The Small Glories embrace a new instrument

// Stefanie Atkinson
// Stefanie Atkinson

“I’m playing a ton of banjo now … I’ve never been known as a banjo player and now suddenly I’m a banjo player,” Cara Luft says with a laugh, over the phone. The Calgary expat—she’s now based out of Winnipeg—cut her teeth as a guitar player, having played the instrument for 30 years as a solo performer and  as one-third of the Wailin’ Jennys. But it’s her new venture with the Small Glories—which sees a partnership with music veteran JD Edwards (frontman of the JD Edwards Band)—that has Luft ditching the six-string and playing clawhammer banjo on the duo’s debut album, Wondrous Traveler, which was released in February.

The decision to add the banjo was a logistical move: in order to set themselves apart from other guitar duos—Edwards would lend his deft guitar-playing to the band—Edwards and Luft included the banjo to give listeners a sonic change, Luft explains. It was producer and 54-40 bandmember Neil Osborne who helped Luft and Edwards to materialize the banjo in the group.

“Our producer, Neil Osborne, really helped us tap into that and incorporat[e] the banjo in ways that I hadn’t thought of incorporating it before,” she explains, noting that “Had I Paid” underwent a complete makeover that stripped it of its guitar sound. “I’m super comfortable playing banjo now and I absolutely love it.”

The banjo is introduced at the outset of the album with the opening track “Had I Paid,” which was a song originally written by Edwards and taken from his band’s Roads & Roads (2011) album. The original version is a hard-hitting rock number loaded with gritty, rolling guitars and Edwards’ powerful vocals, while the Small Glories version saunters with Luft’s banjo at its crux, giving it a mellow, folk vibe. The banjo is also prominent on “Home” and “Wondrous Traveler.”

Among the 10 tracks on Wondrous Traveler is “Something To Hold Onto,” a song written by Luft and local songwriter Karla Anderson, where the banjo is completely absent and features Luft playing guitar instead.

“I wrote [it] on the banjo and Neil switched it and said, ‘Nope. You need to play guitar on this song,’ which was really strange because JD and I had already been workshopping it and performing with the banjo,” Luft explains. “What Neil found was an incredibly sad song … and the banjo isn’t really a sad-sounding instrument. … So it was a very interesting journey to have to go back and look at what the song was really about and capture the depth of the song and the sadness of the song with instruments that suit that better. The banjo just doesn’t fit there anymore. It was really weird, because suddenly I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to play guitar?'”

Taking Osborne’s suggestion, Luft made the switch, ultimately giving the track a more sombre feel than it had with the uptempo sound of the banjo.

“I think I was trying to protect myself from how sad I was feeling, and that’s why I wrote it on the banjo, because the banjo made me feel a lot happier, more upbeat, and the timbre of the banjo—the sound—you can’t really cry unless it’s out of tune, of course,” she says. “That was a really difficult experience, but a good experience. Then we started crying because we could hear how sad it really was.”

Fri, Apr 29 (7 pm)
The Almanac, $20 in advance, $25 at the door

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