CHRIS RAEL & CHURCH OF BETTY: 25 Years Exploring the Sonic Frontier

Founder of the pioneering Indo-pop group Church of Betty and indie music label Fang Records, Chris Rael is one of New York City’s most prolific veteran composers. Critically acclaimed throughout his recording and nightclub career, Rael now writes music and prose for film, theatre, and world music orchestra.

As a young man in Maryland, Rael made weird, simple conceptual songs. Arriving in the East Village in 1986, he sought out kindred spirits and formed the independent musicians’ co-op Fang Records, releasing the underground classic Acorn by the Mommyheads, 101 Crustaceans’ Songs of Resignation, and dozens of other intrepid titles.  

In 1988 he traveled to India for the first time, discovering a love for South Asian music that colored Church of Betty’s sound palette thereafter. He returned to Varanasi annually during the ’90s, studying Hindustani classical singing with the late Balchandra Patekar and sitar with Rabindra Goswami. His organic integration of these influences with progressive rock n roll broke new ground in world music composition and shaped his soaring acrobatic vocal style.

Church of Betty’s early incarnation included pianist/guitarist Ed Pastorini of 101 Crustaceans, the late Jan Kotik of the Mommyheads on drums, bassist Cindy Rickmond, and bassoonist Claire de Brunner. Later Kotik moved to guitar, and Jon Feinberg (drums) and Joe Quigley (bass) came on board as the rhythm section.

Church of Betty was part of the first wave of progressive acts through the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street. The band blanketed the downtown club scene, playing regularly at rock clubs such as CBGB, appearing on public radio, and performing at public arts venues in the U.S. and Canada. Fang released the group’s first two albums, West of the East and Kashi. Ponk Records released the third, In Search of Spiritual Junkfood.

In 1993 the group toured Europe and performed at the Contemporary Indian Music Festival in Vienna, where Rael met British-Indian world music star Najma. The two collaborated on Forbidden Kiss, a daring update of songs by classic Bollywood composers S.D. and R.D. Burman, eventually released to great fanfare on Shanachie Records in 1996. Performing with Najma, Rael met his long-time tabla partner Deep Singh.

Upon Singh’s arrival, Church of Betty reeled off a series of formidable albums from 1998 to 2003: Comedy of Animals, Fruit on the Vine, Tripping With Wanda, and Revenge of the Hippies. The group became regular favorites at Greenwich Village’s legendary Bottom Line, also performing at Town Hall, Symphony Space, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prospect Park, the National Mall in Washington, DC, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and many others, including National Public Radio's All Things Considered and A Prairie Home Companion. Betty’s live lineup included guitarist/percussionist Marlon Cherry and violinists Gregor Kitzis and Rima Fand.

Rael’s creative community extended beyond Church of Betty. He produced 100 multi-band bills for Fang, later curating music for the original Howl! Festivals. He was a member of the wildly inventive rock band The Hand with Kenny Siegal and Brian Geltner, now of the group Johnny Society. The Hand opened a studio called The Kennel in then-deserted Dumbo, Brooklyn. Joined by producers Bryce Goggin and Danny Kadar, The Kennel generated remarkable music for nearly a decade.

In 1997, Rael met and soon married performance artist Penny Arcade. The pair joined artistic forces and became the center of a thriving creative community in the Lower East Side, producing theatre, video, recordings, concerts and live performances of every ilk. Highlights included Arcade’s theatre pieces Bad Reputation and New York Values at PS122, and the couple’s Rebellion Cabaret, performed at Sydney Opera House in 2005.

Church of Betty scattered geographically in 2003. Following his solo efforts The Devil You Know and Cranberry Street, Rael relocated to Los Angeles for a couple years in the late 2000s. During this time he began creating original narrative video, scoring film, and developing his first theatrical piece ARABY, based on the short stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The text-and-song cycle opened to rave reviews at Dixon Place in 2009, luring Rael back to his creative community in New York.

Rael won the Outstanding Soundtrack Award at the Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2005 for Queer Realities and Cultural Amnesia, a documentary produced by the Lower East Side Biography Project. In 2011 he won the New York International Fringe Festival's Excellence in Music Composition Award for ARABY, which also appeared in the festival’s prestigious Encore Series. In 2016 he received the Acker Award, a lifetime achievement award for outstanding contributions to the avant garde arts community in defiance of conventionTelevision credits include Independent Lens, In Treatment, Outsourced, and Flesh and Bone. He has received grants from the Jerome Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.

Over the years he has worked with such luminaries as progressive composer Elliott Sharp; singers Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, Curt Smith of Tears for Fears, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond; bands Oasis, Johnny Society, Pugwash, White Magic, Rebecca Moore & Prevention of Blindness, Ida, Mecca Bodega, and Life in a Blender; Indian classical masters Amar Nath Mishra, Samir Chatterjee, Steve Gorn, Krishna Batt, and Ramesh Mishra; Balkan folk stars Theodosii Spassov and Vlada Tomova; theatre stars Stew of Passing Strange, John Kelly, and Frank London of the Klezmatics; Beat poets Marty Matz, Ira Cohen, and Charles Henri Ford; punk rock legend Jayne County and pop visionary David Byrne.  

2019 promises to be a year of creative resurgence. Having just drafted his first book, a collection of short story fiction entitled Guilt Sport, Rael will be reading from it at literary events around town. Meanwhile Church of Betty gears up for another round of new music making and Rael will compose his next literary song cycle, based on the short stories of Richard Yates.



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