The most confident version of Erin Costelo

On Sweet Marie, the Halifax soul siren started with a love song by Randy Newman and ended up somewhere bold and new: “It’s exactly what I wanted to say.”

The most confident version of Erin Costelo
Krista Comeau

Erin Costelo w/Leanne Hoffman
Thursday, November 8, 7:30pm
Fort Massey United Church, 5303 Tobin Street

The 1974 ballad "Marie" by Randy Newman is three minutes of piano music that Erin Costelo believes comprise likely the most beautiful love song ever written. A man has fucked up, and "Marie" is this particular man's apology, gently sung and augmented with a string section intended to overwhelm his intended's heart:

You looked like a princess the night we met
With your hair piled up high I will never forget
I'm drunk right now baby but I've got to be
I never could tell you what you mean to me

I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie
I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie

The idea of being serenaded, though, is not Costelo's favourite. "Gross, fuck off," she says. "Also, just fuck off. If I like you I'll tell you. And that would be a general rule for guys, I think. But the whole pursuit thing—as a woman, I've never been excited by someone pursuing me."

It's the first day of November and Costelo is sitting in her van parked outside the Marigold Cultural Centre, a theatre in Truro, where Nova Scotia Music Week is kicking off. In two hours she'll perform a half-hour set of songs, including a couple from her last blistering soul record, 2016's Down Below, The Status Quo; the bulk will be from Sweet Marie, released October 19. (The Halifax show is Thursday, November 8 at Fort Massey United Church.)

Her band is comprised of guitarist Clive MacNutt; Anna Ruddick, looking like a Haim in a red suit that matches her Rickenbacker; keyboard wizard Leith Fleming-Smith; and drummer Glenn Milchem, taking time off from his up-and-coming combo Blue Rodeo. This is the group she flew to Nova Scotia last year for 10 days to make Sweet Marie in a grand chalet-style house in Little Harbour, Pictou County. Full tree trunks punctuate its architecture.

The first track is called "Introducing Sweet Marie," and it's Marie's—Costelo's—response to Newman:

You've got a lot to learn, my friend
About loving her
You oughta know by now
That when the day is done
She wouldn't give it all
To just anyone
So if you want the love of Sweet Marie
Then you gotta let her be

Costelo, too, sings gently with pretty noise behind her; she uses music not to woo, but to warn. She calls Sweet Marie "the most confident version of myself" and uses her, and the song, as a jumpoff into a soul record that reverberates with female empowerment. (The Newman album that houses "Marie," by contrast, is called Good Old Boys.)

"Looking back, it gave me the confidence to write whatever I want," she says of "Introducing Sweet Marie." "I have a lot of political feelings but I would not necessarily be overt in the way that I say them; or not be controversial or confrontational. And I feel like this record is a little bit more that than I've ever done before. It's more exactly what I wanted to say. You can lace things in metaphors sometimes—and there are a lot on this record. I think that I maybe was a little more pissed off."

Sweet Marie is Costelo's fifth recording and fourth LP—her first, The Trouble & The Truth, was released in 2007. It was made in the Studio H era at the CBC on Sackville Street, now lost to retirement and the wrecking ball, where Glenn Meisner and Karl Falkenham produced records for artists who became the core of the singer-songwriter cohort in Halifax: Jenn Grant, Rose Cousins, Meaghan Smith, The Heavy Blinkers.

Costelo was 30 when The Trouble came out. She's 42 now. Going into this round—and she says it out loud in a documentary, directed by Amelia Curran, that will air on CBC in January—the artist believed this would be her last effort. "I was having a really hard time. It was really discouraging," she says. "I was really frustrated, not feeling like I was moving forward."

But then, in between snowfalls during the Sweet Marie sessions, she signed a deal with Compass Records out of Nashville. The album was released this week in the United States. "They managed to get this record into the top five adds to Americana radio—along with First Aid Kit, Jason Isbell. And my album," she says. "It's so fucking weird to me! But really validating, and I feel like I may be making the right choice here."

"Americana" is only beginning to circle what she's doing—there's no country lilt in her voice, no dustbowl vibe, but her songs do contain hallmarks of that genre. It's soul at its core, with flashes of '70s funk, Motown, doo-wop and Laurel Canyon folk (her occasional Carole King tribute always sells out).

The Compass deal didn't just change the future, it changed Sweet Marie itself. "Epilogue"—"they all think they know me well/they don't know what I won't tell"—was Costelo's planned swan song (and it was very planned; the first song on The Trouble & The Truth is called "The Prologue"). But now there was something new, a way forward, so "Epilogue" moved to track nine and Sweet Marie came to close with a beautiful piano ballad, "I'll Be Home."

Costelo self-produced, as she's been doing for herself and others, including Leanne Hoffman's debut out next year, and Kaia Kater's new Grenades. "My dream would be to balance my touring with my producing gigs," she says. "Half and half." That ratio could come to pass—Kater is a Rolling Stone favourite and last week Now called Grenades "so timeless it's unsettling."

She decided against recording her own version of "Marie," but just before "Epilogue" comes the very romantic "My Love," a tribute to MacNutt, who isn't just her guitar player—he's her partner of eight years.

"That song was a terrifying song to write for me—I was really nervous to write something personal, those thoughts, that personal, to someone else," she says. "Having given so much thought to these possessive love songs, I wanted to write one that wasn't possessive. That was celebratory—celebrating a person, instead of 'I want you, I need you.' I didn't want to write one of those songs, because I don't feel that way."

We are brave paraders
We are a reckless kind
With a look of lovers
We step in time
We skip like heartbeats
Through the streets at night
And we catch the eyes of strangers
And we sing the chorus line
My love, my love, my love
Everybody's singin' my love for free

From centre stage at the Marigold, Costelo reveals that MacNutt's response was to propose marriage. The 200-person crowd cheers; MacNutt cracks a small smile. Sometimes tour will be just the two of them, sometimes it will be this first-rate band, and many dates lie ahead: New York to Nashville and back up until mid-December, The Danforth Music Hall in Toronto with Joel Plaskett just before Christmas, Canada in the new year and overseas in the spring. Sweet Marie has turned from swan song to breakthrough.

"I was waiting for someone else to come along and save my career," Costelo says. "Just sitting and waiting. I decided that every person in the industry is just a person who likes music. So I am going to treat them that way and just work with people I like. As soon as I made that decision, things changed."

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