Getting to Know Russell Kaback

The great thing about music is that there are so many different influences and when you mix a bunch of them together, you get a totally new sound.  A little bit of soul vocals, a dash of jazzy instrumentation, a heap of reggae beats, and a sprinkling of folky lyrics combined together equals the music of Russell Kaback.  He’s got a unique sound going down, that’s for sure.

Russell Kaback is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.  The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year

To learn more about Russell, check out his website.

Here’s a video of Russell playing his song “Built to Last.”

 Russell Kaback

You’ve got a real soul and funky vibe going on.  I hear hints of Al Green and Bob Marley in your songs.  Do you include them as influences on your sound?

I love Al Green, though I must say I’ve never owned an Al Green cassette and played it incessantly like I have many other musicians, like Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Leon Russell, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal.  The Al Green thing on this record actually comes from an obscure musician that I discovered in a record bin in a junk shop in Ontario some years back, named Boule Noire.  I bought the record for 25 cents Canadian.  Not sure why it appealed to me from that record bin, but I bought it, and when I heard it, I fell in love with it.  Boule Noire, it seems to me, is like the Quebecois Al Green.  So there’s this one song on that album that I kind of borrowed from to create Woman Of Mine.  It’s called “Je Suis En Amour”.

Bob Marley is probably all in all the single musician that resonates the most deeply with me.  When I hear certain songs of his they really reach me and move me.  It’s his penetrating voice, and the truth in his music.  And the disciplined way that the music is played.  Music at its best for me should be rhythmic, poetic, sweet, and deal with love and fighting oppression and injustice.  I’ve never experienced much injustice to myself, but my great-grandparents and grandparents generations were either murdered in the Holocaust or witnessed it and survived.  So I absorbed the feelings and experiences of my grandparents, and I think this is why music for me has to somehow work to make a better world, not just talk about one’s own personal feelings and experiences.  And Bob Marley is probably the best example of how music can rally for justice.  It’s something I’m striving for in my music.  But even a love song has to be about how love, devotion, respect and a balance between the sexes are the foundation of a just world.  

In doing some research about you, I discovered that violin was actually your first instrument and it just didn’t seem to resonate for you and when discovering the guitar…that was when you found your passion.  Did you teach yourself?  How did you go about finding songs that you wanted to learn to play?

In my family we had to learn a musical instrument, and at a young age I chose violin.  There was plenty of misery involved in being obligated to practice for my lessons.  At age 12, I figured I would switch to guitar.  I took a few months’ lessons with an old rockabilly woman in town, but they didn’t give me much.  So I sat down with my parents’ songbooks from the 60s and 70s and starting playing the chords and singing along.  They must have been songs that I knew somewhat, like “American Pie,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?,” songs by the Eagles, and Cat Stevens.  I did that for hours after school each day.  Around that same time I had a friend Leon who was also picking up the guitar, and he was writing some songs.  That’s how I was inspired to write songs.  He had roots in Georgia and knew about R.E.M. before anyone else did.  Stuff like that was a major influence.  Then I started getting into the “alternative” music of the mid-80s: Violent Femmes, Jane’s Addiction, Robyn Hitchcock, and my biggest influence of the time Dinosaur Jr.  I just would play all of these songs I listened to, and continued to write my own songs.  Leon and I wrote and recorded stuff together, we had a little band, and I’ve had little bands here and there throughout the years.

You’ve had a great deal of experience teaching music.  Have you taught both children and adults?

I taught after-school lessons for a few years before I decided I should become a “real” teacher.  My wife was working hard in midwifery school, so I figured I should get some kind of useful training and job.  When I got certified and my Master’s in education I landed a job teaching middle school general music in Philly, where we were living.  I taught at three different public and charter schools in the city, mostly middle school, 5-8 grades.  For people who aren’t aware of it, I can tell you that while many of us are living comfortable lives in this country, children living in the cities are dealing with very tough circumstances.  Poverty and urban life make it incredibly difficult for kids to not only fulfill their basic dreams, but just to experience the basic comforts of life that most of us take for granted – natural space, fresh air, freedom of youth, peace of mind, food security, investment in our futures.

After a few years of teaching I started to have some great successes.  I had classes of almost 30 5-8th graders rocking out all together to some great tunes.  I created a curriculum of songs spanning the last six decades, and I taught them parts on percussion, keyboard, homemade cigar-box guitars, vocals.  We did “Beat It”, by Michael Jackson, “Jammin’: by Bob Marley, “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige, “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, Sam Cooke’s “(What A) Wonderful World”, and quite authentically I might add.  It was really awesome!  It was tough work though, and I give my respect to all the teachers out there still doing it full-time, especially in the city (I work part-time at a 7-12 grade charter school here in Greenfield).  One of the reasons why it’s taken me so long to focus on bringing my music to the world is because I have this persistent belief that music and entertainment is nowhere near as valuable as work like teaching, or women’s health like my wife does.  But I’m slowly starting to understand that performing music does have an important value to people.  I guess I just have had to put some of my own time into doing something truly valuable like teaching.

I’ve taught some private lessons with adults too.  I do enjoy it, and in fact I’m looking for some adult students right now to supplement our income as we send our younger daughter to preschool next year.  

Russsell Kaback CD

I’m intrigued about your teaching experiences in Anguilla.  Were you interested in Caribbean music before you lived there or did you become enamored while there?

In 2001 I was living in New Paltz when I found an LP at Jack’s Rhythms record store.  I was digging through the reggae bin and came across something that struck me as interesting, I think because it had a song on it called “Remember Bob”.  The album was “Soothe Your Soul” by Bankie Banx, from 1982 or so.  I had never heard of him, no one I knew ever had, and I kind of figured he was one of those people that made a few records back in the day and were never heard from again.  It became one of my most cherished records, and I listened to it continually for years.  One of those secret gems.  

In 2005 my wife was finishing up her midwifery training and was doing her integration in Lancaster, PA, in the Amish community.  She was staying with a colleague for a few months while I was teaching in Philly.  One day we spoke and she said, “Guess who’s playing out here?”…Bankie Banx!  Needless to say I was stunned.  Bankie had created a foundation called Project Stingray which aimed to bring music to kids on his home island of Anguilla.  A couple from Lancaster had encountered Bankie on a vacation there, and they were raising funds to keep music alive in their local schools.  While Bankie was on a small US tour he came by their place to do a show and raise funds for both of their projects.  I immediately reached out to him online, and asked if he might be interested in coming into my classroom and playing for the students.  He did!  We struck up a friendship, and a year and a half later, in 2007, my wife and I honeymooned on Anguilla, coinciding with Bankie’s annual full moon Reggae Moonsplash concert in March at his dune-side beach bar property called The Dune Preserve.

While we were there, he introduced me to his friend and partner in the project, Ijahnya, and later that year I returned for a week to teach and take part in a summer music workshop with young people there.  There was one other US singer/songwriter who was there as well.  We taught them some songs, we performed and recorded some, and we wrote a song that we performed at the end of the week at a local anti-violence rally.  Anguilla is a small island with a history of self-sufficiency.  The land there is not known for being the easiest to farm, and when British slaveholders abandoned the island they tried to bring their slaves with them.  But they insisted on staying, and they managed to thrive on a small island with very little farmable land.  The island remained very insular, only getting electricity sometime in the 70s or 80s.  It is spectacularly beautiful, and was a little known island paradise to only some elite people in the know.  But in the recent years it had seen an increase in outside influence, increased tourism, and an infiltration of other forces.  Around the time I was there, there had recently been a few shootings and deaths, which caused a great deal of concern to the small community.  They held this small rally as a way to bring people together to talk about this recent rise in violence, and what could be done.  The little song that the young people performed was a very powerful moment for them.  

What would you say is the most fulfilling aspect of making music?

I think it’s when I’m singing a certain part or phrase of a song, and it somehow comes out with a profound feeling of truth.  That sounds pretty corny.  But I hope to write things that speak of the truth as I see it.  Quite often these are not so explicit, but more symbolic or poetic renderings of something true.  To give you an example, there’s one verse that says “She whistle like a morning bird/ Truest tune you ever heard/ Purer than the mountain snow/ Calling out for all to know.”  This isn’t really about a woman who whistles like a bird, it’s about the spirit of femininity which has been obscured for a long, long, time in human culture, and which I believe is the key to getting our lives back in balance – the proper respect for women and mothers, the very ones that bring life.  And if I’m doing it right I can deliver a line like that with my whole being, speaking and singing it fully, and it comes out like a great orator delivering a moving passage, and maybe people understand what I’m trying to say through music and poetry.  

Now, I’m still working at this, and this is what keeps me motivated to continue to make music, share it with people, play with other musicians.  I’m still working towards making that happen in all of my music, with accompaniment, with audiences.  This to me is, again, why Bob Marley is so great, because I think at his best this is what his music does.  I’m lucky if I can reach this point now and then, but it’s this vision that has kept me working at it, trying to bring that experience to people.  Great question.

You’re a stay-at-home dad with two young children.  Have you given any thought to getting involved with children’s music at all?  

I have considered it, and I’ve done it somewhat.  I’ve taught elementary school, and have learned a bunch of great children’s songs.  I haven’t quite figured out how to write kids’ music.  I’m a pretty slow and deliberate songwriter sometimes.  I wish I could free myself more to write more spontaneous songs for children, which is what i imagine is the key to creating good kids’ music.  I sometimes will just improvise with my kids with my guitar around the house.  My kids don’t usually love when I play my music, which I think is a problem for me.  Something isn’t right about that, for sure!  But that’s one more thing that keeps me working at it.  I try to do everything, and to be everything, but there are limits to what I can do.  I’m still working on it!  I think I could use some good collaboration on that, finding someone else who wants to do that with me, or help me with it.

You recorded your album, Message of Love, in Somerville, MA with some of the area’s best session men, Duke Levine and Kevin Barry and producer Billy Straus. Were these sessions game changers for you?  Did you feel like you had purposefully raised the bar for yourself and for your music?

This was the first time I really tried to make a record of some kind.  I’ve recorded myself many, many times through the years, mostly on a four-track, a few other things in friends’ home studios.  I was lucky to have encountered Billy Straus when I did, and after working with him a bit, he suggested that we get some great musicians, namely Duke Levine, and do a small session.  I had my life savings to spend, so I figured I just had to do it.  We spent two afternoons recording these six songs, and that was that.  The musicianship is outstanding, and I could not have hoped for more within the parameters we had.  Now I’m trying to create different parameters, like spending more time honing the sound and feeling.  I may not need to have the top musicians with me, but people who can create intimacy with the music, so that the music can come through.

It definitely was an attempt to raise the bar and present my music in the best possible light.  I’ve been writing, singing and performing my songs since the late 80s.  I’ve never believed that it would be possible to actually do this “for a living”, and I still don’t know how.  I’ve been steadily at it, trying different things, playing with people, recording things, but other things in life have taken priority.  And I never met anyone who offered me real guidance, or was a role model, or helped me believe that I could actually do it.  But, time has passed, and all I know now is that I owe it to myself to try to bring my songs to people.  So having a good CD has been the first step to lending myself some credibility so that I can get to whatever the next steps are to fulfilling what I think my purpose in life is, which is to write and perform songs.

How has living in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts influenced your music?

We moved from Philly about four years ago, and life here, for me, is much easier, on everybody.  There’s fresh air to breathe, space, running water to swim in, good food growing, which I thinks makes people generally easier.  Sure, it’s not as vibrant a cultural space as a city, but there’s still plenty going on for my taste.  It’s a fine trade-off, if you ask me.  I would say that one of the great things I’ve found here is the Institute for Musical Arts in Goshen, which is a community revolving around a summer music program for girls and young women.  I’ve met some great musically-minded people though the IMA, and I’ve learned a bit about how to start getting my music out there, just by following one thing after another.

I also feel like here I have the potential to do my thing musically, and I feel confident that if I keep at it I will eventually find an audience, so that I can go from playing for my own pleasure to the pleasure of playing for other people.  And this is a great location to be in.  It’s very central to a lot of great areas – Montreal (my hometown), Boston, Vermont, the Maine coast (my wife is from there), NYC, the Hudson Valley (I moved from Montreal to Albany in ’84, and my folks still live there), the Berkshires. So now I’m just trying to connect to as many people as I can in this area, using my music as my intro to them!


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