With their latest album, peaking at #1 on the US Bluegrass charts, Canadian vocal trio The Wailin’ Jennys are bringing their brand of soul-filled folk music to enthusiastic US audiences. Sharing songwriting and lead vocal credits, the three members Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse, each with vibrant solo careers, deliver magic in their fourth studio album Bright Morning Stars (Red House). Here is a sample of the first track off of Bright Morning Stars 01. Swing Low, Sail High.
Since first coming together in 2002, the band has amassed an international following, touring in Europe, Australia, Canada and the US, with guest appearances on the long-running Garrison Keillor radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. This time out, the Juno award winning group has found a US audience eager to hear their latest work showcasing intricate soaring harmonies, first class musicianship and the beautiful, thoughtful songs from Bright Morning Stars.
Speaking to Country Music Pride from a tour stop in Berkley, CA, founding member Nicky Mehta talks about the making of the new album, life on the road travelling with 2 year old twin boys and she also answers a few questions about The Wailin’ Jennys more light-hearted Twitter feeds.
Country Music Pride: With the success of Bright Morning Stars will you be touring internationally for this record?
Nicky Mehta: We don’t have anything booked at this point; hopefully at some point in the future we’ll be able to do that. It’s become a little bit trickier to do overseas stuff because of…my twin boys. We haven’t done anything yet, but who knows. It may happen for us in the future.
CMP: Your twin boys are credited as “roadies” on the tour. How is that working out?
NM: They do really well. They’ve been on the road with us since they were 7 months old. Things change logistically the way we travel and what we can do, it takes a lot more planning and you just have to…fly by the seat of your pants with some things…and other things [you] keep to a schedule because babies need some structure that way…
It’s tricky at times; it’s a lot of hard work. But, I’m so lucky to be able to travel with my family, not everybody gets to do that…I wouldn’t tour as much as we do without the boys, so it works out.
CMP: On Saturday, July 30, The Wailin’ Jennys are appearing at The Newport Folk Festival with Earl Scruggs, The Decemberists and an act you are all “in love with” – Mavis Staples…
NM: She [Mavis Staples] followed us at the Live Oaks Festival this past weekend in Santa Barbara, [a] festival we’d never been to before. [It] just turned out to be this wonderful, beautiful place, and just a really well run festival. We were second last on main stage…Mavis was headlining…and her newest collaboration with Jeff Tweedy [of Wilco] is pretty cool. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the whole set…cause the boys were super tired, but the rest of the band hung out and took it all in.
CMP: You tour extensively. Have you found there’s a special audience, or region, or country that embraces your style of music and your sound?
NM: I can’t say that there’s any one in particular… we have toured in parts of Europe and a lot in the States, and some in Australia. And we’ve had pretty great reception where ever we go… I would say that there’s a lot of diversity in the music itself and I think that allows a broad range of people to enjoy it. We spend a lot of our time in the states these days and always get such a fabulous reception everywhere we go.
CMP: Your music does encompass a broad range. I’ve seen it labeled as bluegrass, americana, traditional, folk, roots music…it’s hard to fit you into one category.
NM: I agree. When people ask us to describe what we do, we generally say that it’s anchored [by] three part harmony. That’s the main focus of it. We sort of operate under the larger umbrella of folk. But, we have influences from pretty much every kind of music. There’s a little bit of jazz in there, pop, Celtic, country, bluegrass…We all have so many different influences and we never felt like we had to stick to any kind of formula. So, we just bring in what we love. I come from much more of a pop background…I definitely have brought that into what we do. And Heather [Masse] has the jazzier background so she’s bringing that into it.
CMP: On your latest, Bright Morning Stars, the songs fit together so seamlessly, I wondered if maybe you first chose the title as a theme to write around and then went off and wrote the collection of songs…
NM: The title came very, very late in the process. We debated that one a lot. We did feel like Bright Morning Stars represented thematically…the tone of the album…We’re always happy when a title of a song works well as the title of an album…and in that case the traditional song on the album seemed to make sense. We thought a lot about it after that fact. We didn’t think about it before we went out and wrote the songs. But, it was the same kind of idea…we wanted [the title] to reflect the larger sense of the album and what it was about.
And our graphic designer [Ron Sawchuck] also played with the theme and this idea….that ultimately, what our music is about is the fact that morning comes. There [are] some dark nights, but the sun always comes up and the idea of Bright Morning Stars sort of reflects that.
CMP: The artwork, the sound of the album and the songs are so cohesive and it really has an ethereal flow. This time around you worked with producer Mark Howard (who has worked with Daniel Lanois, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, U2), as well as your regular producer David Travers Smith. How did that come about?
NM: Mark Howard is Canadian and we knew of a lot of the work he’d done with Daniel Lanois. And, we particularly liked a great album he did with Lucinda Williams. And we were familiar with…[the] approach he has which is a very sort of lush, sort of smoky sound…So, his name came up when we were thinking of different people we could possibly work with and he was interested and familiar with us. It was cool to be working with a Canadian. We were also really thrilled to again be working with our long time producer, David Travers Smith. The combination of working with those two people was really wonderful. We are really, really happy with how the album turned out.
CMP: I watched a video of one of the songs from the Bright Morning Stars session and the recording process seemed very organic. Did you record it live in the studio?
NM: There was some live off the floor elements for sure…what you see in that video [is] “What Has Been Done,”… it was the first song that we did. And I remember we’d just met some of these musicians [for the first time]. We were recording at a cottage and everyone was kind of living there, and I played it through and we basically just kind of jammed it a few times and Mark hits record early on, just in case…
I think it was only the second time through the song and we got most of the instruments recorded. We were able to do our vocals that night, so that song came together really quickly…there were a couple of bells and whistles added after the fact…but really it was a very live process. It did happen [like that] with some of the songs. Then there were other songs where elements where added one by one. More so than with any of our other albums, this one was a lot more live.
CMP: I think that’s what makes it such a magical record.
NM: So do we, and that’s the direction we wanted to go in…The alternative option which is to layer things and do it piece by piece is really great…But I think we wanted a little bit more organic feeling for this album. And that’s what we ended up with. There’s a real feeling to the album that is of a time and place. And being in that cottage, out in the woods was really conducive to that.
CMP: The first track, Swing Low, Sail High features the hammertone guitar work of Colin Cripps.
NM: We never had worked with Colin before; we knew him through his work with Kathleen Edwards…and… sorry, hang on one second…
[Nicky speaks to her husband Brett and then explains]…sorry I’m in a park with the boys and my husband’s looking after both of them right now and I’m watching one of them try and go down stairs by himself. [laughing] So, if I shout out don’t be alarmed.
[Ed note: It’s at this point that I realize how tough it must be to be for Nicky, a working mom in a non-traditional career as a touring recording artist. But, I can tell by the pride and love in Nicky’s voice that she is happy to be balancing mom and musician. And, she does it very well. ]
NM: Colin Cripps…we knew that he was a fantastic player and he’s played on a number of fantastic albums in Canada and has an excellent reputation, and he’s a friend of Mark’s [producer Mark Howard] who recruited him early on…we were really excited.
He’s got some great ideas and he’s a producer himself. So, he had lots of fantastic ideas for parts and at times arrangements, and he was actually only originally supposed to be recording with us for a couple of days and he ended up staying on for…5 or 6 days because we asked him to and he was enjoying it. He was really instrumental, no pun intended, on the album…He plays hammertone on a few of the songs and just incredible electric guitar parts…he’s a huge part of that album.
The song, “What has been Done” has an emotional lyrical story. What’s the inspiration behind that song?
NM: That’s actually written loosely about the [history of the] residential school system in Canada, and partially about a specific story that came from one of the survivors…I don’t know how much you know about the history of that in Canada, but basically native Canadians were rounded up…as children and taken from their homes and put into residential schools run by the Anglican church [as well as other denominations] and forced into schools to “educate them.”
And at the time, the language [of their mission] was actually “to take the Indian out of the child.” They were not allowed to speak their languages. A lot of them were subjected to horrific abuse… I had heard a story told by one of the women…that had been forced into one of the schools, taken away from her family and…put in there with her sister. And they had to wear these white dresses, which is the reference to the white dress in the song. Her sister was basically murdered at the school. And she spoke very vividly, the imagery of her experience, [is] partly what triggered the song…[and] my own interest and sadness in what had happened.
Her story was very moving. That weighed heavily on me for a while. And I always try to treat those [personal histories] very delicately. Especially when I’m telling someone else’s story – that can be a bit tricky. But, I tried to do it in the most respectful way I could and tried to get at the emotion of it.
I think I’m often preoccupied with the treatment of our Aboriginal people in Canada and there’s another song on a different album. You wouldn’t know it necessarily if you hear it off the album, but if you see our live show…with the older song in particular, I would tell the story and that’s where you get the background of the story.
CMP: Thank you for sharing that. That song touched me deeply.
CMP: I like to read artist’s Twitter messages to get the inside scoop and @TheWailinJennys has posted some funny updates. So, what do you do when you’re travelling during the down time other than visit Whole Foods Stores?
NM: We visit a lot of natural food stores [laughing]. I actually don’t get to see a lot of the tweets because we often travel separately from the rest of the band. I know, before the boys were born, and to some degree when we can hook up with everybody…touring is very much about eating [laughs]. Finding the best restaurants we can in terms of the hole in the wall, local restaurants that are family owned and interesting. Eating is a big part of it. We’re all foodies…and finding all the great, natural food stores in town and going nuts. [laughs] I know that’s not sounding terribly exciting, but it’s what works for us.
CMP: It’s not sexy, but here’s the sexy question…on Twitter you mention a funny story about Justin Bieber and a recent plane flight?
NM: Well, it’s funny. My husband and I were out shopping…and they [were playing] the Justin Bieber video in the store and the boys were transfixed. And Justin Bieber is Canadian and I don’t know a lot about him, and he had always struck me as a kid that just sang well and that’s fine. I didn’t really know anything about him. And I was [recently]on a four and a half hour flight from LA to the east coast to do Prairie Home Companion so I was going without the boys. It was one of the first times in two years that I’d been alone. So, I was all excited to watch a movie. And that was the movie.
And I was thinking, “fantastic, Justin Bieber!” It just wouldn’t have been my movie of choice if I’d had any control over it. So, I watched it and it was fascinating! That kid is amazing! We were laughing about it afterwards. He’s just incredibly talented and was talented from a young age and I feel like I had not given him his rightful props [laughing]. And then we found out from a tweet from Jill Barber…she’s a Canadian singer songwriter and she had tweeted that she had watched the same movie on a flight and had not been able to stop thinking about it and that’s kinda how I felt about it and we were laughing.
CMP: I think all musicians are family in a way and I don’t knock Justin Bieber at all…I just thought that was a funny tweet and I had to hear the story. I thought it was going to be an interesting story and it was…
NM: Yeah, I don’t knock him either, but I thought it was funny that I didn’t know anything about him at all. And I think there’s a tendency to write off teen sensations, but he’s an incredibly talented kid.
CMP: We’ve been talking about Justin Bieber and his audience, so for anyone who’s young or just discovering roots music, what albums do you consider as an essential primer to folk and traditional music? What would be a good couple of albums for them to listen to?
NM: That’s a good question. It would probably be a combination, if you really want to get into roots music, of listening to some of the traditional stuff. Listening to Led Belly and some of the older artists from that era…then listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, going down that line. And then ending up with people like Emmy Lou Harris and Neil Young. It’s such a huge range, you were talking about the Appalachian tradition and there’s so much stuff in that. So, I don’t even know if I could narrow it down. Also, I’m the person who has the least background in it. So I’m trying to think about what’s been influential to me. I think something like Jillian Welch would be a really good starter because she’s a contemporary artist but she draws on the tradition so much and she writes in a traditional manner, too [with] her original compositions.