By Michael Bialas
Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler have influenced tons of artists over the years, but a sweet-soundingsoprano who’s co-founder of the charming Canadian trinity known as the Wailin’ Jennys wouldn’t be the first to come to mind.
Ruth Moody, who possibly possesses the prettiest voice in all of North Americana these days, wasn’t even allowed to worship the Rock Gods during their heyday, when Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” were anthems that stuck with the burgeoning I-Want-My-MTV generation throughout the 1980s.
That a Winnipeg folkie well-versed in beautiful three-part harmonies could connect with the earthier tones of two now middle-aged pop-culture icons shouldn’t be surprising if you reside in Moody’s material world.
Moody loves to explore, which she certainly does throughout These Wilder Things, her second solo album of timeless, roots-inspired tunes that was released in CD format (Red House Records) on Tuesday (May 7) throughout the United States.
Produced dynamically by frequent collaborator David Travers-Smith, the album was recorded in Toronto and includes guest appearances by Knopfler, Crooked Still songstress Aoife O’Donovan, dobro master and jack-of-all string players Jerry Douglas and co-Jennys Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse.
Moody, who wrote nine of the 10 tracks (excluding the brilliant twist on a Springsteen cover), plays acoustic guitar, banjo, ukulele and keyboards. Travers-Smith, who also produced The Garden, her exquisite 2010 solo debut, plays nearly everything else but the kitchen sink, pots and pans, adding to a tantalizing mix of variety, versatility and, pardon the pun, mood-swinging depth perception.
“I think the record does go into a slightly kind of wilder territory,” Moody said over the phone from Winnipeg last week only 10 days before leaving for Europe, where a series of shows opening for Knopfler is on her hectic tour schedule. “I think The Garden is a bit gentler and dreamier and this one … has a bit more urgency to it and is a bit more direct, maybe. …
“To me it feels like it goes to some darker, deeper places and, in a sense, that’s part of what the album is about is facing those dark places and not being afraid of them and walking right into them in order to make sense of them, you know, in order to know ourselves better.”
Moody is cautious and protective regarding specifics of her private life and, while friendly and approachable, seems reluctant to go too far beyond the deeply personal thoughts that come with every lyric she writes, whether they involve pain or pleasure.
“I think all my songs are autobiographical in a sense that I’m drawing from personal experience and drawing from my own emotions. Of course, not all of them are literal and I wouldn’t sort of go into details about that. But I think the best way to go about it is to write what you know. And so I’m doing that in a sense, for sure.”
From the downcast “Nothing Without Love” to the hopeful “One and Only,” this album contains a whole lotta love, lost and found. Moody was able to laugh about that plain-and-simple assessment of the album made by one happily married man.
“I would say that’s pretty accurate,” she said. “… I think we grow from every experience and … certainly I know … I’m no stranger to growth from hard experiences.”
After recently completing a “grueling” first release tour throughout Canada and parts of the U.S. after putting the finishing touches on the album (it was available digitally worldwide April 9), while still co-managing the Jennys (and figuring out the logistics of a tour that begins this June in Alaska), Moody said she felt “sort of brain-dead” while maintaining a furious pace during the past few months.
“Music is intense,” she said when asked what made this particular situation so stressful. “And they’re emotional and intense songs and … yeah. Every recording I’ve ever done has been intense. … There’s just been so much going on. I really haven’t had much time to look back and reflect on it. But I’m really proud of it, proud of what David and I did together.”
She is pleased with the feedback the album already has received (“there’s a really healthy buzz going on”) and the progress of her solo career (“very busy and I guess that’s kinda what you hope for”) but really perked up when discussing a couple of Guitar Heroes.
Classically trained since the age of 4 and sheltered from pop music by her parents during Springsteen’s glory days, Moody said “it still came through because it was everywhere.”
Becoming a Springsteen fan on a deeper level after eventually getting to hear Nebraska (“those songs really spoke to me … and maybe the production was sort of more up my alley”), Moody recently had been listening to his music and contemplated taking on a Boss cover. She shared that with a friend, who suggested doing a different take on “Dancing in the Dark,” minus the “cheesy synth.”
“I thought that was a great idea,” Moody said. “And it’s true, you know. Everyone sort of covers the more … sort of rawer stuff. And I thought that could potentially be cool to take his greatest hit and folkify it.”
With a genius arrangement that began on tour last June with band members Adam Dobres, Adrian Dolan, Sam Howard and Moody’s brother Richard, it was enhanced in the studio by Travers-Smith. A video (without the dance moves of Courteney Cox, I’m guessing) is expected next month.
The Knopfler connection happened more organically and required fewer than six degrees of separation. In Europe last year as part of the classy and collaborative Transatlantic Sessions, Moody performed with two key components of Knopfler’s touring band, John McCusker (fiddle) and Mike McGoldrick (whistle and flute).
They recommended Moody to Knopfler, who asked him to play on his splendid double album Privateering. She joined an exclusive company of women that includes Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch as members of Knopfler’s male-dominated record club.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Moody said. “This is a really big honor.”
Moody went to his British Grove Studios in London, recorded four songs, and received high praise from Knopfler, who said on his website: “She is on the very top level of singers and songwriters out there and I can’t take her off my jukebox.”
A few months later, he returned the favor. While opening for Bob Dylan last fall with extended sets, Knopfler, McCusker and McGoldrick arrived in Toronto in November and appeared on Moody’s record.
The trademark licks on the lovely “Pockets” are unmistakable, and Knopfler’s just-as-identifiable gravelly vocals were added afterward in Britain.
“His voice on there for some reason made sense, especially the contrast between his sort of low grittiness and my voice I thought would be a really interesting sound,” Moody said.
That thinking-outside-the-box pairing on “Pockets” alone makes These Wilder Things a must-have. Meanwhile, the members of the mutual admiration society will meet again next week, when Moody opens for Knopfler on May 14 in Amsterdam, one of her favorite European stops.
“I think they really appreciate when people come over from North America or anywhere else far away, that they make that trek,” Moody said of audiences across the pond. “It’s not something they get to see every week. And they really appreciate it and they really show it. But of course, the audiences, especially in the UK, are more reserved; they’re reserved and polite. But then they show you at the end how they feel, which is nice.”
Six dates at London’s Royal Albert Hall and her first five shows ever in France follow, all with Knopfler.
“I think there might be a chance!” Moody wrote in response to a subsequent email wondering if a Knopfler-Moody live duet is in the works.
If they transform — even temporarily — into a transatlantic mod couple onstage, expect things to only get wilder for Moody.