Mother Banjo's Ellen Stanley: I hit the hell out of that banjo

Mother Banjo's Ellen Stanley: I hit the hell out of that banjo
Photo by Anna Kostochko

The name Mother Banjo conjures up an image of a woman passing along wisdom and stories via her music, mainly her banjo, and Minneapolis artist Ellen Stanley does just that. Along with her band, Stanley has created a new album prime for listening. The Devil Hasn't Won owns its string-led riffs that entwine themselves throughout the album that is creative, stripped-back, and shuffled together.

Gimme Noise spoke with Stanley on her love of the banjo and what went into the new music before her album release at the Dakota Jazz Club on Friday evening.

Band Members: Ellen Stanley (lead vocals, banjo), Dan Gaarder (electric & acoustic guitars, vocals), Ben Cook-Feltz (piano, drums, percussion, vocals), Jim Parker (mandolin), Eric Paulson (upright & electric bass)

Gimme Noise: You call your music American gospel. Do you feel it is gospel in the true sense of gospel music, of does it contain qualities of gospel music?

Ellen Stanley: I call it Americana gospel, because it's spiritual music incorporating elements of American roots music -- folk, blues, country and soul. I was raised on gospel and church music so this is the music closest to my heart. That's why I included a couple traditional songs ("Wade in the Water," "Go Tell It on the Mountain") along with my own originals. Although not all these songs mention God specifically, it is most definitely gospel music. The songs address spiritual struggles we all face -- how to love, forgive and become better human beings. I have found that gospel music resonates most with audiences of all ages, whether we're playing bars, theaters or coffeehouses. I think it's because the music we do speaks to them and lifts them up, regardless of whether they have any religious belief at all.

GN: The banjo has only recently in the last decade been getting some recognition. What drew you to this instrument? ES: I fell in love with the banjo in college when I was getting into bluegrass and traditional Appalachian music. I was not only drawn to the timbre of the instrument but also the fact that the banjo has a unique percussive quality, due to the fact that the head is basically a snare drum. Anyone who has heard me play knows I hit the hell out of that banjo, using it mainly as a rhythm instrument.

GN: Is there any special meaning behind the album name The Devil Hasn't Won?

ES: The title of the CD is the last line of the last song on my previous CD Stray Songs. That album was a collection of songs telling stories about characters who had done wrong in one way or another. I wrote most of the songs around the same time I wrote these gospel songs.  I think of the two albums as two sides of the same coin. All of us mess up now and again, and then we try and seek forgiveness and redemption, repairing our relationships with each other. I think of it as a cycle we all go through again and again -- what it means to be human. I wanted the album to be called The Devil Hasn't Won because it has a strong optimism attached to it -- we can always overcome the lesser part of ourselves. I wrote the title track to sum up that idea.

GN: How did you meet your producer, Steve Kaul, and why did you choose him to work on this project?

ES: I've known Steve for a bunch of years as a musician and a friend. When he approached me about recording something together at Wild Sound, I knew he'd be perfect for this project. I knew I wanted a big, fat band sound, and he knew just how to capture that, recording all the basic tracks live as a band. When I first played him the songs and described the project to him, he instinctively understood my vision and helped me think outside the box.

GN: How does the rest of the band contribute to the sound of the group?

ES: Most of these songs I've been playing live with the group for the last couple years so the way they sound now has come from a pretty natural evolution of playing together. One of the things I love best about this band is the amazing harmonies that Dan and Ben contribute. Their voices just naturally lay on either side of mine, and it's like I have these two angels singing on both sides of me. I love getting to just jam out with the band, letting them show off. I am so lucky to be playing with such talented and hilarious guys.

GN: What was the writing process like for this album? How was the writing split up?ES: I wrote all the originals and would bring them to the band to work up the arrangements. By the time we got into the studio, most of the hard work had been done. Steve expertly captured the best of what the Mother Banjo Band can sound like when we play live.

GN: Any favorite tracks off of The Devil Hasn't Won?

ES: Of the originals, I think "Rise Up, Sinner" is my current favorite, mainly because it really shows off what the band can do and the soulful quality they bring to their playing and singing. For the covers, I'm particularly proud of "Anointeth the Rock," which is a previously unrecorded song by the amazing Saint Paul songwriter Eric Peltoniemi. When he found out I was making a gospel album, he said, "I have the perfect song for you," and he did. I like the haunting, ancient vibe we created with that tune, mostly aided by the E-bow I used on the banjo to create the spooky, synth-like sound--another one of Steve Kaul's brilliant ideas!

GN: What can we expect to see at the album release show?

ES: Lots of fun among friends...we're sharing the night with Vicky Emerson, who has just moved back to town and is celebrating the release of her beautiful new CD Dust & Echoes. She'll kick off the night with her band, and then the Mother Banjo Band will round out the night with a mix of the new gospel tunes, old favorites and some fun rock covers. And since Vicky and I have toured together, we'll probably sit in on each other's sets as well. We both like to chat and share stories so expect some good laughs and many opportunities to sing...after all, that's what gospel music is all about!

Mother Banjo will release The Devil Hasn't Won at the Dakota Jazz Club with Vicky Emerson on Friday, January 25, 2013.
AA, $10, 8 pm

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