By Bartley Kives
While no musician ever likes to explain lyrics, Ruth Moody can’t help but invite a big doozy of a question with the title track to her new album.
“I was so far gone I could have ended it right there,” the Winnipeg singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist states two lines into These Wilder Things, descending to a level of despondency that’s completely at odds with her perennially positive demeanour.
The same song, however, also lifts a line from A Morning Offering, an inspirational poem by the late Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donohue, which compels the reader to find courage.
So what exactly is Ruth Moody trying to say?
“It is cryptic,” the 30-something roots musician concedes over the phone this week from Cable Lake, Wis., where she’s taking a short respite from a North American tour.
“I’m trying to explore the idea of facing fear and not wanting life to be governed by fear. I think we all have fear. It’s something we have to learn to let go.”
Whether These Wilder Things is a confessional song or a bit of pop psychology, Moody may never say. But she’ll have another chance to explain at the West End Cultural Centre, the site of her first performance in Winnipeg since 2010.
The concert is partly an excuse to celebrate the release of her second solo album, a followup to 2010’s The Garden. But it’s mainly a rare chance to perform in her hometown with her full band, composed of musicians from British Columbia and Oregon.
In three weeks, she’s off to Europe to play a string of dates as the opening act for U.K. singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler, who invited Moody to sing on his 2012 album Privateering — and then returned the favour by playing guitar and singing on These Wilder Things.
The European tour with Knopfler includes six consecutive nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Moody claims she’s nervous and still thrilled she got to the chance to work with the former Dire Straits frontman. When he first asked her to sing on his album, she believed she was victim of a practical joke.
“I totally thought it was a prank, at first. I thought my fiddle player sent me a fake email,” she says, laughing.
Moody’s new solo album also includes guest performances by members of her extended Winnipeg musical family, including her actual sibling Richard Moody, drummer Christian Dugas and the other two members of The Wailin’ Jennys, Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse.
The Jennys, formed 11 years ago in Winnipeg by Moody and Mehta, are on hiatus at the moment. An earlier break allowed Moody the time to write and record The Garden.
She says she envisioned recording and performing on her own ever since the breakup of her first well-known Winnipeg band, Scrüj MacDuhk.
“I always imagined I would do a solo album, but the Jennys happened and that took over for all of us,” she says.
The impetus for her career in music goes back even further, to a childhood steeped in music education. As a kid growing up in Lockport, she was shipped off to music classes on Saturdays and then spent Sundays in choir.
“I don’t think we realized it at the time, but there was an immersion happening,” she says. “It was just music all the time.”
The entire Moody family benefitted as a result. Ruth’s younger sister, Rachel, is now a violinist with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra. Older sister Jane is a cello-playing psychiatrist.
Her brother Richard wound up becoming an accomplished violist and vocalist whose turns in Winnipeg roots-rock bands inspired Ruth Moody to play in bands herself.
“That was very intriguing to me. I thought it was pretty cool,” she recalls. “I was getting into classical (lessons), but I knew I didn’t have an operatic voice and I thought that wasn’t going to be my place.”
Moody first found herself in the Celtic milieu, which still informs her songwriting and arranging. Along with singing, she now plays the piano, banjo, guitar, ukulele, accordion and recorder, and favours more of a broader roots sound, exemplified by what she calls a “chambergrass” arrangement of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark on the new album.
When you’re covering a superstar, it’s much safer to choose an obscure song. “It seems like everybody does that,” she says, dismissing the idea it was a gamble to take on The Boss. “I thought it was a great idea because it was a quintessential ’80s hit and I thought it would be fun to turn it around and folkify it.”
Moody performs tonight, with Ridley Bent opening up.