Hear the banjo transport and immerse you like never before

by Adam McKinney

Kendl Winter frames the banjo in a new way.

Kendl Winter’s Banjo Mantras

Throughout the course of popular music, certain artists come along and unlock new modes of expression through instruments the mainstream public might’ve ignored: Andrew Bird showed the ways that the violin can moan and yelp; “Weird” Al Yankovic turned the accordion into a pop kaleidoscope of sound; Harpo Marx and Joanna Newsom, a century apart, demonstrated the timeless beauty of the harp; and anyone from Jimmy Page to St. Vincent has stretched the expressiveness of the guitar to its limit.

Entering the ring fighting on behalf of the banjo is Kendl Winter. Since 2013, Winter has been one half of The Lowest Pair, a folk duo consisting of herself and Palmer T. Lee, both of whom play on banjos. Winter’s way of landing on the banjo was via a roundabout path.

“I grew up in Arkansas, so there was a lot of bluegrass around me, but I was more into punk rock and indie bands when I was growing up,” says Winter. “I came to the banjo when I listened to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and heard him play it in more of a jazz style. I’d never thought about bluegrass because, to me, it was something old white men did on their porches in Arkansas, in a way I didn’t particularly relate to.

“I’ve been playing banjo for about 18 years and started with the three-finger styles,” Winter continues. “I love finger styles — and I think the best way to learn finger styles, whether or not you’re devoted to bluegrass music, is to go down the Earl Scruggs road, because he has such a rhythmic technique in the three-finger style. I’ve studied a lot of traditional styles, both three-finger and clawhammer, and I wasn’t really trying to make a bluegrass record, just trying to be non-specific to genre and play with the instrument and see where it went.”

So, Winter has arrived at Banjo Mantras, an instrumental album that fully leans into what the banjo is capable of doing when completely disconnected from the baggage of bluegrass. Through 14 tracks — all culled from longer, improvisational sessions from Winter — we are guided through sounds both familiar and foreign to us from the humble banjo. For many, it may be something of a revelation to hear the banjo presented in a separate environment from either a high-energy hoedown or a ruminative country death song. Beauty is found on Banjo Mantras that feels wholly new.

“I love writing songs, and I feel the songs are really telling a story,” says Winter. “Those are a little more direct, telling more of a specific thing, but I loved the soundscapes that I was finding on the banjo; I liked how they felt they were connected with an emotion or a story, but weren’t really telling you what that was. I love the ambiguity of a wordless song, and allowing the listener to explore their own thoughts with it, their own stories.”

Kendl Winter

Though there are no actual narratives accompanying these songs, Winter says she has images that flash to her as she’s playing certain ones. “Humming Mantra,” she says, is meant to reflect the busy sounds of nature in late-summer Pacific Northwest, while “Roscoe’s Blooping” sounds like the result of a banjo-gone-digital.

“I guess I maybe have cartoons in my head about whatever’s happening in [those songs], just to keep myself entertained,” says Winter. “You can’t hear them without having a painting emerge, but it’s nice to not fully paint it out and to have it guide the listener. … It shows how universal, maybe, a language music is. It speaks to something a little broader, where words aren’t enough, or mean something too specific to different people.”

To hear the spritely dance of banjo music in your ears, you need only pick up Banjo Mantras at Winter’s release party at New Traditions. There, she’ll also have hand-printed linocuts of her LP cover, as well as her singles. Not to be missed.

Photos by  Molly Gillispie.

Kendl Winter album release party

March 1, 7 p.m.

New Traditions, 300 5th Ave SW, Olympia




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