Vancouver singer/songwriter Mary Kastle has found a muse in her Rhodes piano. Since acquiring the vintage instrument in the spring of 2008, she’s lovingly hauled the soulful piece to live performances and features it prominently on her latest and first full-length album Beneath the Folds.
Together with her formal jazz training, piano lounge experience and folk label day job, the Rhodes has brought a dimension to Kastle’s craft that makes Beneath the Folds a virtual throwback to the days of Motown, and a unique spin on modern music. It’s made for a bold and enticing debut album and her first for Vancouver roots label Black Hen Music.
“A little bit of folk, a little bit of jazz and a lot of soul,” is the way Kastle describes the musical mix on an album that includes reggae, boss nova, swing, gospel, Motown and a pinch of piano bar vibe from her years of playing jazz and pop standards in lounges.
Consistent with the writing on her two previous EPs Fresh Air and Another Swing, Kastle’s propensity for exploring themes around self-expression and inner growth came through loud and clear on Beneath the Folds, but with a newfound directness and less self-effacement than in her earlier works. “Early on in the writing process, a close friend challenged me to be more direct in my songwriting, both lyrically and musically. The result was a shift in my approach and a deeper appreciation for what I had to offer as a musician. Some of the first songs that came, like “Drop Your Cover,” are about letting your guard down and just being yourself. I found the blues and some really old-school gospel forms to be quite conducive to expressing those ideas.”
Kastle’s innovative mix of new and old musical forms coincided with a major shift in the world around her. “Bush was leaving office and Obama was coming in, and there was a lot of hope and disappointment being felt simultaneously. Around me people were losing their jobs and many of the women I was observing were struggling with tough decisions like striking a balance between career vs. family. This is reflected in the subtext in songs like “Beggin’,” “Julia,” “Fortress” and “False Alarm.” The stories are personal, but they also mirror big-picture political and social shifts.”
The beauty of her shifting styles and up-tempo approach is that there’s something for everyone on this album. Not to mention an unshakeable beat that grabs hold and makes you sway. With the groove as her signature, Kastle’s versatile palette has evoked comparisons to other soulful songsmiths such as Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Tori Amos.
Produced by Juno award winning guitarist Steve Dawson, Beneath the Folds features some of Vancouver’s finest jazz talent including Kastle’s longtime collaborator on drums, Paul Elias, renowned jazz bassist Andre Lachance, enigmatic guitarist Jeff Younger, Karen Graves on saxophone, Kent Wallace on trumpet, Steve Dawson on guitars and pedal steel, and the lovely Alice Dawson singing backup vocals on “Beneath the Folds”. “I usually have a fairly strong vision going in but I wanted it to be a collaborative experience,” says Kastle. “The whole crew all brought so much to the table.”
And if that vision included charming, entertaining and seducing listeners into a funky groove, then Kastle, with crew and Rhodes in tow, succeeds wildly on Beneath the Folds.
Mary Kastle –
If you’ve been lamenting the demise of real R and B and wondering what happened to soul music, an end to your suffering is in sight. Salvation – as the Good Book says – often comes in the strangest of forms and from the unlikeliest of places, but who would have thought that a young white woman from Canada would release the most rocking, heart felt and down right soulful record I’ve heard in years? Muscle Shoals and Memphis are a helluva long way from East Vancouver, and though the city has become something of a roots music mecca in the last decade or so, it’s never been known for Stax and Motown inspired sounds. But, Mary Kastle sounds like she’s about to change all of that. Simply put, her debut ‘Beneath the Folds’ sounds like a record that many artists from Shelby Lynne to Diana Krall would have given their eye teeth to have recorded. In an era where Beyonce is considered the pinnacle of the R and B genre, Kastle’s slinky, muscular playing underpinned by the smoldering erotic tension in her voice come as a balm to troubled music lovers. From the first phrase of ‘This Train’ with its Bobby Gentry inspired melody and its ‘Aretha sings soul’ vibe, I was hooked. Mary Kastle is a singer who isn’t afraid to cut loose, but who – more importantly – knows when to hold back, when to cajole and tease the ears with what she doesn’t sing. The control, phrasing, and the emotional intelligence she employs in each song are never short of staggering. Supported by her own considerable piano, Hammond, and Rhodes playing, Kastle is obviously a musician with some serious chops and insight into how to craft a song. At times she sketches out the melodies lovely and light; at other times she literally pounds the keys to unleash a tsunami of fat soul riffs that had my whole body shaking. In every instance, she delivers just the right emphasis needed to serve the emotional undercurrent of the song. Like most records on the Black Hen label, ‘Beneath the Folds’ was produced by Steve Dawson. Often called ‘Canada’s T Bone Burnett’, he sounds more like a northern Jerry Wexler on this one. The spirit of his groundbreaking Muscle Shoals production style is never far away as Dawson lovingly layers instruments to give the songs a feeling and setting reminiscent of Dylan’s majestic ‘Slow Train Coming’ or Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’ albums. While that may sound like hyperbole, even a perfunctory listen through the album should be enough to convince the skeptical that Dawson and Kastle have risen to the challenge of producing a modern soul, jazz and R and B record that honours those who have come before by recreating the classic Stax sound while still maintaining a contemporary edge. The emphatic horns, deep soulful bass and drums, punctuated by Dawson’s Steve Cropper meets Dick Dale guitar style make this an album that – like all good soul records – leaves the listener feeling uplifted no matter how hurting and deep the lyrics to Kastle’s songs may be. But, Mary Kastle’s music isn’t all style and no substance. Unlike many R and B albums that have one or two strong cuts offset by ten tracks of filler, there really isn’t a toss off or dud amongst this disc’s eleven original songs. Intelligent lyrics, interesting observations and witty turns of phrase abound as Kastle explores the ups and downs of romance in the modern world. Songs like ‘Little Bird’, ‘Beggin’, and ‘For All We Know’ are all gems that stand head and shoulders above most songs I’ve heard anywhere this year. ‘Beneath the Folds’ could very well become a template for making a contemporary R and B album. Blessed with great songs, a singer with a voice to die for, and musical performances that elevate each track, Kastle’s debut could well turn into one of the year’s greatest surprises. Hopefully, it won’t stay under the radar for long, and that people who long ago gave up on Aretha, wish Cassandra Wilson would break a sweat once in a while, and have grown disappointed with Shelby Lynne’s lack of direction will find solace in the music of Mary Kastle. This one’s for the ages. ‘Beneath the Folds’ is built to last.
Mary Kastle –
[Translated from Polish]
Many people firmly believe that the quality of music depends directly on the number of decibels. On the grounds of such opinions, some performers try to play as loudly as they can, whether on CD`s or at concerts. Unless supported by specific attributes, in the shape of sophisticated instrumentarium, it usually brings the stupefying cacophony of sounds reserved only for those hard of hearing.
I am pleased to have discovered that Mary Kastle proves that what truly attracts the listener is not the quantity of sounds but their choice and quality. “Youth must be fun” is another commonly held opinion. Having made an acquaintance with the author of the album “Beneath The Folds”, this statement must be questioned as well. It is her debut (except for the two previous EP`s) and has got nothing to do with youthful folly. The impression it produces is as though it was made by a mature and experienced artist who, after years of continuous attempts to prove her technical skills, has finally decided to create and release a tranquil, personal album on which, without excessive showing off, she can simply play her favourite tunes.
Mary Kastle plays the piano, which is her main instrument; nevertheless, it did not overwhelm the album as a whole. On the contrary, it is one of its components, remaining in perfect harmony with guitar, bass, brass and rhythm sections. The crowning touch to the album are Kastle`s vocals, being one of its most significant merits. Extremely expressive in the medium vocal range and mellow in the upper one. Colourful and surprising, even in the softest songs, where marked with only minor alterations in their dynamics.
Stylistically, she moves in the areas covering soul and smooth jazz, flavouring it all with folk, reggae, bossa and swing. While listening to the album, we can frequently find musical notes being at the disposal of the masters of that genre, such as Norah Jones and Tori Amos. It is pointless looking for trivial or boring tunes. Despite the self-imposed, demanding style, there is a number of catchy songs that, backed by promotional campaigns, have a good chance to turn into hits.
I think Mary Kastle can confidently be put in the same row along with the most prominent representatives of the genre. Her captivating compositions are simply flawless, which is proved on her debut album “Beneath The Folds”. There is nothing but to wait for the next one.
Mary Kastle –
Mary Kastle started her career playing jazz and pop standards in lounges and knows how to work the groove. She uses R&B as a reference point and anchors it with the use of a Fender Rhodes electric piano, an instrument that was widely used in soul music and jazz in the late 60s and again in the early 90s. But with a backing band of eight accomplished jazz musicians and guitar from Steve Dawson she moves well past R&B, introducing elements of swing, gospel, and country amongst others. Her songwriting is highly personal in a way that opens itself to larger issues. It is a modern take on a traditional form, but it is not a throwback. She moves the music into new places.
Mary Kastle –
I’ve listened to Mary Kastle’s album several time this summer but only truly appreciated it this past week. One of the reasons music is so important to me is that it is so attached- to me- to where I am when I hear it: mentally, physically, socially… Sometimes music has to find you where you are- no matter how hard one seeks to undestand the music, it has to find a way to get within the listener. This album does that- heartily recommended.
Mary Kastle, I’ve learned, is a respected fixture within the Vancouver jazz community, and Beneath the Folds is her first, full-length album. An album that ebbs and flows comfortably between generously-defined genres, the constant is the bridled joy that is Kastle’s voice.
Beneath the Folds is honest- an album that unabashedly embraces Kastle’s many and varied musical interests. With a full-album’s worth of original, creatively polished music, it is a surprisingly fluid and defined mix of soul, jazz, and roots sounds. A diverse listen, the album hangs together remarkably well. Whether this is due to Kastle’s vision or producer Steve Dawson’s acumen is moot; it works. While it may be of interest to jazz types, to these ears Beneath the Folds fits comfortably in the roots world.
In addition to Kastle’s appealing, powerful, and lively vocals, the saxophones of Karen Graves and trumpet of Kent Wallace make their presence known with regularity, providing the album with an even richer dimension.
Tracks move from sultry jazz-pop (“Julia” and “Beneath the Folds”) to light shivers of soul (“False Alarm” and “Do It For A Day”)and even more impressive brushes of Memphis-shaded country R & B (“Little Bird,” “Beggin’,” and “Underwater”). Dusty in Memphis meets I Am Shelby Lynne, perhaps. But while comparison to albums that themselves served as tributes to a style of music may suggest limitation, within Kastle’s hands- and voice- such association doesn’t imply that the sound is watered down. From retro 2-Tone dub effects on the album’s up-tempo revisiting of “Drop Your Cover,” to drops of blues elsewhere, Beneath the Folds is a project that reveals additional textures and appealing sounds with every listen.
Comprised of introspective, challenging lyrics exploring personal themes of universal appeal, Kastle and Dawson don’t allow things to get bogged down by heaviness. As is implied by the fabric fluttering in the breeze within the gatefold jacket, Beneath the Folds has a lightness that contains delicate beauty.