Judy Banker traces the spirit behind her new country-folk-rock album, "Buffalo Motel"


Judy Banker

Judy Banker has been a mainstay of the local country and folk music scene for more than a decade when, along with her late husband, John Sayler, she began accompanying the well-known Michigan singer-songwriter Jay Stielstra on guitar and harmony vocals.

Banker continues to accompany Stielstra on stage, but after her husband passed away she also began recording and performing her own songs with a rotating lineup of musicians. Her new album, Buffalo Motel, is a significant departure from her previous two CDs.

While she again recorded at Dave Roof's Rooftop Recording Studio in Grand Blanc and worked with some of the same musicians who have been accompanying her in concert for years, Buffalo Motel, has a more “muscular” sound than her previous albums, to quote her co-producer and son, Ben Sayler. The instrumentation and musical arrangements of Buffalo Motel have a country-rock feel and are both more varied, full than her previous country folk-tinged recordings.

Banker celebrates the release of Buffalo Motel with a concert at The Ark on Thursday, January 9. I asked Banker about the new recording and her songwriting.

Q: Recording Buffalo Motel must have been a long process. 
A: From first pre-production session to the upcoming album release concert will have been a little over a year. In December of 2018 the band and I first got together to start to workshop the songs. Some we had been playing at shows, but others the band had never heard. The idea was to start fresh with all the songs and take the pre-production time to experiment, innovate, and brainstorm about each; to flush out the heart of each song so that when we hit the studio we’d know we were performing the best and truest version of each of them. Ben was there at all these sessions, bringing ideas and visions he had cultivated about what approach he thought would bring out the best of each song.

Dave Roof, who co-produced, recorded, engineered and played a number of instruments on the album, brought sound equipment and recorded each session so we could listen back and critique what worked and what didn't on each tune. The band, Brian Williams, drums, John Sperendi: electric bass, Alan Pagliere pedal steel, Tony Pace, electric guitar and dobro, and Dave Roof, banjo, guitar, Wurlitzer piano, accordion, grand piano, Hammond organ, and background vocals, was key to making this process work. No one's ego dominated, everyone jumped in and was invested in making each song sound good. Ideas flew back and forth, and we tried them all. We had five of these pre-production sessions in my living room, with a fire in the fireplace and a new bottle of bourbon to sample at each gathering. That's when we discovered Buffalo Trace and adopted that bourbon as our trademark bourbon for the Buffalo Motel CD.

This is jumping ahead, but when we finished recording and had the CD release date set, on a whim I emailed the president of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. I explained about the recording and the influence and overlap their Buffalo Trace Bourbon had with the project. I asked if they would be willing to provide some merch in support of the CD release show, and that we hoped to serve Buffalo Trace Bourbon that evening. To my astonishment, about a week later, a delivery truck pulled up and unloaded a pallet stacked with giant boxes -- one containing a German Shepherd-sized buffalo statue! They also included a huge Buffalo Trace Bourbon display bottle, T-shirts, and brochures and table tents as give-a-ways. The Ark has kindly offered to provide a good supply of Buffalo Trace Bourbon the night of the CD release and we will definitely have our buffalo statue on stage with us. We also ran a naming contest on Facebook and our buffalo has been officially dubbed Woolie Nelson, thanks to Jim Smith's brilliant contest entry.

Back to the recording. In April we had what we billed as a “road test” performance of the songs for friends at Johnny's Speakeasy to see how it felt to perform them in public and see how they "landed" with the audience. This was not only an amazingly fun experience, but it was also nerve-wracking and extremely informative. We discovered that many of the arrangements worked just fine, and others needed more tweaking. So, we had one more pre-production session and then started recording in May, starting with scratch vocal tracking then the rhythm section and then electric guitar and pedal steel. We had a couple of full-band sessions for songs we thought would work best if we recorded them all together. We wrapped the band tracking in July and Dave Roof added all his incredible multi-instrumental tracks. Then I recorded final lead vocals and self-harmonies. Ben, Dave, and I worked on mixing and mastering. It helped that Ben brought samples of ways he imagined we might mix each tune; recordings from The National, Beck, Radiohead, and others, that were not from the folk genre I had been reflecting in my previous CDs. Ben kept using the words "big sky" and "muscular" to describe what we should be aiming toward. And Annie Capps worked with me to design the CD package, which I just love and am very excited about.

Q: Are your songs autobiographical, or based on stories or events you’ve heard about, or are they strictly from your imagination?
A: Most of the songs I write are fundamentally autobiographical. I use songwriting to dig into my personal experiences, or those of people I love, in particular, the tensions and complexities of deep, enduring interpersonal relationships, or individual internal fault lines. There's something about being able to find the right imagery, turn of phrase, melody, or chord progression that captures or evokes that experience  -- it's intensely satisfying. It's a pretty self-centered endeavor at its core; I want to be able to create songs that are meaningful to me, that provide emotional release or catharsis for me when I sing them alone in my living room.

I'm never sure if a song will translate to people because the songs are so personal. But I have found that by going deep into the personal, you discover what is universal. And it seems in that way, the songs end up touching other people. When that happens at a performance, when the lyrics or performance of a song seems to resonate with the audience, when people come up and say how much they were affected by this song or that one, or how one made them cry or whatever ... that's everything to me. My hope is that by sharing the excavation of my own psyche and relationships through my songs it rings a bell of recognition and common humanity in the listener.

Don't get me wrong, I love entertaining people -- we have fun at performances, joke around, and it all ends up feeling good. But I truly bare my soul at performances -- completely expose my heart to the audience through my songs. 

Q: I was struck by how many of the songs on Buffalo Motel have words with religious connotations: testify, sinner, holy, righteous, angel, confession, higher power, holy trinity, psalm, redeemer … 
A: I was raised in the Roman Catholic church -- attended parochial school through sixth grade. There was a tunnel that went under the street between the school and the church that our class walked through every morning to attend Mass. Went to Mass every Sunday with my family. ... I attended church when the Mass was all in Latin -- very formal, with incense, altar boys, confession to mysterious priests behind screened windows in tiny, dark confessional booths. All through grade school we learned and sang Gregorian chants for Mass. The sound of the chants was spooky, ethereal and hauntingly beautiful.  

At the end of sixth grade, I told my parents I wasn't going to go to church anymore. That it was filled with hypocrisy and I wanted nothing to do with it.

My father seemed mystified and my mother fought me for years, into adulthood, over this. I never returned to the Catholic religion. For a while, I practiced Zen Buddhism, which is filled with beautiful iconography, imagery, and chanting as well. But nothing held a candle to the mysticism I felt in those ancient Catholic rituals and practices that seemed separate and distinct, to me, from the fallible human level of misogyny and exploitation I could already sense at the age of 10.  

The religious phraseology I use comes from archetypes that were burned into my psyche when I was very young. The language and imagery are powerful and evocative for me and convey the struggle between good and evil, temptation and virtue, redemption and despair, mortality and forgiveness that runs throughout the human experience. The use of that language is not conscious -- I realized only after rehearsing, recording and transcribing these songs, how frequently I used religious references in the lyrics.  

Q: There’s a satisfying arc to this album, from hard times and despair to joy. Was that your intent from the start or did you recognize that shape as you worked on the recording?
A: I knew I wanted to start the album with "Born Again" -- a song about hitting the road to get far away from a damaging relationship, and that I wanted it to end with "Homecoming Day," which is about a joyful reunion. But the reason I wanted to end the album with Homecoming Day was because the sound was gritty, country blues, straight out of the show Deadwood. I just LOVE that sound. And I had ended my first two CDs with songs that had that twangy country blues sound. So, I thought I'd end Buffalo Motel with a similar type of song. 

Ben took over figuring out the order of the rest of the songs. His approach was to create a song order for a listener who would sit down and take in the entire CD, with each song flowing into the next in a way that showcased each song sonically. However he managed to do that, I loved the effect. 

Q: What is your day job and how, if at all, does it affect your songwriting?
A: I am a psychologist/psychotherapist/clinic administrator during the day. I started the Center for Eating Disorders, a private, non-profit outpatient treatment and education clinic in Ann Arbor in 1983. I am the executive director of the Center. I supervise and train staff and also provide individual treatment. I also have been intensively involved in professional education, training, and some research on a national and international level. Working as a psychotherapist all these years, working deeply with people of all ages to help them work through traumas and complex emotional struggles, has provided me with the best schooling on human behavior, and on my own emotional makeup, that anyone could ask for. How we humans deal with our emotions, especially our emotional pain, is endlessly fascinating to me. Helping people find words to express themselves, forging relationships with people from all walks of life at a time when they are most vulnerable, has provided me with language and empathy and a profound appreciation for the grey areas of life, the ongoing presence of differing perspectives and points of view, and what it takes to make relationships work. There is no doubt that this work seeps into my songwriting. 

Q: You've been singing with Jay Stielstra for a long time. Were you writing songs before you started singing with Jay
A: I've been very lucky to have been playing and singing with Jay for over 10 years. I plan to keep playing with him until he fires me. I started writing songs in the late 1980s, just for my own enjoyment. My late husband, John Sayler, and I played music together at home all the time -- sometimes on stage, often with friends, and sometimes at weddings of friends and family. John played guitar and dobro and knew hundreds of folk and blues songs. And I had a repertoire from when I first picked up a guitar when I was 11 and heard Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary. John and I began playing with Jay in 2009, as the Jay Stielstra Trio. When we started playing with Jay, I really didn't write much. John and I were too busy trying to learn as many of Jay's songs as we possibly could, so we could start playing shows with him. 

Q: Has singing and playing Jay's songs affected your writing?
A: I have marinated in Jay's songs for 10 years, have so many favorite songs of his -- songs that still make me cry, or laugh, or evoke some other strong feeling -- every time we play them. Jay is a poet, through and through. He has a powerful economy of phrase that is at once simple and deep. I love the plain language he uses, the simple but powerful imagery, and the clarity and truth. I aspire to that in my lyrics; plain talk, close to the bone authenticity. 

Q: What else would you like people to know about this recording?
A: One of the most significant aspects of this project is what a communal effort it was, one that included my son Ben, who served as a producer and whose vision greatly influenced the direction of the work, David Roof, who was at the helm at his studio Rooftop Recording engineering the recording, producing as well, and playing and singing on the recording, and the band members, John Sperendi, Tony Pace, Brian Williams, and Alan Pagliere, who were so incredibly collaborative and forthcoming with creative input for the arrangements and overall sound of the whole CD. It really feels like the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. I loved every minute of it. I owe so much to these guys.   

Buffalo Motel is my third CD release since 2014, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that were it not for Dave Roof, I never would have dared take that first step to start recording. He has been a rock, both musically and as a friend. His studio is an inspiring creative laboratory that feels like home.

Sandor Slomovits is an Ann Arbor-based writer and musician known for his work in Gemini and San & Emily.

Judy Banker celebrates the release of Buffalo Motel with a concert at The Ark on Thursday, January 9.