A renewed Erin Costelo

As she prepares to wow us with a cabaret-style set at the Jazz Fest and an in-the-works sophomore album, this piano-playing songstress reflects on moving back to Nova Scotia and her secret lover---whiskey.

Erin Costelo, back in the N-Scotch, plays with Zumbini Circus and on her own at the Jazz Fest. Photo by Aaron Fraser.

In the span of a year-and-a-half, Erin Costelo's gone from playing for her cousin, her sister and her husband (that trio, she says, were the only folks there to witness her first flirtation with playing live) to performing at the cabaret-style Holiday Inn Select Commons Room July 13. In honour of the leap from the small bar stage---most often home to weathered and out-of-tune pianos---Costelo will be tickling the ivory notes, accompanied by Phil Sedore on guitar, Alex Porter on drums, Lukas Pearse on bass and Andrew Glencross on keys.

Costelo released her debut EP, The Trouble & The Truth, last September. The seven-track collection caught the attention of CBC's engineer/producer Karl Falkenham and executive producer Glenn Meisner, who recently invited the burgeoning songstress to record a sophomore album in Studio H. She's slowly been chipping away at it bit by bit and hopes to release it next spring.

"I didn't really feel like I fit into that traditional jazz realm, so I think I spent a few years experimenting as much as I could," Costelo says, bringing a creamy mug of coffee to her lips. "The idea of genre in music is being blurred---people listen to diverse albums and it's a patchwork of different styles."

Exploration is vital to creativity. Boasting rich, deep baritone vocals and songs akin to those of '80s-era Joni Mitchell, Costelo doesn't limit herself to sheer piano-pop sensuality. In fact, she's an accordion player for Zumbini Circus, who is also performing a free show at this year's Jazz Festival, on July 12 (see page 14). The eight-piece ensemble combine elements of Brazilian folk music (maracatu and samba) with big beat and reggae. The thrilling dance group are a life force all their own, as their lineup includes Chris Cookson on drums, guitarist Zak Miller, Kiersten Holden and Marta Ciechonska on percussion, Pearse on bass, Caleb Hamilton on trumpet, Oren Hercz on piano and special guests Tony Tucker and Ross Burns (both players in Gypsophilia) on guitar and pandero.

Costelo never thought she'd be a singer-songwriter. Sure, she holds a bachelor of music and a master's degree in composition, but the pursuit of personal musicality and expression is often frowned upon in academia. One can't help but wonder what Costelo's professors might make of her stunning debut.

"I didn't sing for a really long time," she says, huddled into the confession-booth-like seats at the Good Food Emporium on Gottingen, with a sopping umbrella by her feet. "I did sing in high school a bit. I don't know why I stopped singing. I went to university and there was maybe a little bit of stigma about chicks singing, that they weren't musically knowledgeable, and I felt like I had to prove myself."

After obtaining her degree in jazz piano at St. Francis Xavier, Costelo fled her Nova Scotian homeland for the University of North Texas. In the heart of the south, she discovered electronic and mixed-media experimentation and composition, and embarked upon a lifelong love affair with Scotch whiskey.

Costelo and a fellow classmate/pianist were granted access to their professor's office after hours---according to the wide-eyed brunette, the prof had the best set of porcelain keys on campus. In the evenings they'd sneak in and muck around. "I remember having a lesson one day and hearing this clinking noise. I opened up the piano and there was a bottle of scotch tucked in there," she says laughing.

Single malt, vatted malt, blended or single grain---it doesn't matter. Costelo's not picky; there is a place on her palate for all Scottish whiskies.

"I am a mix between the most social person and a hermit, and I need both of those things. When I'm in the city, I have a hard time sitting at home in my apartment. At least when I could go away for the summer, I could have this intense chunk of alone time and then return to the city. You go through that period of insanity for the first couple of weeks, but then you settle into it. I became a scotch lover in the country because of it," she concludes.

Upon completion of her post-graduate studies, Costelo made her way to Toronto in 2002. It was there, scattered among the rising piano-pop chanteuses, that she found her own voice---sort of. Her roommate at the time nudged her to write more for herself. But it wasn't until Costelo returned to Cape Breton and shacked up in the woods of Cape North in 2005 that she became more serious about honing her own craft.

Eventually, she packed her bags, recycled the empties and moved to Halifax, to teach piano lessons through the Canadian Conservatory. On Valentine's Day 2007, the musician was asked to play one of her first real gigs in town, with Al Tuck and No Action. Upon reflection, Costelo doesn't recall the evening being much of a lonely hearts club---but more the haphazard birth of her career, back home in Nova Scotia.

"Growing up here you have this idea of the city; it still feels sort of insulated...I lived in various different places and that gave me a lot of perspective. I don't know if I'll ever live anywhere else than Halifax," she says.

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