The sweet sounds of The Wailin’ Jennys

by Jessie O’Brien

The honey-dipped harmonies of the The Wailin’ Jennys will give you a toothache, but don’t let their sweet songs fool you – these women are true badasses. The Canadian trio – Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody, and Heather Masse – have bushwhacked their own path through the music industry. They’ve won accolades; their latest album, “Fifteen,” was number one on the Bluegrass Billboard charts; they’ve pissed off publicists by choosing family life over life on the road; and they’ve toughed out tours with newborn twins. We’re convinced all the lovely folk songs are a front for their underground switchblade gang. You’ve been warned.

The Jennys are hitting the road and will be stopping at The Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College on July 24. Expect to hear tracks off “Fifteen,” like the heart-melting version of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers,” along with originals from their 15-year-old catalogue. We talked to mezzo singer Mehta about the state of folk and how to harmonize.

Are you going to play mostly covers during the tour? We do play a few songs off the album. We don’t tour specific albums. We’re just touring all the time – a week, a month, for most of the year – so we hadn’t put out a record until 2011, but we toured through that whole time. We do play some songs from “Fifteen” but we play a lot of our originals, too.

What is the difference between Canadian and American roots music? Our stuff is usually slotted under Americana more than anything, and we do a couple of traditional songs that originate down South. There are some that are British and Irish, so I don’t know that I’d call us Americana. We have a whole bunch of influences – some folk-traditional, some pop, some Celtic, a little bit of country and jazz – it’s a whole bunch of stuff. In terms of American versus Canadian, there is a long tradition of roots music in the States. In Canada, there is a really traditional East Coast Celtic thing going on, and in Winnipeg, we have a lot of nationalities and a very strong French population, but I don’t really see a massive difference between the two, other than the music being older in (America).

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The Jennys started out in Winnipeg. Did the variety of cultures there influence the different styles of your music?We are definitely influenced by the community of musicians here, and being exposed to a lot of different types of music influences your general understanding, so I am sure there are rhythmic things and harmony things that may seep into your music, but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. We don’t do any French songs, but just the exposure is the key there. And there is a really strong folk-roots community in Winnipeg.

Folk is really popular here in Durango, too, but is that the case for the rest of North America? There was a folk resurgence with the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. It’s not as strong now, but that exposed people to a little bit more of (roots). That was challenging for a lot of people – the idea that folk was your parent’s music. It was made more contemporary. We are seeing younger people at our shows. Part of that is a lot of those (young people) grew up with our music – the band is 16 years old – so a lot of our music kids were listening to from birth, or in some cases in utero, so we’re getting more of that audience. It is a genre a lot of people embrace. It is more of a niche than pop (but) we have no shortage of crowds in the States, which is fantastic.

What instrument that you play resonates with you the most, and why?My main instruments are guitar and drums. I enjoy the drums more. My guitar has always been in service of songwriting. I’m not a great guitar player. It’s not like I pick up my guitar much at home, unless I’m planning on writing. I see myself as less as a musician than a writer and a singer. Someone like Ruth, who plays instruments – she plays four instruments on stage – she is a true multi-instrumentalist. But drums are more my love, but I play them much less than I play the guitar on stage.

Does harmonizing come easy, or is it something that takes a lot of practice?No, harmonizing does come very naturally to all three of us. I’m not trained. Those two are, but it doesn’t really matter. You can learn to sing harmony, but some people are born with that ability, and that’s how I was. It’s always come very naturally for me. I remember harmonizing when I was 4, so I just always had the ability to do it, but I never (formally) learned it. I sang in choirs, but that was after the fact. That’s how Ruth and Heather are, too. It’s something we’ve done since we could speak kinda thing. But I don’t want that to discourage someone from learning if they didn’t come from that background. You can certainly learn it.

Jessie O’Brien

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