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Music duo Madisen Ward and Mama Bear look back on a whirlwind year

I first saw Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear in September 2014 when they performed at the Tank Room as part of the Crossroads Music Fest.

A few weeks later they opened for B.B. King at the Midland: his final show in Kansas City, their first big hometown show.

Since then the son-mother duo has taken its distinct folk songs to big places, including performances on “Late Show With David Letterman,” CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” at large festivals, including last month’s Newport Folk Festival, and received rave reviews in print and online for their live shows and their debut album, “Skeleton Crew.”

Thursday night, the duo return to the Midland theater as headliners. Monday afternoon they talked about their whirlwind year and what lies ahead.

How was the Newport Folk Festival?

Madisen Ward: It was great. We got caught in traffic and were running behind. When we finally pulled up everybody there looked panicked and nervous, and the crew people were like, “You go on in two seconds.” We really didn’t sound check, we just kind of line checked. Then we went up there and had one of the best and tightest shows we’ve had all year. I’m a huge Jose Gonzalez fan. I didn’t see him, but I heard he watched our set. That means a lot to me.

We also did a show later that night onstage with Nikki Lane, Shakey Graves and Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards. She’s (Wennerstrom) one of my favorite singers.

What have been some of the other highlights of the past 11 months?

Madisen: Playing the Blue Room at Third Man Records, Jack White’s studio in Nashville. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, let alone perform there. It was a really cool moment. I’ve always looked up to him and the White Stripes. Going over to Europe was another highlight. I’d never been able to go overseas and I’m not very well-traveled so that was a big highlight. And playing “Late Night.”

Ruth Ward (Mama Bear): Performing on “Letterman” and going to Europe were definitely highlights, especially playing Berlin. Getting to meet Janis Ian, one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters from back in the day. We got to have dinner together so that was a huge highlight.

Do you feel like you’ve finally caught up with the momentum?

Madisen: On the surface, the momentum can feel overwhelming and it can feel like things are moving at light speed. But when you go through it day to day, it’s more manageable. It doesn’t feel like things are going too fast. I never really felt too overwhelmed. It was more feeling really excited a lot because things kept coming up. And it’s always good to be working.

Ruth: For me, it’s been trying to figure out my life and where it’s going. I was just telling a friend today, I think it’s finally setting in that this is my life. And I’ve started to roll with it and see other things, the work behind the scenes and look at the faces of people who love us and love our music, the older ones and the little ones. I’ve got a groove going, and it’s really good.

Are there things you miss because you’re so busy?

Madisen: I felt like I always had a lot of time to sit down and write and create. Now I have to set time aside. Before, I had a day job, but I felt like I had more freedom to create. Now I have to get creative about how I create. It’s easy to go on the road for a while and come home and not write. Now, I make sure I come home and sit with a guitar and come up with stuff.

You were a duo for years. Now you perform as a quartet with a rhythm section: Tom Hudson on drums and Brent Kastler on bass. Did you have to adjust to that?

Madisen: There was some adjustment at a mental level. We’d played with other musicians before, even when we were singing at coffeehouses. We’d bring in percussionists or a sax player. So on a musical level it was a pretty easy adjustment.

On a mental level, it was like we were adopting a new sound and were opening doors to this sound and changing something you created that you’re pretty sentimental about. But we weren’t really changing the sound, we were enhancing it. And we couldn’t be happier to play with Tom and Brent.

Does the new lineup change how you write songs?

Madisen: I try not to let it. What I want to do is continue to write songs that can be played by just my mom and me. That will keep the sound we have if we make sure it was first written for two people and then added on to by the rest of the band.

What are you looking forward to?

Madisen: We go on the road with Sufjan Stevens for 14 days. That’s back in Europe. He’s a huge inspiration. I really admire him and his work and I cannot wait to tour with him. I met him when he was in Kansas City (in April), and he was a super nice guy.

Then in the fall, we’re doing some West Coast dates as well and we haven’t been able to get out there yet.

Ruth: I’m looking forward to the West Coast tour and playing the Troubadour (in West Hollywood, Calif.). That has a lot of history behind it. Being part of that is exciting. Mostly I’m looking forward to getting back and performing and being a band that, at the end of the day, has to be reckoned with.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

THURSDAY

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear performs Thursday at the Midland theater, 1228 Main St. Luluc opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at MidlandKC.com

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