The Welcome Wagon
In the very early morning of July 1, 2017, Pastor Vito Aiuto stood before a bonfire on a grape farm in the Central Valley of California, just outside of Fresno. It was still dark, the embers of the bonfire rising into an infinite black sky. Vito’s arms were around his wife, Monique, as they watched the morning light slowly illuminate the face of their 10-year-old son, Isaiah. Soon, they would fly back to Brooklyn to a life left behind two months before, a life that had begun to feel unmoored, maybe even unbearable. But the sabbatical trip had been filled with moments of grace, large and small. The bottle of icy grappa left on their table with a smile in Rome. The view of the city, ancient and lovely, from the window of their hotel. The sense of ghosts weaving between the tourists, nuns, and schoolchildren. The days spent on the farm, making bad table wine, having good conversation, and sleeping in the beds of dear friends. In the moments of connection these other moments bestowed, Vito knew something had been restored. He was ready to go home. “It felt like we had been changed, and so to go home was going to be all right,” he says. Home would feel like home again.
That feeling, of being welcomed back into your own home, your own life, your own family, and your own faith pervades Esther, the fourth release by Welcome Wagon. Shortly after Vito returned to Brooklyn, he found himself holding his guitar and allowing his fingers to play a few notes that just felt…right. Those notes would come to remind him of that morning outside Fresno and would eventually come to be “Isaiah, California,” the first song on the album, and the first song written for it. Over time, other songs arose, and Vito captured them with gratitude. An album began to take shape.
Then the pandemic hit, and Vito’s strumming, lyrics, and thoughts became the soundtrack of the family’s lockdown lives. Though Monique had given up painting a decade prior, she now felt an urge to go home as well, to reconnect not just with an artistic identity but with her midwestern family. As an art student at The Cooper Union in New York, she had passed the lonely hours in her studio listening to the calming crackle of cassette tapes her grandmother had sent on which she’d recorded herself reading the bible. As a young mother, Monique had flown home from her grandmother’s funeral with a treasure trove of old magazine clippings, wrapping paper scraps, and invitations sent more than half a century before. Now, with her grandmother’s cassettes playing in the background, Monique began using pieces from this collection to create large-scale collages, beautiful, evocative, and almost haunting in their pastiche of the past. “Using the music as a starting point, I wove together any objects on hand that fit with the chords, the vision, the melody, the spirit of the songs,” says Monique, whose paintings provide the album art. Her grandmother, Esther, gave the album its name.
In fact, to the extent that Esther is a departure for Welcome Wagon, it’s thanks to Monique’s contribution to it—an artistic representation of the wholeness the couple found after their sabbatical trip. Recorded mostly in the spring of 2021 at Mason Jar Music by Jeremy McDonald and in the summer of 2021 at Sounds Familyre studios by Daniel Smith (Danielson), the songs often put Monique’s voice front and center, giving the album a certain balance and depth. Meanwhile, some of the bible recordings feature in the songs, making the project both a family affair and a tapestry of legacy.
Yet as much as Esther is about homecoming, it is also about making peace with—and a home in—uncertainty. In both family and faith, there is a sense of profound knowing and equally profound mystery, which Welcome Wagon explores lyrically and sonically. Chords remain unresolved, their progressions posing questions rather than offering answers. “I Know You Know” poignantly details what doesn’t need to be asked of an intimate partner, while the delicate chorus of “Consolation Blues” repeats “I know, I know, I know, I know” as if the singers were trying to convince themselves. The raucous ‘Lebanon’ describes a childhood experience through the uncertain filter of memory, is followed by the gorgeous exaltation of revelation and transformation in “Nunc Dimittis,” the Latin text of Luke 2:29-32. In “Matthew 7:7,” the verses speak of the reliability of unconditional love. But even that song of ultimate affirmation begins with a question.
In Esther, the questioning is the destination, and it is one where peace can be found and home—and art—can be made. There’s a salve there. There is music. There are moments of grace, large and small. Welcome.