Now We Are Three (Again)
Owing to a breakdown in communication, the planned interview with the Wailin’ Jennies had to be shoehorned … Owing to a breakdown in communication, the planned interview with the Wailin’ Jennies had to be shoehorned in to the interval between their two sets at Sheffield’s Highcliffe Hotel. So here we are, halfway through the penultimate night of a first UK tour (in fact their first tour outside Canada and North America) that has already seen them do ten shows in twelve days, plus record a Radio 2 session for Bob Harris. It’s all a bit rushed and pleasantly ramshackle, this last brought about by the fact that the only place we can talk is in a corridor, where we sit on the floor, with the microphone balanced precariously on my jacket. Well done Sony for making a bit of kit that coped real well with the poor placement and odd acoustics. I’m conscious that the three of them are probably still stoked by the adrenaline of the first set, so to get things rolling I opt for the obvious "why the Wailin’ Jennys, rather than the Bawlin’ Marys, or the Howlin’ Annies?" Laughter from all of them, as precious they ain’t.
Ruth Moody: "It’s just a joke really. The Jennys first started back in January 2002, when it was intended to be nothing more than a one-off collaboration between the three of us. John Sharples, who is a friend of ours in Winnipeg, got to hear of it and said he would put on a show in his music store. That sold out, so we added a second and it sold out too. At which point we thought we should do more of thisǃ_. We needed a name for the band, something that wasn’t simply our surnames, but struggled to find one that that might work. None of them did until John came up with Wailin’ Jennys, which we thought was a riot. It seemed to fit us – and even though we’re not a country band, it’s a nice play on Waylon Jennings."
As puns go, it’s both good and appropriate. Like Waylon, the Jennys bring virtuosity, flair, honesty and directness to the music, as well as a good lashing of humour. Their first CD, 40 Days, was released in April 2004 to a slew of positive reviews and a fair bit of radio play that all helped to draw in the crowds – who if the Highcliffe is typical, are bloody glad they came. Like (I suspect) most people, I was expecting a heavy dose of material from the album, though only two of the eight songs they played in the first half came from it. And that wasn’t the only thing that surprised, as their harmonies seemed different, with a subtly edgier and noticeably grittier feel to it all.
Cue a delve in to their musical backgrounds, where it turns out that all three made their way as singer-songwriters, working solo and with others. Going further back, Ruth was brought up on a strict diet of classical music, later adding that she was "classically trained from an early age on piano and voice." Nicky Mehta said her grounding was "Brit-pop and lots of different stuff that wasn’t folk." For Annabelle Chvostek it was "violin – and as a kid I sang in a Canadian children’s opera chorus, then studied classical voice, jazz and weird contemporary electronic music." Looking to probe a bit further, I mentioned the seeming difference between their sound on record and on stage, also asking if they drew on other musical forms and traditions. A slightly surprised Ruth responded with "well, we’re all interested in that, though Annabelle has probably done more of thisǃ_she only took over in December from Cara Luft…." Oops! Poor preparation and a total lack of observation on my part. I try to stammer an apology, but to giggles from the others, Annabelle interjects with "so obviously, I’m adding all the gritǃ_." And Ruth comes in with "I think our live performances have always had a little more of a raw feel to them, because we don’t have a band that can use drums, guitar swells, organ pads and those things that make for an atmospheric effect."
Well, whilst my blushes subside, let me say that it’s a mark of their respective abilities and the chemistry between them that there has been a quick, almost seamless transition from the original to the present line-up. For sure, Annabelle’s eastern European roots and knowledge of its musical forms are a factor, but so too is what Nicky and Ruth bring to the brew. This is nicely showcased when each of them does a solo spot, or when they take turns with the lead vocal. And their harmonies are simply fabulous, as is the interplay between guitars, fiddle, accordion, percussion, harmonica and bodhran. In other words, they are all somewhat versatile.
Demand for the Jennys is such that they continue to have a pretty hectic touring schedule, including appearances at the North American Folk Alliance in Montreal and the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. They will also be going to the Juno Awards (Canada’s equivalent of The Brits), as 40 Days has been nominated for best roots & traditional album. On top of that, they plan to be in the studio some time in the autumn, news that had me wondering about the direction that the next album might take. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but only four of the ten songs that would comprise their second set at the Highfield would come from 40 Days. It wasn’t necessarily a pointer to the forthcoming CD, but it showed that the band have no intention of standing still. And it’s going to be interesting to see how the new collaboration works.
For 40 Days Cara, Ruth and Nicky each separately wrote three songs, but next time looks to be different, with Ruth saying "we’re talking about doing some writing together. We’ve never tried it, so it should be fun." Given their respective abilities and the evidence of their past work, it has to be a given that the results are going to be spectacular. All of them have distinctive styles, somehow each managing to achieve real depth without floundering for meaning. So how does it all come together? "In many different ways," says Ruth. "For me personally sometimes it’s words first, then music, But it could as easily be the other way around." To keep the thread flowing, I observe that their music has a warmth and freshness to it, akin to a sunny morning in a Canadian cornfield, only for my lyrical leak to be properly stopped by Nicky saying "the next record will be much more cynical!" Well, maybe so, but whatever it’s about, it’s likely to be worth the wait. In the meantime, check out http://www.thewailinjennys.com which in addition to the usual mix of news, biographies, tour schedules, merchandise, sound clips and so on, has a growing list of recommended places to eat. So much with simply having to be content with a feast for the earǃ_