A Career in Full Bloom: Ruth Moody Lovingly Tends to The Garden Michael Bialas
She has planted the seed. Now sit back and enjoy watching her grow.
A budding musician who grew up in the Wolseley neighborhood she lovingly calls “the Granola Belt of Winnipeg,” Australian-born Ruth Moody has sprouted into a beautiful performer after 13 years of touring in Canadian roots bands that have included Scruj MacDuhk and The Wailin’ Jennys.
With the U.S. release of The Garden (Red House Records) in April, her first full-length album, Moody shouldn’t have any trouble, um, branching out on her own. With a voice as lovely as springtime’s freshest daisy, Moody plans to pursue a solo career while simultaneously helping to keep the rising trio, known simply as the Jennys, in full bloom.
Moody was on the phone discussing her latest ground-breaking venture on a day when she and Jennys’ members Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse were about to receive the keys to the city in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. That’s where they returned to play for the first time since their triumphant release of 2009′s Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House.
“Yeah, I’m gonna try my darnedest to do both,” said a gregarious Moody, laughing at the very idea. While the thought of breaking away — even if it’s temporary — is somewhat “scary,” Moody has the tools of the trade to pull it off. Her seductive soprano is pure joy, an irresistible force of nature that comes so effortlessly that it must be a gift from the gods. The fact that she excels on a variety of instruments — including banjo, piano and ukulele — makes the classically trained musician one of the most promising artists in a field bursting at the seams with candidates.
“I knew that at some point I would have to face the fear and do it on my own,” she said in reply to an earlier question about accepting this latest challenge. “And so, in that sense, it was something that I knew I would have to try. I feel like it’s one of those things that, after having done it, I can kinda cross something off my list.” (laughs)
Moody took her single-handed ambitions to SXSW in March, playing a showcase and party for her record label in Austin, then going to Blue Rock Studio in Wimberley, Texas. The once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity came at Blue Rock’s annual birthday bash in a setting she described as “an amazing sort of artist retreat, ranch, studio, you name it.” Lending their support were Lloyd Peterson, a fellow musician and close friend, and Eric Peltoniemi and Ellen Stanley of Red House. That label, which has the Jennys on its long list of established roots artists, is responsible for giving Moody a high-profile spot as the closing act on August 7 at Barnfest, in Red Wing, Minnesota.
The daylong festival (with online tickets still available) will offer other formidable performers, including label-mate Pieta Brown and Carrie Elkin, but it’s Moody who stands to benefit most from her chance to host a Garden Party.
She won’t be entirely on her own, though. The Pines’ Benson Ramsey, son of roots powerhouse guitarist/producer Bo Ramsey, will accompany her on a few tunes, and, of course, she’ll have her gardening tools — a banjo and guitar. Moody was even hoping to talk her father Charles, an English teacher who’s making the eight-hour drive from Winnipeg, into bringing her ukulele. The set will focus heavily on selections from The Garden, but Moody was also considering playing “Heaven When We’re Home,” a song off the Jennys’ Juno Award-winning 40 Days album that first appeared on her 2002 EP, Blue Muse.
Back then, Moody realized she wasn’t ready to go at it alone. But critical acclaim with the Jennys, numerous guest appearances on A Prairie Home Companion and a flourishing spirit of adventure have changed all that.
“You have to find strengths that you don’t need when you’re in a band,” she said. “And so I feel like sort of it’s a real growth experience in that way personally. And the things you learn because you’re learning them on your own are huge, you know? (pauses, then laughs) I haven’t actually had to really articulate this yet (laughs), so I’m just sort of thinking it through.”
The impetus for all this was the result of the Jennys leaving the road after about nine years of constant touring. “The band decided to take a year off, which was ultimately so that Nicky could start a family,” Moody said of Mehta, with whom she shares managing duties of the group they co-founded in 2002.
“It’s really great because it’s allowed us to explore different things and come back to the band with new scope and new ideas and new energy. … It did recharge me in a huge way because I got to tend to some of these songs that were waiting for a home. And I got to take the reins and just do whatever I wanted. And part of being in a collaboration is, of course, the upside is you get to combine strengths and we’ve known each other and draw on each other, but at the same time everyone has to be OK with every decision. So everything … you’re in a mind-set where you’re compromising … not necessarily compromising, but it’s a collective decision.
“When you’re doing it on your own, it’s kind of freeing because you don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks. And you can make crazy decisions if you want or you can try new things. It was really great that way.”
While Mehta gave birth to twin boys in July 2009 and Masse — the group’s relative newcomer — got married, Moody kept her private life…. mostly to herself.
Even during this conversation, when she was personable, generous and charming, Moody remained resolute in not giving up many personal details. This exchange was pleasant, if not entirely revealing, punctuated with her lilting laugh:
So Heather just got married?
“She recently got married, yeah.”
What about yourself?
“Well, I’m not married.”
Are you involved with anybody?
“I am in a committed relationship, yes.”
And how’s that going?
“It’s going well.”
Told that there are few, if any, juicy tidbits floating around about her present-day situation, Moody laughed again, then offered:
“I know, it’s funny. People always remark on the fact that I’m mysterious about it. And Nicky and Heather both talk about their marriage and their respective situations, babies and marriage, on stage. And so, fans often come up to me after and say, ‘You didn’t tell us your story.’ (laughs) But, I mean, it’s something I like to keep pretty private.”
Moody is more than willing to talk about her album, though. And why not? Produced by previous Jennys collaborator David Travers-Smith, it’s an exceptional work of art. Moody wrote a bumper crop of 11 of the 12 pastoral pieces, also sharing credit on the wondrous “We Can Only Listen” with Matt Peters, the song’s duet partner, and Derek Norton.
The star-studded lineup includes guest appearances by Canadian electric guitarists Luke Doucet, Colin Cripps, Joey Wright and Kevin Breit. And there’s one-off assists from her older brother Richard (The Bills), Oh Susanna and that superlative slice of Americana pie known as Crooked Still. Led by Moody’s pal, Aoife O’Donovan, Crooked Still released Some Strange Country about a month after The Garden, and both deserve to be mentioned among the best of the folk/roots genre in 2010. But O’Donovan has lent more than her voice to help out Moody.
Needing a Jennys replacement after Annabelle Chvostek left the group in 2007, Moody consulted O’Donovan. She recommended Maase, her New England friend. “I called her because she’s a great singer and I knew she would know what we needed and right away,” Moody said. “She was like, ‘Yep, I got the perfect person.’ And it was just amazing. It just worked out so well.”
So, through the wonders of technology, Crooked Still performed on Moody’s impressive title cut, with O’Donovan recording her part in Brooklyn, New York, while the rest of the band was in Vermont. Inspired by Voltaire’s Candide, with the intention of “trying to make something beautiful out of life, no matter what our situation is,” it’s a dazzling way to kick off its album’s namesake.
While Moody admits being “such a folkie,” her hidden desires include “doing like an all-out rock show some day.” And for no real reason other than that, she let the closest thing here to a three-pronged attack of Doucet, Cripps and Wright punch up “We Could Pretend.” Doucet, Sarah McLachlan’s touring guitarist who at age 10 performed with an 8-year-old Moody in the Wolseley Children’s Choir run by her mother Marcelline, also lends his credible skills (and pedal steel) to a refreshing “Travellin’ Shoes.”
Putting the finishing touches on The Garden are some familiar voices. “Closer Now” joyously finds the exquisite three-part harmonies of Moody, Mehta and Masse in unison again. With Winnipeg’s Jeremy Penner (one of Moody’s Scruj MacDuhk bandmates) on violin and mandolin, they’ll be back on the road next week, touring into 2011 to promote their yet-unnamed fall release.
It’s perfectly understandable why Moody isn’t ready to give up this transcendent triple threat of 3M magic.
“Singing in three-part harmony is one of my favorite things,” Moody said. “I grew up singing with my sisters (older sibling Jane is a cellist; the youngest, Rachel, is a violinist with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, but is currently playing in Auckland, New Zealand) and it just feels right to me. I’ll probably always seek that out in some capacity. And I am very proud of… you know, Nicky and I have built this band from the beginning (when Cara Luft, was the third original member) and I am very proud of what we’ve done. As long as the Jennys keep going, I will (laughs) be in it.”
With a full-length album finally sown on her own, one inevitable question awaits:
So, Ruth, how does your garden grow?
“Well, this is the irony. I’ve never had a garden,” she admitted. “I’ve been a touring musician for 13 years. I would die to have a garden. But it hasn’t been possible yet. I’ll have to try and keep writing songs and one of these days, hopefully I can actually… do it literally.”