Ruth Moody – Interview about These Wilder Things: The Wailin’ Jennys Soprano Talks About Going Solo and These Wilder Things
By Kim Ruehl
Ruth Moody has been making music for years as one-third of Canadian contemporary folk trio the Wailin’ Jennys. Though her career with the Jennys is well-loved and documented, Moody has done her fair share of side projects, solo efforts, and exploring other avenues of music. She was in Scruj MacDuhk with Duhks founder Leonard Podolak, and has made a small collection of solo recordings on beloved folk label Red House Records. The latest in that string of solo albums is 2013’s These Wilder Things, a collection of some of Ruth Moody’s finest story-songs backed by some of the finest collaborators in the biz – her Wailin’ Jennys friends, Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan, and more.
I recently chatted with Moody via email about what she’s been up to, where These Wilder Things came from, and what constitutes good songwriting in the first place.
Kim Ruehl: What inspired this album, and what is it about for you? Ruth Moody: It’s about a lot of things…certainly it’s about change, about facing fear and illuminating all that dark stuff that we can no longer run from if we are going to live fully and understand ourselves. I borrowed a line for the title track from a John O’Donohue poem, A Morning Offering, that kind of sums it up for me: “I will waste my heart on fear no more”. That line was a mantra for me for a while and feels really central to the record, thematically. So that’s partly what it’s about. It’s also about love and loss, light and dark, joy and pain, strength and vulnerability…those dualities that make life so rich and challenging and beautiful.
What do you do differently on a solo album than when you’re working with the Wailin’ Jennys? There is the obvious difference – that is that a solo album is directed by me (along with my producer) and democracy is not a factor. So there ends up being less discussion. But, apart from that, it’s not really that different. Usually we just let the songs dictate the path and that’s always been the case with the Jennys too. I love doing both. It’s rewarding to be able to go into an introspective zone and follow a path or idea without having to explain why – to be able to take risks and be responsible for your own mistakes and not worry about how they affect anybody else. But, the collaboration is so rewarding too – to work on a team of people you love and respect is a very special thing, and you end up with something that could never have come into existence without that exact collection of people and its unique chemistry. Something you never could have created on your own. I’m really glad I get to do both.
How do you write songs – do they just come when they come, or do you do focused periods of writing? And how do you know a song is more for your solo project stuff than it is for the Jennys? Usually they come when they come, and I just try not to get in the way. While I’m in that initial zone I try and write as much as I possibly can without editing at all until it’s over. Then I go back in later and try and decipher it all. I love that part of it – carving it down until you can start to see what it’s supposed to be.
I think we just know when it’s a Jennys song. Partly it’s whether it’s conducive to harmonies, but everyone also has to be able to get behind it. If it’s not clear to begin with, it’s usually clear within five minutes of jamming it.
What were you listening to when you made this album? Who have you been listening to lately? Gregory Alan Isakov, Laura Marling, Dawes, Leonard Cohen, Pharis and Jason Romero, Mark Knopfler, Clare and the Reasons, Gillian Welch (always), Bon Iver, Aretha Franklin, The Milk Carton Kids, Dirk Powell, and Tom Waits, to name a few.
What makes a song a “good song”? For me it’s about honesty and heart. It has to feel real and genuine. There are bells and whistles that can make a good song better but it has to be emotionally moving first and foremost.
When you perform these songs live, do you try to get them the same way they were on the album, or do they have different lives in the studio than on the stage? I don’t really worry too much about that. Some of these songs were recorded as we do them live as a band so those ones are the same or similar. A couple of them we haven’t even played live yet, the ones David (Travers-Smith) and I arranged from scratch. We will definitely use the album versions as a starting point but we’ll also likely let them be what they want to be – let everyone come up with ideas and see what happens rather than try and match it exactly to the record. Live music and recorded music are such different beasts – I think that’s the beauty of it!
Where is your favorite place to make music, and why? I’ve never really thought about it, but I do know that whenever I get to my parents’s rustic cabin in Southern Manitoba, I get inspired to write. Usually it takes about a day to decompress and then it all starts coming to the surface. So, I guess I like to make music where it’s quiet and still and there are trees. Although I’ve also written songs in dingy motel rooms with drunk people yelling out in the streets. Sometimes you can’t predict where it’s going to happen.
Your songs are always great stories. Do you read a lot? What are you reading now? I go in phases. I tend to read a lot when I’m home, but not enough when I’m on the road. And these days I’m always on the road, so I’m trying to be a bit more disciplined about it. Right now I’m devouring a book of Mary Oliver poetry called Swan – she is a big inspiration for me.
Do you tend to try to stick to a certain song style or tradition? Or are you more driven by melody and the feeling of the song? (Is there a difference?) I’m definitely more driven by feeling, that’s how it all starts for me. Having said that, there are songs I’ve written that were a result of playing around on the banjo12, maybe while exploring a new tuning or just practicing and trying to learn more about the tradition. So I suppose indirectly I am sometimes paying tribute to a certain style or tradition, but it’s not necessarily my intention. That is, I think my love of traditional music influences my writing but I never sit down and say ‘I’m going to write something that sounds like a traditional Irish song’. By the same token I’ve never said ‘Today I’m going to write a full-on pop song’. I will admit, though, to sitting down on a couple of occasions and saying ‘Today I’m going to try and write a fast song.’ And I think it even worked once!
What’s the best thing in the world? There are so many! Being in the sun with my bare feet on the ground, being in the trees, being alone, being with people I love. A new pair of Frye boots. An old pair of Frye boots! My family. A good massage. Singing. Oysters, dark chocolate, unpasteurized coconut water, dark leafy greens, garden carrots. Garden anything. Sleep. The ocean. Writing a new song. Hearing a good song! Being warm. Crossing things off my to do list.