There is music I listen to when I feel very sad, and music I listen to when I feel very happy. Every once in a while, though, I’ll find a band that fills both of those needs—one that creates the perfect blend of hope, comfort, and space for grief, crafting timeless words and simple choruses like a wise child.
The Welcome Wagon—the brainchild of pastor Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife, Monique—has long since been such a band. For years now, their music has been the background record of my life: old hymns sung simply and refreshingly, filled with Kierkegaardian lyrics that manage to please both me and my six-year old equally.
That depth and playfulness, though, isn’t a just a fabricated “sound.” In fact, it seems to stem directly from the couple’s other vocations—Vito’s role as a church planter and head pastor of Brooklyn’s Resurrection Presbyterian Church, and Monique’s work as a visual artist and preschool teacher.
This September, The Welcome Wagon launched a Kickstarter for their fourth full-length album, Light Up the Stairs. After realizing afresh what a unique ministry Vito and Monique have created through their music, I reached out to chat with Vito about his church, his music, and how having a foot in both worlds impacts his work as a pastor.
Making Old Hymns New
Vito started off our phone conversation talking about his spiritual history. “I wasn’t raised intentionally Christian,” he said, “but my Mom is Roman Catholic. In college I became a believer—I had a sort of mental breakdown, prayed the ‘Sinner’s Prayer,’ and started attending a local church a few weeks later.”
Vito was a literature major at Western Michigan University, which he now considers as a part of his preparation for being a pastor. “I really love to read and write and think about stories, to enter into them imaginatively,” he said. When he started reading the bible, he was delighted by it all—both the Old and New Testaments. “The stories were so astounding,” he said. “I still get giddy when I read these stories. It’s all about what it means to be human.”
After he graduated, Vito attended Princeton Theological seminary, then moved to New York. There, he met two people who would prove to be major influences in his life—his future wife, Monique, and Sufjan Stevens, the up-and-coming artist and musician who would take Vito under his wing.
When he and Monique married a few years later, Vito acquired a guitar so he could sing songs with his new family. Someone had given him a book of hymns, but since he couldn’t read music, he started coming up with his own tunes for the words. Eventually, a friend pointed out to him that he was writing his own songs.
The Aiutos started performing in local venues, where they often ran in the same circles as Sufjan. “At that point,” said Vito, “Sufjan carried an 8-track with him wherever he went, and he started recording us. It just sort of went from there. Sufjan said we needed to make a whole record. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be a band. He gave us an imagination for what we could do.”
Vito and Monique signed with Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, and released their debut album Welcome to the Welcome Wagon in 2008. The reviews were positive, though a bit puzzled: Was this quaint married couple with their cutesy aesthetic and old-timey style for real, or was it all an ironic joke?