The life and music of Christian singer-songwriter ALEXANDRA CELANO is a study in contrasts. While the back and forth between Christianity and bluegrass music is no real surprise to anyone, it is indeed rare to hear such music from a decidedly Catholic perspective. CELANOís brand of bluegrass is heartfelt and doesnít come across as if it were the result of years of study which is strange when you consider that she is based in Orange County, California. Produced by Americana veteran ED TREE (SPENCER DAVIS, RITA COOLIDGE, AL STEWART), CELANOís debut CD ĎIíM OVERCOMEí is a revelation. CELANO wears her faith on her sleeve with songs such as LET THE RIVER FLOW, MY FATHERíS HANDS and IN THIS PLACE and demonstrates an unabashed earnestness on the title track where the comparison to DOLLY PARTON is simply to glaring to be ignored.

ROCKWIRED spoke with ALEXANDRA CELANO over the phone. Here is how it went.

Your bluegrass sound tends to run in the opposite direction of your surroundings in Orange County California.
Youíre absolutely right. Iíve always had a country sound to my voice and my style of singing. I donít know exactly where it came from because growing up I didnít listen to country music.

What did you listen to?
I grew up listening to whatever it was that my parents were listening to like ELTON JOHN, BILLY JOEL, THE EAGLES and a lot of the classic rock of the seventies. None of that was Country. Eventually I started listening to ďcrossoverĒ country. I canít think of when that was Ė when MARTINA MCBRIDE came out with VALENTINE and SHANIA TWAIN had her stuff coming out.

That was the late nineties.
That was my first exposure to Country music but I already sang that way. That is what is funny to me. When I was young, I was not one of those performing kids that stands in front of everyone and sings, but when I was very young - like in second grade - I did go around telling everyone that I ďsing like a womanĒ. Then I would break into singing LIKE A RHINESTONE COWBOY Ė So I did hear that one growing up.

So did I. When I was in kindergarten, we had t do a dance to it.
I see. When I decided that I wanted to pursue music I had chosen to do roots music. For years I had put music on hold. I knew that I could sing but I kind of put it on the backburner and I focused on going to school. I got my Psychology Major at UCLA and then I got my Masterís in Public Health from UCLA as well. I was all about education and getting a good job and then I had decided that I wanted to be a singer. That was probably about ten or twelve years ago and then I wasnít sure what I was going to do exactly. I was not writing my own music at this time. I was singing at weddings and things like that and doing cover material. Eventually, I did a demo and I was singing songs by SHANIA TWAIN, MARTINA MCBRIDE and FAITH HILL. As I grew spiritually Ė and I have always been a spiritual person and came from a very Roman Catholic family- I started doing songwriting classes at UCLA Ė EXTENSION with DAVID "CAT" COHEN. I started doing Country-Pop stuff which is what I thought that I was going to do and it just morphed into Christian material and that is what came flowing out of me naturally and it still does to this day. I had a handful of secular music that I had written but I stopped because doing this kind of Christian music felt like such a natural progression for me. I used to keep music on the back burner for the sake of a career and education but then I reached a point to where I couldnít push it back anymore.

Now, with all of the work behind you and after having studied songwriting at UCLA EXTENSION under DAVID "CAT" COHEN and the album out there for everyone to hear, how do you feel about the finished work?
Iím thrilled. It turned into more than I had ever expected. I am most touched by how it is touching other people and their reaction to it. It took a long time. It took me about six years just because life kind of got in the way. Music was a part time deal that was sandwiched between my work life and my personal life. On this album, Iíve got tracks that go all the way back to 2002 and Iíve got songs that were written within this last year. After six years, it was getting difficult to wait. I was getting very impatient but when all is said and done, it was worth the wait. It wouldnít have been the album that it is today. I wouldnít have had the maturity or the life experience that made these songs what they are. I finished it at the right time and I do believe that as much as we try to plan things ourselves, it is ultimately up to God. The biggest satisfaction was that my grandfather really wanted this album. He wanted me to finish it. He was my biggest fan and he was always on my case about when the CD was going to be done. When I finished it, he was the first person to hear the final master. He enjoyed it for five weeks and then he died. I wrote the song GRANDPA for him on his eighty-fourth birthday. He mailed copies of the album to all of our relatives back east and on the day that he mailed the copies out was the day that he was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital. All of the relatives received the CD the day after he died. It was his final parting gift to everyone.

Talk about who you worked with in terms of production.
ED TREE is a fabulous producer, musician and engineer based out of San Gabriel. He is a well established musician in his own right and works with really talented studio musicians. He has produced a lot of Americana and Country acts. When I was looking for a producer in the early part of the decade, he was one of two names that people recommended. We have been friends ever since. He pulled in wonderful talent to back me on the album. He played all of the guitars. On the song MY FATHERíS HANDS, there are twelve guitar tracks. He played all of them. My husband BRYAN CELANO produced and did most of the arrangement for the bonus track A CHILD IS BORN but ED is the man behind the production of the sound of the album.

What was it like working with him?
It was great. He is also a songwriter himself and if I asked, he always had great input. I was always very comfortable with him. I would go to him with a melody and a lyric. I write my music acapella and not with an instrument. So when a melody and a lyric come to me, I always carry a recorder around. Wherever I am, Iíve got something to record with. Once I had something I would take it to ED and describe the accompaniment that I imagined for the piece. He would really create the sound around the idea that I had. In other situations my husband and I would do more pre-production at home. Weíd go in with something that was more structured and ďfurther alongĒ.

The fact that you write song vocally as opposed to writing with an instrument is interesting to me. Can you read music at all?
Yes. I grew up playing piano and learned to read music, but not playing based on theory or by ear. I had also been in various choirs throughout my life. On one hand Iím not limited by not using an instrument but on the other hand, I am limited in terms of getting certain songs to have a particular groove. The song IíM OVERCOME is one of the more uptempo songs and it is exactly as I heard it. I felt that one instantly. At the moment, Iíve got enough material for a new album or two. What Iím trying to do now is start things off with a groove and with that Ė hopefully we can get around to composing more uptempo songs.

How easy or difficult is it to have your husband as a musical partner as well.
Itís a really good fit because he is a well-trained musician. He is a drummer but he can play a little bit of everything. He is a sound designer by trade so his primary sense is through his ears. I think of him as my musical director. Even when we are doing rehearsals, he is just really good at guiding and directing all of the musicians no matter what they are playing. He has a good ear for song craft and does a lot of the technical stuff for me. Weíve got a studio at home. As a matter of fact, A CHILD IS BORN was recorded at home. A few of instruments were even recorded cross-country. He is very good in terms engineering. Itís a good balance. He went out and got me the digital recorder and said ďUse this!Ē

Youíve got this bluegrass sound that is sort of cross-pollinated with this Catholic faith. How easy is that to sell?
It all depends on where I am. I do a lot of non-denominational Christian venues. My Church is the Catholic Church and I look at my music as having a broader Christian base. In terms of Country music and Christianity, there is a lot of crossover there, but there isnít so much when it comes to Catholicism and Country. There is a Catholic shout-out in IíM OVERCOME. In the first verse I sing ďI prayed your mysteriesĒ which is a reference to the rosary

Catholic rockers Ė I could name hundred.
Yeah itís interesting. Iím just going out there with the Holy Spirit guiding me so Iím not trying to fit into anybodyís expectations. Before, I was trying to figure out what the venue was that I was going to be singing for and I was trying to fit into other peopleís molds of what they needed. Now Iím only interested in being my true authentic self.

You sound as if the question makes you uncomfortable.
Not at all. It is a very unique genre of music that Iím in and to be living in Orange County.

-Which is largely non-denominational.
I've met so many people in Orange County that were tied to so many churches and getting to know them has opened up so many doors and has helped my spirituality blossom even further. Iím of the mentality that Catholic is Christian. I work at a Presbyterian hospital and Iím often singing in their chapel. I just did a concert there last Tuesday where I sang every song on my album. Itís strange that I work at HOAG HOSPITAL and it has become this great musical outlet for me and had become close with the pastoral services department there. Itís interesting to me.

Since the day you decided that you were going to pursue this unpredictable career, what has surprised you the most? What didnít you expect?
All of the hard work that goes into the album after youíve finished recording everything. I finished the album and that was only the tip of the iceberg for all of the other work that is left to do. As an independent recording artist, there is so much to do. Itís a full time job and because of that Iíve been working these tremendous hours at my day job and spending tremendous hours with every other moment that I have trying to promote the album, get the band together, get all of my songs copywritten, set up my own publishing company and getting all of my music transferred to sheet music. There are so many business aspects to this and Iím involved in every detail of it. Itís kind of all consuming.

What would you like someone to come away with after theyíve heard this album?
I would want people to come away feeling joyful, at peace and full of gratitude. The message of the CD is about being overcome by Godís blessings. Even in the midst of difficult times, He is always there.