The Wailin’ Jennys are back with their first album since 2011. The trio will be releasing Fifteen on October 27: a cover album celebrating the band’s accomplishments over the last 15 years together. American Songwriter sat down with Niki Mehta to talk about the band’s evolution, their favorite covers and how they got their name.
The Wailin’ Jennys has had several iterations of members over the years. What has been great about your current setup?
Heather has been with us now for ten years and we couldn’t be happier with her and with how it’s all worked out for the band. We think the vocal blend is better than ever, and we think Heather is a gem in terms of her songwriting, playing, and her gorgeous voice. Her songwriting balances ours, which is key. She is also a perfect fit personality-wise which is so vital to the longevity of a band. And she connects so well with audiences. People adore her. We feel really lucky that we were set up on our blind date.
Your newest album Fifteen will celebrate 15 years together. How has the band evolved since 2002?
There has definitely been a pretty steady evolution on a number of fronts, from the changing of band members, to our abilities as musicians and so much more. We’ve grown a lot as players and singers and people in general. The band started on the premise of one night of harmony between three singer-songwriters and ever since that one-off turned into a fully-fledged band, we’ve grown immensely and often quickly. We’ve travelled many places across the globe, added musicians to our stage, and kept things afloat as we’ve navigated home, family, and solo careers through our 20s, 30s and 40s. We’ve released music we feel increasingly proud of, which has stretched us along the way, and learned to work as a tight unit where everyone has a voice in how things progress. All of that has made for significant internal growth. It’s not easy to make everyone happy in a band but we work as hard as we can and make that a priority, even when that means taking breaks from the road.
The music has had it’s own evolution as we’ve gotten older and started writing about new things and experiences. But the heart of it has not changed — we still sing about finding one’s place in the world and extending love to others and ourselves. We’ve forged connections with our audiences from that place and they’ve stayed with us.
We’ve had the chance to share the stage with some heroes of ours like Bruce Cockburn and those chances have affected our understanding of ourselves as artists in this band.
We’ve also evolved in the running of the band. We are now, and have been for a long while, in charge of our own career. We manage ourselves and steer the ship. It has made for a lot of work but a lot of freedom and authority over our future, as well.
All in all, it’s been a pretty interesting ride. And now we have kids who really mix things up!
The band hasn’t released an album since 2011, with Bright Morning Stars. When did you guys start working on this new album?
Unlike our other studio albums, this one came together rather quickly. We started discussing how we could put something together with very little time and with the inability to be away from our respective homes for too long. I think we started discussing the prospect of a covers album in the fall of 2016 and then were in the studio February of 2017. A few of the songs had been part of our shows for a while so it was relatively easy to record those. But a lot of stuff just came together in the studio. We had only five days to record and we’re amazed it all worked out.
Fifteen will include covers from artists including Dolly Parton and Tom Petty. How have all these artists influenced the band?
We’re definitely all Dolly and Tom Petty fans, so those ones were wonderful to arrange and add to the repertoire. Because we all loved the original songs so much and had a relationship with them beforehand, we were pretty meticulous about how we approached and arranged them and we tried to stay true to the emotion of the songs; both Dolly and Tom Petty have affected us and the music we make because their songs are so moving and honest. We love performing those songs and are happy that we finally have them recorded. We also brought a number of new songs to the table.
For the new songs, they were ones each of us loved and thought would be good contenders for our sound and for the album. Heather brought in “Keep Me in Your Heart” and “Loves Me Like A Rock,” which are both songs she had wanted to do for a long time. I think Paul Simon has been a significant influence on her. You can hear how the spirited vibe of that song fits perfectly with a lot of her own songs.
Ruth had always wanted to try “Boulder to Birmingham,” an Emmylou song she has loved for a long time and I think has had a lot of influence on her songwriting. She took the song and made it her own but preserved the heartbreaking sentiment of the song. Many of Ruth’s own songs carry that emotionality.
I am a huge Jane Siberry fan. Her music has been with me since I was 13 years old and has definitely affected my songwriting – my songs tend to focus on atmosphere and poetry as lyric and that has been a mainstay of her music. I was so thrilled to have the band do “The Valley” and I think the final product respects the original but takes it to some new places.
I think the whole album is a reflection of our personal and group tastes. Because we have similar tastes in music and needed to collectively agree on all of the songs, the album is an accurate collection of the artists who have helped make all of us the players and singers we are.
What went into the decision to make Fifteen a collection of covers?
Our fans have been asking us to record a cover album for years and so we felt like this would be a celebratory gift on our anniversary for all of the amazing people who have supported us over the years.
What is the band’s process for arranging covers to fit the Wailin’ Jennys’ sound?
We mainly work with the vibe and heart of the song. In ways, it’s always going to sound like a Jennys song because of the harmonies and instrumentation. But we try to stay true to the center of the original. We’re not going to make choices that ignore that just for the sake of doing something really different. Something like “You Are Not Alone” is not that different from the original because we felt that Patty Griffin’s version was pretty perfect and we couldn’t imagine altering the instrumentation and pace in a way that would improve anything. We stayed pared down and tried to let the vocals take it. A song like “Loves Me Like A Rock” was changed up a fair bit to suit our vocal style. We took away the call and response, changed the gender of the song, and added the stomps and claps. But the energy of the song remains true to the original.
The name is obviously a pun on Waylon Jennings; did he have a big impact on the band early on?
No, someone else gave us the name! When we decided to put on that one show, our friend John Sharples, offered to put the show on at the little guitar shop he owned. He thought there was more to this then just the one night so he tried to come up with a name. After some questionable attempts (Folk Vixens), he came up with The Wailin’ Jennys and we all liked it.
Has your home country of Canada had any influence on your music?
Ruth and I are Canadian (Heather is an honorary Canadian given that she grew up in Maine) and I would say yes, our country has had a lot of influence on our music. In terms of being inspired by other Canadian artists, I can only really speak for myself here, but some of my influences are Jane Siberry, Bruce Cockburn, Blue Rodeo, and lesser known singer-songwriters I’ve met over the years while touring Canada. By virtue of 70s radio growing up, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell songs were imprinted at a pretty young age, too. But also, the general experience of hearing other culture’s music within our own borders has affected me just as much. It’s a rich country, musically.
But more important than all of this, in terms of growing up in Canada, and specifically Winnipeg, the land and all its extreme weather has influenced me — and I’m sure, Ruth — significantly. There is something about -40 degree winters that remind you how incredibly small you are compared to the forces of nature. It creates a sense of awe and humility and a reminder of the power of the natural world. But it also reminds you that you are part of it. I think that influences music as much, if not more, than other musicians.
Listen to “Wildflowers” from Fifteen here: