When Stesha Cano was a little girl growing up in the Ellsworth area, she would imitate Mariah Carey songs that she heard on the radio. When she was a little older, she’d practice her Ella Fitzgerald impression in private, and she grew to love contemporary singers like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. For nearly seven years, she has been co-vocalist for cover band Juicebox, playing disco and funk songs for bar crowds and parties between Bangor and Bar Harbor. Cano’s put in her time as a musician.
Now, at age 27, Cano has found her own voice — a tough but tender instrument that conveys a breadth of emotion and experience. It’s soulful, a quality that many look for but few obtain. That mixture of soul, R&B, pop, hip-hop and confessional singer-songwriter fare is the sound of her debut album, “Like a Bee,” a collection of 10 songs written and produced in Bangor. A CD release party is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at Next Generation Theater in Brewer.
The jump from playing other people’s music to writing her own started just over a year ago, when she first began collaborating with her Juicebox bandmate, bassist Phil Kell.
“I just jump in and grab onto whatever I’m doing,” said Cano. “It was that way with poetry and theater, when I was younger, and it’s that way with music. I just started doing it. It’s a little scary at first, getting your footing, but the more you write, the more comfortable you get with it. That’s true of anything.”
It would be easy for Cano to just try to imitate the current crop of mainstream R&B and pop vocalists. But she’s not interested in a superficial kind of music in which she simply sings with no real connection to the content of the song. She has something to say, as evidenced by the deeply personal lyrics of songs like “Glass Walls” and the title track, “Like a Bee.”
“I’ve always loved to sing, and I’ve always liked those kinds of jazz and R&B vocalists who really put their all into it,” said Cano. “I love Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday and Eva Cassidy, of course, but then there’s people like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and even Ani DiFranco. So much mainstream stuff is so corny and fake. I like it when people say what they are really feeling with their music.”
The recording process began last fall and progressed methodically throughout the rest of 2010 and early 2011. Some personal turmoil set Cano’s creative juices flowing, however, and over the summer she and the staff at Main Street Music Studios in Bangor finished up work on “Like a Bee” in record time. Cano still does gigs with Juicebox — her natural, dynamic stage presence makes her very easy to watch and listen to. And even now, on the eve of her solo album coming out, she’s still writing new songs for a follow-up album.
“I love just getting out there and performing and keeping my chops up, but actually writing songs and creating my own music is something I’ve just starting to learn. It’s so challenging and rewarding,” said Cano. “And I’ve been so lucky to work with some amazing musicians. We have such incredible talent right here in town.”
That talent includes folks like Kell, her songwriting partner; Main Street Music Studios mastermind and expert drummer Andrew Clifford; drummer Brooks Gray; pianist Brian Cattell; guitarist Jeremy Shirland; vocalist Amy Briggs; Jim Winters, Shane Ellis and Brian Nadeau on trombone, trumpet and saxophone and Michael Bennett on percussion. Winters arranged the complex horn sections sprinkled throughout the album, highlighted by the funky, big band-influenced hip-hop of “I’m Sorry.”
“I feel really proud of the work we’ve done,” said Cano. “A lot of this music is so personal to me. I’m writing about my life and what I know, and when I get it out it feels good. That all these people have come along for the ride is just incredible. I’m really lucky.”
Stesha Cano’s “Like a Bee” CD release party is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at Next Generation Theatre, Center Street in Brewer. Admission is $15 and includes a copy of the CD and refreshments. Cano will perform with a full nine-piece band. She will also play 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor. For information, visit steshacano.com.
Emily Burnham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.