On January 5th 2018, The Wailin’ Jennys release their first new recording for six years. The album, Fifteen, is a celebration of a musical partnership lasting fifteen years. The trio – Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse – have brought together nine of their favourite songs and the result is 35 minutes of blissful listening, music (if the editor lets me get away with the image) as smooth as melting chocolate.
The album opens with the traditional English song ‘Old Churchyard’ which sets the tone for the album. There is a gentleness of approach, the voices harmonising perfectly, on this track set against a single viola tone, the song passing from one voice to another as it develops. The second track is Tom Petty’s gentle folk song ‘Wildflowers’ and, in The Wailin’ Jennys’ hands, it becomes an even gentler folk song sung against banjo and violin.
You can’t help but be in awe of the version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’ – an acapella delight which keeps the original’s sense of individual rejoicing and emotional rebirth, but which the publicity notes suggest should also be seen in a broader social context as “a call to hope in these troubled political times”.
By now I didn’t think the album could get any better….but the next two songs raise the level further still. An acapella version of Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ is set against human percussion and the resultant sparseness makes the track even more of a gospel-tinged gem than the original – I say that having re-listened to both versions.
And then a song I’ve loved for forty years. The original of Emmylou Harris’s ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ is even more of a classic than ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’. To my mind, The Wailin’ Jennys version matches the original for its ability to tingle the spine. The notes tell you “This was another one that felt magical when it was going down”. It is just as magical listening to it.
Warren Zevon wrote ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’ at the end of his life. The song goes through a list of everyday circumstances where he suggests to his family and friends that they think of him and – obviously – keep him in their hearts. The version on Fifteen will have even tough eyes prickling. It is made all the more poignant here by the joy of living in the voices and the string arrangement in the background.
The other three tracks are Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, Patty Griffin’s ‘Not Alone’ and Hank Williams’ ‘Weary Blues From Waitin’ ’ – all of them great interpretations.
All three of ‘the Jennys’ have young children and the album was, of necessity, recorded in five days “We thought a covers album would be fun to do…..it was a little nuts. We were arranging harmonies on the fly….But we just went with it, and trusted that it would all work out”.
It certainly does. It’s not five days of recording; it’s fifteen years of singing together, captured in five days. Smooth as melting chocolate.
One of today’s most respected folk groups, The Wailin’ Jennys are releasing their first new recording in six years, Fifteen. This long-awaited follow-up to Bright Morning Stars finds the trio bringing their passion and stellar musicianship to a carefully curated collection of some of their favourite songs, including tracks by Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. For members Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse, Fifteen celebrates a 15-year musical partnership that has created three award-winning, Billboard-charting studio albums and one magical live recording and brought them a loyal worldwide fanbase.
Steeped in the artistry and elegance that has defined their career, Fifteen presents The Wailin’ Jennys at their very best. Opening with their stark yet exquisite rendering of ‘Old Churchyard’, sung a cappella over a single droning viola tone, the album then shifts to a gorgeous full-band acoustic version of Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’. Other highlights include their moving interpretation of Emmylou Harris’ ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, their update of Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ (from a women’s point of view) and songs by Jane Siberry, Warren Zevon and Patty Griffin. They also do an achingly beautiful a cappella version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’ that resonates as a call to hope in these troubled political times.
All three of the Jennys now have young children and – coupled with living in two countries and different sides of the North American continent – making the time to record has been a challenge.
“We are all mothers now, living in different cities, so we knew we couldn’t spend a month in the studio the way we used to”, Moody says. “Nicky and Heather could only be away from their boys for a week, which gave us five days! So we decided to do something that was true to our live show. Arranging other people’s songs has been something we’ve enjoyed doing since the beginning, so we thought that a covers album would be fun to do, especially given the time restraints. Even so, it was a little nuts. We were arranging harmonies on the fly… my son was just shy of three months old and I was feeding him every couple of hours… Nicky had a bad cold which made things tricky for her. But we just went with it, and trusted that it would all work out; maybe that’s the thing we’ve gotten better at as mothers.”
Produced by The Wailin’ Jennys and engineered by Joby Baker, the album also features additional musicians Richard Moody (Ruth’s brother), Sam Howard, Adrian Dolan and Adam Dobres.
NPR wrote of their last Newport Folk Fest appearance, “The Wailin’ Jennys are more than just impeccable bluegrass harmonizers; they’re also terrific bandleaders who give their traditional roots music a sense of real reverence.” It’s this respect for their craft, as well as the Wailin’ Jennys heartfelt, impeccable vocal performances, that has cemented the trio’s reputation in folk and roots music circles.
Starting as a happy accident of solo singer-songwriters getting together for a one-time-only performance at a tiny guitar shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, The Wailin’ Jennys have earned their place as one of today’s most beloved international folk groups. Founding members Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta, along with New York-based Heather Masse, continue to create some of the most exciting and exquisite music on the folk-roots scene, stepping up their musical game with each critically-lauded recording and thrilling audiences with their renowned live performances.
The Wailin’ Jennys – Fifteen – Track by Track
Some of the covers are songs we’ve had arranged for a while but haven’t had the chance to record. The others were brought to the mix for this record. They are all songs that are close to our heart for one reason or another or that feel appropriate for the times.
Old Churchyard – This is an English traditional song, evocative and otherworldly, as traditional music often is. Waterson-Carthy did a version that is very spirited, almost like a march. We took a more gentle approach.
Wildflowers – We’ve been singing this Tom Petty song for a few years and a lot of fans have asked us to record it, so we finally did. It’s just a great song, and it feels really good to sing it.
The Valley – We all think this is the most beautiful song. It is deep and compassionate…a spiritual anthem, with a touch of Jane Siberry eccentricity. Nicky brought this one to the band and suggested we trade off lead vocals. The boys dug deep in their performance. Richy added some gorgeous string parts. It was one of those things that just came together magically.
Light of a Clear Blue Morning – We were asked to arrange this song for an independent Canadian film called ‘The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom’, which featured Dolly’s music and received her stamp of approval. What can we say – we love Dolly, and this is a mammoth of a song, so we were honoured to do so.
Loves Me Like a Rock – Heather thought this would be fun to do with the Jennys, and she was right. We tend to gravitate towards the serious, so it’s good for us to lighten up once and a while. It’s a feel-good Paul Simon classic that feels ever appropriate.
Boulder to Birmingham – I have loved this song for as long as I’ve loved songs – it’s such a poignant and heartbreaking tribute to a lost love. The fact that Emmylou wrote it after Gram Parson’s death makes it all the more meaningful. I’ve always wanted to try it with the Jennys but the melody really weaves around, which can be challenging for creating harmonies. I love what we ended up with. The high part in particular ventures way out of Nicky’s normal range, but she nailed it. This was another one that felt magical when it was going down – we performed it a few times, but in the end we chose the first take.
Not Alone – Penned by the magnificent Patty Griffin and suggested by Heather, Not Alone is a tragic rendering of a life lost suddenly and a loved one left behind. Despite the gravity of the tale, it carries with it a message of deep hope and love. The haunting strains of Richard’s viola and Adam’s electric guitar make this song cut straight to the bone.
Keep Me in Your Heart – Warren Zevon wrote this song at the end of his life after battling cancer. It’s a beautiful sentiment – a piece of himself left for his family and friends, and the rest of us! Richy, Sam and Adam came up with a beautiful string arrangement in the studio and we think it really made the song come to life.
Weary Blues From Waitin’ – This Hank Williams song was one of the first songs the three of us sang together, the night we met Heather at The World Cafe in Philadelphia. We wanted to see how our voices blended, so we ducked into a public bathroom, locked the door, and sang a few songs. I’m pretty sure we asked her to join the band right then and there.