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The Wailin' Jennys remake other songwriters' classics in their own image

Undercover agents


The trio's new album, says Moody, opens with a "come-hither kind of vibe." - ART TURNER
  • Art Turner
  • The trio's new album, says Moody, opens with a "come-hither kind of vibe."
The truth, as we know, is subject to all manner of interpretation, and so is music. Barroom cover bands replicate classic-rock standards to sell drinks and fill dance floors. Wedding singers make the pop charts safe for hotel banquet halls. Punk bands churn out ironic interpretations of classic TV themes.

And then, less frequently, there are artists gifted enough to take a great song and make it their own.

Contemporary folk band The Wailin' Jennys, whose stunningly beautiful three-part harmonies have earned them two Juno Awards, fall squarely into that fourth camp, carrying on a tradition that's been handed down through generations of blues, country and jazz musicians.

The Canadian trio's newly released Fifteen is an all-covers album that finds them working their magic on material ranging from Emmylou Harris' "Boulder to Birmingham" and Dolly Parton's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" to Tom Petty's "Wildflowers" and Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart."

"Recording someone else's song that you love kind of uses a different part of your brain than writing and recording an original song," says singer-guitarist Ruth Moody. "We've always loved arranging other people's songs — it's one of the things we did for fun right at the start — and we're lucky in that the three-part harmonies really can make a song sound new and different."

The album's title refers to the number of years that it's been since Moody, Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse first performed together at a Winnipeg guitar shop called Sled Dog Music.

Fifteen is the first of the group's recordings to not include original material, largely because it was tracked over the course of just five days in less than ideal circumstances. In addition to scheduling and geographical considerations — Ruth lives in British Columbia, Nicky in Winnepeg, and Heather in upstate New York — there were all sorts of distractions once sessions actually got underway.

"It was a lot harder to have a 2 1/2-month-old in the studio than I expected," says Moody with a laugh. "I was feeding my son every couple of hours. Also, Nicky was sick with a cold, because her boys had been sick for a couple months, and so she was really challenged vocally. But the morale was high, and we worked with Joby Baker, a really great engineer who's just so positive and grounded. I think he really brought out the best in us."

This is actually the second time The Wailin' Jennys have recorded "Light of a Clear Blue Morning," which has long been a staple of their live shows. The first was for a 2012 Canadian coming-of-age film called The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom.

"She gave her thumbs up for the film and kind of personally endorsed it with a voice-over at the end, which was very cool," says Moody. "And that Christmas Eve, the director forwarded us a fax from her saying she loved the soundtrack and that she loved our harmonies on that song. So that was really touching for us to hear that from her. It was kind of perfect — and it seems sort of typical of Dolly — like of course she would send a fax on Christmas Eve."

As to whether Tom Petty ever got to hear the trio's version of "Wildflowers," Moody has no idea.

"I wonder about that. I guess there's a chance, because we first released that track about a month before he died. It was such a shock to hear that he passed. But I don't know if he was the kind of person that would be interested in listening to covers of his songs, because I'm sure that countless artists cover him."

The new collection also includes more obscure songs, like the gorgeously ethereal version of "Old Church Yard" that opens the album.

"I guess there are two ways you can start a record, either with a bang or with a come-hither kind of vibe, which is what we chose to do," says Moody of the traditional folk ballad that's been enshrined by artists ranging from The Watersons to The Decemberists.

"We really like the way the viola drone kind of draws the listener in — well, hypothetically. Hopefully! And so while there are a couple of well-known songs on the album, we've always liked picking more obscure songs that people maybe don't know and introducing our fans to them."

Colorado Springs will be the first stop on the group's upcoming national tour, which will find the core trio — Moody on guitar, Masse on bass, Mehta on drums, all of them on vocals — joined by Moody's brother Richard on viola and fiddle, as well as Adam Dobres on guitar and violin.

The live sets will draw upon three albums of originals, this newest batch of covers, and traditional songs that are as diverse as the three musicians' individual backgrounds.

"There's just so much good repertoire in those traditions," says Moody. "I used to sing in a Celtic band, and I've always loved Irish and Scottish music. Nicky has always listened to a lot of pop music, and Heather went to study jazz at New England Conservatory. So yeah, we're kind of all over the map."

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