These days, Kera Schaley lives a happy, ordinary life in Wisconsin, working for a credit union as an accredited ACH professional. But 30 years ago, when she was a 23-year-old college student, she played some memorable cello parts on Nirvana’s In Utero — and then never saw or heard from the band again.
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Schaley tells her full story for the first time on the new episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, and some highlights of the interview follow. To hear the the whole conversation — plus an interview with “Heart-Shaped Box” video director Anton Corbijn — go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play above.
How did you get the call to be on the album?
I was [producer] Steve Albini’s girlfriend at the time. Kurt told Steve that he wanted a cello on the record, and Steve said, “Oh, I have a friend who plays cello.” And then Steve’s like, “Hey, if they want a cello, do you want to fly out and do this?” I’m like, “Yep, that’s fine.”
It seems like you were well aware of how big they were, but somehow it just didn’t excite you or impact you that much.
It’s funny. I’ve met a lot of famous people. And for some reason, I’m not that fazed by it. Although I remember as a kid, the weatherman was at the museum, and I recognized him by his bow tie, and I almost had a heart attack. [Laughs.]
Were you in a band around 1993?
I was actually in a band in Chicago called Doubt. They were the first ones who asked me to be in a band, and I was really excited because I think I was only 19 [at the beginning], so they had to sneak me into clubs and stuff.
So how did the recording process with Nirvana work?
I was only there for two days. And it was just me and Kurt and Steve in the studio. And then me and Steve went first so I could listen to the song ’cause I hadn’t heard the songs yet. And so I listened to the songs and I used to come up with parts pretty quickly for songs. And so I showed him what I came up with for the song “Dumb,” and he was like, “Yeah, that’s good. Can you also mirror what I’m playing for this guitar line?” I can’t remember if I tuned my cello down a half a step or not, but Kurt jokingly said, “Yeah, all rock songs are in E, we just tune it down a half a step so they sound a little different.” [Laughs.] I’m used to people having very little money and needing to record really fast, I still had that mentality. So it took me like three takes and then I got it. And I’m like, “I’m so sorry.” And he was laughing.
There’s a lot of cello players who can read music and play that way, but not necessarily a ton of cello players who can work more like a guitar player or bass player in a rock band and just come up with parts on the spot. How did you become that kind of player?
Yeah, that’s my thing. I had played in grade school, but I quit in the 8th grade and then like all teenagers, I got really moody. And my mom had already bought me a cello, when I’d get really moody, I would pick up the cello and just mess around on it. And so I did learn technically, but then I pretty much started playing by ear.
You were one of the first people to hear “All Apologies” and “Dumb.” Did you have any opinion or were you just focused on the part you were playing?
I remember I heard “Dumb” and then when Kurt came in, I looked at him and I said, “This is a really beautiful song.” And I think he might’ve thought that was funny, but, but he was like, “Thank you.”
And how did it work with “All Apologies”?
The funny thing about “All Apologies” is Steve kept trying to talk him out of putting cello on it… Isn’t that funny? He was going on and on that he shouldn’t put cello on it. And I think I was being snarky, and I was like, “That’s the joy of multi-track recording, I can record it and you can take it out.” But Kurt and I won in the end, and so I got to play that and that one was really just off the cuff. I think I only heard it once and then I had some ideas and I started doing stuff. And I think they just kept the jam part, where I was just playing along. And then later on, he loved the deep sound, like the really deep, groaning sound of the low notes. He was like, “just lay on that for a long time.” And so I just laid on that low note for him. And I got some noise parts in there. I like making noise on the cello, too. And if you listen for some high screeching sounds at the end, that’s me.
We can hear you throughout this song in the left channel. And I guess that’s just you improvising.
I think I went through the song three times, maybe? Yeah, I feel bad now, because I’m like, I should have taken more time and… And tried to sound a little better, because it’s pretty rough.
And you also played on another song, “Marigold,” which has some particular historical significance. It’s a Dave Grohl song that came out as Nirvana B-side.
Yeah, eventually Dave came in ’cause he wanted to record that “Marigold” song. And so I think I might’ve just been there and they were like, want to put some cello on it?
And then you pretty much never heard from them again, I guess?
The only thing I heard, and this is embarrassing, but I am insulted by Courtney Love in that Come As You Are book.
Yeah, in Michael Azerrad’s book, Come As You Are, Steve apparently called Courtney a “psycho hose beast,” and she responded by saying, “the only way Steve Albini would think I was a perfect girlfriend, would be if I was from the East Coast, played the cello, had small hoop earrings, wore black turtlenecks, had all matching luggage, and never said a word.” And you think she was attempting to describe you.
And she doesn’t say my name, but she makes all these references, and all my friends like are sending me this thing going, look at what she said about me. And I was like, that’s pretty catty for a so-called feminist. So I sent her a joke letter, teasing her about it, and she called me in the middle of the night one time, and I honestly was half asleep, but her way of apologizing was saying, “I’m sorry you thought I was talking about you.” [Laughs.]
And this is a very basic question. Did you get paid for this?
So that’s another funny thing. I got a check for my 2.5 hours of studio time and it was like 275 dollars. [Laughs.] I have since gotten recompensed, and they send me royalties for something every year. I feel like they mostly come from Japan and Australia or something.
So eventually you started to get royalties. Is it a pretty tiny amount of money, or has it made any difference in your life?
Oh, it’s helped out. We got a good one right before our wedding and I was like, “Oh, Kurt Cobain knew we needed some money.” [Laughs.]
Now Nirvana did later end up having a touring cello player, and that wasn’t you, unfortunately. Did that bother you?
I think what happened is because of my association with Steve. They had a weird thing going on with him after the recording. And so I’m sure they were just like, we don’t want anything to do with her! [Laughs.] Which is sad. Cause I’m actually a really good live performer. I have a lot of fun playing live and I move around a lot, and I would have had fun with them. But it’s okay. I wasn’t that upset.
They had a falling out after Steve helped create an impression in the press that Nirvana’s label was trying to meddle in this album. But it’s unfair that through that conflict that you got screwed out of potentially being on the tour and being on Nirvana Unplugged. That sucks.
Yeah. I don’t know. I might’ve been, like, really nervous and screwed it up anyway.
You seem incredibly chill about this whole thing. It’s pretty funny.
Yeah, my husband laughs about that all the time. “It doesn’t really faze her at all. She’s so cool about it.” Like when you do things when you’re younger and then you get older and you’re like, “That’s weird. Did I really do that?”
And you did keep playing music for years afterwards, right?
Yeah, I had a band in Athens called Martyr & Pistol. We had friends that owned bars and we would just set up and make people listen to us play without telling them that they were going to have to listen to us play. [Laughs.] I haven’t played in a while. I have really bad back problems.
I’m sorry to hear that.
So it started to become a chore to play, but I’ll probably play again at some point. I don’t know.
Do you still have the cello you played on In Utero?
I was thinking about that. A friend of mine from New York sent me a postcard one time, and he signed the end of it, “bless you and your plywood cello.” ‘Cause I think I used to joke to everybody that I thought my cello was probably made out of plywood. ‘Cause it was one of those student cellos, that my mom bought me in the 8th grade. I feel bad, it’s just been in a case upstairs for, man, like 8 years. I guess I haven’t played in about 8 years.
But listen, as relaxed as you are about this, people will probably still be hearing you play on “All Apologies” in 50 years.
Hey, have you noticed a lot of young people have these, like, pastel-colored Nirvana shirts? What’s that all about?
Yes, it’s huge.
‘Cause I go up to them and I’m like, “Do you like Nirvana? And the first time I did that, it was two girls. They looked like they were 13 and they got really embarrassed and they’re like, “I don’t know who that is. I just thought the shirt was cute.” The last time I asked a guy, though, he actually was a huge fan. So I was happy
Did you end up telling him that you played with them?
I did. And he was like, “That’s so cool.” But he didn’t seem that fazed either. He was just like, “Oh, okay. Nice to meet you. Cool.” [Laughs.]
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