Monday, June 11, 2012

Mother Banjo bringing critically acclaimed music to Chicago

As the director of publicity and promotions at Red House Records, Ellen Stanley works behind the scenes to get the label's artists in the spotlight.

On June 13, Stanley will step into the spotlight as her alter ego - Mother Banjo - takes the stage at Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark St., Chicago.

The Puffins and The Sea The Sea also are on the bill. The show starts at 8 p.m., and donations are $5. More information is available at

I had the chance to talk to Stanley,, about her alter ego.

Q - What should people who come out to the Uncommon Ground show expect?

I'll be bringing my keyboard player Ben Cook-Feltz with me, who played on my new CD, "Stray Songs," so we'll definitely be playing lots of those songs as well as some old favorites and fun covers.  We also hope to collaborate with my friends The Sea The Sea, who are sharing the bill with us.

Q - Your music has gained critical acclaim, including that you were selected as a 2008 Midwest finalist in the Mountain Stage NewSong Contest. Has the acclaim surprised you at all? Is that something you aimed for?

When I applied for the Mountain Stage NewSong Contest, I had just started playing out, so I really didn't expect anything to come from it.  

When I got the email from Mountain Stage, I almost deleted it, thinking they were just sending me news about the contest. Thankfully I opened it, and I couldn't believe I had been selected as a finalist! 

It was a great honor and came at a time when I really needed the encouragement to continue pursuing my music.

Q - What drew you to the banjo in the first place? Who are your biggest musical influences?

I was classically trained on piano, oboe and voice, but as I got more into folk and country music, I really wanted to learn a stringed instrument. Everyone I knew already played the guitar, and I figured the world didn't need another mediocre guitar player.  

But I always loved the banjo - especially its percussive quality - and so I decided to pursue that, figuring I could always rope in one of the other million great guitarists to play with me.

Q - You also are a music publicist. Do you need both in your life, to be a musician and a music publicist? Do you think there will ever be a time in your life when you just concentrate on being a musician?

For now, I really love being able to do both. Helping my favorite musicians get a bigger audience could be one of the most rewarding jobs there is, and it gives my left brain more of a workout.

But I've been a musician my whole life, and that need to create will never go away.  And I love getting to tour, getting to explore new places and work with musicians from all over the world.

Q - I understand that you were first attracted to folk music as a teenager. Was it a given that you would become a folk musician yourself?

I think my teenaged self would be shocked to find I'm a banjo-playing songwriter that records music, plays with a band and tours all over the continent!  I actually had much more mundane aspirations as a kid.

I thought I might be a piano teacher or work in a cubicle or something.  Thankfully my life has turned out much more interesting.

Q - I understand that famed singer-songwriter Dan Navarro stopped by as a special guest during a recent studio appearance of yours. That must have been quite the thrill.

I couldn't believe it! I had brought in David Glaser in to accompany me on guitar and mandolin for this in-studio performance I was doing at SiriusXM radio.

He was on tour with Dan Navarro, so Dan came in with him for the session. During soundcheck, David and I were running through one of my gospel tunes "Revival Train," and David suggested that Dan sing a third harmony part.  

Dan was game so we did it on the fly, and I think it turned out great.

Q - How would you rate the folk music scene these days? Are there things that the folk music scene can do to improve its standing?

It's a very exciting time in the folk music scene...there are so many talented musicians, and more and more of them are interested in breaking down the boundaries.

I'm seeing more folk artists incorporating elements of other genres, like beat boxing and spoken word. I find there's a fabulous spirit of experimentation right now in the genre.