Singer-songwriter Kat Edmonson is back with Old Fashioned Gal, an album that really couldn’t be called anything else.
Rich in affection for the past but bracingly alive in the present, the 11 original songs on Old Fashioned Gal tell a story––actually, a classic Hollywood “movie” that took shape in Edmonson’s imagination as she began to write them. These songs have all the feeling and the craft, even the entertaining bounce, of the Great American Songbook, from Irving Berlin to Joni Mitchell but they are unmistakably Kat Edmonson’s songs, taking the full measure of her own voice, literally and figuratively. The inimitable voice in which she sings is a musical prism, crystalline and precise, refracting and transforming what shines through it. The voice in which she writes is clear, intensely aware and to the point––an “old fashioned gal” in the here and now.
Edmonson describes her process, “The main ingredients I used to make this record were piano, bass, guitar, and drums; however, there is a 13-piece string orchestra on the album as well as background vocals, horns, woodwind instruments, vibes and other percussion, organ, celesta, harp, ukulele…even a saw! I was trying to achieve the lushness of an MGM musical. In “Canoe,” my lyrics talk about mosquitos and katydids around a lake so, for that song, I went outside one evening and recorded the ambient sounds of insects and frogs. THAT was really fun!”
In little more than a decade, Kat Edmonson has emerged as one of the most distinctive performers in contemporary American music. The Texas native forged her sound performing in small rooms and clubs, then touring worldwide and performing with the likes of Lyle Lovett, Chris Isaak, Jamie Cullum and Gary Clark Jr. Her three previous albums revealed a singer discovering, in her own songs, a repertoire only she could imagine. A critic for the Boston Globe called Way Down Low, her second album, “one of the greatest vocal albums I’ve ever heard.” Her third, The Big Picture, took greater advantage of her songwriting abilities. The Austin Chronicle’s critic noted she “employs lessons gleaned from the Great American Songbook while creating an aura unmistakably her own,” adding that the songs emerge “fresh and dewy … Edmonson’s voice swells and dips and weaves with effortless precision, arresting without belting.”
The “movie” that drives Old Fashioned Gal took shape while Kat Edmonson––at a pivotal point in her young career––was fighting a bitter cold in a Brooklyn apartment during the winter of 2016.
“I was sick in bed for days watching old films on Turner Classic Movies and, eventually, I got inspired and began to write,” she says. “I would watch one movie and then stop to work on a song and then turn on another movie … I wrote the majority of the album this way. At some point in this process, I started imagining scenes for a film that corresponded with my music and I envisioned my songs being sung by these certain characters––a young man who was a songwriter, a young woman who was a singer, and an older gentleman who was a Broadway producer––
and I ended up writing an entire outline for a musical.”
Edmonson describes the heroine of her story as “a young woman in showbiz struggling with her personal definition of success and what it means to be an artist.” The story has a romantic sub-plot involving the songwriter as well as a helper-type character, the elderly Broadway producer, named Bruce. The all-knowing producer is Edmonson’s tribute to the late Bruce Lundvall, a legendary record executive with a fabled ear for the next big thing and a mentor to Edmonson in his last years. She pays affectionate tribute to Lundvall on the new album’s wistful track “Goodbye Bruce.”
Another figure dances around the aura of Old Fashioned Gal––Fred Astaire. Astaire is not a presence in the album’s story, but everything about him has loomed large in Edmonson’s imagination since, as a little girl, she first saw his movies on TV. For a time in those years, she and her mother lived in Los Angeles and attended the same church to which Astaire belonged. Sometimes, Edmonson recalls with relish, “he would wave to me from the back pew.”
“Sparkle and Shine,” which opens Old Fashioned Gal, began for her as a bit of self-motivation in a tough moment. She imagined Astaire singing it, embodying it. “Even though he never considered himself a singer,” she says, “in my book, he was one of the best because he conveyed all the sentiments of a song.” Deeper into the album, “With You” was inspired by the deep longing and the sublime grace of Astaire’s performance of “One for My Baby” in the musical The Sky’s the Limit.
Elsewhere, Edmonson’s inspiration recalls the vocal trio The Fleetwoods (in “I’d Be a Fool”) and even The Ink Spots (in “If”). There’s a flash of New Orleans jazz in “With You,” and the tang of a Hammond B3 organ in “Canoe,” in which Edmonson remembers her live-wire godmother, who liked to dance and to play “Alley Cat” on the organ. “Please Consider Me” came into being as she endured a hellish working trip to Paris that ended in 24 grueling hours at Charles de Gaulle Airport. “The music was in my head,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and I ended up writing this beautiful tribute to Paris – as everyone always does.”
The title song on Old Fashioned Gal is shot through with fresh irony, at first a clever protest against the conformity it takes to be “liked” in the Facebook era but, on a deeper level, a longing for the elusive personal connection in these very fast-moving times. Edmonson says that the voice and the drop-dead wit of the great American singer/songwriter Blossom Dearie were in her head as she wrote “Old Fashioned Gal.” Nostalgia, however, is the farthest thing from Kat Edmonson’s mind and restless imagination.
“I feel very fortunate to be living in these progressive times. Many, many circumstances have changed for the better now. I’m not under an illusion that old days were better days nor am I caught up in the novelty of old things but I do love the romance of a lot of old things… the time and care that people took to make them… the attention to detail and the appreciation of nuance. These are the things that last. This is what inspires me.”
Edmonson produced Old Fashioned Gal with that very attention to detail and appreciation of nuance, but also with that love of the romance in those old things. When she talks about the songs she wrote and realized for the album, she makes it clear that the vintage influences are a means to getting her closer to what she wants to express––nothing less than “the importance of following your heart and your dreams and being true to yourself no matter what.” In the album’s final track––“Not My Time”–– she embraces who she is, here and now.
“This is me, take it or leave it, a humble sentiment,” Edmonson says of the wry but determined song. “Things I anticipated would happen, that haven’t––it’s a funny sort of comment on that. It’s a happy ending.”
Getting to this particular happy ending has been its own hard-won reward for Kat Edmonson, a realization that drives perhaps the most personal song on Old Fashioned Gal––“A Voice.” It was not intended for the album; for a time, in fact, she was reluctant even to sing it. But “A Voice” answered a moment of self-doubt, when other forces in her life and career had led her to wonder about the value of that most essential, literal-and-figurative Kat Edmonson quality––her voice. It is a bolder statement than it may seem at first. This is an artist finding herself, knowing at last what she wants, understanding how the whole of her art can be greater than the sum of its parts.
“I wrote it because I needed to,” Edmonson says of the healing, transformative song. “I’ve been generally self-assured in my life, but I recently found myself feeling very self-conscious, full of doubts. I was quite literally saying ‘If I had a voice …,’ because I felt I didn’t have one anymore. This song is about why I matter: because I’m me. I can’t be anybody else.”
It’s a daunting task, this business of encapsulating Matt Munisteri’s musical self. As the sparkling guitarist on several chart-topping jazz CDs; a critically lauded songwriter and nimble lyricist; an urban banjo-warrior and a sometime session musician; a selfless and devoted sideman; a wry-yet-honest singer; an engaging and winning front-man; and an arranger whose ear-pulling re-inventions of well-traveled songs have contributed to Grammy winning CDs for artists such as Loudon Wainwright and Catherine Russell, Matt’s various dueling career paths might at first seem difficult to reconcile. Additionally you’d be hard-pressed to find another Brooklyn native who grew up playing bluegrass banjo since he was in the single digits; who has recorded with artists as divergent as consummate jazz balladeer “Little” Jimmy Scott and 1980’s avante-noise godfather Glenn Branca; who is regarded as a contemporary master of 1920’s and ’30’s jazz styles, and is an ardent student of American folk traditions, but counts among his regular creative cohorts several musicians associated with the New York Downtown music world. Yet ultimately Matt’s journey through 20th century American music yields a vision which feels intrinsically whole, with his own music always serving as one-of-a-kind reflection of a life immersed in all the far-flung variants of American Popular Song. Maybe it’s easier to say that whatever he’s currently up to, it will be a living reconciliation of rural and urban, long-gone and contemporary, individual experience and canonized scripture.
After leaving his post as the guitarist and principal songwriter for The Flying Neutrinos in the late ’90’s, Matt quietly self-released his debut CD “Love Story” in 2003. Word-of-mouth saw to it that it wound on several critic’s “Best Of” lists, and garnered the number two slot on Amazon’s Top Ten Jazz CDs of The Year. A formidable lyricist (“Jazz musicians aren’t supposed to be able to write lyrics that good” – The Village Voice) his literate songs have been compared to Randy Newman, Mose Allison and Bob Dorough. Matt has been featured on France’s ARTE television, profiled in Downbeat magazine, honored with Acoustic GuitarMagazine’s Editor’s Choice award, and been the subject of several broadcasts on NPR.
Despite a lack of formal musical schooling (and even less useful, possessing a degree in Religious Studies from Brown University) Matt has nonetheless found himself with a dreamy and demanding day job: A freewheeling and virtuosic guitarist, he currently gets to work with a wide variety of artists at the top of their game across the jazz and American roots music spectrum. Better still, he finds that these twin jobs as a sideman and a leader only serve to complement one another. “This way I’m constantly learning, with each part of my working life feeding and informing the other – it beats digging ditches.” When not working on his own projects his primary sideman gigs for the last few years have been playing with violinist Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing; Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra; and with the singer Catherine Russell, for whom he also currently serves as Music Director. He also recently lent a hand to his friend, guitarist Julian Lage, producing Julian’s acclaimed solo guitar debut “Worlds Fair” (2015).
Though an instrumentalist of prodigious technique, and a relentless improviser, Matt has always felt a primary connection to songs, to their forms and emotional landscapes, and his skills and originality as an accompanist have lead to calls to record with some of today’s most soulful and individual singers. These include Holly Cole, Madeline Peyroux, Liz Wright, “Little” Jimmy Scott, Geoff Muldaur, Sasha Dobson, and Kat Edmondson. Outside of the jazz world, Matt was a key player on Loudon Wainwright‘s 2010 Grammy-winning CD High Wide and Handsome – The Charlie Poole Project, to which he contributed arrangements, guitar, and 5-string banjo. He is credited on over 70 CDs, including recent releases by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, and guitarist Howard Alden. In mainstream jazz contexts he has concertized with The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Kenny Davern; Andy Stein; Matt Glaser; Tim Kliphuis; Aaron Weinstein; Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks; Frank Vignola; Jon-Erik Kellso; Evan Christopher; Duke Heitger; Bob Wilbur; Bucky Pizzarelli; and Dick Hyman. With the moorings loosened he has enjoyed long and fruitful associations with like-minded free-ranging wanderers such as Rachelle Garniez, Jenny Scheinman, Gina Leishman, and Greg Cohen. As one third of The Millennial Territory Orchestra‘s rhythm section (along with Ben Perowsky and Ben Allison) his versatility and electric guitar chops are regularly honed – especially when the group is augmented by guests such as Bernie Worrell, Vernon Reid. In 2014 Matt joined drummer Herlin Riley and bassist Reginald Veal to form the rhythm section for “Viper’s Drag”, the first CD by New Orleans’ piano giant Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9 (Impulse).
Matt’s CD Still Runnin’ Round In The Wilderness, (2012) is the first volume of two planned CDs to explore the “lost” compositions of the under-recognized, but truly prototypical, American singer-songwriter Willard Robison. Matt is partial to big ideas and prefers projects with challenges and substance, and tackling Robison’s music met all of these criteria. “I felt this was music that was actually important, and has real meaning – both in terms of its content and its obscurity. This is far from being another ‘songbook’ project’ for me”. The disc’s creation was filled with many eureka moments of the sort inherent in what he terms “musical archaeology”: There were the personal ones – discovering of an honest and meaningful way into this largely unknown, challenging, and beautiful music; and the purely logistical ones – as these songs have never been commercially re-issued on LP or CD, he needed to first find his source materials on original 78 records from the 1920’s and ’30’s. The development of these over-looked gems into something personal and expansive was a labor of love which wound up stretching over several years. Matt has been honored to perform his re-imaginings in concerts at MassMoCA, Celebrate Brooklyn, RoCA, and at a 2012 SXSW official showcase.
As a collaborator, Matt is a co-leader on “Hell Among the Hedgehogs”, (2012) a smoking hot twin guitar CD with The Hot Club of Cowtown’s Whit Smith, and he’s one third of Musette Explosion, a decade-old band with accordionist Will Holshouser and tuba player Marcus Rojas which just released its debut CD in 2014. If this writer had to pick just one more project of Matt’s to see come to fruition in 2016 (other than Willard Vol II) it would be to finally record with his still as-yet-unamed Italo-Carribbean band…but that’s another story, which would necessitate this bio being even longer. So here we pause.