A Hudson Valley Band Redefines Its Sound and Itself
Seven musicians, countless instruments, and an abundance of talent unite Upstate.
Photo courtesy of Upstate
Upstate is not a fan of the number one.
At least, that's the way it seems. Upstate the band, formerly Upstate Rubdown, tends to think bigger than the prime, solitary digit. To start, there's the fact that seven, yes, seven people contribute to the group. Four of them are songwriters, three are singers, and all are instrument-wielding powerhouses. To give names to the music, Melanie Glenn, Mary Kenney, and Allison Olender lead as singers and guitarists, while Harry D’Agostino plays bass, Ryan Chappell harmonizes on the mandolin, Christian Joao swaps between alto and baritone sax and the flute, and Dean Mahoney rounds it all out on the cajon.
Then there's the whole notion of sticking to one genre. It's a concept that's not for Upstate, thank you very much. Instead of locking itself into any single style, the group experiments with everything from folk and jazz to gospel, R&B, and rock and roll.
This winter, the band adds yet another number to its slew of tallies when it drops Healing, its sophomore album, on February 8. Three years have passed since Upstate Rubdown released A Remedy, its debut collection, in 2015. In that time, the band found a new name, a new record label (namely Royal Potato Family, based out of Kingston), and a new voice that it is finally ready to share.
We spoke with bassist and songwriter Harry D'Agostino before Upstate's show at the Towne Crier Café in Beacon on December 28 to learn more about what it's like to create, collaborate, and evolve alongside and in tandem with six other people.
First of all, congrats on the new album! What has the maturation process been like between A Remedy and Healing?
Harry D’Agostino: We all grew a lot as songwriters. We have a unique instrumentation, and we used to lean heavily into making that the centerpiece. [For the second album], we built the instrumentation around serving [the songwriting].
You recorded the second album a year ago [over the course of six days at Clubhouse Studio in Rhinebeck]. What was it like to sit on the new music for so long?
HD: I was comfortable with it, but it was frustrating for some. For Allison Oleander, it was her first record with us. Everyone’s really eager to be touring and supporting this new music. It’s frustrating not to have the record in hand, but it’s better to wait than to rush the album out.
Speaking of recording, did you change your band name before or after making the new music?
HD: After. We had gotten feedback that Upstate Rubdown didn’t do the name a full service. A lot of people called us Upstate as a shorthand, so it was an easy transition and a compromise. Now, you don’t have as much a preconception of what music you’re going to hear.
On a day-to-day basis, what is it like to work with six other people?
HD: We’re all strong personalities. The music we listen to is broad and different. When we’re organized and when we learn to work with each other, it is a strength. If the music moves all of us emotionally, we know it will reach a much broader audience.
We’re coworkers, but in very few jobs do you basically live and work with each other. You have to learn. We just did our longest our yet, on the road for over 30 days consecutively, and we had no major traumatic moments. It’s getting easier and we’re getting better at communicating with one another. “What are we going to eat?” is honestly one of our biggest challenges.
Your new single, “Marietta,” is wonderfully catchy and upbeat. How did it come to life?
HD: Mary [Kenney, singer and guitarist] and I took a road trip years ago and stayed with friends who lived in Marietta, Georgia. We were all talking about the relationships you maintain with people you’ve been intimate with in the past. I liked the sound of Marietta, so I started on a song, then faded in interest. Mary didn’t let this one go though. She took the chorus I had and worked on it. Once we had a groove, it just fit.
“Marietta” may be all about Georgia, but what about Upstate and the Hudson Valley? What’s the relationship there?
HD: We all met in the Hudson Valley and a lot of us were involved in the music in the area. I still play regularly at Mohonk Mountain House, and I live in the Capital area now. Like our music, [the Valley] is broad. You get cities like Poughkeepsie and a lot of rural areas, and there’s intermingling between the two.
Speaking of the Hudson Valley, you’ll be in Beacon for a show at the Towne Crier in December. Is that a repeat venue for you?
HD: Yeah, we’ve played there a few times, and at The Falcon [in Marlboro], and had great experiences at both. There’s a great sound and great rooms, and they attract audiences who really appreciate the music.
Do you prefer those more intimate shows or the larger ones like Mountain Jam?
HD: Every member of the band likes a balance. We love the roaring crowd where you have to wrestle with it and feed off it. Demographically, it’s broad because a lot of us love playing in major cities that are destination music cities, like Burlington, VT or Nashville.
Looking forward, what are your goals for Upstate?
HD: I want to be able to sustain doing this and be a part of the community with other musicians. In the long-term future, I want to use music as a vehicle to collaborate with all kinds of people and make all kinds of music in our lives.
Catch Upstate at the Towne Crier on December 28 and check out Healing on February 8.