The Welcome Wagon: Keepers of the Faith Thrive in the Hipster's Den

Music Features The Welcome Wagon
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Despite common Michigan roots, Stevens and the Aiutos didn’t meet until they were all in New York, circa 1999. Stevens was enrolled in The New School’s creative writing program, and Vito—now a published poet, his book called Self-Portrait as Jerry Quarry—ran in the same circles. After being introduced, they found common ground in writing workshops and reading groups. “I didn’t even know he played music,” Aiuto recalls.

Vito and Monique married in 1998, and Vito decided he’d like to be able to sing and play with his family-to-be. So he bought a guitar on eBay and began teaching himself, with occasional assists from Stevens and other guitarist friends. “Then Sufjan asked him to play guitar in his shows,” Monique recalls. “Basically he was playing songs he didn’t really know how to play. And then he’s up on stage playing them. So you had to learn it quick.”

“Vito went along with it,” Stevens says. “I was surprised. I gave him a lot of abuse. He was really absent-minded. He would always forget what song we were playing, and where to put the capo. And Monique sang in the choir.”

Vito’s unique approach to songwriting also developed during this time, mostly as a consequence of his DIY methods. After Monique’s mother gave him a book of gospel songs, Vito started attempting them, “but I didn’t know the songs,” he says. “…And I was making new music because I would get the chords, but I didn’t know what the melody line was so I’d sing another melody line.”

As a consequence, only three of the songs on Welcome to The Welcome Wagonrife with blood, sacrifice and death. But like the Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash and the Danielson Famile, it may appeal even to nonbelievers.

When I ask Stevens if he’s worried about being connected to this project after years of trying to distance himself from being tagged as a “Christian artist,” he’s visibly surprised. “Oh, no! Not at all. I think it’s beautiful music. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or believer to experience that or appreciate that. I think the songs are really sacred, however you want to define that term. I don’t have any qualms about that, obviously.”

Yet another theory emerges: Welcome Wagon is the songbook of the Aiutos’ church taking shape—the album is merely a taste of your average Sunday evening at Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, right?

Resurrection is a three-year-old church without a spire to call its own in Brooklyn’s cross-dotted skyline. While Vito Aiuto is its pastor, he’s also what’s called a “church planter,” having shepherded this congregation from it’s beginnings as a Bible study in his apartment. The congregation now meets at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which on Sunday mornings is a Hispanic congregation by the Broadway J/M/Z elevated line, just a block from the white-noise whoosh of the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway. Sermons are punctuated by low rumbles every few minutes.

Despite a congregation largely consisting of recent arrivals to the surrounding neighborhood—both artists and young professionals—there’s nothing especially trendy about Resurrection’s services. The music is understated and straight out of the hymnbook, and there’s no rock-style band playing—only a pianist, clarinetist and vocalist. “I’ve thought about this record and our music as somewhat separate from the church,” Vito explains. “Not that it’s closed off, but we don’t do any of the songs that I write.”     

So this record isn’t the church’s songbook after all. In fact, Vito registers unease with the idea that anyone might show up in church because of The Welcome Wagon. And despite its place in the heart of Williamsburg, he isn’t comfortable with the congregation being branded “the hipster church.” “I talk about it a lot in sermons: You don’t have to be an artist to go here; you don’t have to be young to go here,” he notes. “Our church is going to change as time goes on. When we started, we had one child. Now, we have 12 to 15. Our singles are getting married. People are getting jobs.”