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Beauty and the Best: Catching Up With the Wailin' Jennys

03/24/2015 11:45 am ET | Updated May 24, 2015

The Wailin' Jennys could've been the Kardashians of Canada. If only ...

• They were three sisters, which they are, but just in the figurative, quote-unquote sense. (Besides that, one of them was born in Maine.)

• They fought like cats and dogs, which they apparently don't, judging by the genuine respect and admiration they showed for each other during a March 11 performance at the Boulder Theater, their debut in the Colorado college town that bumps up against the majestic Flatirons.

• They spent every waking hour of every day wishing they could play out their lives in front of television cameras, which undoubtedly has never crossed the minds of some of the warmest folks who are protective of each other's privacy while managing to keep their own reality in check.

Keeping Up With Kardashians? Nah. Catching Up With the Canadians is much more enlightening, productive and enjoyable, knowing that these three Jennys are the best roots-minded, folk-heroic songwriting, three part-harmonizing, angelic-sounding sisters of mercy you'll find since Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris first established themselves as Americana's Holy Trinity with Trio.

Yet that was only a short-lived side project. The Jennys are still making beautiful music together after forming 13 years ago in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was at the 2001 Winnipeg Folk Festival where Ruth Moody pitched the idea to Nicky Mehta. The two original members, who remain loyal Canadians and continue to co-manage the band, joined forces with Cara Luft to soon give birth to the Wailin' Jennys, the brilliant name conceived by mutual friend John Sharples of Sled Dog Music.

The cast changed during the early years but the current lineup has co-existed since Heather Masse, a native of Maine (Canada's next-door neighbor) who lives in New York, came aboard. Former Crooked Still songstress Aoife O'Donovan recommended the fellow New Englander to Moody when Annabelle Chvostek departed in 2007.

Jennys marquee 5After their recent string of performances in Colorado and New Mexico, Mehta and Moody answered a series of questions via email to update fans on their status as a band -- and if they should be billed as a "girl group."

"I think we'll stay together as long as we possibly can -- as long as we can continue to balance our other priorities with the needs of the group, I can't see why we'd stop," Mehta said. "We've learned over time how to approach it in a healthy way and have tweaked as we've gone. I think we're working better together now than we ever have, in fact. We're having more fun now that we're not touring 250 days of the year. We'll only do it as long as we're having fun and our fans are still with us, of course.  Our fans are so loyal but we never take that for granted -- we try and make sure we're giving them enough to have them stick around for the long haul."

With an ability to blend a variety of influences and genres as well as their polished set of golden pipes, the Juno Award-winning artists each bring beautiful songs often written separately, along with a number of wide-ranging covers, to their shows.

This night in Boulder, for instance, the set included "Wildflowers" (Tom Petty), "Deeper Well" (Emmylou Harris) and a cappella versions of "Weary Blues From Waitin' " (Hank Williams) and "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" (Dolly Parton).

Even when they flub a line (as Moody did on "Beautiful Dawn" from 2004's 40 Days), the Jennys light up a room with laughter, shining as much as their precious gems. Making fun of herself, Moody said after rebounding: "That song was such an oldie that I no longer know the lyrics."

At the Loveland stop in 2011 during their previous Colorado visit, they concluded with "The Parting Glass," a traditional Irish number also on 40 Days. Seemingly in a trance, their collective goal was to end a stunning show on a perfect note.

Somewhere along the way to the front of an entirely different stage for the same song earlier this month, while leaving their microphones and instruments behind, musically stripped of all weapons but their powerful voices, the Jennys caught a serious case of the giggles.

After a couple of false starts, an admission of guilt/apology, a decision to return to their previous places "to try something else" and an extended "awwwww" with a little murmuring from the crowd ("Nicky, they're turning on us," Moody joked), they got the nerve to try it again -- succeeding without the hint of a snicker.

That element of surprise and display of perseverance not only brought down the house, but made its impressed inhabitants fall even more head over heels for a group that played 18 songs, the two sets almost an hour each divided by a 20-minute intermission.

"An Evening with the Wailin' Jennys" still didn't last long enough for night owls hooting for more. Hopefully, Colorado won't have to wait another four years to see them again.

Now, though, family and solo projects have slowed what once was a nonstop touring schedule for the group that has been getting a huge assist on the road from Moody's older brother Richard (whom Ruth has dubbed the Man-Jenny, aka "The Dude" in Arcadia, Calif.) on violin and mandolin.

"The band decided to take a year off (in 2009), which was ultimately so that Nicky could start a family," Moody said in 2010 during the first of our two interviews that appeared on The Huffington Post. "It's really great because it's allowed us to explore different things and come back to the band with new scope and new ideas and new energy."

So maybe the law of supply and demand is working in their favor. Seeing the Wailin' Jennys reunite (or make an album) has become a special occasion.

It's not intended to be a promotional gimmick, though, otherwise they would be planning farewell tour after farewell tour.

No, the Wailin' Jennys insist they're here to stay. For a while, anyway.

Moody, whose solo career has taken off since the releases of The Garden in 2010 and These Wilder Things in 2013, is building an impressive resume away from the Jennys but isn't ready to leave them behind.

"We're all bound to (the group)," she said. "It's important for each of us to be doing other things, too, but it occupies a special and unique place in our lives. So as long as it continues to feel rewarding and fun, we'll keep doing it!"

Bright Morning Stars, the Jennys' most recent album for Red House Records, was released in 2011, but devoted fans clamoring for another will have to wait -- until at least 2016, the year Mehta is targeting.    

"It's on our minds; we are working on new material right now but the actual recording is a hard thing to plan while juggling families and solo projects and life, and also managing the band, as Nicky and I do," offered Moody, who expects all three of them to take a break early next year before finding a "a window of time" to spend in the studio later in 2016. "We'll get there!"

What's still in the works is the continuation of a 2015 tour that resumes on April 25 as special guests on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor at Town Hall In New York.

"Right now, we are booked up to October and we're still figuring out what will come after that. It's tricky trying to balance family/solo career/Jennys for all of us, so we're in constant talks about what needs to happen next. And because our schedules are so busy, getting that time to even talk can be difficult! But there will be more plans to come," Mehta promised.

So catch them while you can. And to see what you might have been missing, check out some tidbits from the Boulder show below, along with other developments involving this serious sisterhood act.

The Wailin' Jennys laughing

The Wailin' Jennys, cracking each other up on the final song in Boulder (from left):
Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse.

Girl group power play?
First, though, Moody and Mehta were asked to comment on the recent series Billboard presented to celebrate "Girl Group Week." (Who knew that was on the calendar?)

Along with an article on the top 10 of all time (based on actual performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart) topped by the Supremes, a readers poll on girl groups offered various categories, including "most underrated."

Women of any age (isn't it only a state of mind?) should certainly be considered, even if any they aren't committing to some Ariana/Iggy collabos any time soon. So how did the Jennys react when getting nary a mention?

Mehta: "I didn't see it, actually (until the link was provided for this article). I can't really say that's super-relevant to me, though I do like a few of the mentioned bands. I was particularly interested in the list of Girl Groups You Need to Know. These days I don't listen to a lot of music other than 'Science is Real' by They Might be Giants (I have two 5-year-old boys), so it was good to get a sense of what other women are doing.  ... I don't consider us a girl group. I'm 43. I also just happen to be in a band with other women. It's not a marketing angle. That said, we have consistently charted on Billboard, so what gives??"

Moody: "Haha, we don't call ourselves a girl group, let's just put it that way."

The Wailin' Jennys certainly belong, so what does it take to get invited to the party?

Moody: "Do we? I've never had a good sense of whether we do or not. But that's partly being in a folk-roots group, I guess. You're not going to hit the mainstream in the way that a pop group does. But that's OK with us. I'm not sure we are that concerned with belonging. I mean, it's nice to feel that way sometimes, but I think we mostly want to make music that feels meaningful in some way."

Mehta: "Apparently it looks like not being a folk band is helpful!"

MEHTA, MOODY AND MASSE: AN ENCORE WITH THE M&M&M'S
Like most folks who tend to stick close to home, catching a performance by the Wailin' Jennys is becoming exceedingly more difficult with each passing year. Before the sold-out show in Boulder, I previously saw them at the Rialto Theater in Loveland in February 2011, a review of which appeared at The Huffington Post. Some highlights from this year's Boulder show follow, along with what's happening with each of them:

Nicky Mehta singNicky Mehta
• What she brought: Mezzo, guitar, snare drum, ukulele, harmonica, well-timed and very wry sense of humor.
• Best of Boulder song (on lead vocal): Admitting she's a chronic worrier who writes a lot about death, Mehta's "Arlington" from 40 Days is about "a bird ... and death," and is heart-wrenchingly glorious.
• Funniest line(s) between songs: (On a Wikipedia search for Boulder) -- "You guys have made it on to a lot of really cool lists like best place to raise vegan children. But the one thing that really stood out for me, I have to say, though I've yet to find anyone in Boulder that knows much about this, is the Naked Pumpkin Run. ... It's my kind of town."
• Where she's been: Once called by one musical festival director "Manitoba's Shawn Colvin," Mehta belonged to various Canadian groups she fronted. Her first solo album, 2001's Weather Vane, was nominated for a Canadian Independent Music Award in 2002. Her twin boys, Beck and Finn, were born in July 2009.
• Where she's going: "I am currently working on my sophomore solo album (only 15 years after the first!) so that's a priority for me at the moment behind my family," Mehta announced, adding that she "recently finished up a collaboration with my husband on a dance piece about Pippi Longstocking. I also hope to do some other writing in the form of poetry and/or a fiction novel."

Ruth Moody, Richard Moody smilingRuth Moody
• What she brought: Soprano, banjo, accordion, bodhran, guitar, gorgeous smile, big brother. (Richard Moody, left, with his sister.)
• Best of Boulder song (on lead vocal): "Glory Bound," from 2006's Firecracker, is a non-denominational gospel song on which Moody plays the banjo and is capable of inspiring the shyest spectator to sing along. Hallelujah, indeed!
• Funniest line(s) between songs: (On visiting Boulder for the first time) -- "We feel like all our needs could be met here. It's true, right? You guys know it. We don't want to leave, so help us figure out how to stay."
• Where she's been: The former lead singer of Scruj MacDuhk, Leonard Podalak's band that went on to become the (oh-so-mighty) Duhks, the Australia-born Moody has received a number of awards for her solo work and a Juno nomination (Canada's Grammy equivalent) for The Garden. She performed on tour and in the studio with ex-Dire Straits axman Mark Knopfler, whose Privateering was released in 2013.
• Where she's going: Winding up a solo tour for These Wilder Things with her own band April 1-4 in the Pacific Northwest, Moody will reunite with Knopfler for shows in Europe in May and June after adding vocals (and a duet on "Wherever I Go") on his just-released Tracker. While ready "to take a little break," she added, "I don't think it will be too long before I'm inspired to start writing again, which usually leads to recording!"

Heather Masse handHeather Masse
• What she brought: Alto, upright bass, jazz hands (and instincts), gentle spirit, heart of gold.
• Best of Boulder song (as lead vocalist): "Across the Sea," from Bright Morning Stars, was written for Masse's husband (Ian Duncan) "when there was a little more romance in our lives." Nearing the end of a tour at the time with the Jennys in Ireland, Masse was missing her sweetheart while taking an overnight ferry boat ride back to England and feeling "somewhere he was looking at the same moon." Oozing with romantic notions, just go with the glow.
• Funniest line between songs: Arriving on a flight from New York on the afternoon of the show, Masse was feeling jet-lagged and just plain exhausted until ... partaking in the probiotic slaw plate on the Happy Hour menu at Shine, a restaurant only a short walk from the Boulder Theater. "Oh my God, that is my most favoritest place of all time. ... I seriously had like two hours of sleep and now I feel like I've been to the moon."
• Where she's been: A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in jazz voice, Masse has been a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion and has released two albums -- 2009's Bird Song and 2013's Lock My Heart, the latter a collection of standards and Tin Pan Alley classics, along with two of her original tunes, with jazz pianist Dick Hyman. Her son August Loyal Duncan was born on Aug. 18, 2012.
• Where she's going: "I will be recording a new album with trombonist Roswell Rudd in May," reported Masse, who will add vocals as part of Rudd's quartet on April 17. "The album will include some original material as well as some jazz standards. We will be recording live with guitarist Rolf Sturm and bassist Mark Helias."

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of the Wailin' Jennys at the Boulder Theater.