Bucks County, PA | Nov 8, 2010
Written by: Naila Francis
Deb Callahan happy to “Tell It Like It Is”:The Philadelphia blues singer has no problem expressing her thoughts on spirituality and religion on her latest album. She celebrates its release in concert Saturday
Even as a kid, Deb Callahan seemed born to sing the blues. She didn’t know much about the music then, but she was naturally drawn to life’s sorrows and pain – and to the voices that could channel such suffering into emotionally potent songs.
Nina Simone, who was in frequent rotation in her home growing up, was one such influence.
“From listening to her, I felt like the power of the voice really resonated with me” says Callahan, a Philadelphia resident. “She sang a lot about social injustice and with so much righteousness and anger and sadness…she had such an expressive voice and used it so well.
Simone would eventually be the gateway to such artists like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin, but Callahan also recalls being swept up in films like “Sounder” about a Louisiana family of African-American sharecroppers during the great depression and “The Autobiography of Ms Jane Pittman”, which chronicles more than 100 years of American History from The civil War to the Civil rights movement.
“As a kid certain movies had a blues-gospel soundtrack and this combined my love of music with my fascination with a lot of the more painful aspects of American History”, says Callahan who was raised in Beverly, Mass, the oldest of four children, including two African American orphans adopted by her parents. “There is something about suffering- it’s a pond I can wade in and something I want to understand”
This may explain why today she balances a busy music career with a passion for social work, counseling troubled adolescents and young adults at a drop-in center part time. Although she grew up believing she’d be an actor or musician, singing in choirs and performing n plays throughout school, a keen idealism took root in her late teenage years fostering a longing to create positive change in the world. Callahan majored in political science (and minored in studio art) at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and after spending three years as a social worker in Boston, moved to Philadelphia in 1990 to get her Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. She then worked for seven years at a rape crisis center, but eventually began allowing more time and space in her life for music.
“I was one of those jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none growing up – I was into so many things so it took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to do, she says.
. Even though she’d sang n a blues band in college, she didn’t write her first song till she was in her mid to late 20’s. But today, the singer-songwriter is fast becoming a formidable presence in the mid-Atlantic music scene, her simmering blues based blend of gospel, soul and jazz earning favorable nods from the likes of Blues Revue Magazine and Jazzreview.com leading to gigs alongside artists such as Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Shemekia Copeland and The Holmes Brothers. Last month Callahan released her fourth CD “Tell It Like It Is”, which she will celebrate with a release party this Saturday at PSALM Salon in Philadelphia, one of only a handful of performance dates she has booked through mid-November before she takes some time off prior to the arrival of her first child in January.
“My favorite thing is when the songs are done and the CD’s out. I love performing them live”, says Callahan. “This medium – it’s not like Britney Spears or Mariah Carey, where it’s all about the tracking or the background vocals. This is a medium where you’re meant to feel it and you have to be yourself. You have to be authentic.
And Callahan is as genuine as ever on “Tell It Like It Is”, belting and crooning her way through nine original and two covers- Bob Dylan’s “Cold Iron Bounds” and Aillene Bullock’s “Funkier than a Mosquita’s Tweeter” – with stark honesty and sass.
“I am a pretty direct person in general and I think blues writing is very direct” she says.”It can be funny, it can be sexually provocative it can be tongue-in-cheek, but it puts stuff out there. You don’t have to go through the back door and layers of symbolism to get to what a song’s about. “Tell It Like It Is”, she notes, is especially forthright given a common thread that reveals her thoughts on spirituality and religion. She points in particular to the celebratory, gospel-infused track “I Feel the Spirit”: I was wanting to give voice to the views of people who feel spiritual but don’t find it in organized, structured, religion” says Callahan. “It doesn’t mean we don’t feel some sense of God”
Elsewhere, like on the more meditative “In My Bones” she reflects on the steadfastness of her faith while the soulful rock of “Long Suffering Woman” tells the story of a devoutly religious woman bound by the dogma of her beliefs to an unfulfilling life. But Callahan also delves into romantic longing and infatuation, ponders the challenges of committing to change and on the song ”Throwaway Child” holds out hope for the neglected and troubles youth she sees.
But while her social can’t help but inform her lyrics, the music also offers her an emotional release.
“I think it’s my own therapy n a way, because I’ve taken in a lot of people’s stories and pain and this is a way to let it go”, she says.
She’s also kept a journal for most of her life which not only allows a space for catharsis but made her foray into song-writing a more natural process. Yet Callahan who also enjoyed penning poetry and short stories when she was younger acknowledges that she still suffers the occasional bout of anxiety when she sits down to write.
“I think, did I use up all my ideas?”With the initial process, for me, it can be a bit hard to let go of the outcome, but I’m getting better at being in the moment with whatever is in front of me,” she says. “For me, it’s really about writing songs that are meaningful to me. You make a CD, you put it out in the world and whatever happens, happens”
Deb Callahan appears Saturday at PSALM Salon, 5841 Overbrook Ave, Phila., PA