On Sunday night, Ellen Stanley, known by her performance name Mother Banjo, stopped by The Local Show to talk with David Campbell about her record The Devil Hasn’t Won. She’s added a full backing band this go-around, and we’ve got the scoop on the new additions plus her upcoming show on February 28th at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse with Moors and McCumber. Her sold-out release show at the Dakota happened last week, and she’s embarking on a string of tour dates through the end of March.
Listen back to Sunday night’s episode of The Local Show
David Campbell: I’m joined actually in the studio with Ellen Stanley AKA Mother Banjo. You have a pseudonym.
Ellen Stanley: That’s right — I have a stage name.
David: You have a government name and a stage name?
Ellen: Exactly. Actually, some of my friends call it my “superhero name,” but I’m not sure what my superpower would be.
David: Banjo. I believe it’s the banjo.
Ellen: I scare off all the villains with an out-of-tune banjo or something like that — I don’t know.
David: It’s intentionally out of tune? That’s super progressive of you.
Ellen: No, it would be to scare off the villains, not to make music of course.
David: Good. The name of this new record is The Devil Hasn’t Won, and you can see Mother Banjo performing Thursday, February 28th at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse over on Snelling. 7:30 p.m. Moors and McCumber are on the bill as well. Let’s talk about this new record — this is sort of a departure for you a little bit. You got a band.
Ellen: It is. I have a band. I have a full-on five-piece band and in the past I’ve kind of had my quieter, indie-folk vibe and this one — it’s a much brighter record. It has a big band sound: piano, drums, electric guitar. So it’s a little less folk and a little more rocking.
David: And you added the band at the end of the name. As in, this is a real band — this it isn’t just another Mother Banjo record with a bunch of dudes on it. You guys eat spaghetti together after practice and stuff and travel around in an old Town and Country minivan.
Ellen: Exactly. That’s right. Oh, I wish we had a Town and Country minivan. Instead it’s like four separate cars.
David: Yeah, but you have to work toward something though.
Ellen: Exactly. Maybe this record will help us get that big van purchase. But we’re really excited. We’ve been playing out together quite a bit over the last year — year and a half — as a five piece band. We had a regular monthly gig at the Amsterdam for much of last year, and that really sort of solidified these songs and our sound as a band, as opposed to me bringing my favorite players to perform with me.
David: You know, we should mention the guys. You want to run down the guys? Let’s mention the boys — they’re not here so we should give them a little love.
Ellen: We should definitely mention the boys. Well Dan Gaarder, who has been playing with me for pretty much since the beginning — great guitar player — and actually, a great songwriter as well —
David: Don’t forget nice guy.
Ellen: Super nice guy, and my neighbor as well. So Dan Gaarder plays on the record and sings beautifully — and joining him on my angelic harmony vocals we have Ben Cook-Feltz. Really, I love singing with these guys. We have a nice three-part vocal stack. It’s really hard to find when it comes that naturally. We don’t have to work on the harmonies, they just kind of happen. It’s like two boy angels on my shoulders. Ben Cook-Feltz also plays piano and drums on the record, and Jim Parker plays mandolin and Eric Paulson plays bass. These guys are not only amazing players who play with a lot of other bands but they are also the most hilarious and sweet people ever. So we just have a great time playing together, and they get to do different things in my band than they do in their other bands. They get to sort of stretch their wings and show off their chops in a different kind of way.
David: When you first started playing, you had the idea like, “OK, I’m going to do this next record. I’m going to do it with these guys, but it’s going to be called this different thing.” Was there a point at which you had to say to yourself, “I’m going to share this now. I’m going to let them have an equal part of this,” and kind of give up control of this thing that had always been your artistic vision exclusively prior to that?
Ellen: Yes, and Steve Kaul helped me with that too. Steve Kaul from The Brass Kings produced the record, and I gave him a lot of control as well — we all did. But I would say that these songs were kind of band songs from the beginning. These are songs I brought to the band and said, “I’d love to work on these with you guys.” The songs — how they sound now — were really built up from the band. The arrangements came from them. I have thoughts and opinions but really, if the rest of the group felt one way and I felt another way, I went with the group because these guys are smart musicians with good ears, so I would always go with what they thought with the record.