Featuring Ellen Stanley on banjo and vocals, Mother Banjo is a critically acclaimed songwriter who combines the haunting sounds of traditional folk and gospel with contemporary alt-country and Americana. Called an "outstanding poet" (Inside Bluegrass), the New England-raised, Minnesota-based musician was selected as a Midwest Finalist in the prestigious Mountain Stage NewSong Contest. Her latest album The Sad and Found was named the #10 local album of 2009 by the St. Paul Pioneer Press and was featured nationally on Sirius/XM Radio.
Following up on the success of her CDs "Stray Songs" and "The Sad and Found" (named the #10 album of the year by the St. Paul Pioneer Press), she releases her highly anticipated new album "The Devil Hasn't Won." An Americana gospel collection produced by Steve Kaul (The Brass Kings), it showcases her all-star 5-piece band that includes guitarist Dan Gaarder (Trailer Trash, The Roe Family Singers), bassist Eric Paulson (The Cactus Blossoms, Jennifer Markey & The Tennessee Snowpants), mandolin player Jim Parker (Ukrainian Village Band, Town Hall Stompers) and pianist/drummer Ben Cook-Feltz (The Federales, Art Vandalay). Featuring lively originals and unique covers of songs that she calls "pub gospel," the new album shows why Mother Banjo has been hailed for her poetic songwriting and powerful voice, winning the praise of such artists as Josh Ritter and John Gorka.
An engaging live performer, Mother Banjo weaves humorous stories with fun covers and her own original material. She has performed at prestigious venues like The Ark (Ann Arbor, MI) and the Cedar Cultural Center (Minneapolis, MN) and has shared the stage with notable songwriters (Lucy Wainwright Roche, Cliff Eberhardt, Tracy Grammer) and poets (Robert Bly, Todd Boss). She showcased at the 2012 International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis, TN, played at SXSW and has been performing across North America, playing solo and band dates. She will be touring in support of her new album, coming out in January, 2013.
Ellen Stanley - Banjo, Vocals
Dan Gaarder - Vocals, Guitar
Jim Parker - mandolin
Eric Paulson - Upright Bass
Ben Cook-Feltz - Vocals, Piano, Percussion
The Devil Hasn't Won (2013 - So Low Recordings)
Stray Songs (2011 - So Low Recordings)
The Sad and Found (2009 - So Low Recordings)
Swing Low (2007 - So Low Recordings)
Lots of Ways to Go Wrong
The Devil Hasn't Won
We Are Witness
Lying Down with Sinners
Josh Ritter Quote
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I've known Ellen Stanley a long time, but it was only recently that I met Mother Banjo. She has a...I've known Ellen Stanley a long time, but it was only recently that I met Mother Banjo.
She has a spare voice that paints great vistas between the notes. Her music is honest, not trying to convince you of anything, sell you on a story or impress you. She simply gives you the space you need for reverie. This is music for looking off into the far distance, and I hope it affects you like it affects me.
Inside Bluegrass Feature Review
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Discovering the Sad and Found By Katryn Conlin May 2009 There’s something about that voice. At...Discovering the Sad and Found
By Katryn Conlin
There’s something about that voice. At the Winter Bluegrass Weekend this year I was walking down the hallway toward the Europa Room Saturday afternoon. I heard this woman singing from the stage and flat-out stopped in my tracks. “Who the heck is that?” I asked myself — the answer is Mother Banjo.
Mother Banjo is a one-woman band, the alias of Ellen Stanley on banjo and vocals. Her new CD, “The Sad and Found,” showcases a remarkable voice and terrific original songs. The name “Mother Banjo” may misdirect some, who expect some kind of technical wunderkind on the 5-string. Rather, her playing is extremely sparse and measured, just a scattering of arpeggios or a percussive effect on the off beats.
Why banjo? You’d expect a singer-songwriter to show up with guitar in hand. The acoustic guitar certainly offers more opportunities for lush, ringing chords that support the voice. Played very slowly, the high-pitched strings of the banjo fade quickly, leaving blank spaces for the voice to fill in. Some of Mother Banjo’s songs are so bare they are almost sung a cappella. It takes guts to stand up in front of a room full of people and sing with so little support.
Fortunately, Ellen is up to that challenge. Her husky alto hits every bluesy note and crackles with just a hint of vulnerability. (On of her myspace fans describes her as having just a “little bit of sandpaper” in her voice.) A touch of classical background comes through in a quiver of vibrato here and there. Her pitch and timing are immaculate. Never hurried, never rushed, she is almost languid in her approach to the music — you might say the opposite of bluegrass.
All of the standout songs on Ellen’s new CD are her originals. An outstanding poet, she has faith in the power of simple words. The natural environment inspires her with references to “swans in trees,” the “dust, wind and tumbleweeds” of Texas and “fish jumping high” in a stream north of Duluth.
My favorites are the dark “Texas” (“I lost you to Texas”), the uptempo “Green Jacket” and “This Fall.” Reminding me of “Who Will Watch the Home Place,” the latter could be the lament of a farm family losing its land or a metaphor for a doomed relationship, and it feels especially poignant in these recession-plagued days. “We could can and jar for months/and still not have enough,” she sings, adding “The cold and hungry times are near.”
The album leads off with the sparse, sad, bluesy “One Hello.” Here Dan Gaardner of The Roe Family Singers joins her on harmony vocals and electric guitar, a duet reminiscent of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I hope to hear more of that partnership in the future, as Dan’s blend with Ellen is truly gorgeous.
On the closing song, “Wide,” Ellen is joined by more of The Roe Family Singers as Kim and Quillan make a fine vocal trio. It’s from “Wide” that the line of poetry used for the title comes: “Pull me out from the sad and found/won’t you?” Those who discover this album will be glad they found it.
Duluth Budgeteer News Feature
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Despite recorded evidence, Mother Banjo is happy Matthew R. Perrine , Budgeteer News Published ...Despite recorded evidence, Mother Banjo is happy
Matthew R. Perrine , Budgeteer News
Published Friday, June 12, 2009
If all you knew of Ellen Stanley was her music, you’d swear she was the saddest little banjo player in the whole wide world — but you’d be wrong, way wrong.
She’s actually one of the most easygoing, outgoing and pleasant people you’ll ever come across.
“I’m not so sad, but I write a lot of my songs in the wintertime, so I think that’s why they come across like that,” laughed Stanley, who performs under the moniker “Mother Banjo.” “I tend to hole up in the winter — you know, get introspective and think about things.
Ellen Stanley, who performs under the stage name “Mother Banjo,” writes most of her songs during Minnesota’s notoriously bleak winters, so that might be why listening to her record “The Sad and Found” makes you cry. Image courtesy Jessica Hackner “Some of the songs end up pretty sad, although there are a few bona fide happy ones on the new album.”
The Minneapolis musician is referring to her debut full-length, “The Sad and Found,” which was produced by fellow Cities kids Darren Jackson and John Hermanson — whom you may recognize from their stints in Kid Dakota, Storyhill/Alva Star and, collectively, the Hopefuls. (In case you’re wondering, she met Hermanson through her job as Red House Records’ director of publicity and promotions — aka the label that released Storyhill’s self-titled album — and Hermanson and bandmate Chris Cunningham both became fans of hers. Mother Banjo has since opened for Chris and Johnny on a number of occasions.)
“It’s really great, because they really stayed true to my music,” Stanley said. “They really got what it is I do, and they didn’t try and overload it with too many instruments.”
While she acknowledged that “The Sad and Found” isn’t as stripped-down as its predecessor, 2007’s “Swing Low” EP, it preserves the minimalist aspect of her music.
Stanley, who was raised in New Haven, Conn., said her new LP is about “coming out of sad into a happier place.”
“The songs were written over a couple years, but there definitely is a thematic thread going through them all and, again, I think some of the saddest ones are in the beginning,” she said of the album’s progressive cycle. “... There’s a journey the songs go through and, in the end, they’re about being open to new things.”
Still, there’s nothing nearly as bouncy as the stuff its co-producers put out together in the Hopefuls.
“Writing a good happy song is much more difficult,” Stanley surmised. “When people are living their lives and happy, you don’t always want to stop to write a song about it. [Laughs]
“But, if you’re exorcising demons, that’s a lot easier to write about.”
‘Revival Train’ kept a-rollin’
After hearing the Mother Banjo tracks “Green Jacket” and “This Fall,” it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that Stanley hasn’t been doing this all that long.
Sure, she grew up singing and playing instruments (she was classically trained on piano and oboe), but it wasn’t until she relocated to the Twin Cities after graduating from college in Ohio that she actually picked up the instrument she’s become so synonymous with.
“I thought, Well, there’s enough guitarists out there, why don’t I just learn how to play the banjo?” Stanley said with a big laugh. “After picking up the banjo, that’s when I wrote the first song I was really happy with.
“Kind of the reason I took up the name ‘Mother Banjo’ was that, for me, even though I’m not a flashy banjo player or a great banjo player, it all started for me with the banjo.”
Another reason she chose a stage name: to separate work from play.
“[My music career] works really well with Red House, because most of the staffers are musicians themselves,” Stanley said. “It’s something that people understand around here.
“… The only thing I’m very conscious of is when I’m wearing one hat or the other, and that’s one of the ways in which having another name kind of helps me do that.”
She said there’s such a dichotomy going on that sometimes friends will ask, “Are you Ellen Stanley or Mother Banjo right now?”
Her response to this query? Well, it’s light years away from the reaching-for-a-Kleenex vibe you get while listening to such downers (in the best way possible, of course) as “One Hello” or “Texas”: “‘Oh,’” Stanley says, cracking up, “‘let me go in the phone booth and come out as Mother Banjo.’”
So much for our theory that this lady needs every audience member’s emergency hug rations.
Pioneer Press Review (2009)
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April 17, 2009 By Ross Raihala Another unexpected pleasure arrives Thursday at the Cedar Cultura...April 17, 2009
By Ross Raihala
Another unexpected pleasure arrives Thursday at the Cedar Cultural Center when Mother Banjo debuts her first full-length album, "The Sad and Found." It's unexpected for people who didn't hear her excellent 2007 debut EP, "Swing Low," that is. Like that disc, "The Sad and Found" is a stripped-down, highly atmospheric collection of Americana performed largely by Mother Banjo herself. (During the day, she's known as Ellen Stanley, a publicist for St. Paul's Red House Records.) Storyhill's John Hermanson and Darren "Kid Jackson" Jackson produced the new album, which also features a handful of musical guests. But it's a testament to the straightforward, intimate approach that the producers and extra musicians never overshadow Mother Banjo's simple, powerful songwriting.
Twin Cities Daily Planet Feature
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MUSIC | Mother Banjo lives where Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Natalie Maines go woodshedding B...MUSIC | Mother Banjo lives where Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Natalie Maines go woodshedding
BY DWIGHT HOBBES, TC DAILY PLANET
May 26, 2009
Mother Banjo’s debut Swing Low showed stark chops: authentic bluegrass, well done. Her follow-up, The Sad and Found, is even better. What’s surprising is how much stronger the singer-songwriter-banjoist has grown in a couple of years. Doubtless, there are some interesting-sounding demos laying around her house, recorded during the transition.
The Sad and Found is MoJo, a.k.a. Ellen Stanley, in about the finest form imaginable. Want to hear where pop rock sirens like Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks and Natalie Maines go when they woodshed, digging up their roots? Right here, where Mother Banjo lives. Where she cooks like the kitchen caught fire. They go to the well. Stanley holds tight to origins that precede even the sainted Grand Ole Opry when the likes of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard were the last word in country music. She didn’t have to go the well. She’s always been there. Listen to cuts like “One Hello” and “Texas,” both originals.
“One Hello”, for which Mother Banjo’s accompanied by Dan Gaarder (guitar, vocals), is a perfect lead-in for the album. Subdued, basically just voice and banjo, it couldn’t be more heart-stirring with a full symphony orchestra as backup band. Stark melancholy, dry as dust. Stanley sweetly sings about bitter romantic circumstance, timbre rich as a full cornfield. “I was one hello / From saying goodbye / I could have gone before / But I stayed on the line / I held on too long / Now you’re gone.” Right behind it, “Texas” is even less cheerful, affording such sentiment as guess-I’ll-get-out-of-bed-and-go-cut-my-throat. Singing her own, haunting, backup vocal, Stanley mourns, “Texas, oh you went to Texas / You say you got to go and think / You put Scotch whisky in your drink / Texas, I lost you to Texas.” She paints a picture of bare-bones humanity, speaking straight from its heart.
It’s that way throughout. The music and lyrics are all original, with the exceptions of Josh Ritter’s “Leaving” and Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna.” A tip of the hat is due the producers, Darren Jackson and John Hermanson, who faithfully capture Stanley’s austere grace, enduring strength and winning originality. She’s had good fortune in that regard: Jackson and Hermanson here, Dave Bade producing Swing Low. Should be interesting to see who she trusts at the boards next time around.
The Sad and Found is heralded by a spate of release shows for which the list keeps getting updated. That’s how well-received the disc has been.
Star Tribune Feature
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Ellen Stanley, unabashed banjo fan Despite the stereotypes associated with this unique string ins...Ellen Stanley, unabashed banjo fan
Despite the stereotypes associated with this unique string instrument, the Minneapolis musician loves its haunting, percussive sound.
By Kim Ode, Star Tribune
November 14, 2007
Banjo player Ellen Stanley long ago learned how to beat people to an excruciating punch line.
Do you know why there are no banjos on "Star Trek?"
Because it's the future.
She knows more such jokes, because banjo players often are on the receiving end of such witticisms. But that's part of the appeal of learning the banjo -- it sets you apart from the run-of-the-mill pianists and guitarists. She also plays the oboe.
(For an oboe joke, see above, substituting "oboes" for "banjos.")
Stanley plays piano, too, but has embraced the banjo. She is, in fact, Mother Banjo -- a cool enough name without the added riff of being "Mojo" for short. The Minneapolis woman has released her first CD, "Swing Low," through So Low Recordings. Now the question is, "What's next?" How high can a five-string banjo picker fly?
Right now, rooftops are high enough, and preferably her own. "I like being home," she said. "I don't know if I have any grand ambitions to go on the road as a performer."
Yet the CD is the result of her yearning to reconnect with the performing she did while attending Ohio's Oberlin College, notably in a close-harmony girl group called Vaguely Familiar. "We thought we were terribly clever," she said, laughing. Now, with a banjo on her knee and original songs in her lungs, she's been hitting the open mics and coffeehouses of the Twin Cities' folk scene, which she describes as among the country's most vibrant.
"It's not the first place that people who aren't from here think of," she said. "Most people tend to think of Prince and the Replacements and, of course, Dylan." But if people think twice, then comes acknowledgment of the West Bank scene, of Spider John Koerner, of "A Prairie Home Companion."There are so many venues here," she added. "And that fact that you can get people out on a weeknight, to maybe take a chance on someone or something they've never heard -- it's so supportive. When I started performing, I appreciated the place in a whole new way."
What's the difference between a banjo and an Uzi?
A banjo clears a room faster.
Stanley, 28, grew up in New Haven, Conn., where she discovered folk music and coffeehouses and got hooked on bluegrass and ballads. While at Oberlin, majoring in African-American studies, she found that her forte was in organizing others' performances.
After graduating, she looked across the country and decided to give the Twin Cities a try. She found a dream job as director of publicity and promotions for Red House Records in St. Paul, and also hosts the weekly Womenfolk radio show on KFAI each Sunday. When she bought a bungalow in the Minnehaha neighborhood, she realized she was staying.
Banjo history is deep
Why the banjo? The instinctive answer is, "Why not?" but then other serendipitous threads come together. The banjo's roots are in Africa, where people made a musical instrument of a hollow gourd and bamboo neck over which strings were stretched. "Banjars" or "banshaws" spread to this country through the slave trade.
The Twin Cities also is home to the renowned Homestead Picking Parlor in Richfield, where Stanley was inspired by her instructor, Russ Rayfield: "He does everything, like be-bop jazz on the banjo."
She dusted off her song-writing skills with "Swing Low," which features four original songs and her version of the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider wrote that the CD "combines traditional folk and bluegrass sounds with genuinely poetic lyrics, landing somewhere between Gillian Welch and (Red House artist) Lucy Kaplansky."
Stanley has performed from New York City to Montana. Her MySpace page, www.myspace.com/motherbanjo, has built a network of musicians and fans. Now, she'll see what comes next. She dedicated her CD to her parents and how they raised her to "have a deep love of music and words."
Two banjo players did a New Year's Eve gig and so impressed the host that he asked if they could perform next New Year's Eve. "Great," they said, then asked one favor. "Could we store our instruments here until then?"
"The implication being that they wouldn't be needing ... , " Stanley began, then trailed off, rolling her eyes. A banjo conjures a lot of ridiculing stereotypes, from "Deliverance" to "Hee-Haw" to Steve Martin. But Stanley is no jaw-dropping picker. She favors the banjo sound for its haunting quality.
"That's what drew me to it," she said. "Plus, it's almost like a snare drum head, so it has a percussive quality too." The face of her instrument is smudged and worn where her knuckles have knocked, creating a sound all her own.
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"the point of [Swing Low], unexpectedly, is Stanley's voice, a strong confident instrument, not afra..."the point of [Swing Low], unexpectedly, is Stanley's voice, a strong confident instrument, not afraid to stretch, to break, to open most of the way up, to reveal. I tend not to do well with sensitive folk-style singers, but she has moxie, this one. And poise at the microphone."
- Grant Alden, NoDepression.com
Star Tribune Review
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STAR TRIBUNE (Minneapolis, MN) August 24, 2007 When she's not busy plugging away for Storyhill, ...STAR TRIBUNE (Minneapolis, MN)
August 24, 2007
When she's not busy plugging away for Storyhill, Greg Brown et al at her day job as director of publicity for Red House Records in St. Paul, Ellen Stanley is busy plucking away on her banjo and writing songs under her musical pseudonym Mother Banjo. Her first MB CD, "Swing Low," combines traditional folk and bluegrass sounds with genuinely poetic lyrics, landing somewhere between Gillian Welch and (Red House artist) Lucy Kaplansky. Collaborators on the album include members of the Sweet Colleens and Justin Roth, the latter of whom is also slated to perform at this CD party. (8 p.m. today, Ginkgo Coffeehouse. Free.)
Pioneer Press Review (2007)
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PIONEER PRESS (St. Paul, MN) August 23, 2007 By day, she's a publicist for St. Paul's Red House ...PIONEER PRESS (St. Paul, MN)
August 23, 2007
By day, she's a publicist for St. Paul's Red House Records, but by night, Ellen Stanley performs as the one-woman folk band Mother Banjo. And she has just released her debut CD, "Swing Low," which features four sparse, atmospheric originals and a cover of the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The only problem? It's too short! She marks the release with a gig Friday night at Ginkgo Coffehouse in St. Paul.
- Ross Raihala
Mother Banjo on Twin Cities Public Television
Mother Banjo plays live on "Almanac"
Mother Banjo sets are filled with mainly originals, but she often includes covers and traditional material as well. Songs that frequently make it into sets include:
- We Are Witness
- Any Way I Do (Tracy Grammer)
- Come Life
- The Line
- White Love
- Revival Train
- Leaving (Josh Ritter)
- Lying Down with Sinners
- Oh, Susanna (Public Domain)
- Fly Song
- Green Jacket
- One Hello
- Morning Train (John Prine)
- No Waiting
- Wade in the Water (Public Domain)
- Rise Up, Sinner
- Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World (U2)
|Jun 8, 2013 Saturday||1:00 AM||Loring Park Acoustic Music Festival||Minneapolis, MN, US|
|Jun 10, 2013 Monday||10:00 PM||Amsterdam Bar and Hall||St. Paul, MN, US|
|Jun 14, 2013 Friday||8:00 PM||Tavern Of Northfield Restaurant The||Northfield, MN, US|
|Jun 22, 2013 Saturday||9:00 AM||St. Paul Farmers Market||St. Paul, MN, US|
|Aug 10, 2013 Saturday||8:00 PM||Crossings at Carnegie||Zumbrota, MN, US|
|Sep 26, 2013 Thursday||9:00 PM||Aster Cafe||Minneapolis, MN, US|
|Oct 26, 2013 Saturday||8:00 PM||Oak Center General Store||Oak Center, MN, US|
|Dec 13, 2013 Friday||9:00 PM||Aster Cafe||Minneapolis, MN, US|