“The last few years have been about learning who we are,” says Upstate bassist Harry D’Agostino. “We’ve been knocking off milestone after milestone on the road, and as the touring’s snowballed, I feel like we’ve really come into our own. It’s been a process of discovering our identity.”
It’s an identity that’s undergone a radical evolution in the last few years, as Upstate’s sound, lineup, and even their name have all been through a metamorphosis. Those changes have culminated in the band’s dazzling new album ‘Healing,’ a collection that showcases both their remarkable growth and their adventurous blend of folk, R&B, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll. The record is the sextet’s first release with new member Allison Olender (vocals), their first with four contributing songwriters, and their first since shortening their name from Upstate Rubdown. It’s also their first project to be produced by Wood Brothers percussionist Jano Rix, who helped the group embrace their transformation without sacrificing any of the gorgeous three-part harmonies, eclectic arrangements, and unforgettable performances that have defined the band since their earliest days.
“We were always the kind of artists who felt like we could go anywhere and do anything with our music,” says vocalist Mary Kenney, “but Jano just gave us a musical palette that totally opened us up. He grew up near us in Nyack, too, so he’s our people.”
The band first emerged from New York’s Hudson Valley in 2015 with their critically acclaimed debut, ‘A Remedy.’ The Poughkeepsie Journal raved that the group “need[s] nothing more than their voices to channel rhythm and stoke your emotions,” while Chronogram hailed their “infectiously sunny organic stew,” and The Alt called them “toe-tapping, contagious, and fun.” The album earned Upstate festival performances from Mountain Jam to FreshGrass, as well as a slew of national headline dates and support slots with everyone from The Felice Brothers and Phox to Marco Benevento and Cory Henry.
As the band’s live show progressed on the road, their sound took a major leap forward with the introduction of Olender, who left Nashville for New York in 2016 in order to join the group.
“Allison brought this new energy and a fresh perspective,” reflects Kenney. “She came from this country/folk background as a singer/songwriter, and her presence definitely reinvigorated our musicianship and helped us hone in on where we were going.”
Rix had a similar effect on the band in the studio, helping them harness the emotional power of their songwriting and strip it back to its most essential, arresting elements.
“Jano really made us focus on the essence of our songs,” says D’Agostino. “Our band has a lot of different voices and musical inputs happening at once, and working with a producer we all trusted so much ensured that our diversity was always a strength.”
The band’s instrumentation doesn’t fit any traditional mold—three female vocalists, upright bass, mandolin, and cajon—so Rix, who makes use of an unusual percussion setup himself when performing with The Wood Brothers, proved to be an ideal match. He teamed up with GRAMMY-winning engineer and drummer Justin Guip (Levon Helm, Hot Tuna) to capture the sessions in a way that leaned into the group’s unique setup.
“At no point does our band use a drum kit,” says Kenney. “Our percussionist, Dean Mahoney, plays cajon, and Jano and Justin would have him surrounded by all these cymbals and mics while we were recording in the studio to really bring those rhythms out. Having both a producer and an engineer who were drummers was important to capturing that sound.”
Recorded primarily over six days at the Clubhouse studio in Rhinebeck, NY, ‘Upstate’ builds on the rollicking energy of ‘A Remedy,’ fusing elements of old-school Appalachian folk and modern pop to create a hypnotizing blend that calls to mind the explosive vocal energy of Lucius and the playful virtuosity of Lake Street Dive. Rix pushed the band to experiment with new techniques in the studio, sometimes recording all seven of them live in a single room. Vocalist Melanie Glenn picks up a rare acoustic guitar for the stripped-down “Crawl In” and the smoldering “Who Knows,” while Olender gently strums on the delicate “I’ll Be Fine,” and D’Agostino plays an electric bass for the first time on the breezy “Sarah” and “Marietta.” Throughout the album, Ryan Chappell’s mandolin deftly weaves in and out, subtly switching between melodic and percussive roles on tracks like the slow-grooving “Going Gone” and funky “Young,” and special guest Christian Joao’s horn and woodwind parts alternate between punchy R&B fills and fluid jazz runs. As varied as the arrangements can be, each song is tied together by the girls’ gorgeous, mesmerizing, three-part harmonies.
“The ladies have become a whole different beast on this record,” says Kenney. “With this group, it’s all about the feeling and telling these stories in a way that really makes you believe it.”
It’s that emotional authenticity that drives songs like “Healing,” a soulful tune about taking the hard road, and “Mother,” an understated gem about the lasting impact of family. The song ends with all three women chanting, “My mother she read a book to me / Stand up to them, honey, it’ll set you free.”
“My mom taught me how to stand up for myself and how to be strong and have a voice, and this song was very much inspired by her,” says Kenney. “But it’s also a very honest song about what’s happening the world today, how women are finally feeling able to speak up and tell their truth.”
In the end, finding your voice is exactly what Upstate is all about. It was in the harmonious coming together of voices and instruments and songs that they found themselves, found their truth, and found an identity greater than the sum of its individual parts. With this stunning new album, Upstate invites you do the same.
Royal Potato Family