For Real: Judy Banker Explores the Power of Emotions on New “Bona Fide” Album
Judy Banker keeps things real on Bona Fide.
The Ann Arbor singer-songwriter explores genuine feelings of heartbreak, grief, and love on her new Americana album.
“One of my litmus tests for myself with a song is: Does it ring true to me? When I think of the vignette, the experience, or the feeling of that kind of relationship dynamic, does it say what I want to say?” said Banker, who’s a University of Michigan alumna and a therapist.
“That’s what I do with my songs—if it doesn’t say it strong enough or it doesn’t capture it quite right—there’s a certain tension that I want to be able to express. I feel like every single one of those songs is like my diary.”
On Bona Fide, Banker takes listeners on a personal journey that explores the cycle of relationships and the emotions that accompany them. The album’s rich harmonies and rootsy instrumentation bring those experiences to life across 11 heartfelt tracks.
“I’m a therapist by day, and on a big-picture level, my adult life has been dedicated to trying to help people to name, understand, and get the complexity of emotions … and that it’s important to work with them and embrace that,” Banker said.
“It’s a very selfish motive in the sense that these are my expressions and my songs, and I like them, but I just hope people say, ‘Oh, I’ve had that feeling.’”
About a year and a half ago, Banker unintentionally laid the groundwork for Bona Fide with bandmates Tony Pace (electric guitar, dobro), John Sperendi (electric and upright bass), Alan Pagliere (pedal steel), Brian Williams (drums), and David Roof (multi-instrumentalist, engineer, producer). They gathered monthly to rework old songs and workshop a few new ones.
“We hadn’t been playing much because of the pandemic. I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe we could just get together once a month, and we could work on deep cuts from old albums that never get any airtime,’” Banker said.
“I wrote a couple of songs for the first time we got together, and those were fun, so we worked on those. As a songwriter, I mine my own experiences … I’m not one for writing off of cues. This one was interesting to me to see because I did not have a theme—I rolled into it.”
One of the songs that emerged from those monthly sessions includes the country-rock opener, “Bona Fide.” Ringing electric guitar and lonesome pedal steel echo Banker's frustration about a dead-end relationship: “I start to lose it every time / We fall into the same old pantomime / Our usual moves crash and burn / Wasting the truth between each word.”
“There was a genuine connection … and for me, it was one that I didn’t want to let go of, but it was buried in old baggage, patterns, and projections. It’s really about the struggle; it’s about the conflict, and it’s about being torn,” she said.
“And what makes you feel torn is all that and the pantomime—I call it the dance that couples or friends do. It’s step one, step two, and it’s widely locked in this thing.”
Next, Banker shares a similar frustration on the bluesy heartbreak tale “You’re Not There.” Alongside sneaky electric guitar, bass, and drums, she sings, “The moon told me about you / Said you’re out with her every night / Well, your security needs updating / Honey, your moves ain’t classified.”
“It’s saying, ‘Here’s what I want; it’s not happening, but I’m gonna keep talking about it.’ It’s just dawning on the person who’s singing the song and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m right here.’ Even when you finally figure it out … it’s not all rainbows and unicorns,” Banker said.
“It’s trying to figure out what’s gonna hurt more or what’s gonna hurt less, but it’s a different kind of hurt. Sometimes that constant rejection or bickering with another person wears you to a nub.”
After leaving unrequited love behind on “You’re Not There,” Banker addresses the challenges of lingering grief and loss on “Slow Dance.”
Melancholic electric guitar and acoustic guitar surround her as she sings, “The best love I’ve known’s gone up in smoke / Out there now shootin’ with the stars / Been wasting away my days, hiding my nights / Longing so long makes you tired.”
“John’s been gone 11 years, but I also can’t fathom slow dancing with another person,” said Banker, who lost her husband, John Sayler, in 2012.
“It’s like, ‘If it’s not you, I don’t wanna dance with anybody, but I also don’t want to be living in yesteryear.’ The song is about wishing something would happen and that there’d be one last little [encounter] … it’s the one that makes me cry.”
Once she sets tears aside, Banker finds comfort and relief on the serene instrumental “Dancer Road.” Named after the dirt road in Washtenaw County, the track features breezy acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and piano and conjures peaceful images of local landscapes.
“I would often listen to Hawaiian music because there’s something about it that’s airy and rolling, and you can feel the tropical breeze,” she said. “I didn’t want the song to be Hawaiian, but I wanted it to have that lilting kind of feeling.”
“Dancer Road” also reflects the creative inspiration Banker receives while photographing animals and landscapes during leisurely drives and strolls along that same route.
“It’s a 10-minute drive from where I live. Dancer Road, Jerusalem Road, Fletcher Road, and Parker Road are all intersecting roads out there, and that’s where the magic happens,” said Banker, whose Instagram account includes photos taken in that area.
“I get all these scenes along with the smells and sounds … it’s just like another universe. There’s something about the light in the morning and the light from four o’clock on—you can catch those golden hours, and you can catch the sunsets.”
Finally, Banker rekindles that positive vibe on the fiery blues jam “Got Me Goin,’” which celebrates being infatuated with newfound love.
Backed by blazing electric guitar, organ, and drums, she sings, “You got me jumpin’ / Into the ring of fire / You got me jumpin’ / The flames get higher / You got me jumpin’ / Don’t know what to do / You got me jumpin’ / Coo coo ca choo.”
“There’s not a realization in it; you’re falling in love, you’re just completely taken, and it’s a little bit out of control. I write all my songs in my living room on my couch, and I thought, ‘Where did that one come from?’” said Banker, who’s inspired by Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine.
“I remember playing it for the band on my acoustic guitar and saying, ‘OK guys, I have a rock song for us.’ I didn’t have all their parts; I just had rhythms, the different sections in it, and all the lyrics and everything. They said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ and they just played the hell out of it.”
After writing and testing several tracks in her home, Banker and her bandmates went to Grand Blanc’s Rooftop Recording to record and finalize Bona Fide. They tracked the album together over several sessions instead of having each band member do it separately.
“We had everybody there together for the recording sessions and a couple of overdub sessions at the end. It was so good for us to be together because the whole process all along had been really collaborative,” Banker said.
“We had the luxury to play a song, and then the guys would say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s try this,’ and we would try again. We really could just nail it then together.”
Banker also worked with son/producer Ben Sayler and engineer/studio owner Roof to elevate the 11 tracks for her fourth album.
“Even through all of our pre-production sessions in my living room, Dave [Roof] would haul sound equipment. He would arrive early, set all the stuff up, and record every session. When we finally got into the studio for the full-band recording, we had like 10 takes on each of the songs … and it was just invaluable,” she said.
“Through our work with Ben on Buffalo Motel, he helped us learn how to collaborate and not be afraid to go outside the box. When we got together to start working on this one or just to play it together again, it was like that had marinated over time. He would say, ‘We can do the familiar, but also we can try not to.’”
Banker and her band also plan to bring some familiarity and newness to her November 4 album release show at The Ark with singer-songwriter Annie Bacon. After Bacon’s opening set, they will perform songs from Banker’s previous albums and then dig into Bona Fide.
“We want to do a brief retrospective … and then take a break and do Bona Fide start to finish,” said Banker, whose album release show also doubles as a shared birthday celebration for Roof and her.
“I thought about doing the album in order, but Dave [Roof] brought up that maybe we need to end with a big finish off the album. It ends on ‘After It Ends,’ which I think is a cool ending on the recording because it’s personal and quiet, so TBD.”
For Banker, celebrating Bona Fide’s release is just the beginning. She’s looking forward to more shows later this year, including December 2 at Ypsilanti’s Unity Vibration with the Milan Seth Band, and additional performances and festivals in 2024.
“I want to play more band stuff this winter, so I have to just figure out venues for that and get that set up,” Banker said. “When summer hits, I know we’ll be busy. We’ve got Nor-East’r, and we're trying to get into Blissfest and other festivals.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.
Judy Banker performs November 4 at The Ark with Annie Bacon. For tickets, visit The Ark’s website