There’s something soul piercing about three-part harmonies, and since Canadian folk trio The Wailin’ Jennys came together in 2002, they’ve been delivering them with unfaltering mastery. I had the opportunity to chat with founding member Nicky Mehta before their upcoming show at Berklee Performance Center on May 3.

I know that The Wailin’ Jennys came together when the owner of Sled Dog Music (a guitar shop in Winnipeg, Canada) brought you, Ruth Moody, and Cara Luft together for a joint performance. Your voices blend so well together that they often sound like one. Have you had to change your individual styles to get this fused sound?

I don’t think we’ve had to change our individual styles—I think that that’s what strangely makes it work. We never started with the intention of doing this as a band; we came together singing on each other’s songs, and I think that’s continued—we never consciously tried to do anything different from what we would normally do. We’re just very lucky that the blend is what it is.

You’ve gone through a few group member changes. (The Wailin’ Jennys is now Mehta, Moody, and Heather Masse.) Has this been difficult?

Actually, I think that we’ve been really lucky this way, because we’ve been around 13 years now and I think that a lot of groups have a hard time trying to not do the same thing; they have to work very consciously to bring in new things in order to not become stale. We’ve just naturally had this infusion of new sensibilities into the band because the members change, and it’s felt very seamless—everyone’s brought different things into the group. I think that because Ruth and I are the constant presence there, it just means that there are some nice new influences and it doesn’t disrupt anything, it just adds to it.

Several of the women in the group, including you, have gotten individual recognition for writing songs that the group performs. Can you tell me a bit about the songwriting process—is it mostly solo, or do you write together as well?

We’ve been talking about writing together for a really long time but we never have. For the first number of years it was because we were all on the road all the time and we weren’t really writing on the road. Everyone wrote when we were off the road, and when we were off the road we weren’t together. So, aside from contributing some lyrics (I contributed lyrics to Heather’s “Bird Song,” and that’s the only collaboration we’ve done), we’re all very solitary songwriters. We need our space and our alone time to write, and that’s just how it’s worked. We’ve done it that way for the whole time, pretty much. We find that the collaboration of arranging is really creative.

Although most of the songs on your albums are originals, you do have some select covers. There are a few traditional arrangements, but you have popular music as well, such as Neil Young’s “Old Man.” How do you choose which songs to cover?

We all hear songs that we think would be great, and because we have a fair bit of crossover between the three of us, we usually know the songs and we can tell immediately that it would work. Someone just brings it to the group and we decide together if it would be good or not. We turn stuff down that each other have brought as well. It’s just whatever each of us happens to find, but we won’t play anything that doesn’t really move us in some way or another. It’s usually fairly easy to find a song that makes sense.

You’re all instrumentalists, but you’ve collaborated with other musicians as well, such as fiddler Jeremy Penner. Are there other artists in particular that you would like to experiment with, but haven’t yet?

Oh sure, there are so many. Ruth has played with Jerry Douglas, but the Jennys haven’t, and that would be really awesome to play with him. Ah, I can’t think of them all! I play the drums a little bit, but it would be fun to play with the drummer on our albums, Christian Dugas, and we’re playing with Ruth’s brother Richard—he’s playing viola, violin, and mandolin right now—and he’s amazing. We’re very, very lucky to be playing with him. There are friends in the music community that would be great to have on the odd song here or there, but we also never seem to have the time!

Can you describe your music without using genre names?

Without using genre names… well, we get a lot of people telling us that our music is very healing and meditative and joyful. That’s what our fans tell us. I think a lot of that as well is the three-part harmony, which really has a way of moving people. But yeah, our themes are a lot about redemption, and healing lost souls, so that makes sense.

You wrote the song “What Has Been Done,” which I’ve always been really curious about, particularly the line: “Cheek on floorboard, hand in fire / Little sister dressed in white / Last day she was seen alive / Walking to the riverside.”

What was the inspiration for this song?

That was actually a song that I wrote after seeing a documentary about the residential school system in Canada. There was a point in history of 30 or 40 years—the last residential school was only actually shut down in 1995, I believe—where the Canadian government opened a bunch of residential schools under the Anglican parish, run by nuns and priests, and they forcibly took all of the kids in Native Canadian households and forced them to go to these schools. There were horrific abuses of the kids across the country. There’s been a whole reconciliation process that’s been going on over the past few years and a lot of the story has come to light. It seriously damaged the Aboriginal population when all these kids ended up going to these places and were abused; it tore apart families. So, this song was based on a story that a woman told in this documentary; she was there with her sister and they used to wear white nightgowns, and her sister died at one of these schools. That’s where that song came from. I wrote another song based on the death of an Aboriginal man. Especially in Winnipeg, where I’m from, there’s a very large and amazing Aboriginal population, such a strong population, and there’s no justice. That’s a really important cause for me to align myself with.

What’s next after this tour? Can we expect another album anytime soon?

We’ve been talking about what the next step is. We need a new album, and we have a few songs that are coming together, so we’re trying to figure out that schedule. We will be touring until October for sure, and at this point we’re still trying to figure out what’s coming after that. We’re trying to fit everything in with my recording, and with what Heather’s doing, and Ruth’s trying to figure out what her next thing is, so it’s a lot of talk right now. No final decisions. But there will be a new album out soon—within the next year and a half, hopefully.

The Wailin’ Jennys will perform in Boston at 7:30 pm on Sunday, May 3 at Berklee Performance Center. Grab your tickets here!

One Response

  1. Pete

    What were some of the covers that you all decided you wouldn’t play?

    Reply

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