Kelly Buchanan has been in this position before and doesn’t want to jinx it: a new album soon to release, plans for shows and a bright future filled with music.
“Well, I’ve got to knock on wood, because it’s not out yet,” Buchanan says of her band Dimestore Dolls’ new album, “Wooly Mamas.” “I had my last album in my hands, ready for release, and then a month and a half before, I had a traumatic brain injury. So … we’ve still got a few weeks to go.”
In March 2008, Buchanan was in New York City, about to release a self-titled solo album after joining a music label, touring the east coast and landing a prominent ad spot for the popular NY1 news station. There were even whispers of an MTV reality show chronicling her rise. A month ahead of the release of that solo album, Buchanan took part in a street hockey game and wound up with a traumatic brain injury due to a slapshot to the skull that doctors would later tell her had the force of a major automobile accident.
That year, friends in the music industry including Sara Bareilles, Fountains of Wayne and others took part in two fundraising shows hosted by songwriting organization ASCAP, in New York City and Los Angeles, to try to help Buchanan’s burgeoning medical bills. At first, she lacked the motor skills to stand or even talk – even months removed from the accident, Buchanan was walking to and from medical appointments with the help of a cane.
Only after moving back to central Pennsylvania in 2012 to recuperate with the help of her parents did Buchanan, a 2001 graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, begin the painful process of relearning how to sing and play guitar.
“I thought it was interesting to learn the muscle mechanisms of [performing], because I’d forgotten it,” Buchanan says. “It’s all about neural pathways and building a connection and muscle memory, and they weren’t there anymore, even if I knew theoretically how to do it. For someone that runs marathons, and then is in a wheelchair for two years, they might know how to be what they need to build up that stamina, but it’s going to take them a long time to do it again.”
Buchanan and the rest of Dimestore Dolls will celebrate the release of “Wooly Mamas” with a CD release show at Tellus360 7 p.m. Saturday.
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To see Buchanan and her band – Christy Engel on drums, Chris Whalen on guitars and vocals, Scott Frenchek on bass and keys, and Mollie Swartz and Jeanette Stillman on backing vocals – perform today, there would be no indication of the difficult, 14-year path to the release of “Wooly Mamas.”
Onstage, Buchanan is just as likely to rip a guitar solo as she is to let out the kind of vocal performance that can stop a bar conversation mid-syllable.
“I think I’m a stronger singer now, absolutely, and a stronger guitar player,” Buchanan says of her path to relearning her skills. “I don’t know if it’s just from the advantage of relearning as an adult, but it did come out of this path. While I am a stronger singer, I don’t have the same stamina, because it’s a really physical endeavor.”
“Wooly Mamas,” the new album’s title, is a tribute of sorts to the band’s own path to what it is today. Originally, the band was known as Wooly Mamas, and Dimestore Dolls was a separate band, primarily consisting of Buchanan, Donna Volles on bass and Liz Fulmer on drums. After the latter band ended, Buchanan transferred the name and the Mamas became Dolls. Outside of the co-existing of band names for the new album, Volles also plays bass on several tracks on the new album.
In that way and others, “Wooly Mamas” unites several aspects of Buchanan’s lifetime into one tidy package. Two of the songs, “You Are the Fix” and “Graffiti on my Heart,” also appeared on Buchanan’s 2008 album, though they both have progressed sonically under the eye of Bobby Gentilo at Right Coast Recording, who produced “Wooly Mamas” with Buchanan. The former of those two songs was co-written by Buchanan’s friend Adam Schlesinger, who died in early 2020 from complications related to COVID-19.
Schlesinger was a member of Fountains of Wayne, best known for “Stacy’s Mom,” and whose solo work included writing music for the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
In its completed form, “You Are the Fix” stands not only as a tribute to Fountains guitarist Jody Porter, who it was originally written for, but to the band itself, as Porter plays guitar on the track and Fountains drummer Brian Young and singer Chris Collingwood also contributed to the song.
For those thinking that this album might be a solemn affair marked with songs about Buchanan’s injury, think again – “Wooly Mamas” jumps from one rollicking rock ‘n’ roll song to the next. From the manic energy of “Crazy’s Got Its Perks,” which finds Buchanan busting out some of her five learned languages to the undeniably catchy power pop of “Patty Says No,” there is a sense while listening to these songs that the studio sessions were as vibrant as the songs they produced.
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“The atmosphere was definitely joyous!” says drummer Engel via email. “I think we all really looked forward to the recording sessions. We prepared ahead of time, lots of practice and also by playing the songs for Bobby before the recording session to get suggestions from the producer’s point of view. There wasn’t stress that would have come from not knowing what direction we were going. It was a party – music and snacks and dancing!”
Buchanan says that, though the band had been performing her original songs and select covers for a while before the COVID-19 pandemic, it used the extra free time the pandemic created to commit to a full-length album. To boot, although it is indecipherable to the average listener, several of the album’s vocal takes featured singers wearing face masks.
“I don’t think she ever has a lack of confidence, but I’ve noticed recently that there’s big improvements between each show, and it’s because the whole band is getting more confident about what they’re doing and working harder because they’re being challenged,” Gentilo says. “The stuff that they’re doing is at a high level.”
While her stamina is still a matter of concern – Buchanan relies on 12 hours of sleep a night to function, and even then says that she does not know if she will ever be 100% back to normal again – she’s now reached a place where the music can once again do the talking for her. In addition to using music for her own healing, she is the program director for Musicorps, a local organization that unites Lancaster musicians with children to provide free instrument lessons.
Beyond finally being able to record and release new music, Buchanan will also receive a full-circle moment in the form of a release show at The Bowery Electric in New York City on July 29, her first time playing original music in the city since the accident.
“I haven’t had a real moment to consider what that means. I’ve just been too busy,” Buchanan says. “We’ll see what happens. I hope that there’s still people that will come. It’s like anything – the last time I performed in that city was over 14 years ago. People move, you know? Others have had kids and might not go out to clubs all the time. I don’t know what to expect, but regardless of that, it is really cool to be in a position to do that again.”
There is a pause, as if Buchanan is remembering the difference between now and when she last played in NYC.
“And to do it with a band, it’s not just me coming back, I have a project that I love and believe in, and I get to go back to New York City and play with my best friends. It’s not a group of hired musicians or anything, it’s my gang.”