At times, we all need to have someone else express our thoughts and feelings, as the words will not come, or once they do come, we cannot speak them. At times, we all need to have someone else express our thoughts and feelings, as the words will not come, or once they do come, we cannot speak them. And, if it’s true that music soothes and stirs the soul, then the world needs more conscious and aware singer/songwriters who are also musicians, for their work has the potential to be the voice of our heart and soul, in essence, the voice of Man’s truth. Meet The Wailin’ Jennys, a Juno Award-winning Canadian trio of women from Winnipeg, Manitoba and New York, consisting of soprano Ruth Moody, mezzo Nicky Mehta, and alto Heather Masse who are certainly using their talents and gifts to move humanity in a beautiful and uplifting manner.
Currently on tour to promote their newest release, Live at the Mauch Opera House, an 18 song collection that captures the magic of their live performances with show-stopping harmonies and dynamic instrumental solos from all three of the women and their sideman Jeremy Penner, The Wailin’ Jennys are stopping in Pasadena for a show at Caltech on February 27th.
Interview with Ruth Moody, singer/songwriter/musician and member of The Wailin’ Jennys (www.thewailinjennys.com)
Jerry: You and Nicky Mehta are the founding members of the trio. Where did you meet, and from where did the idea for the group originate?
Ruth: Nicky and I knew each other through the music scene in Winnipeg. She claims that we met before I remember us meeting for the first time. Her different hairstyle threw me off.
Anyway, Nicky had released a solo CD. I had been in a band full of boys, and I wanted to start a girl band. I’d grown up singing with my sisters. So, I approached Nicky, and we started working together. We played our first show to a packed house, and we liked the energy of the show, and we did another and then another.
Jerry: And the group name?
Ruth: A friend at the guitar shop kept coming up with a list of names for us, and most of them were awful. Then he came up with The Wailin’ Jennys, and we thought it was funny, and it stuck.
The name has done us very well.
Jerry: Heather Masse is the third member of The Wailin’ Jennys? She’s the latest person to fill that third spot in the group, right? Have the change ups affected the dynamics of the group?
Ruth: Both of the previous Jennys ended up wanting to pursue their solo careers. Once the word got out that we’d lost another Jenny, a friend said that Nicky and I had to meet Heather. At one of our shows in Philadelphia, Heather came, and we went into the bathroom of the venue and sang together, “Amazing Grace,” and an old Hank Williams tune. We loved Heather’s voice, and she instantly felt like a kindred spirit. It didn’t take long at all for us to start working as a cohesive unit.
Jerry: What’s the creative process like for The Wailin’ Jennys? Besides the obvious of more people involved, how is creating in a group different than creating alone?
Ruth: Well, when you’re recording and writing and singing on your own, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. But the collaborative energy is wonderful. Each of us comes to the table with songs that we’ve written. Then we play and sing the song until it feels right. We don’t write together, but we arrange together. Though on our upcoming album, Nicky wrote a few lyrics for one of Heather’s songs.
Jerry: How would you describe the type of music that comes from The Wailin’ Jennys?
Ruth: We call ourselves folk roots singers and singer/songwriters who sing three part harmony. You can hear different colors in our music, whether it’s traditional, folk, pop or jazz and blues.
Jerry: What impact or effect do you hope your music has on listeners?
Ruth: You can’t control how they react or respond, but you hope it goes out and touches people in a positive way and has a positive influence on them. And I don’t always associate positive with happy music. A sad song that moves me and makes me cry is a positive thing for me. I get to move through my emotions and have a release.
Jerry: With the song One Voice, a personal favorite of mine, the song seems to have a double meaning. It’s apparent that “one voice” refers to the three of you, but the message also seems spiritual and worldly and a call for unity.
Ruth: That’s exactly right. I wanted to write something that is unifying, and I wrote it with the Jennys in mind. But you hit the nail on the head with the greater significance. We’re all coming from the same place. It’s disturbing how many people don’t get it that we’re all one. It’s important for people to spread that message.
Jerry: Do you prefer performing live to being in a recording studio? Any rituals the group does before going on stage?
Ruth: I love both. Exploring in the studio is wonderful, but I’ve missed performing live. We’ve been off the road for a year, since Nicky had twins. As for rituals, we don’t really have any.
We warm up vocally and instrumentally, and we try to get together to talk about the show and to discuss what our intentions are and what our message is.
Jerry: How do you decide what songs to record, your own songs versus covers of Neil Young’s “Old Man” or traditional songs such as “The Parting Glass?"
Ruth: There’s no decision. It sort of just happens. We were asked to learn a Neil Young song for a tribute, and the next thing you know we’ve recorded “Old Man.” Wherever we are sometimes inspires us to do a particular song.
Jerry: Speaking of covers, you all perform Jane Siberry’s “Calling All Angels” beautifully. Have you gotten any feedback from Jane Siberry? What about Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings for “One More Dollar?” Neil Young for “Old Man?”
Ruth: We’ve never gotten any feedback from the artists whose songs we’ve covered. But I think that’s pretty standard. We did hear that Jane Siberry was glad that we recorded “Calling All Angels.” Nicky’s voice works really well on that song, and she really connects with it. No matter how tired she is from touring, that song brings her back.
Jerry: Your most current CD was recorded live at The Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania? Other than it being live, how is this recording different from your two previous CDs?
Ruth: This current one is way more pared down. It’s our stage show, and we tour as a pared down trio with a fiddle player. So it’s not as produced as our studio recorded CDs. We wanted to give our fans a recording of the way we sound at our shows.
Jerry: Ever thought of The Wailin Jennys doing an all a cappella album, a Sweet Honey In The Rock type album?
Ruth: I love Sweet Honey In The Rock. We’ve talked about that idea. We’ve also talked about a covers album and a Christmas album. It’s just finding the time to do them all.
Jerry: What would you say to aspiring singer/songwriters who keep hearing the negative messages that no one is listening to their kind of music or that the music industry is dead?
Ruth: Ignore it. The music industry has changed. Now, it’s probably working more in the favor of independent artists. Big record labels are dead more than the music industry is dead. I say go forth with no fear and write and perform.
Jerry: Who are your personal inspirations, and who are the group’s inspirations?
Ruth: I always go back to singer/songwriters: Towns Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams. I love the Beatles. I love Ron Sexsmith, Leonard Cohen, traditional music, pop music, old-timey music. For the group’s inspirations, it’s hard to speak for the other Jennys. I know Nicky is somewhat influenced by British pop, and Heather has a jazz and blues background.
Jerry: The group has had a lot of success in Canada, even winning a Juno Award. Do you feel that you’re developing a loyal following here in America?
Ruth: America has been really good to us. We’ve gotten a lot of exposure, because of our connection with A Prairie Home Companion radio show. We’ve toured a lot in America, and there are more places to play in the States than in Canada.
Jerry: I’m curious as to why Canada produces so many good female singer/songwriters. You’ve got Joni Mitchell, k.d.lang, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, Jane Siberry, Jann Arden, and the list goes on. I include you on that list, too.
Ruth: Thank you. I don’t know why it is, but I’m glad it is.
Jerry: How do you feel about singers and musicians using their voices as a forum to promote political or social causes?
Ruth: I think it’s very important, and I have huge respect for people who do it well. I think that it is a gift in itself to be able to speak out on behalf of issues or causes. It’s a tricky thing because in the context of performing it involves a balance. Some people come to see you perform and only want to be entertained, or want to forget about the troubles of the world. So you need to be able to find ways of sending messages without totally alienating your audience or turning people off who just came out to hear some music. Having said that, the Jennys as a band will never think twice about saying what needs to be said when it’s important.
Jerry: Many are now proposing that in order for the world to survive and get back in balance the feminine and maternal energy needs to rise up and maybe even rule. Your thoughts?
Ruth: I totally agree with that. It often occurs to me that you don’t see women starting wars. I think the feminine force is definitely lacking in making higher level decisions.
Jerry: Are you looking forward to performing in Pasadena? Are you planning on driving down the road to L.A.?
Ruth: Yes. I can’t wait. We like performing in California. If we have time, we’re planning on getting to L.A. We’ll maybe stay an extra night. Mark Howard, the guy who produced our upcoming album, lives in L.A.
Jerry: Thank you for your time, Ruth. I’ll see you in Pasadena on February 27th. Ruth: Thank you. Come up and say “hi.”
*Ruth Moody of The Wailin’ Jennys. Hear more music by The Wailin’ Jennys here and at www.thewailinjennys.com