Sounds Local: Russell Kaback comes out to play
Considering that singer-songwriter Russell Kaback of Greenfield was writing songs at age 12 and played his first gig at 14, it is clear that music has always been a big part of his life. Yet Kaback, 39, didn’t release his first CD, “Message of Love,” until a couple of months ago.
“Music has always been in my heart and soul but I didn’t really have a clue about the business side or have the drive to do it on my own,” Kaback recently said over early morning coffee at Green Fields Market. “I figured that magically it might happen and now I realize that is unlikely so I’m trying to do it.”
It was when he moved from Philadelphia to Greenfield four years ago that the time was right to make the CD and then put in the work required to make sure that it reaches an audience. But like so many others who are trying to carve out time for creative pursuits while juggling other responsibilities, Kaback has found it’s not easy, but it can be done.
He is a stay-at-home dad for his two daughters, both under the age of 6, and also teaches music part time at the Four Rivers Charter Puiblic School in Greenfield. His wife, Holly, is a midwife at Baystate Franklin, a job that he said is more than full time.
Kaback will perform his soul-folk songs at a series of local shows. The first of these is at The Rendezvous, 78 3rd St., Turners Falls, on Saturday, Feb. 8, at 9:30 p.m. On Saturday, Feb. 22, at noon he will be at the Stone Soup Cafe at the All Souls Church, 399 Main St., Greenfield (a pay-what-you-can community lunch). On Saturday, March 1, at 8 p.m., he will perform at Sam’s Pizza, 235 Main St., n Northampton, and on Tuesday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m., at Luthier’s Co-op, 109 Cottage St., Easthampton. All of these shows are free, but tips are always appreciated.
Kaback was born in St. Louis but grew up in Montreal. His mother, who was born in a refugee camp, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was determined that her children would learn how to play a musical instrument. Kaback chose the violin but, like a lot of kids, wasn’t thrilled with the formalized method of music lessons. (“They involved lots of crying,” he recalled.) It wasn’t until he picked up a guitar and started teaching himself songs from his father’s “Great Songs of the Sixties” song book that he discovered his true musical path.
“I was thinking about doing some Pete Seeger songs tonight (He had a show in Troy, N.Y., the day of our conversation) and I realized ‘If I Had a Hammer’ was one of the first songs I ever taught myself to play,” he said.
He first took to the stage in 1989 in Albany, N.Y., where his family had relocated. Over the years, he would perform solo and in various bands in cities that included New York and Philadelphia. He recorded in Nashville with Teddy Jack Bridges, the son of Leon and Mary Russell, but the recordings were never released.
Kaback did some traveling, soaking up influences along the way and, in 2007, he had the opportunity to teach music on the Caribbean island of Anguilla and work with one of his reggae idols, Bankie Banx. The influence of the experience can be heard in his music.
While living in Philadelphia, Kaback taught music in middle school full time, which left little time or energy for his own music. After eight years in the city, the family was looking for a change. Both he and his wife attended Clark University in Worcester and had visited the Pioneer Valley a number of times. They knew this was a place they wanted to live. The move to Greenfield provided more time for his music as he stepped back from full-time teaching and settled into an enjoyable part-time job at the charter school.
He also found a vibrant music scene once he settled in this area.
“I feel more at home here,” he said. “And when I first got here, I was very gung ho about the music scene. I was getting out there and checking out musicians like Heather Maloney, Jamie Kent and the Sun Parade. But I laid low when I was making the record and now I’m getting back out there.”
Perhaps the best part of moving here was that it brought him in touch with producer Billy Straus of Putney, Vt., which Kaback described as “meeting the right person at the right time.” A seasoned studio veteran who has worked with Bruce Springsteen and XTC, Straus produced and mixed “Message of Love.”
Straus recorded Kaback at Q Studios in Somerville and brought in a group of A-list musicians, including guitarists Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Martin Sexton) and Kevin Barry (Paula Cole, Peter Wolf) as well as Sean Altman and Shutesbury native Naia Kete on backing vocals.
Kaback gathered six of what he felt were his best songs and they recorded the EP in two days. When he performs, he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, but on the disc the songs are embellished with horns, organ, violin, mandolin and the backing vocals.
“Message of Love” is full of life-affirming lyrics combined with a soulful folk sound that reflects his influences, ranging from Bob Marley to Van Morrison. The title track, which sounds like Amos Lee with a good groove, starts with a simmering organ and guitar, then Kaback sings, “When my time is over/All will be done, all will be done/Until that day I sing my song/ Making my run for the glory sun/Twenty years in Babylon/Spending my time, drinking their wine/Today’s the day I travel on/Changing my mind for to claim what’s mine.”
Kete shares vocals with Kaback on this tune and her sweet voice combined with his smooth, clear vocals add to the beauty of the song.
“Everyone talks about love and how it’s the most important thing, right? But what does that really mean?” asked Kaback. “So maybe for me, or at least through this song, it’s about the truth and just the essence of life itself. And that we should treat each other kindly and that people act selflessly.”
From “Built to Last,” a song written during his days teaching in Philadelphia, to the love song “Holly Ann,” the six songs here will win over listeners and leave them wishing this was a full-length album.
As he looks ahead, Kaback said he might like to perform with other musicians and do some touring, but that now he is focused on connecting with an audience.
“I don’t really have any grand plans,” Kaback said. “I’m just trying to get out there and play and see what people respond to. I’ve survived this long, where as a lot of people I grew up with who were doing music have dropped it. But I think it’s in my blood.”
For more information or to purchase the CD, visit www.russellkaback.com
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org