Santa Barbara isn't really an obvious recording destination for Americana musicians. Los Angeles, maybe. Nashville, yes. Austin, definitely. But when Australian singer-songwriter Natalie D-Napoleon wanted to turn her Americana-infused tones into a debut solo album, she seemingly opened up a map of the United States and firmly stuck a pin in the midst of the California's central coast. And it turned out to be a stroke of musical genius.
The attraction of the coastal enclave, that is more renowned for laid back musical musings about sun and sand from artists the likes Jack Johnson's and Toad the Wet Sprocket than the countrified yearnings that D-Napoleon conveys, obviously laid with Santa Barbara-based producer David Piltch. Having spent many years lending a musical hand to kd lang (co-producing her 2008 magnum opus, Watershed), Piltch has a natural talent for conveying the passion of the female creative soul.
An eclectic cast of backing musicians was gathered for the Leaving Me Dry. Along with luminaries of the Californian music scene like Kenny Edwards, Greg Leisz, Phil Parlapiano and Victoria Williams, the services of Aaron Sterling, who has recently contributed his talents to John Mayer's Born and Raised and Taylor Swift's Red, and Dan Phillips, the brother of Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips and recent Peter Gabriel collaborator, were also enlisted.
It was an empathetic approach that Piltch took to the album's production. Although he allowed the collective to flex its musical might at will - just listen to show-steeling moments like Edwards's rollicking lead guitar on "With the Speed of Love" and Leisz's tear inducing pedal steel on "The Deep Blue Sky," Piltch deftly kept D-Napoleon's gorgeous vocals and heartfelt lyrical message center stage.
The album opens with the rustic lament of "How Can I Love You So?," which rattles along thanks to Sterling's tin-pan drumming and Parlapiano’s boisterous banjo, over which D-Napoleon’s ethereal vocals glide. Banjo also flavors “The Well Song,” but this time in the hands of Williams. D-Napoleon eases into the song with her delightful vocals underpinned by a couple of acoustic strums before the entire collective joins in, including Williams on backing vocals, to color between the love song's dusty lines.
While Edwards steals the moment on “With the Speed of Love” (this was to be Linda Ronstadt’s longtime sideman’s last recorded venture prior to his recent untimely passing), “Leaving Me Dry” is all D-Napoleon. Amongst an emotive landscape of Edwards’s lamenting electric guitar and chiming mandolin, and swirling organ thanks to Phillips, D-Napoleon’s seductive vocal prowess commands center stage.
With “Leave a Light On” offering an aching piano-driven love song, that features Phillips on backing vocals and cello from D-Napoleon's Australian counterpart, Melanie Robinson, at the other end of the emotive spectrum resides “Don’t Be Scared,” which sees Edwards’s gleeful mandolin delightfully accompanied by Parlapiano on accordion.
The album closes in contemplative fashion with “The Road.” Lead by D-Napoleon’s chiming acoustics and colored by Phillips’s plaintive piano, Robinson’s wallowing cello ebbs and flows throughout the swelling instrumentation before the orchestration fades away presenting the album with a poignant culmination.
Santa Barbara might not be the new Austin. It might not be Nashville or Los Angeles. But, as this album passionately displays, its inhabitants are more than ready to embrace its rustic roots in fine fashion.