Not even vicious Maritime storms can dampen Erin Costelo’s spirits these days. Interviewed between East Coast shows, the Halifax-based singer-songwriter/producer explains that “driving over the bridge from PEI, it felt like the van was going to blow off! My glasses flew off my head in the parking lot.
“Not much could happen that could make me [feel] down right now, though. I feel I have the best band in Canada, and I’m so happy playing with them. Everyone has an individual voice and personality, and they’re making sure they serve the songs really well.”
That band features Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem, bassist Anna Ruddick (Ladies Of The Canyon), guitarist Clive MacNutt (Costelo’s longtime collaborator and life partner), and keyboardist Leigh Fleming-Smith (Matt Mays).
These are also the players featured on Costelo’s new (and fifth) album Sweet Marie, recorded over 10 days in a timber-frame home by the ocean. Its creation is the subject of a documentary filmed by friend/peer Amelia Curran that will air next year.
Initial reviews are enthusiastic, and it was a Top Five add to Americana Radio in the U.S.. “We’ll soon tour there for a month, then Europe next year, but I love playing so much it doesn’t feel like a burden,” she says.
Costelo is rather a late bloomer as a performer. “I didn’t start making my own records until I was 30, and the playing I did was in other people’s bands, as a pianist and background singer,” says Costelo. “I always gravitated to the behind-the-scenes thing, and that’s what I love about producing and writing. With the last record [2016’s award-winning Down Below the Status Quo] and this one, though, I’ve reached a turning point in playing live. I feel really comfortable and happy there now, so you might have to get the hook to get me off the stage!”
Costelo’s skills as a songwriter and producer have long been in evidence, and are vividly showcased on the self-produced Sweet Marie. Describing her compositional process, she explains that “a lot of the writing I’ll do is at the piano. It’ll be harmonically based at first, as I’ll start with chord progressions, and sing melodies over the top of that in an improvisatory way. Lyrics come after, and I’ll edit them for a long time.
“That process has started to shift as I’ve begun co-writing more. I’ll start to think about the lyrics at the beginning, and what that song may sound like, and I’ll write the melodies and harmonic progressions based on the lyrical content. That is different, and challenging.”
On Sweet Marie, Costelo opens herself up lyrically. “As writers we sometimes filter things – ‘I don’t want to be too political,’ or ‘I don’t want to get too personal, as I want people to identify with the broader aspects of the writing.’ Here, I let that go and wrote 100 percent of what I was thinking and feeling. I think when you’re really honest in a record, people identify with it. They find themselves in the songs.
“As writers we sometimes filter things… I let that go and wrote 100 percent of what I was thinking and feeling.”
“I really wanted to be a little more vulnerable vocally here, so it wasn’t just me singing ‘big voice’ through the whole album There are moments of fragility, which I think worked well.”
That “big voice” is nonetheless a powerfully soulful instrument that’s helped her grab attention. Costelo’s eclectic musical style defies easy genre definition, and she says, “I always worry about self-description. As a true Gemini, I’ll get bored with something, then want to try something new.”
“I’m not offended if people put me in a genre they really like. Sometimes I get called a jazz artist. I don’t self-identify as that, but I have been influenced by it, so that’s OK. The same with soul. No-one has called me a hip-hop artist, but you never know, with the next album!” she laughs. “The ‘Americana’ umbrella has been great, as the definition of that is the influence of American music, including gospel, soul, folk, country, and jazz. That’s a nice fit.”
Costelo has recently been co-writing with Grammy-winning Gospel/soul artist Mike Farris (a label-mate on noted U.S. imprint Compass Records) and Halifax soul singer Jessie Brown. “The first person I co-wrote with was Stephen Fearing,” she recalls. “Because he’s so experienced, that was a daunting task, but he immediately made me feel comfortable.”
One Fearing co-write, “Titanic,” appears on Down Below, The Status Quo, with three others included on Fearing’s 2012 album Between Hurricanes. Another co-write, “Try Try Again,” is on Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ album South, a delight for Costelo.
“Any time you‘re acknowledged by someone you consider great is a real thrill. So many things can get you down in this industry, that there’ll always be something that feels like a little setback. Try to take those moments that feel like wins, hold them very closely, and remember them constantly. Right now the trajectory is up.”