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The Wailin’ Jennys set off a “firecracker”
From meeting Meryl Streep while on tour with Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion to headlining the venerable Winnipeg Folk Festival, it’s been quite a summer for The Wailin’ Jennys From meeting Meryl Streep while on tour with Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion to headlining the venerable Winnipeg Folk Festival, it’s been quite a summer for The Wailin’ Jennys. Rooted firmly in the roots genre with equal sprinkles of folk, bluegrass and old time music, this trio of harmonious ladies are like three little birds singing softly and sweetly in the early morn.
The Wailin’ Jennys hail from Winnipeg, Canada and feature alto Annabelle Chvostek, mezzo Nicky Mehta and soprano Ruth Moody. The band’s latest record – Firecracker – showcases the breadth of these three distinct voices; it also allows each songwriter to strut their stuff, with each contributing four songs.
The eerie opener "Devil’s Paintbrush Road," which echoes an old time Appalachian murder ballad, was penned by the latest Jenny – Chvostek – who replaced founding member Cara Luft in 2004. The plucking of Chvostek’s melodious mandolin steers this song that originally appeared on her solo disc in a stripped down version of just voice and fiddle plucking. Here, it sounds fuller due to the added harmony of her new band mates and the added instrumentation.
"I’ve heard people say that it sounds like one of those old spooky traditionals," says Chvostek. "I actually wrote it on a canoe trip where I had just taken this old violin with me and nothing else in terms of music. I originally wrote it just plucking the violin. Now it is a full out bluegrass party, and it’s pretty exciting to see that unfold."
Firecracker (Red House Records) features a lot of plucking, but also it is also marked by lots of pulsing of accomplished acoustic instrumentation; it explodes from the speakers like a ton of TNT. Guitar whiz Kevin Breit (Norah Jones) adds another spark to the Jennys musical journey throughout.
The group’s debut disc – 40 Days – won the band a Juno (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy) for best roots/traditional album in the (group) category in 2005. Since Chvostek joined the band, she’s brought some even sweeter songs to the Jennys’ repertoire. Overall, Firecracker provides more than 50 minutes of pure musical bliss with nary a blemish. Inspired by a variety of styles, from the country-waltz of "Swallow" to the gospel soul of "Glory Bound" and the a cappella spiritual of "Long Time Traveller," Firecracker is a melding of these songwriting ladies various influences.
"My songwriting has taken many turns over the years and just hanging out with people playing old time country stuff has really gotten into me," Chvostek comments. "Ruth has this wild encyclopedic knowledge of all things folk and roots. At the same time, there is a real love of what is going on in contemporary song. Nicky has this whole Brit pop influence in her stuff, so it all sorts of melds together. I think it kind of echoes of this time in the past, but at the same time it speaks to a contemporary sound as well."
Producer David Travers-Smith (Jane Siberry) once again captured the sounds on Firecracker. Moody describes the intense recording sessions for the band’s sophomore release.
"It was a long process," she says. "We started in June 2005 when we met with David Travers Smith out west in Victoria. We first recorded some a cappella material in this beautiful chapel in the middle of nowhere just to get the juices flowing. That was a really nice way to start. We worked with some amazing musicians on this record. We launched into the beds in October, and it was intense. It was an exciting process, but it was also hard work…you are under the microscope, and you have to be playing your best. It’s a real challenge and a very intense growing experience. It was exciting to be working with Annabelle in the studio for the first time and also exciting to work with David again. He’s a sonic genius. He knows us and knows where we like to go and has great ideas."
Chvostek echoes her bandmates’ sentiments about their producer. "He is very intuitive and able to tune into the larger vision in an interesting and fun way," she adds.
Moody was born in Australia, but grew up on the Canadian Prairies, and this rural rearing is seen in the songs she contributes to Firecracker, especially the aptly-titled "Prairie Town." With several roots bands coming out of Winnipeg in recent years (The Duhks and Nathan to name a couple), one wonders what makes this prairie town such a vibrant and vital musical landscape?
"People ask us that all the time," Moody says. "It’s really hard to put your finger on something like that. Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with the Prairies and the landscape, and it just brings that out. There is that theory that such a long winter can only produce that kind of interest and love of music and sharing of music because there is only so much time you can spend outdoors in the winter, and that is how people pass the time. In a way, it seems like a bogus theory because there are a lot of cold places in the world, but there really is something to that."
"We are also lucky in Manitoba that we have a really supportive organization MARIA – Manitoba Audio Recording Industry Association – they provide a lot of resources for artists. It’s a non-profit funding body. They help artists tour, help artists record, help artists market their music…that’s how a lot of artists can start out and spread the word of their music. It really has fostered a great rich musical community in Winnipeg, not just roots music, but also all kinds of music. There is a feeling in Winnipeg that people know each and people play on each other’s stuff…there is a real sense of caring and community there."
The Wailin’ Jennys home base is also home to one of the oldest and biggest summer music festivals in North America – The Winnipeg Folk Festival. To have such a festival on their doorstep, where aspiring area artists can get worldwide exposure, is surely another huge help to fostering local talent.
"A lot of people have grown up there and are still growing up there," Moody says. "It’s the biggest in Canada. I remember in my early teens going for the first time and discovering this world of folk music, world music, singer-songwriters. I was brought up on classical music and to listen to four days of singing and discovering bands you have never heard of, and perhaps instruments you have never heard of, it really has the potential to blow your mind when you are a teenager."
"The first time I was there was when I was a 17-year-old hitchhiking for the first time across the country, and I stopped in Winnipeg and went to this festival," Chvostek adds. "I said, ‘Wow I want to do that.’ And this year I was finally here on the stage as opposed to an eager teenager just discovering things."
The Jennys music is easy on the ears, and their three-part harmony is something that has the power to lure you in with the various voices melding into one soulful sound, rather than competing against one another to be heard.
At heart, the Wailin’ Jennys are an a cappella band – their voices are the main musical instrument. This lack of amps partly explains why their music is so enticing to people, or so theorizes Chvostek, when asked why she thinks people are drawn to their soothing sounds.
"Maybe it is some kind of post-apocalyptic enjoyment of things that don’t require electricity," says the multi-instrumentalist who performed her first gig at the age of seven with the Canadian Opera Company. "We can have a good time and play our mandolins and banjos really loudly and sing at the top of our lungs. Who needs anything else? It is such an intimate kind of experience and it can be very enveloping and welcoming. These are crazy times in the world, and maybe it’s something to do with that too – the need to have a connection to something more organic."
"I had no idea that when I was 15 years old and writing these very deep and personal songs that I would get into these really light and fun country tunes."
Moody says that the process of choosing the tunes for Firecracker was a fun and organic process. "We throw songs out there, and when they feel right, we pursue them," she says. "Some songs are ‘Jenny’ songs, and some are not, and we know that right away. We just picked the ones that fit the best. Some were ready to go…all Annabelle’s tunes, except ǃ