Local Current Blog

You Need To Know: Lena Elizabeth, a singer-songwriter making ukulele cool

Courtesy Lena Elizabeth (photo by Nick Meza)

It’s easy enough to sound sweet. Beautiful voices grace an inventory of folk projects, especially those fronted by women; you’ll see adjectives like “dulcet” and “mellifluous” used to describe their voices, with sugar baked right into the words. But sweetness sounds best up against a snarl — some complexity and tension. Lena Elizabeth, part of the family behind Patisserie Margo, is all too aware.

Lena Elizabeth, who performs under her first and middle names, is a singer/songwriter from the Twin Cities. She plays the baritone ukulele and sings, and Jeff Krause (electric guitar), Taylor Donskey (upright bass), and Daniel Staddon (drums/percussion) compose her backing band. Last year, they released their bluesy, strong first EP, The Line.

Growing up, Lena spent a lot of time in her family’s bakery (there are currently two Patisserie Margo locations: one in Excelsior, and one in Edina). By the time she left, she was managing the bakery, bussing tables and helping run the store. And although baking isn’t something she wants to pursue as a career, she says, “It feels like it’s just in my blood. It’s part of the family biz.”

A different family business had what might be an ever greater impact. Her dad was a guitar teacher as she was growing up. He would start students off on the baritone ukulele, because of its manageable size (the strings are the same as the four highest on a guitar). Then, he’d switch them to a guitar — but Lena got on so well with the ukulele that she never moved on. “He always wanted me to,” she says, smiling. “I’m like, nope. I like this. Done.”

Years later, she’s the primary songwriter in a band. After a solo show she played at the Aster Cafe two years ago, Jeff Krause approached her and asked if she wanted a guitarist. “I’d seen him at another show before, so he wasn’t a total stranger,” Lena says, wry. Once she accepted, Krause connected her with Staddon and Donskey, and the four have stuck together ever since. While she writes the songs’ foundations, each player writes his individual parts.

As a ukuleleist, Lena Elizabeth battles against assumptions. “It’s always this cutesy thing,” she says of the way her instrument is perceived. But she weaves in a few traits from her influences: the acidity of Amy Winehouse, the grit in “What A Wonderful World.” A gorgeous attention to discord shows up in the opening chords of “Soldier.” People will approach her after shows, trying to pay her a compliment with, “I didn’t expect that!”

To record The Line, Lena and the band took a road trip down to Nashville. Like Tabah, they worked at Welcome to 1979 Studios, which is furnished with analog technology. “I got there,” Lena says, “and I thought, ‘This is great. There’s not a whole bunch of sections where I can pick from different takes.'”

And they’re working on more music to come. Lena has been writing songs for months, she says. One of those is called “Stranded At The Station,” a sort of he-did-me-wrong song she debuted at Icehouse last December. It’s based off a rough night on the road.

Meanwhile, Lena is booking shows all over Minnesota. She and the band will perform at Marie’s Underground for the Big Turn Music Fest in Red Wing, Minn. on Feb 17; they’ve also got a concert at the 331 Club on Feb. 21. As she continues to work on her stage presence and test out new songs, stop by to see her for yourself sometime. Lena Elizabeth is one to watch.