By Jim Morrison
The arresting three-part harmonies flowing from the current lineup of The Wailin’ Jennys were born in a bathroom.
Founding member Ruth Moody sought recommendations for the departing Annabelle Chvostek from a friend, Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still and more recently a brilliant solo debut. Donovan suggested Heather Masse, a New York-based singer who grew up in Maine.
Moody and Nicky Mehta, the other founding Jenny, invited Masse to see the band at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. There, the three slipped away to harmonize.
“We snuck inside this bathroom and sang. We were, like, this is something. We just kind of knew,” she says. “It did feel magical, even to us.”
The band came together in 2002 as a one-off performance at a tiny guitar shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. From the beginning with their 2004 album, “40 Days,” those magical harmonies have been the signature of the Wailin’ Jennys, whose name is a play on Waylon Jennings suggested by a friend.
Two of their three studio albums, “40 Days” and 2011’s “Bright Morning Stars” won Juno Awards for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year. They’re longtime favorites on Prairie Home Companion.
Their other release is also a stunner, “Live at The Mauch Chunk Opera House,” from 2009. Wailin’ Jennys live shows feature a healthy dose or originals and covers like “Deeper Well,” the David Olney song made famous by Emmylou Harris, “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty, “Orphan Girl’ by Gillian Welch, and “Light of Clear Blue Morning” by Dolly Parton.
Moody’s work with the Jennys is only part of her portfolio these days. Like the other two Jennys, Masse and Mehta, she’s released solo albums, most recently 2013’s “These Wilder Things.” She’s also been on tour with Mark Knopfler, who discovered her several years ago playing with a few of his regular band members on a trip across the pond. She’s sung on his recent records and he played guitar on her solo efforts.
Moody’s connection with Knopfler began in 2012 when she was doing the Trans Atlantic Sessions Tour and the house band included fiddle player John McCusker and whistle and wooden flute player Mike McGoldrick, members of his band. “Mark got wind I was on tour, was familiar with me, and asked John to get in touch and ask me to sing on his record,” she says. “It was such an honor to sing on his record. I decided to get bold and ask him if he would play on mine.”
The two toured together with Moody opening then joining Knopfler for a few songs during his set.
“It’s been really busy,” she says. “But it’s kind of what I signed up for. I knew it would be difficult to juggle projects. But I love doing both.”
Moody will have a chance to decompress from the road, hike, bike, cook, and hang with friends after the group’s show Oct. 21 in Norfolk’s Hixon Theater. It’s their last of the year, the last of what has been a string of shows, often sellouts (their appearance at The Birchmere the night before sold out weeks in advance).
“The road, as exciting as it is, is an unbalancing and ungrounding experience,” she says. “You just get to the point where you’re like, I need to get in touch with real life and get healthy and do some exercise and sleep for more than five hours. Get in touch with meaningful things.”
For her, that’s hiking and biking and cooking for friends. Oh, and getting out to hear music. She saw her friends, The Milk Carton Kids, the night before we talked.
Getting her brain to kick into off-road mode takes a week or so. She works to remember what it is to be in the moment and not have to schedule every second of her day, to let things happen organically. “It sounds so simple and is so difficult,” she adds.
One thing she doesn’t schedule is songwriting time. She just lets the songs come to her. “When inspiration strikes, I hope I have a notebook or my phone to record an idea,” she says. “When I’m in nature alone is when I do a lot of writing. It’s hard to build it into the busyness of your day.”
As the group and life has become busier, that’s been harder. “The writing things gets more difficult as you get older and life changes,” she says. “Just to find the time for it. It’s one of those ironies of life. When you’re struggling in the beginning and don’t have the gigs, the songs are just flowing out of you. Then you get gigs and have some kind of legit career. Suddenly, life becomes 75 percent managing the band (she and Mehta manage the Jennys) and booking travel and crazy stuff like that. That really has nothing to do with what your heart and sould wants and what you started out doing in the first place. What got you on this path.”
While the Jennys blend their voices seamlessly in perfect balance, they have not so far blended their songwriting. Each member writes separately and brings offers to the band. Moody says that may change in the future. But the diversity of their songwriting voices is also a strength for the band.
Being off the road, she will also have time to write. Not that she’s going to take it easy. There are plans, not concrete plans, mind you, for a Jennys recording in 2016. Moody also plans to work on her third solo album.
“It’s important to do other things,” she says about her solo work and collaborations with Knopfler. “It helps to come back to the Jennys feeling refreshed with new experiences and new ideas.”
She says songwriting is therapy for her. Usually, it’s very lonesome therapy. Her parents used to have a cabin in southern Manitoba. She’d write there alone. She also rented her brother’s house for a while, living alone and writing. Both her solo discs were recorded during breaks from the Jennys when Mehta and Masse had children.
“I have something inside me that I have to get out,” she says about songs. “So I just start writing about it and hopefully somewhere along the line something aligns. Or I figure out another interesting or different way of saying something, something that leads to a metaphor or image and often that will direct the song. It will often start as just a feeling or a thought or a combination of words that will come into my head. Or I will need to process something that happened. Then, with any luck, writing down that one thing will trigger something else.”
She says it’s important to get out of the way, to let the creative part of her brain flow free and not let the editor too deeply into the process. “I will try and not let that part of brain, the editor part of brain, speak too loudly,” she adds. “I’ll let it say one thing and then try and keep it quiet so that more pure inspiration and energy or sort of leads. Then I can let it flow out rather than think about it too much.”
“One Voice,” one of the Jennys signature tunes, came to her in the middle of the night.
“‘One Voice’ was one of those songs that came in about three minutes. I don’t even feel like I wrote it in a way,” she explains. “I just channeled it as cheesy as that might sound. It was at folk festival called Blue Skies in Ontario. It was an all-camping festival with the community singing together and jamming, sharing. It just seemed like if only more of the world could be like this. So I was very inspired by that. Just the power of people coming together and making music and what that can do in the world. ”
She went back to her tent in the middle of the night with a flashlight and wrote down the words. The melody and chord progression, she says, came as she was writing. “The next day, it was just there.”
Not all songs come that way. “Beautiful Dawn,” another Jennys’ staple, started in a rush of verses, inspired by listening to John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters.”
“I think I was working through a tough time, ” she says. “It came pretty quickly, too.”
No kidding, the song’s refrain is “there’s only one way to mend a broken heart.”
“I remember trying not to get in the way,” Moody adds. “I also remember having a lot of fun in the editing process, going in and changing words around and changing the order of the verses, putting the puzzle pieces together and making it make sense. That is the really enjoyable part of the process for me. My dad is an English teacher who really taught me to love words and love good grammar.”
Getting back together with the Jennys to sing those songs even after all the years remains a joy. “We always get re-energized when we take a break and get back together,” she says. “That never goes away, which is cool. We’re grateful for that. We just love singing together. We never take that for granted.”
The Wailin’ Jennys
Tickets are $20.00 and available online at Ticketmaster.com or call Virginia Arts Festival box office, 282-2822