What happens when you mix a mutual love for well-written songs and good lyrics? Songs that bring tears, cause goosebumps, and songs that evoke feelings not translated with mere words? Songs that make you think and even that make you dance? Those are the sweet and spicy sounds of the new band, Sugarbirds.
The Sugarbirds are Kelly Keeler, banjo, guitar, vocal and songwriting, Kenneth Monks, fretless bass guitar, and Emily Bassarear, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. They opened for Jaylan Crossland to a sold-out crowd in April at Avogadro’s Number, and their success continues to rise. They packed a full house at FoCoMx, and their first show was a sold-out SAVA benefit for 800 people. Ken and Kelly both play in the beloved Fort Collins band Mama Lenny and the Remedy, and Emily is formerly the mandolin player in Rich and Friends.
Kelly is a songwriter and writes songs for Mama Lenny, but she found herself with songs that didn’t quite work for the sound of a full-piece band.
“I was working on some stuff with Ken, and I was like, you just play some of my other songs with me somewhere like for the farmers market randomly.”
So she booked the gig, and he committed to play. They needed some more players, so she asked Emily to play for a few hours. The three of them had never collaborated.
“Emily and I got together to rehearse, and she had a snippet of a song she was writing, and she’s like, I don’t really know what I’m doing with the song, and then we just started writing it together, and it was perfect synergy.” The song is an ultimate female empowerment song and lives on as their anthem.
Kelly talks about the relationship, “Emily had all of these songs that she didn’t know what to do with either, and I had some very like a folk singer-songwriter, but still kind of rock and roll, you know, but there’s no space in them for like a seven-piece band. We had all of this music that just needed this project. And then all of the pieces kind of fell together.”
Labeled as Folk, there would be an expectation of long, winding bellows with acoustic flavors enticing the crowd. The Sugarbirds keep it interesting as they move the meter from heavy blues to deep rock back to singer-songwriter acoustic. It sounds like a cover band style, but they have rich, substantial influences that intertwine into the melodies of the sounds they play.
Keeler describes the sound and the connection, “there’s nothing fake happening. Nothing electronic. We’re not distorting sounds; we’re just making honest, straightforward music, and we’re writing our sounds. … We all contribute and arrange the songs, and I feel like folk is a very generous category. It’s music for the people by the people. It’s kind of what the name that we put on it. But putting that name on it doesn’t mean that you’re just getting like three-chord, you know folky songs that are in a just slow to moderate tempo.”
Emily adds, “I think the big thing is that we all came to the table with different influences that naturally work. I mean, everyone like Gillian Welch is my No. 1 influence for writing music. But then I also love Led Zeppelin. Our harmonies are front and center, and I love that.”
They discuss Ken: “He’s like super creative. He’s a creative soloist. He’s very bluesy but also like smoke and mirrors, and he’s an impeccable musician. He’s very tasteful — very, very, very capable. Ken adds the sensitive element and then has the confidence to let the music breathe. His riffs are so unique, like pausing in the middle of his solo and leaving it suspended. It takes guts, but you know when the next sound comes, you know it’s going to be something good in a masterful way.”
The Sugarbirds are playing around town this summer and headlining on the bill at the Stanley in Estes Park, July 14, 2018.
This new band is growing and deepening its roots every day. Kelly says, “I feel like because the process we love each other so much (that) afterward, all I can think about is everything that went right.”