Procreation has proven to be a creative boon for Ruth Moody. And she’s not even the one having the babies.
A founding member of the popular Canadian folk band The Wailin’ Jennys, Moody has established her own identity as a bandleader during the long breaks when the other Jennys took time off the road to start families. She makes her Berkeley debut under her own name Thursday at Freight & Salvage with a top-shelf quartet, celebrating the release of her gorgeous second album These Wilder Things (True North Records).
Focusing on her lustrous originals, the album showcases her working band with Adrian Dolan on fiddle, mandolin, viola, mandola, and accordion, Adam Dobres on electric and acoustic guitars and ukulele, and Sam Howard on upright bass (Moody also plays guitar, piano and banjo, and her three bandmates also contribute vocals). The songs are often, forgive me, moody and introspective, with sinuous melodies tailored for her shiver-inducing, slightly smoky soprano.
One sign of Moody’s rising profile as a solo artist is the company she’s been keeping. In addition to her fellow Jennys Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse, Wilder Things features appearances by Crooked Still and Goat Rodeo vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, guitar great Jerry Douglas, and Dire Strait’s guitarist Mark Knopfler (who invited Moody and her band to open for him on a series of high profile concerts this spring, including a six-night run at London’s Royal Albert Hall).
Moody hadn’t planned on pursuing a solo career, but when Nicki Mehta’s 2009 pregnancy led to the Jennys taking 18 months off, she ended up writing and recording her first album, The Garden (Red House Records), a strikingly beautiful project that brought her voice squarely to the foreground after years in the Jennys’ soaring three-part harmonies.
“I’m a little bit of workaholic, and I didn’t feel like taking a year and a half off and not doing something else,” says Moody, who was born in Australia and grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I was living in my brother’s house and through the Winnipeg winter there’s not a whole lot else to do but hunker down and write songs. It wasn’t a conscious decision at first. It just kind of happened. I ended up with a bunch of songs, and it felt like the right time to do my own project.”
When the Jennys reassembled they released one of their most emotionally trenchant albums yet, 2011’s Bright Morning Stars (Red House Records), which earned the women a second Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy). But Masse’s pregnancy led to another long break for the band. The Jennys are just starting to tour again, including a two-night stand at the Freight on Dec. 6-7. That nearly two-year hiatus gave Moody the opportunity to write and record the songs on These Wilder Things (which also includes a brilliant cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In the Dark”).
Pinning down what sets her solo songs apart from the material she writes for the Wailin’ Jennys isn’t easy, even for Moody, but the gendered energy of two ensembles shapes the music in powerful ways. “Sometimes I’ll write a song and I know it’s a Jennys tune,” Moody says. “The three -part harmonies are the biggest thread in everything we do. Sometimes I’ll write a song that feels like a personal statement and doesn’t call for that big sound (though a lot of what the Jennys do can be very intimate too).
“It’s a hard thing to describe, but it’s a different experience with three woman singing or with the guys. Sometimes there will be more of a duet vibe with one of the guys, and whether you intend for that or not it creates a very different experience. Just having one lead and back up singers allows the audience to see it from a different perspective. With the Jennys we don’t think of it as lead and backup. We tell sound people to put us all in the mix equally. I love both, and doing both has taught me so much.”
Part of what’s made Moody and the Jennys such a vital ensemble is that they’ve continued to assimilate new sounds and ideas while remaining rooted in their folk influences. A key transition was the addition of Heather Masse, who joined in 2007 after founding Jenny Cara Luft decided to pursue a solo career. A New England Conservatory-trained jazz singer, Masse “brought some new influences,” Moody says. “She’s very well versed, and not only as a jazz singer. The most important thing is that she just fit right in so perfectly. We met her at the World Café in Philadelphia within a few seconds we knew it just worked. We sang a couple of tunes in a bathroom, the only place we could find at the venue.”
So much for the glamorous life of a roots musician. While the Wailin’ Jennys continue to grow creatively, Moody has embraced her new life as a solo act, honing her own arrangements and calling the shots with her band. It’s a big jump for a musician who started performing in in collective ensembles as a young teenager and always found succor in close-knit groups.
“It was scary in a way to go out on my own,” Moody says. “I’d been doing this 16 years, and never done my own tour, the only front person. I’ve always been in a band. I think there was this niggling feeling that it was time to challenge myself.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
This fall’s hottest ticket? Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Be a part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.