Judy Banker’s Buffalo Motel

New album captures the permanence of memories

When I talk to Judy Banker about her new album, Buffalo Motel, I can’t avoid my first question being about one particular song, “Haggerty.” I can’t wait for you to hear it in a live setting at The Ark on January 9. Even with headphones, a potent poignancy is evident from the twang of guitars that spread out like a horizon, the pedal steel purring melodically to paint the landscapes, and Banker’s voice, soaring like breathtaking cascades of cirrus clouds accenting a sunset.

“That is the heart of the album,” Banker said, “capturing open spaces, road trips out west, those big sky feelings, reflecting on big passages in life…” It is a big sounding record, but, truly, the entirety of this new album, a hybrid of Americana, folk-rock and tender balladry, feels momentous, and ruminative, and, as Banker suggested, it evokes the journey of a road trip.

Of course, even that song would start out “…quiet,” said Banker.  “The way I wrote it was just me, finger-picking in my living room,  like every song I write. But ‘Haggerty’ was a departure for the band, and it took us out of the comfort zone a bit. We definitely wanted to record it live as a full band.” Notably, Banker said that her son, Ben Sayler, who helped develop and produce the new album, gave the band a “pep talk” before recording “Haggerty.”

“Ben had a lot of ideas for the record that I was totally open to. I trust him. He knows my music. He has listened to me writing songs and warbling in the living room all his life…”

Musical montage

Buffalo Motel is Banker’s third album in five years, though up until 2014, she had been a supporting member of singer/songwriter Jay Stielstra’s band. But she has a rich and varied musical background, starting down the path with piano lessons as a child, eventually transferring her focus to a vintage Kay acoustic guitar, gifted to her by her father. She paints quite a montage, musically speaking.

“My father had an extensive album collection, and an elaborate HiFi setup in the den, playing everything from Herbie Hancock to Broadway musicals.  My older brother led me to the Beach Boys and even introduced me to Leonard Cohen. I listened to a lot of pop music while attending a parochial grade school where we sang Gregorian chants that included close harmonies. My grandparents had a strong German-Bohemian background, and the town where I grew up, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, had a deep Polish culture. Every wedding had a polka band, and on Sunday drives with my grandparents, they’d tune in polka music on the radio…”

“..and it’s just been an interesting circle for me. In the past seven years or so, Ben has taken me to concerts, and it gave me the guts to just go with it, just do it. Sometimes folk music can be devastating and heart wrenching and real, and sometimes it can be pretty. But what I gravitate to most is that feeling… When I’m really seeing (the songwriter), all their heart, and their soul too.”

Backer to backed

Banker admits that she sometimes asks herself: “How did this happen?” As someone who primarily kept her own songs to herself while playing with other musicians, it feels a bit like she’s gone “from one extreme to another.” But she she thrives off of the support, encouragement, and collaboration of her backing band, made up of expert musicians. Each member has an extensive musical résumé: John Sperendi (Flying Latini Brothers), Alan Pagliere (Dixons, Cadillac Cowboys), Tony Pace and Brian Wilson (both of Cold Tone Harvest), as well as Dave Roof, who doubled as an engineer for the record (at his place, Rooftop Recording Studio).

“I know I’ll do more albums after this one, but (Buffalo Motel) really feels like a watershed for me. To be able to write songs that can touch people, there’s always that hesitation of whether anyone is going to relate to (the songs), but they do! I just never anticipated that; it’s so transportive—everyone feeling the same vibe.”

Judy Banker’s Buffalo Motel Release Show with Joanna & the Jaywalkers
$20. | 7:30pm | Thursday, January 9
The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
734-761-1818 | theark.org

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Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

Jeff Milo
Jeff Milo
Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

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