WILMINGTON — Delia Stanley is an artist, make no mistake. She paints, she plays music, she writes, she performs. Despite frequently doing solo gigs or as a band with “Delia and Friends” — her next show is Friday at The Cheese Board in City Market — it’s only been over the last year Stanley’s realized her power as a performance artist.
“Defining myself as a ‘performer’ only came more recently,” she told Port City Daily in a phone call last week.
And it didn’t really come from a stage per se — rather the cobblestone streets of Wilmington.
During the pandemic, Stanley took a gig as a tour guide, leading visitors along the Ghost Walk of Downtown Wilmington. Known to employ many local thespians in town, Ghost Walk guides animate supernatural stories from the underbelly of the Port City. Stanley said she felt herself evolving and settling into being more of an entertainer with every tour.
“The Ghost Walk is different from playing music, but it’s similar,” she described. “It’s still a performance — you’re telling stories, but in a different way. And I realized, ‘Oh, I like this for the same reasons that I like live-performing music: the interaction with the crowd, the fun, the entertainment.’”
Before Covid-19 changed her world, Stanley was teaching at Painting With a Twist (she studied art at the Art Institute of Boston), and performing at least eight gigs a month. In between, she would write book reviews for Forward Reviews and Publishers Weekly, while rearing a toddler with her husband, harmonica player Michael Arrigo.
“I have five side hustles and a trench coat,” Stanley quipped. “I took all of the creative things that I liked to do as a kid and cobbled them into a life and career. And it’s as difficult as it is fulfilling.”
The Ghost Walk was the only performing avenue Stanley consistently had during the pandemic. She did some livestreams, as part of Wilson Center’s Ghostlight Series and on her cousin’s show, Monday Night Muses, which Stanley still pops in on occasion.
“I got involved with a couple of musician friends during the pandemic, and we did song swaps,” she said. “We would give each other a theme, and then try to just write a quick song around it.”
She also released a “Rona Bonus” on her Bandcamp site, featuring a live performance of the track “Pretty Little Head” played at the now-defunct Wilmington Tasting Room.
But nothing topped having a live audience.
Nowadays, Stanley is easing her way onto local stages again — putting her “Delia bop” (“It’s what my friends call it when I start dancing while performing”) back in full force, playing old and new music alike on guitar and ukulele.
“I definitely feed off the energy of the crowd and vice versa,” she said. “So I certainly missed that.”
Stanley mostly is doing solo gigs, since many venues, bars and restaurants are operating under social-distance measures and within capacity limits. “It makes it harder to book as a band,” she said.
Three local musicians, JJ Street on drums, John Hussman on bass and Adam Carswell on guitar, join Stanley often. They played with her on her first EP, “Brokedown,” recorded at Hourglass Studios in 2016 and 2017. The release came from a place of mourning, as Stanley and her husband had moved to North Carolina from New York to care for her ailing father, who eventually died from cancer.
Stanley was in the middle of studying ethnomusicology at Empire State University before the move and said she ended up finishing her degree after her father passed. The life change also fueled a desire to record her first EP.
“I think that when you go through something like that, it lights the fire under you to do the things that are important to you in the moment,” she said. “Like, ‘What are you waiting for? What are you gonna do with the songs — you have to record them, you have to do something with them.’”
Stanley had been working on many of the tracks back in New York during her early days of playing at a wine bar. She also recorded a track, “Delia and the Devil,” on a whim after attending a music conference called “NERVA.”
“The Northeastern Regional Folk Alliance,” she recalled. “I remember grabbing my phone and singing into it, and when I got home, I put it on the guitar. So that was an interesting songwriting experience.”
She wrote two more songs from “Brokedown” in Wilmington after finding a welcoming camaraderie among musicians at local open-mics.
Stanley brought in Hussman, Street and Caswell to Hourglass Studios to record “Brokedown” in under a week. Hourglass’ Trent Harrison produced the songs.
“One was called ‘Sinking into Sadness’ — written pretty much about the experience with my dad,” Stanley said
Because her father also was a big music fan, Stanley released the debut five-song EP on his deathiversary in 2018. Most of the album sticks to the blues genre, though she leaned into some of her fellow musicians’ strengths too.
“There’s a song on there called ‘Too Late Tonight’ that Adam — a little bit more of a country player — gives that country swing to. So we sort of arranged it a little bit differently, played around with that dynamic.”
So far her music has appeared on various streaming platforms, as well as on WHQR’s “Smooth Landings.”
“The success of ‘Brokedown,’ for me, was getting in the studio for the first time, putting something together from start to finish, and collaborating with some of the best musicians and still some of my best friends in Wilmington,” Stanley said.
Stanley went back into the studio with Harrison right before the election last year to record “Onward.” She wrote it in response to the harsh divide of the U.S. political climate.
“It was a response to feeling outcast, and feeling sort of nihilistic towards the political climate — seeing this rising activism, taking matters into our own hands,” Stanley explained. “And that’s where ‘Onward’ really comes in, like an anthem, that we don’t need to do things the old way, we can create new ways of looking at things and new ways of doing things.”
For her first LP, “Come On,” Stanley said she will be working with Hussman again. She plans it to be a more barebones album, recorded in his home studio, full-on DIY.
Stanley has new music and fleshed out some old songs, around 16 tracks in total, over the last year. She’s currently paring it down to 12 or 13, all stories about angst and love. Stanley said “Come On” will be stripped down: “Think the White Stripes.”
“We want to have a little bit more of a garage-band, rock ‘n’ roll vibe,” she explained — “to be a little dirtier.”
While Stanley said she has played a few of the songs live, nothing has been fully worked through.
“It’s not anything too complicated, though,” she said, “just fun music, high-energy stuff that I’m hoping people are gonna want to dance and just jam to.”
Delia Stanley’s Upcoming Shows:
Friday, Apr. 9, The Cheese Board, 7 p.m. -10 p.m.
Sunday, Apr. 11, Catawba Brewing – Wilmington, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Thursday Apr. 15, End of Days Distillery, 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Apr. 17, Low Tide Tiki Bar & Grill, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Saturday, Apr. 24, The Cheese Board, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.
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