NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The Wailin’ Jennys, perhaps best known for their three-part harmonies and numerous appearances on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” will bring “Version 3.0” to the stage in Bethel College’s Memorial Hall for the next Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts series event, Thursday, March 6.
The group was founded in 2002 when the owner of Sled Dog Music, a guitar shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, brought three soloists (Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta and Cara Luft) together for a joint performance. The show was so well received that the shop owner scheduled a follow-up, also a great success, and suggested the three might want to think of going on tour and perhaps calling themselves the Wailin’ Jennys, which they did.
The trio has performed throughout North America and made successful forays to Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe. They continue their relationship with Garrison Keillor and “A Prairie Home Companion” and were honored to appear alongside Rosanne Cash at the prestigious Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 2004, after the Wailin’ Jennys had recorded their first album, 40 Days, Luft left to pursue her solo career. She was replaced by Annabelle Chvostek, a singer/songwriter from Montreal. In 2005, 40 Days won a Juno award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy®) for “best roots/traditional album (group).” In 2006, the Jennys were nominated for two awards – “contemporary artist of the year” and “best contemporary release” for their second album, Firecracker – at the North American Folk Alliance. Firecracker received a Juno nomination in 2007 for “roots/traditional album of the year (group).”
In 2007, Chvostek also left the Jennys to concentrate on a solo career and Heather Masse, a Maine-born singer, came on board. Masse has a background in jazz and blues as well as folk and fronts the Brooklyn-based Heather & the Barbarians. All the members of the Jennys maintain solo careers in addition to their efforts with the group.
“One Voice,” a song from 40 Days and a staple of the Jennys’ live performances, remains the trio’s metaphoric statement of intent underlining their original mandate: three individuals with unique gifts combining seamlessly into a single entity. Moody is a soprano who plays guitar, banjo, accordion and bodhran, and Mehta a mezzo soprano who can also be heard on guitar, harmonica, ukulele and percussion. Masse, an alto, fills out the chordal range of the group’s vibrant three-part harmonies as well as playing stand-up bass.
Heather Masse launches what fans like to call Version 3.0 of the Jennys. Now based in New York, Masse has found a middle ground between contemporary bluegrass (through her work with roots supergroup The Wayfaring Strangers) and jazz vocals (which she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music). She gelled immediately with Moody and Mehta during an impromptu audition in a bathroom backstage in Philadelphia.
“We found a perfect vocal blend the first time with Cara,” says Moody. “Then we captured it in a different way with Annabelle. So naturally we were thinking, ‘Oh, man, can it really happen again?’ But we have stumbled on such a rich treasure [in Heather]. Her voice is just so round and warm.”
Moody grew up in an accomplished musical family, singing with two sisters. She spent five years fronting Winnipeg’s Scuj MacDuhk. When the popular Celtic/roots group broke up in 2001, Moody again craved what she calls “the sense of completeness and wholeness that can only come with three female voices. The Jennys provide a sense of continuity that threads through my entire life.”
Mehta was on track for post-graduate studies in communications when she released a solo debut CD and, not long after, signed on as a first-generation Jenny. “The group sort of just happened to us,” she says. “The idea was to present our individual visions in a larger collective but before we knew it, things had taken on a life of their own. We’ve constantly been playing catch-up ever since. What’s great is that nothing has been premeditated and we keep being surprised in the most creative, interesting ways.”
“Now we’ve closed another chapter in the Jennys’ story and opened a new one,” says Moody. “We’re thrilled to be writing it with Heather. She’s a kindred spirit. That we can find the magic while laughing and singing together in a dimly lit bathroom says it all, really.”
The Wailin’ Jennys will perform at 7:30 p.m. March 6 in Memorial Hall on the Bethel College campus. This presentation is supported by Mid-America Arts Alliance with generous underwriting by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kansas Arts Commission and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. The concert is underwritten in part by a gift from Excel Industries and Hustler Turf Equipment in Hesston.
Ticket prices for the Wailin’ Jennys range from $14 to $17 with discounts available for students and senior citizens. For reservations, call (620) 327-8158 or (316) 284-5205 Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets will also be available at the door.
The final performance for the 2007-08 HBPA series will be the Boston Brass, Thursday, March 27, at Hesston Mennonite Church, 309 S. Main in Hesston, on the Hesston College campus.