Third time’s the charm 

As job interviews go, this one sounds pretty daunting: A tryout for acclaimed roots-trio Wailin’ Jennys, conducted in a backstage bathroom, of all places. Wailin’ Jennys add a new member to the sisterhood

As job interviews go, this one sounds pretty daunting: A tryout for acclaimed roots-trio Wailin’ Jennys, conducted in a backstage bathroom, of all places.

Despite the unusual setting, newly recruited member Heather Masse appears to have made an impression, becoming the third lucky lady to handle alto duties for the act in as many years.

So just what does it take to be invited to join the Jennys’ ranks?

Founding member Nicky Mehta, speaking from a tour stop in Pennsylvania, says it’s all about skill, experience, and most of all, chemistry.

"First of all, the (vocal) blend has to be good," says Mehta, who started the Jennys in 2002 with fellow songwriters Ruth Moody and Cara Luft. "That’s never easy, so the fact we’ve found it for a third time is amazing."

When Luft left in 2004, following the release of the trio’s debut disc 40 Days, she was replaced by Montreal transplant Annabelle Chvostek, who contributed to the followup album Firecracker.

Then Chvostek made it known she’d be following Luft’s lead sometime last year, so when Masse — a Maine singer who also fronts the N.Y.C. group Heather & the Barbarians — showed up at a concert in Philadelphia, the remaining Jennys were only too happy to test-drive some vocals in the venue’s loo.

"It’s been working out beautifully," says Mehta. "She’s a fantastic musician and a singer, and she’s a really great songwriter as well."

In addition to the aforementioned "blend," prospective Jennys should have some stage experience to draw on, since the trio is a regular fixture in the international roots community, not to mention Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion stage.

She also has to know her way around a song — all three Jennys write separately, though they’re inching closer and closer to a more collaborative process — and she has to be able to convince audiences what she’s singing actually means something to her, Mehta adds.

And of course, it helps if she gels with the other Jennys, both onstage and off. "Onstage, there has to be a camaraderie, and a similar sensibility," she says. "But there also has to be a personal chemistry, because we’re essentially living together on the road."

While the lineup changes no doubt go a long way in helping the Jennys rejuvenate their sound, they don’t always work out as well for fans — since any songs written by Luft or Chvostek have to be dropped from the live show set lists.

"That would require us to sing the lead on someone else’s song, and we might not do it properly, or do it justice," Mehta explains.

But Masse — who’s also taught herself standup bass since landing the Jennys’ job — is already a contributing songwriter, and Mehta says her compositions are slowly being worked into the act.

In the meantime, the ladies are keeping up a near-constant touring schedule — one that’s seen them crossing continents with a fair bit of frequency in recent months. Oh, and for anyone keeping track, Mehta says she’s now been hit by lightning — while in a plane, of course — a total of three times, once more than when we last checked in with her about a year ago.

"Apparently it’s a lot more common than you’d think," she laughs. "And this time it wasn’t nearly as dramatic — just little bursts. Even the people around me were like, ‘Whatever.’ "