Plus new solo coverage from Cara Luft and Ruth Moody!
We’re suckers for sweet girl-group harmonies here at Cover Lay Down, with previous features on Red Molly, Be Good Tanyas, and others offering ample evidence of our long history with the sweetest – and we love a good “how the band met” backstory. So if it took us a while to turn our full attention to Canadian folk-and-roots trio The Wailin’ Jennys, it is no slur on their talent, or their coverage – merely a symptom of how smoothly their songs slide into the modern folk canon, and perhaps a function of their origin in distant Winnipeg less than a decade ago.
No matter: The Wailin’ Jennys are eminently worthy of our South-of-the-border attention. Named punnishly after the country icon Waylon Jennings, founded – like Red Molly – by three singer-songwriters who discovered their particular magic in what was supposed to be a one-shot co-performance in a small, causal venue, the group and its members, each of whom continues to record and explore as a solo artist and with other collaborators, has released four full albums and two EPs since 2004 debut 40 Days won them a Juno award for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year and a coveted spot on Prairie Home Companion. And with 2006 release Firecracker rising to the #2 spot on the Billboard Bluegrass charts, and their most recent album, 2011 release Bright Stars, earning them a second Album of the Year Juno and a mainstage set at Newport Folk Festival, it’s hard to argue that the band has not yet reached its prime.
Indeed: ten years in, The Wailin’ Jennys are deserved stars in the modern folk and Americana scene. And though the 2013 release dates of two recent projects from trio members – soprano singer-songwriter Ruth Moody’s delightfully chamberfolk-influenced These Wilder Things and alto Heather Masse’s Lock My Heart, an album of jazz standards and originals with pianist Dick Hyman – might suggest that they have been focusing their attention on their individual careers in the intervening years, a healthy tour schedule which sees them crossing the US over the next several months lends credence to the artistic balancing act of solo and communal agency that the band promises its membership.
Original songwriting rests at the core of The Wailin’ Jennys work; each member is a strong singer-songwriter in her own right, with a distinct voice and multiple writing credits on each album. The broad diversity of career paths and training which each performer brings to the group makes for a rich and satisfying melding of styles, with stand-up bass, guitar, fiddle, and the occasional uke, drums or banjo gently supporting the outcome, whether the trend is towards fluid contemporary popfolk or funky acoustic world beat. The agency this collaboration provides for each member seems potent: several Jennys compositions have been heavily covered in the folk world, most notably One Voice, which is fast becoming a feminist anthem of empowerment.
The current line-up of The Wailin’ Jennys reflects a historical shift in personnel, with original members Moody and indie-pop aficionado mezzo Nicky Mehta most recently joined by New England Conservatory Jazz trained singer-songwriter Heather Masse – founding alto Cara Luft left the band for Montreal singer-songwriter Annabelle Chvostek in 2005; Chovstek stepped aside for Masse in 2007. But throughout, their core sound has not shifted from its broad foundation. As performers, The Wailin’ Jennys tend towards the sparse, letting the braid of their strong, entwined vocals carry the songs – each in its turn as a lead instrument, and in blend divine.
As with so many folk artists, the award-winning trio pays apt and adept tribute to its influencers in and among the originals. And their takes on the music of their Canadian peers, from Bruce Cockburn to Neil Young, and of the traditional songbook, are generally sweet and strong, with several of today’s exemplars serving permanently in my favorite coverfolk mixtapes. Below, an album-by-album exploration of The Wailin’ Jennys through coverage, followed by a short coda celebration of a pair of new solo works from band members past and present.
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Deeper Well (orig. Emmylou Harris) 
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Bring ‘Em All In (orig. Mike Scott) 
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Old Man (orig. Neil Young) 
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Take It Down (orig. John Hiatt) 
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Barefoot Floors (orig. Neil Young) 
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Trick Rider (orig. Gord Downie) 
Solo work from The Wailin’ Jennys ranges broad into the genres; Heather Masse‘s piano jazz collaborations, for example, are strong, if out of place on a folk blog; Annabelle Chvostek‘s bouncy 2013 “indiefolk-meets-Occupy” record RISE was nominated for a Juno of its own. Nicky Mehta has fronted rock, indie, and folk projects previously, too, but her website and solo career seem to be on hold after giving birth to twins in 2009.
But two of the founding Jennys have released exceptionally strong folk albums in the last few months: Cara Luft‘s Darlingford – a tour de force of contemporary folk; alternately urgent and delicate, with potent laments and triumphs, and strong with the hearty strains of multiple roots traditions – and Ruth Moody‘s abovementioned chamberfolk collection These Wilder Things, which is as deep as it is etherial. Both come highly recommended. Here’s a few bonus tracks to prove it.
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