The Wailin’ Jennys
How come all the best Americana comes from Canada?
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
Canadian folk trio the Wailin’ Jennys bring their lush harmonies to New England for a series of shows, including a stop on Thursday, Aug. 19, at Tupelo Music Hall. Joining soprano Ruth Moody and mezzo Nicky Mehta, newest member Heather Masse is the group’s third alto and, she jokingly says, its “token American.” The band’s latest CD, Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, is the first to showcase her contributions to the Juno Award-winning group.
Masse brings a wide and varied background to the group. She studied jazz voice at the New England Conservatory, and later formed Heather and the Barbarians with a few of her classmates there; the band released one album, Tell Me Tonight. “But I also grew up going to church and singing in a choir,” Masse said recently from her home near Boston. “I had three sisters, and we all sang in harmony.”
She drew from this when she joined in 2007: “In my solo work, I have more freedom to play with the melody and improvise. With three-part harmony there’s only one note you can sing. That’s been challenging, but also really fun and a good learning experience for me to find the creative space within that.”
Masse’s well-rounded solo career also helped. She’s performed with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Jazz band, Darryl Anger’s Republic of Strings and roots supergroup The Wayfaring Strangers and has made several appearances on A Prairie Home Companion (where she’s also played with the Wailin’ Jennys).
Masse joined the group shortly after seeing them perform in Philadelphia. Singer Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still, a college friend who has also recorded with Masse, provided the recommendation. After a show at the World Café, the three were introduced and went looking for somewhere Masse could audition.
“The only place we could find that was private enough and sounded good was the women’s handicapped bathroom,” recalls Masse. “We went in there and it was really dark. We sang some songs together and it was kind of magical. We felt like we were sisters almost in a way. It was exciting and strange.”
Their singing meshed right away, but, said Masse, “I was still a little nervous because I had never played an instrument on stage before.” Since then, she’s taken up the upright bass. “I was so excited about the music, and just blown away by the show. It was so beautiful, really great songwriting and the arrangements were gorgeous. I hoped I would fit in, but I was a little worried.”
That was three years ago, and in that time, Masse’s eclectic roots have helped shape the band anew.
“At this point I feel like I’m fitting in, but it was a bit daunting. They are some big shoes to fill. But Nikki and Ruth have been super welcoming and so supportive, and we’ve created all new arrangements,” she said.
Last fall, the three went into the studio. The completed (and as yet unnamed) record will be released in October and includes four tunes from each member.
“There’s a couple of songs I wrote specifically for the Jennys, and couple I had that I thought would work nice for them,” Masse said. The Andrews Sisters inspired “Cherry Blossom,” a languid love song about missing someone far away. “It’s jazzy, with the Jennys in mind.”
The band has achieved plenty of recognition in their home country, where Americana music seems to thrive even more than in the United States. Masse attributes this to Canada’s financial support for the arts: “It makes being a musician as a career much easier than it is in the States,” she said. “I’m amazed at the funding they get. For anybody who’s in some other business it’s not that much money, but for a musician it’s a lot.”
Long, raw winters that are well suited to indoor music-making are also a factor, Masse said — “There’s not much else to do. It’s very cold, and you just don’t want to go out of the house.”
Masse released her first solo record, Bird Song, late last year. Songs like “Chosen” and “I Don’t Wanna Wake Up” recall Eagles-era country rock, while the sultry “Bathtub” evokes the modern jazz stylists of Norah Jones and Madeline Peyroux. It’s a surprisingly mature work when one considers that she’s a relative newcomer to songwriting.
“I was always more of a vocalist, and I didn’t start writing songs until about four or five years ago,” she said.
The title track was her first co-write with band mate Nicky Mehta; it will also be on the Jennys’ forthcoming album. “Bird Song” captures Masse’s artistic philosophy quite well. “I smell the flowers blooming opening for spring/I’d like to be those flowers open to everything,” she sings.
“It’s been a good balance to be able to still do my solo projects and the Jennys, because otherwise it might get a little old, or boring,” she said. After the Wailin’ Jennys’ New England shows, Masse will perform with her band at Club Passim in Cambridge and do three dates in Maine.
“Reinventing yourself as a songwriter and performing your own songs is very different from performing other people’s songs,” she said. “So it’s been fun touring around [and] letting them just be songs — not being too attached to having them represent you … they can be whatever they want.”