Upstate Rubdown

The next time someone complains, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” feel free to grab their ear and point them in the direction of Upstate Rubdown.

Pulling from the greatest corners of American music, this group has the power to get feet moving with or without amplification. Like fresh-farmed vegetables, their music is as organic as it is good for you. From foot-stomping bass, highlighted by the slap of a cajon, to the familiar strums of the mandolin and guitar over a wailing saxophone – there’s so much going on instrumentally that when the harmonious lead vocalists chime in the result is nothing short of a homegrown hurricane of sound. 

Hailing from across the state of New York, the lineup varies from show to show, but is almost always headlined by the unmistakable harmonic trio of Mary Kenney, Kate Scarlett, and Melanie Glenn. While they may be enchanting, they project a wave of goodwill that makes any comparison to the Sirens of Odysseus a (understandable) misstep. We were lucky enough to wrangle bassist Harry D’Agostino and Melanie Glenn for a quick chat about what makes Upstate Rubdown so damn loveable.

You guys are from all over New York, how did you come together?

Mel:

We met on campus at Uni New Paltz. It slowly evolved as people met. It started just at a party like, “I play music, you do too, cool!”

Harry:

Yeah, we’re from all over New York State. The original core group was this guy Oliver Kammeraman and a couple of the ladies, Melanie and Mary, and they’re from Ithaca, Binghamton and Rochester respectively. So that’s where you get the ‘Upstate’ thing.

Over time people have moved away and at each juncture we’ve said “Oh, she moved to California, he moved away, maybe that’s all we’re gonna do.” But every time that happened we found someone to fill their shoes or provide a new role, just to bring more people into the music. So we just became a bigger, more capable group.

Upstate Rubdown seems almost like onomatopoeia. A word that sounds like what it describes. Do you think your name could also double as a description of your sound?

Mel:

I think that there’s definitely a hunkered down feeling upstate sometimes. People just wanna groove and dance, so partially I see that with the “upstate” part, but also just because we want people to have fun, dance and get down to our music.

Do you think you guys fit in any one genre?

Mel:

No, I don’t think we do. Our influences are from a lot of different areas of music. I think our instrumentation also allows some mixing of genres.

And of course musically, music is so universal that wherever we’re coming from we can still talk to each other through the music. It’s kind of corny to say, but it’s like a melting pot. Each person brings their little thing. But I love just being able to talk with all the guys and get a really different perspective.

Harry:

This is a question that we get a lot because I think we all think of genres more for one groove, or one part of a song. Like, “Hey I want a bluesy part here, or maybe a gospel section.” So when we describe ourselves in one genre it’s more limiting. One thing that does work is ‘Americana’. We’re all adherent and strongly influenced by American music. Music from certain cities or regions like New Orleans, Detroit, or the Appalachian’s. So Americana hints at that, even if we sound differently in an aesthetic sense to bands that actually fit that genre.

How does having a trio of singers affect your songwriting?

Mel:

Well we all take part in the songwriting process. I want to give credit to everybody. For me, I really hone in on the vocal harmonies, and all three of us ladies do. We break up into a section sometimes from the instruments and percussion so we can hone in on each harmony and each word.

All of us have different backgrounds in music. We don’t know a lot of theory, but we just feel it and have heard the harmonies we like from different genres and blend it together. From a church background to soul music, and also some random great country singers and bluegrass bands that harmonize so well.

Harry:

Three-part harmony is an incredible door for a composer and arranger to use. The fact that the ladies are so talented and able to execute so many harmonies and difficult parts is very freeing for us as writers. Traditionally you want to stack them together and break them up into chords to make it easy because they’re singers and you don’t want to put too much on them. But I can treat them more like another instrument. You can put notes that traditionally have friction together. And that’s the core of our arrangement. We’ll try to figure out ways to do this music with whoever we can get for a gig, but the songs require all three ladies. That three part vocal harmony is the centerpiece of the arrangement.

Do you find that you’re a part of a large movement of acoustic, bluegrass and folk bands like yourselves, or do you feel almost novel among performers today?

Mel:

Sometimes I do feel that way, because there’s a pull of bringing back very harmonic, acoustic sounding bands. Like, what’s that band… Mumford and Sons? Bands like that, with heavy three part harmonies are coming back. I don’t want to say it’s a fad but a lot of people feel connected to that. And I think that’s a big part of the festival culture as well, just getting back to your roots with an acoustic sound.

Harry:

I think this is a good time for music, and there’s a lot of performers who, partly because of the Internet, are able to learn and hear so many great records. I meet more and more people who have really done their homework with American music now than I did a decade ago. I think there are a lot more performers who convey what you could call nostalgia, but I think it’s also seriousness. The music comes from a place, and it respects its history and heritage. I certainly hope that we’re a part of that, but I do also think we’re unique just because of the musicians and instruments that we’ve assembled with that aim. I think the balance of acoustic instruments and influences from classic recordings from over many decades of music in the United States makes us a part of this unique thing that’s happening in music. I’m very optimistic. Because what you get out of it is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. If you blend a lot of different influences from people that would never have had the opportunity to meet then you can become a vessel for mixing those different sounds and ideas.

What do you think Upstate Rubdown is a vessel for in that sense?

Harry:

I think we’re a vessel for connecting influences from different decades and regions. From people and places and sounds that originated in very diverse circumstances. There’s not a lot that Motown Detroit has in common with New Orleans, Dixieland, or more modern funk from New Orleans, or Appilachian music from the Carolinas or Blue ridge mountains. But the common thread for us is that it’s all music that moves us. It feels like it comes from somewhere. So we can be a vessel for how those sounds relate to one another and find commonality, and we get something new out of that.

Mel:

We love Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Curtis Mayfield. Some of us really love the Wood Brothers, and there’s a bunch of us who really enjoy Hiatus Kaiyote, which is a whole different genre, but they pull from Stevie Wonder and great folk singers, so it ranges. There’s so many of us that it ends up being so many different things

You played on both large and small settings at Otis. What’s your favorite setting to play in?

Mel:

Our intimate settings feel better because our sound is acoustic. But at the same time we are playing more amplified, and it’s quite a journey to learn that and to get familiar with it, but we’re getting more used to playing with great sound guys, and you guys did a really great job with that, so thank you.

Harry:

It’s a funny thing, because in a sense I want to just take the best of both worlds. What’s great about a house show or a small intimate room is the interaction you can get with the audience, and what we really want is to play off an audience. We really want that audience who is game for participating in the show, dancing, and being brought along with us. When we go up, they go up. And that’s certainly easier to do on a small stage. But at the same time, the bigger the stage we can get where that can still be true is great for us. Like at Otis, when we played on stage, it was a fair amount of people, but the audience we got was just so involved and excited to dance and participate and kick up dust. So rather than a favorite venue, I’d say we have a favorite type of audience.

That makes sense because it’s a very intimate, personal style of music.

Mel:

I feel like we are really connected to our songs and what we write. Even if a song is two or three years old we’re still thinking about how it will be perceived by an audience. We dissect, maybe too much, around our own creation, but it helps us to stay connected and wanting to keep playing it over and over.

Harry:

Yeah, well the songs are very personal to us. If there’s one compliment we enjoy getting the most it’s that our music is sincere. It’s not phoned in, and it’s very genuine. It comes from a place of being vulnerable because you’re very vulnerable when you’re up on stage. And we like to ask that of the audience as well, for them to open up and be vulnerable, that they don’t try to look too cool or self-conscious. Our ideal audience is the antidote to that, and we find that we get the most out of it when we demonstrate it on stage. It’s often a nice bargain. We’re gonna be as vulnerable, clear, and honest as possible to put on the best show, and if you want the best show you gotta give that back to us.

What made your Otis experience special to you?

Harry:

The immediate feeling when we were one or two songs in, to have an audience that generally hadn’t heard us before or didn’t know what to expect be so willing to kick up dust. Every time I saw that it was almost like a recognition, like that means the feet aren’t staying in the same place. The feet are moving. And there’s no way to make a performer feel good than to physically move in response to what they’re doing. It’s the most immediate way to communicate a connection between audience and performer. I remember that very palpably. I think it says something about the people who came together at Otis. They came to see some music and really be a part of something, and that mattered, and they knew how to be respectful and be engaged with the performers who came all the way up that. That makes all the difference for us. Those kinds of audiences are the reason why we do this stuff.

Mel:

The openness that everyone had really stuck out to me. I really appreciated that I didn’t know what kind of situation I was walking in to, but we got on stage and people didn’t just walk over, they danced over and really wanted to share that experience together. As a performer that’s one of the best feelings to get is that interaction, or conversation between the performer and the crowd.

It really brought us back to different times when we’ve busked. We really enjoy busking. When you’re busking the expectations are different. You aren’t on a stage, there are less expectations. It’s just really fun to start playing and see who wants to stop what they’re doing and stop and listen. No one told them to be there to listen, it’s just what they felt like doing, so it feels really good to us. Luckily the dust wasn’t too bad, but I did start noticing it, and I maybe had to take a couple more sips of water.

So, what’s next?

Harry:

I try to think of getting more serious as a band as the process of pushing over a vending machine. You push it one way, you push it the other and rock it back and forth. We have to work around everybody’s schedules and different things, but each time we push the vending machine it goes a little further. So last year we played 50 shows, and this year we aim to play 100. And among those we want to play in regions we’ve never been for people we’ve never seen, and we want to play a lot of house shows. There’s no easier way, especially as an acoustic band, than playing at somebody’s home. It’s the most consistently warm and enjoyable experience for everybody. So if you wanna hear Upstate Rubdown in your house, give us a call or an email!

Mel:

I just want to say thank you to the people at Otis, both who put it on and who came. We’re not stopping any time soon. Our goal this year is to reach new people while also staying true to the people who have stayed true to us over the past few years that we’ve been around New England.