Thursday, May 7, 2009

Classic musician changes tempo

SPENCER-Life is often full of surprises

Ellen Stanley can attest to that.

Growing up, the New Haven, CT native never dreamed she would be a solo singer, songwriter and banjo player, sporting the stage name Mother Banjo.

"I was never one of those people that performed solos," Stanley said. "I liked participating, but I never quite knew what I wanted to do. I thought if I was going to be involved in music, I would be a music teacher or do something in the background."

That all changed when Stanley picked up a banjo five years ago.

Classically trained on piano, oboe and voice, Stanley was very much into rock, pop and classical music throughout high school. Then she got more and more into jazz and blues, and started taking jazz vocal lessons before she went off to Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH, where she began to immerse herself in folk and blue grass music.

"The banjo fits prominently in both," Stanley said. "I liked the sound of the banjo in not just the fast, but the more lonesome, mournful styles, as well. That really resonated with me. I thought the banjo could do so many unique sounds that the guitar couldn't, so I thought I might as well learn how to play."

Stanley did just that after she graduated from Oberlin - moved to Minneapolis, MN, bought a banjo and began taking lessons.

"That's when my songwriting opened up quite a bit," she said. "That was partly because I was just beginning, so I wasn't that good at the banjo yet, my chord knowledge was limited and my technical skills were limited. That allowed me to get back to the basics."

Basics were something she was never able to find in the piano pieces she composed, as Stanley felt they were too arts-y and complex.

"The banjo simplified everything," Stanley said. "I found that with singing and playing at the same time, I could interplay. I could do with my voice what I couldn't do on the banjo and I could play on the banjo what I couldn't do with my voice."

Stanley's skills have paid off. She released a 5-song EP entitled "Swing Low" in 2007, and two weeks ago, released her first full-length album, entitled "The Sad and Sound."

"It has 10 songs and was recorded in a professional studio," Stanley said. "It's a step up. It has more instruments, yet it's still pretty minimalist."

And, Stanley will be bringing her new tracks to Shaky Tree Coffee on Friday, May 15.

"I'm really looking forward to playing at Shaky Tree again," she said. "I played there last fall with Chad Elliot and it was so much fun. I'm really looking forward to coming back with my new CD."

Ben Tucker, a Minnesota-based singer/songwriter, will accompany Stanley at her performance.

"We were both Midwest finalists in the 2008 Mountain Stage NewSong Contest, so we're doing a little Iowa tour together," Stanley said. "I'm looking forward to bringing him to Spencer."

Mother Banjo:
After having worked a bit in the music world - doing promotions and hosting her own radio show, Ellen Stanley wanted to start fresh when she began her solo career as a singer, songwriter and banjo player.

"I didn't want to capitalize on my name or raise expectations," she said.

So, she settled on the stage name Mother Banjo.

"Ultimately, I felt like it had a nice strong, earthy quality to it. It's a woman with a banjo. It's simple, and that's what my music is like," Stanley said. "I went through all kinds of funny possible stage names and Mother Banjo is the one that stuck. You can't mispronounce it and it's a name that I can grow into forever."

This article appeared in the May 9, 2009 edition of DISCOVER! Magazine.

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