Lansing at Large: Singer launches career, tour from Lansing


“Three-part harmony has this weird human connection. It gets to people.”
Mary Kenney of Lansing is one of three singers in the band “Upstate,” a fascinating mix of “The Andrews Sisters,” 1960s folk music, and something else.

“It’s a sound that makes your brain go back to different memories – every person has a different reaction to the music,” Kenney said. “A lot of soul, some modern folk, heavily drenched in three-part harmonies, country, pop, doo-wop. We have all kinds of inspirations.”

Kenney graduated from Lansing High in 2010, got a degree in Black Americana Studies from SUNY New Paltz, and works for Calabro Music Media as a jack of all trades.

“I’m ‘Santa’s helper here.’ This morning I shipped three vinyl records to Fairport, NY. I write press releases. I do public relations for the people we work with. All the drudgery.”

And she and the band make records for the label.

Their latest release, an album called “Healing,” will be out Feb. 8. For now, they are playing locally around their base of Kingston, NY and sending the record to critics. The reviews have been pretty good so far.

“Parade Magazine” enjoyed their single “Marietta,” and wrote “with a light-hearted approach to a breakup song, Upstate exuberantly delivers this high-spirited musical treat.”

“Chronogram” liked the song “A Remedy” and added that “the band, lacking familiar chordal anchors of guitar or piano is off-kilter in a delicious, entirely unobtrusive way.”

The release of the album will mark the release of the band.

“In February, we are going to be hitting the bigger venues around the area,” Kenney said. “And then, out to Colorado and California for two fests, and another in Vermont. Those are the anchors of our tour.”

“Touring is pretty hard,” Kenney said. “We don’t have the big bus and drivers. We are doing a lot on our own. We take a 13-passenger van everywhere we go, crammed in and sitting on pretty uncomfortable seats. But we get to meet a bunch of people we’d never met before.”

Kenney said that many musicians make their living from touring, not record sales. She added that “touring is exciting; it’s work; it’s grungy hotels and dirty places. A cool job to have.”

And if that’s not enough to do, the three vocalists from “Upstate” have recorded their own record as “Not My Sister,” an EP of “seven or eight songs of thrown-together stuff that we need to get out.”

“Not My Sister’s” music is mostly covers of other songs, resurrected old tunes from traditional folk music and bluegrass, whereas “Upstate’s” output is 90 percent their own work.

“We’re not ready to stop writing when we have all these ideas all the time,” Kenney said.

All this music got started in Lansing.

“I got into music when I was a kid,” Kenney said. “My whole family loved it. My mom is not that musical but she loves music and I was expected to sing.”

Middle school chorus teacher Lucas Hibbard encouraged Kenney to get serious.

“I will never forget, it was after school and I was auditioning and he said ‘You have a really good voice and you should do more with it.’ And I said ‘oh, okay, I will.’”

Kenney can rattle off her parts in each musical when she went to high school.

“‘Forty-Second Street’ freshman year; ‘Brigadoon’ when I was a sophomore. In junior year, I was the narrator and a dancer for “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ and then I was ‘Bombalurina’ in ‘Cats’ my senior year.”

She credits Director Cindy Howell for teaching her to sing, and project, and act while she sang.

She was also in the high school choir under the direction of Lorrene Adams.

“I can say confidently that I would not be doing as well in music if I didn’t have such a great choir teacher. She was really tough on students and that was hard, but I learned a lot about my voice and singing and music in her choirs. I have a strict mindset when it comes to singing and singing in harmony and I can thank my high school chorus teacher for that. She was really special.”

She’s not sure what her former teachers think of her current performance.
“I don’t think any of them have seen me sing since.”

“Upstate” will be at the Haunt in Ithaca on Feb. 14 – perhaps they can stop in to see her then.

You can hear “Upstate’s” music at their website

Mentor Program
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