EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Upstate’s Harry D’Agostino On The Folk Band’s Triumphant Return To Caffè Lena

It feels like every week I’m being introduced to some new great band or artist that has ties to Saratoga Springs or the Capital Region. This week alone, I found out about 17-year-old rock powerhouse (and Latham native) Moriah Formica, as well as country-star-turned-songwriter (and Albany native) Billy Montana, who’s written No.1 singles for Garth Brook and Jo Dee Messina. And the week’s not over yet. I just got to know a young group that’s so linked to Upstate New York, they decided to name their band after it.

Well, at least partially so. Upstate (the band) is an acoustic septet drawing inspiration from every style and decade of American music. Based in New York’s Hudson Valley region, Upstate has spent years cultivating their unique sound, a marvelous fusion of old-school, folksy instrumentation with pop-y melodies and a contagious, feel-good energy. The group first came to national attention in 2015 with the release of their critically acclaimed debut album, A Remedy, and their highly anticipated sophomore set, Healing, will be released on February 8. And, as luck would have it, their US tour kicks off at Caffè Lena the evening before. saratoga living recently got to chat with Upstate’s bassist, Harry D’Agostino, about what to expect from the new album and the band’s musical journey going forward.

You’ve been to Saratoga before. Have you ever played at Caffè Lena?
We’ve been to Saratoga once, and it was actually at Caffè Lena last August. It’s just a perfect room for us. We really dialed in the sound in that room when we played. We have audiences in the Capital Region, northern New York and some in western New York, so Saratoga was a good middle ground to bring a lot of that audience together. We’re really excited to be coming back.

Didn’t you recently move up here?
Yeah, I moved up in the fall. I live in Rensselaer, and half our band will be staying in my apartment after the Caffè Lena show. So this is like a local show for me.

Talk about the name of the band a little bit. “Upstate” is a pretty big place.
Well, everybody in the band with the exception of Allison Olender is from all around New York State. We’re pretty spread out. But the original name of the band was Upstate Rubdown, which was a sort of a thrown-together, last-minute name that we just picked. Because when you get together naturally to just make music, the name is the last thing on your mind. [Laughs] Also this project didn’t come together with the intention of being what it is today: Something that is our full-time occupation. It kind of snowballed into that over the course of many years and many iterations. Only later did the name become something that we identified with and connected to more. You kind of learn to love who you are—you graduate into it.

What went into the creation of the band’s unique sound?
We really didn’t go in with any intention of wanting particular instruments or a particular sound. We went in with an attitude like, “I want to play with these musicians, and I want to write these kinds of songs.” Whoever vibed with us, whatever instrument they played, we tried to incorporate it into the arrangement. So it had a very natural evolution to it. There was never a preconception to include mandolin or cajón or saxophone. All those things sort of evolved into the sound of the band by virtue of the instrumentalists that we met.

And how about the newest album, Healing? What’s the group healing from?
[Laughs] Part of it was just the catharsis of [it] being so long since we last made a record together. And the band has gone through a lot of changes as well. We have a new singer, Allison Olender; we didn’t yet have Christian Joao, the saxophonist on Healing. Also, we’ve gone through a lot of life experiences as the band shifted from sort of a part-time musical activity to trying to make a life of this. And it’s hard. It’s not the most lucrative thing to do with your time, and it takes you away from your home more often than most people are accustomed to. So you have to ask yourself what the payout in that is. It’s a challenge.

A lot of musicians talk about that struggle between making music and taking it on the road.
Yeah, we were getting through a creative rough patch where we weren’t writing a lot, because when you’re on the road a lot, it’s very hard to write. So we decided to take this month off in October of 2017, just to see if we could reconnect musically and put a record together, and a lot of these songs just flew together. It totally un-barreled our bottled-up creativity. So this sort of healing we talk about on the record was a cathartic reconciliation with making music creatively.

Now that the band is a full-time job, where do you see it going from here?
It’s been a pleasant surprise. I think our goal—really any artistic goal—is to make enough of a living where you can focus on the art and still be a bit discriminating about the kind of shows you want to play and how often you want to play. Because as a band, we’re at the point where you just have to keep swimming to stay afloat.

Are there any dream collaborations on the band’s bucket list?
This record, Healing, knocked one off our list already: It was [playing with] Jano Rix, drummer for the Wood Brothers. They are far and away our band’s favorite band. We all listen to a lot of music; it’s like a big Venn diagram, and the place where we probably all overlap the most is the Wood Brothers, because [their music] is such a fusion of really strong songwriting, tremendous feeling and rhythm, and it’s musically compelling and forward thinking, too. It kind of hits all the bases, and that’s what we’re trying to do with Upstate. So working with Jano is the reason the record sounds the way it sounds and the reason we feel so good about [having made] it.

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