If you're heartbroken, Kat Wright's By My Side might be a perilous listen. Like any good soul album, it's heavy with moody, plunging grooves, wailing horns and the sort of bittersweet ache that can nudge romantic melancholy into a sea of tears. Then again, the Burlington singer's latest is lush with grooving beats, exultant horns and a glittering optimism that embraces the transcendent power of love. Even the heartbroken might find it transformative.
By My Side is a soul-music Rorschach test. How you hear it might depend on your perspective and emotional state. In part, that's because Wright's full-length debut runs the gamut of emotions, from the lovelorn slow burn of the Brett Hughes-penned "Who's Your Fool" to the triumphant declaration "All About You," with numerous stops in between. But the music itself offers subtle mutations that suggest an evolution is afoot.
For the past six years, Kat Wright and the Indomitable Soul Band have climbed steadily through the ranks of the Burlington music scene on their way to regional prominence. By My Side may well push them to national acclaim, though perhaps not in the way longtime fans would expect.
Classic soul has long been the dominant ingredient of the group's musical DNA. Some of the cuts on By My Side fit cozily in the retro-soul renaissance ushered in by the likes of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones. But other songs push boundaries and defy expectations — imagining soul not as a rigid framework but as a waiting canvas.
Over the past few months, fans have caught glimpses of the band's transformation in live shows. They can hear the new sound crystallized on By My Side when the album is officially released on Friday, November 18. That same day, Wright and co. will celebrate with a concert at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington.
If the record's tweaking of genre conventions comes as a surprise, perhaps a bigger one is what's missing from the album cover: the Indomitable Soul Band. By My Side is billed as a Kat Wright album.
Vermont music fans — particularly those still rattled by Grace Potter's split with the Nocturnals — might wonder whether Wright has gone full diva. Has she?
Not really. For one thing, the ISB is still intact, its individuals arguably more important than ever to the whole. The name change presents Wright as the (indomitably eyebrowed) face of the group and is, frankly, a shrewd branding strategy. Perhaps even more, it embodies the declaration of independence inherent in By My Side, a work that indulges fundamental soul influences while giving itself the freedom to expand into broader, and sometimes disparate, sonic realms.
"Can I tell you how many times we've been introduced as Kat Wright and the Abominable Snow Band?" Wright, 30, poses the rhetorical question while seated at a table on the sidewalk patio at Burlington's Radio Bean. The bohemian coffee shop and nightclub is where her band was born.
It's an unseasonably warm day in late October, and, as Wright emphasizes the point with her hands, sunlight glints off the impressive collection of rings that complements her gypsy-chic look. She's dressed mostly in black, her long dark hair tied up under a light, colorful scarf — not one of the many hats that have become something of a signature.
"Or the Abdominal Slow Band," she continues, rolling her eyes in exasperation. "It's embarrassing after a while." Wright pauses, and then concedes, "But the name really is kind of a mouthful."
It's also a name with which the group has earned a reputation. Since forming in 2010 out of an informal weekly residency at the Bean, KW&ISB have grown into one of Burlington's signature draws. They are on a short list of local bands that can currently sell out the 800-person-capacity Higher Ground Ballroom, a feat they achieved earlier this year.
The band tours often around the Northeast. At home, they are perennial winners in multiple categories in the Seven Daysies, the annual readers' choice awards published by Seven Days. In fact, this year Wright became only the third singer in the 14-year history of the poll to win Best Vocalist. She unseated Potter, who had held the title since Tammy Fletcher won it in 2003 and 2004.
In short, the Indomitable Soul Band has become an indubitable soul brand. And that is precisely the problem.
"For us, as a group, soul is the starting point, not the ending point," says Wright.
In other words, she and her bandmates would prefer not to be pigeonholed by that four-letter word in their moniker.
Wright is a native of Rochester, N.Y. After graduating from Alfred University in 2008, she toured as one half of Loveful Heights — the other half was Wright's best friend, Maggie Clifford. Burlington and Radio Bean were regular stops for the folk duo. Wright grew increasingly fond of the Queen City and the community around the artsy coffee shop — not to mention its owner, Lee Anderson, whom she would marry in 2011. (Anderson coined the name the Indomitable Soul Band.)
In 2010, local jazz musician Anthony Santor took a hiatus from the popular Thursday night jazz series he had long hosted at Radio Bean. Anderson was searching for something to fill the void. That's when Wright, who had by then settled in Burlington, teamed up with a handful of the jazz-session regulars to sing soul covers. A new series dubbed Soul Sessions emerged. It was an instant success.
The band's rotating cast eventually coalesced into a core group that included keyboardist Shane Hardiman, bassist Josh Weinstein and saxophonist Jake Whitesell — all current ISB members — as well as drummer Dan Ryan, who now plays with Burlington pop band Madaila. Gradually, the band began appearing beyond the Bean. A prime slot on the Church Street Marketplace during the 2012 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival served as the group's coming-out party to wider local audiences. From there, KW&ISB have climbed steadily to regional renown.
Along the way, they began to play original material alongside covers of Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson. In 2013, the band released Introducing..., a six-song EP of original songs patterned — almost to a fault — on the Daptone Records model of throwback soul.
"I kind of hope that album disappears from the Earth," Wright says with uncharacteristic self-consciousness. It's a striking comment, particularly given the record's positive reception. Among other accolades, it appeared on this publication's end-of-year list of best Vermont recordings.
At the time, the EP was a worthy companion to the band's live act, yet in hindsight it does seem a little precious and safe.
"When we made the EP, we really were just winging it and doing what we knew how to do at that time," Wright told Seven Days in an email earlier this year. "We didn't take any chances on the EP, and we didn't have a mentor ... We've matured a lot as a band since then."
Indeed they have. Introducing... verged on a rote recitation of soul music tropes. Wright and the band have since developed a leaner, more provocative approach to soul music, as evidenced on By My Side. In the process, they may have developed a new identity.
"It's been a conscious choice to shift from playing things like an R&B jazz band would play them," Wright explains. "We don't want to be a jazz group. We want to have songs on the radio."
So a leaner, cleaner name makes sense. "Kat Wright" is also a slightly cooler one, and certainly easier to remember.
"There are kind of unspoken rules for what makes a band name really stupid or really cool," offers Wright. "Don't use the name of any liquor. Don't use the word 'band.' Don't use the genre. Those are just the rules of cool."
Another rule: Understand the music world's hierarchy.
"If we play in the South, in New Orleans, and let's say we open for Sharon Jones, who's the 'indomitable' soul band then?" posits Wright. "It's sure as hell not us."
By My Side begins precisely as longtime fans might expect. The album opens on the title track with a triumphant flurry of horns above a laid-back rhythm set down by Weinstein and drummer Ezra Oklan. Wright enters with her signature mix of swagger and sweetness. Her pure-toned croon is both confident and restrained. The classically styled cut wouldn't have felt out of place on the band's 2013 EP.
The same could be said of the following number, "Come Dance." Its propulsive, gospel-tinged groove and insistent backbeat owe a debt to Jackie Wilson and late '60s Chicago soul. But the most striking thing about both songs may be what you don't hear.
The Indomitable Soul Band is composed of highly respected and accomplished instrumentalists. Yet their collective virtuosity may have been a curse as much as a blessing. In live performances and on Introducing..., the band's arrangements were cluttered; you could sense individuals fighting for space. That was true not just of the players but of Wright, as well.
"We've had so many discussions over the years where it's like, 'Are we playing this song so that you can solo all over it, or is it so that I can tell a story?'" she says.
The subtle strength of By My Side is its refined and tidy arrangements. On the title cut, for example, Hardiman — an endlessly creative jazz pianist — offers little more than stabbing staccato chords. Bob Wagner, known throughout the Green Mountains as a guitar monster, adds only fleeting accents. They haunt the margins of the song, which is not to say they've been marginalized. It's exactly what they should be doing.
"To me, the idea was to go from [being] a band that's allowed to jam along for their own well-being to [being] a platform that allows Kat's voice to really shine," says album producer and engineer Joel Hamilton by phone.
Hamilton, whose credits include work with Tom Waits, the Black Keys and Puss N Boots, among many others, recorded Wright and band in March at his Studio G Brooklyn. "The space for the band to operate is in the margins around her vocal phrasing," he continues. "They're all great musicians. So when they're given a second to do something, they make great use of that time."
That renewed discipline accomplishes two important things. Most obviously, it turns the spotlight on Wright and her vocals. But it also opens the door to more deliberate experimentation.
Many of the songs on By My Side underwent significant revisions between conception and final recording. The album's fourth track, "You've Got Problems," best exemplifies that process.
Wright explains that the tune was originally written with a feel akin to that of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." But when the band brought it to Hamilton, something wasn't working.
"He wasn't into it," recalls Weinstein by phone. "He was like, 'This song has problems.'"
"Sometimes the drum thing is cool and the horn thing is cool, but together you wind up pouring orange juice in the chicken soup," Hamilton says. "They're both individually things that people might want, but you end up dumping the whole thing. That song was an orange-juice-in-the-chicken-soup moment."
As they struggled to nail the take, Wright excused herself from the studio to get some air. While she was out, the band says, Hamilton took the reins.
He reconstructed the tune from the drums up. The producer instructed Oklan, with whom he had worked previously on other projects, to play a skittering, James Brown-style beat. Everything else fell into place around it. By the time Wright returned, the song had been totally reimagined.
"I had to completely rethink how I sang the song," says Wright. "What's on the album is really the first time I had ever sung it that way."
"You've Got Problems" is the most overt example of the band's openness to experimentation, but it's hardly the only one. Throughout the album, the band veers into a variety of stylistic terrains — from the psychedelic blues bent of "The Light" to the electro-island feel of "Way With Words" to the slinky neo-soul of "I Do."
Only a year ago, none of this might have been possible. That's partly a credit to Hamilton's guidance. But it's equally a testament to the band's musicianship and willingness to sublimate egos for the good of the songs.
"This is definitely not a guitar record," says Wagner recently over coffee. "And that is awesome."
He's right. By My Side is definitively a collaborative record. Though just one name appears on the cover, all inside songwriting credits go to the Indomitable Soul Band. That's an acknowledgment that each member's contributions are indispensable. But By My Side also exemplifies the notion that, for those individual contributions, "less is more."
"If you were putting together the X-Men, you wouldn't want seven people that shot lasers from their eyes," says Hamilton. "Everybody has their superpower in this band, and that's what we were trying to bring out.
"The rhythm section plus that guitar sound is what's making the band cook," he continues. "And then you add Kat's vocals and the wild-card keyboard player and these beat-up horns — and I mean that lovingly. To me, there was a chemistry that was obvious from the outside, but nobody had seen it yet."
Wright agrees. "When we made the EP, we were not so sure of who we were as musicians in this context," she says. "We've had a lot of time to think about what's authentic to us and what draws from our lives and inspirations. And we wanted that to be apparent in the arrangements and give ourselves more freedom to express ourselves in different kinds of songs."
With By My Side, that is exactly what they've done.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Side by Side"