VA: There’s an essay from David Foster Wallace called “Television and U.S. Fiction” in which he says that if artists are going to do anything, sincerity must come after irony. You can’t be ironic anymore because you’re being ironic about being ironic about being ironic. It becomes this refracting, meaningless thing. You have to come through it and be sincere and earnest with the knowledge that irony exists in this culture.
There’s definitely a wink in our art, but at the same time, we totally mean it, too. Actually, all of the art came from Monique’s grandmother’s house, who was a Sunday school teacher for years and years. So I guess we’re posing kind of funny and it’s ironic, but I’m really a pastor and Monique is really my wife and we really believe in Jesus. All of the things on the record, we believe all of them.
We did that kitschy cover because we thought it was funny, but we thought it was true as well. Does that make sense?
RM: It makes sense because of the associations. It’s released on Asthmatic Kitty, you’re from Brooklyn. If you put all of these things together, you’d expect to see that cover. In one sense, it’s very clearly a religious album, and the songs would reflect that as well. But in another sense, you wouldn’t want to hear hymns and mindless folk songs on here. When you factor in Asthmatic Kitty and Brooklyn, it brings out that creative aspect of the album. It’s really unique, it can be sincere in both worlds.
VA: That’s what we’re after. You don’t have to be a Christian to listen to this music. I can understand if you wouldn’t want to because it’s so explicitly Christian in its content. But it’s not meant to exclude, it’s not aimed at the Christian or church world. One of my friends here in New York is an agnostic Jew, and he loves the record. We’re able to talk about it. He loves blues and gospel, and we’ve talked a lot about music and faith and how it all fits together. So I think there’s a place for people to participate with it without being religious. I hope it’s available to people on a number of levels.
RM: So, Vito, are you some sort of a hipster-pastor?
VA: I read somewhere that the chief marker in knowing whether someone is a hipster or not is to deny that you are. I deny that I am, so I guess that probably makes me one. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but I don’t really know what a “hipster” is. I probably fit some of the definitions. But I know that my church is in Brooklyn where there’s a lot of young people who are involved in the arts and have a certain aesthetic inclination. I’d be lying or naive to say that I’m not aware of those things. But we’re not trying to have a hipster church. Not everyone there fits that mold.
One of my good friends here, who’s also a pastor, always calls me a hipster, and I’ve just yelled and screamed at him over the years about it. I think he does it to just try and get under my skin. I’m trying not to care about it. It’s probably more indicative of my weaknesses. But you can call me that, maybe it’s sort of true, maybe it’s not. I don’t know …
RM: Is there ever a fear that some people might be coming to your church because of associations with people other than Christ?
VA: I’ve thought about that, but I don’t think people would last here long if that were the case because we just talk about Jesus and what it’s like to be a servant and how we’re saved by grace—traditional things you’d expect to hear in any church.
We had our record release show at the church building we rent, and somebody came up to me and said, “I came here tonight for the show, but I didn’t realize there was a church here.” I’m glad that they were there, even though they were there for The Welcome Wagon. Maybe somebody will come to this church because they know about my association with Sufjan, but then maybe they’d come to know God’s grace a little more as a result. And I would be in favor of that.
RM: It seems like it’s a fine line to walk, but as long as there’s sincerity and honesty, it’s doable. Welcome to the Welcome Wagon is a very uplifting and encouraging record.
VA: I’m really proud of the record. In the end, I think finding a community of people to work with and be inspired by is amazing. Communities of people who want to make beautiful things for each other and for God. That’s the whole reason we’ve made the album in the first place.