Posts Categorized: People

Let ‘Er Wail: An Interview with the Wailin’ Jennys

By Sam Wiles 

The Wailin’ Jennys might just have the coolest name in modern music. The obvious but clever pun on country music legend Waylon Jennings’s name is memorable, rhetorically satisfying, and translates broadly across cultural divides. It symbolizes folk music’s ability to span generations. And it was also an accident.

The band’s first gig – a guitar shop in Winnipeg, Canada – was supposed to be a one-time concert for three Canadian solo artists. But when the show was a big success, the owner of the shop suggested the three women form a band and tour as…the Folk Vixens.

“He thought we should have a name, but he kept trying to give us terrible names like ‘the Folk Vixens,’” Nicky Mehta says with a friendly voice and a self-deprecating sense of humor. “He eventually thought of The Wailin’ Jennys and we thought it was okay. So we made these posters before a concert as a joke, with terrible pictures of us that said ‘The Wailin’ Jennys,’ but they actually ended up getting us a lot of attention.”

Since their beginning in 2002, the all-female folk trio has recorded four albums, topped the US Bluegrass charts, appeared on ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ and rotated personnel a few times.

Mehta, along with fellow Canadians Ruth Moody and Cara Luft, made up the original Wailin’ Jennys until 2004 when Luft went on to pursue a solo career. Enter Annabelle Chvostek, a solo artist from Indie music hotbed Montreal. While the band’s 2004 album 40 Days, recorded with Luft, sounds different than 2006’s Firecracker – recorded with Chvostek – the difference isn’t a deterrent. Chvostek’s distinctly smoky voice is simply an enjoyable change of pace. But in 2007 she left the group to pursue what has been a successful solo career and was replaced by current member Heather Masse, a Maine-born singer who was living in New York. Again, Masse has a distinctively different voice than her predecessors, bringing a slightly smoother element to the group vocally, although the off stage banter is now full of over-the-border jokes.

“There’s some good natured ribbing between us Canadians and Heather,” Mehta says. “We’ll tease her sometimes and she teases us for saying things that Americans don’t usually say, like ‘is it ever cold in here,’ or ‘is it ever hot outside,’ or ‘soory.’”

In spite of the phony rivalry, the group has a great sense of continuity, and that shows through their music. At least some portion of every Wailin’ Jennys song on 40 Days and Firecracker features intricate and beautiful harmonies created by Moody’s soprano, Mehta’s mezzo, and the revolving door of talented altos. The genuine blend of the three voices happens just the way a listener would imagine: organically.

“A lot of times if someone is singing the melody, and when everyone’s familiar with the song, everybody just kind of sings and sees where it goes,” Mehta says.

In addition to of course being talented vocally, The Jennys, as Mehta refers to them, are a cerebral bunch. In an era far removed from the origins of folk, The Jennys understand the difficulty of writing lyrics that sound new but at the same time have a genuine folksiness. For example, the song “Apocalypse Lullaby,” a title that certainly seems post-modern, is inherently soothing. The lyrics sound new, and probably couldn’t have come from a far away time period, but they seem authentic somehow. When Chvostek sings “Spin the speed of light/Tetrahedron blue/One last paradise/You can make for you,” it sounds like bluegrass self help for the modern era. Then some songs sound like old school heartbreak. Others empowering. There’s a non-specific spirituality to The Jennys music that calls on the gospel roots of folk, but is left wholly up to the listeners interpretation (intentionally). Folk music, like The Jennys’ name, is a constant in the American music scene because of its ability to unite old and new followers under a tent of commonality.

“It’s almost a self-revitalizing genre because it spans so many generations. You have people who’ve grown up with the originals,” Mehta says. “And you have the younger bands that are making folk music fresh and new. It can be in world music, or people paying homage to a particular artist. There’s been a lot of evolution in folk music. We’re all trying to make something fresh while trying to honor what’s come before.”

Folk music isn’t the only thing evolving. With the advent of home recording, coupled with the accessibility of the Internet, getting your name and sound out takes a whole new strategy.

“It was harder to get an album made before, but if you got an album made it was easier to get it heard. Now it’s inverted,” Mehta says. “You have to market so much smarter now.”

What’s great about The Jennys is that, no matter how things change, they seem to understand their music and what the genre means in this era of arrogance, cultural indulgence and corporatism.

“It’s more than being quaint. It’s about remembering times when community was more important,” Mehta says. “It’s about embracing the concept of evolution and change, but reminding everyone that we’re part of a global community.”

The Wailin’ Jennys  performed at the Center for Faith and Life at Luther College in Decorah as part of the Center Stage Series.  www.centerstage.luther.edu For more information on Wailin’ Jennys, visit www.thewailinjennys.com.

Sam Wiles enjoyed writing this article, doing the interviews and listening to the music. Additionally, Sam now has plans to star in his own all-female folk trio, the Confusin’ Susans. They will begin touring this summer.

Interview with Alaska String Band

(What’s got 8 wheels, 25 strings, 5 heads and is 140 years old? Well, The Alaska String Band of course…)

By Benji Nichols

When faced with the choice to either buckle down with a “day job,” or leave your career to tour across the country playing music and traveling in a 40-foot bus with your three children, it’s safe to say that a lot of parents might chose the day job. But life is short, fragile really, and children don’t stay kids for long, which are all reasons that Paul and Melissa Zahasky and family made a collective decision from their home in Juneau, Alaska to quit their jobs and buy a 40-foot MCI tour bus site unseen. Their extraordinary musical talents would not only entertain crowds from Juneau’s Gold Creek Salmon Bake to the southern-most tip of Texas, but would also pay the bills. And heck, who knows, maybe along the way they’d have the time of their lives. The bus, and Zahasky’s parents (Don & Helen) live here in Decorah, and lucky for us, the Alaska String Band uses this as a home base while traveling to and from the lower 48 states.

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols recently caught up with the “Z-Family” to ask a few questions about how this whole family string band thing got started – and the next thing you know there was a show scheduled in Decorah with the AK String Band. Don’t miss your chance to meet Paul and Melissa Zahasky and their three incredibly talented kids – Laura (18), Quinn (16), and Abigail (12) – as Inspire(d) and The AK String Band host a benefit concert for Decorah’s Free Clinic Thursday, February 18, at 7 pm at First Lutheran Church. Admission will be a cash donation to the Free Clinic, but no will be turned away for lack of funds.

Inspire(d): How did the Alaska String Band come to be?

Z: We (Paul and Melissa) were introduced by a common musician friend many years ago. Our first performances together as a duo were in churches in Juneau and on board cruise ships. Music has always been a passion and a natural part of our lives so the children were exposed to it from infancy.

It is a common occurrence that children will imitate the behavior of their parents and that seems to be what has naturally occurred. Of course, we offered to teach the kids how to play various instruments from when they were very young, but never insisted that they do so. We did say that if they wanted to participate in performances that they would have to take lessons and practice but that decision was left with each child. As they have matured and shown the dedication to learning and loving music, we have actively searched for venues that could accommodate our growing family band.

Making the decision to transition the Alaska String Band from a local music group to a full-time performing ensemble was slow and somewhat agonizing. We both reached a point of overload where we realized that Paul could no longer work full time as an Alaska State Parks employee and run his own excavating business, while Melissa oversaw the home and education of our children. At the same time the Band continued to increase its schedule to the point that nothing was being done well. We spent months discussing our visions and goals, talking with friends whom we felt could offer sound council, and praying for direction.

We asked ourselves tough questions such as: When I am really, really, old (a lot older than I am now) will I have any regrets of not following my dream? If we give up the security that a full time position with the State of Alaska including benefits provides, in exchange for only a year or possibly two to pursue this musical dream with our children, will it have been worth it? We always consulted the children on their desires as well. A good Juneau friend offered us this helpful gem; “God is not in the habit of showing you the net until after you jump…” We are a year and a half past the point of no return, and we have no regrets.

Inspire(d): What Inspire(d) you all to start playing music as a family, and perhaps more importantly continues to inspire you to keep playing together?

Z: In the process of becoming a family string band we have discovered that it not only feeds our musical passions but also knits us closely together. We share a common dream, which includes success and failure, fear and courage, totally cush gigs and crummy hardships, frustrations, disappointments and delights, humor, humility and pride, and of course faith, hope and love.

Wherever we perform there are comments that continue to spur us on: “Thank you for being willing to share your faith publicly. Don’t ever stop doing what you’re doing!! What do you really do for work?!? Do your kids ever fight? You guys are shredders!! Do you sleep in the refrigerator to keep warm?”
Melissa was originally inspired with the family string band idea by seeing the McLain Family Band perform (www.mclains.com) when she was a child in Juneau.

Other inspirations have been “The Sound of Music” – which leaves one wanting… Wanting to know the rest of the story, which our family discovered when we read aloud “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp. In addition The Von Trapp Children – today’s great, great grandchildren of Captain George and Maria Augusta Von Trapp – have been fun for us to read about and see in concert. Another read-aloud that our family enjoyed was “Don’t Think It Hasn’t Been Fun: The Story of the Burke Family Singers” by Sarah Jo Burke.
Finally, music is eternal. There will always be one more song to sing, one more genre of music to aspire to. We will never arrive, but are continually led on to greater depths of feeling and communication through the exploration of music. Ultimately it is our Creator who inspires and enables us to continue to sing and make music.

Inspire(d): Tell us about home schooling your kids. What has that been like in addition to keeping up performances and a national touring schedule?

Z: Laura, Quinn and Abigail have been educated at home from infancy. Alaska hosts a large population of home-schooled students and the state has been very accommodating to this form of education as the remoteness of many homes inhibits public school access. Our children are currently enrolled in a state funded correspondence school that provides certified teachers, guidance counselors, yearly state mandated testing, educational resources, and an accredited high school graduation ceremony. We choose the curriculum that best suits each child’s course of study and teach it ourselves. Laura is our first high school graduate having received her diploma in May of 2009.

The transition of schooling at home to schooling on the road is seamless. It’s just as hard on the road as off! Staying disciplined and focused at home has proven to be as difficult as studying in the midst of travel. There will always be a million distractions no matter what our circumstances are. When the Alaska String Band is faced with a split decision the kids get three votes, Mom and Dad get 10.

A few techniques we have found that seem to foster better study habits are: Feed the kids, Academics first. Study in the morning and practice music no later than 6:00 p.m. if possible. Separate the kids – this can be a challenge in a 40-foot bus, but if left together in too close of proximity without fairly close supervision they act just like every other school kid in America. While traveling use a tippy cup – or your essay on “Bus Dwellers Across America” will be coated in Gatorade. Avoid study or practice/rehearsal outside the bus – due to the public arena that we are immersed in while touring we have found it is just about impossible to work without interruption if we are outside the confines of the bus. People love t

o visit with us and are naturally curious about what we are doing. They also love to talk about Alaska if they have been there themselves or ask us what it is like. We love to do this but find it has to be separated from school and work responsibilities.

This touring experience touches on all aspects of education and richens their awareness in ways that a textbook cannot. Often the children will study on weekends, at odd hours and through holidays knowing that there will be interruptions in the coming days on the road.

Inspire(d): Tell us how you came to be the proud owners of a tour bus and any favorite bus stories from the gang.

Z: When we began dreaming up our first national tour we all agreed that a bus would best accommodate our needs and desires. Old of course was a prerequisite due to our “vast” financial resources and all the derelict busses around Juneau were spoken for, so we surfed the Internet. Eventually Paul came across a 1978 MCI 8 which appeared to fit our criteria. It was located in Missouri and had been converted by a contractor who had used it for his own family’s RV. Paul carried on correspondence via email for quite a while and in the end it was a huge step of trust in an unknown, but thankfully genuine and honest cyber seller.

We packed up an excessive amount of tour gear which included all things relating to music performance, school and recreation and which we were sure all music stars would find necessary, hopped on an Alaska Airlines jet and flew to Chicago where we rented a car and drove the rest of the way to our bus’s home in Eureka, Missouri, then hit the road. As we are currently into our fourth cross-country tour, our bus is maintaining consistent performance. Gas mileage: five miles per gallon, down hill with a tail wind traveling south. On an average we end up in the maintenance shop once per tour.

Late one evening while driving down the Crooked Road – Heritage Music trail in Virginia, Quinn recalls one hysterically funny escapade. It was a dusty drive and the windshield had coated over with a pretty heavy layer of cruddy mud. Paul saw a toll booth rapidly approaching and yelled, “Somebody fill the largest bowl you can find with water and as soon as I stop at the toll booth I want one of you kids to jump out and rinse off the windshield for me so that I can see properly!” Quinn was the quickest responder and as we rolled to a stop he jumped down and crossed in front of the bus. He gave a good heave to the bowl of water. The water flew up in an arc then swooshed down with a huge splash through the open tollbooth window, drenching the attendant and filling the change drawer and his lap with water. Quinn shot back into the bus and dove to the darkened recess of the furthest back room. He didn’t surface for quite some time. Melissa and the girls were howling with laughter and Paul was left trying to explain to a shocked tollbooth operator the purpose of his 14-year-old son’s agua ambush.

Inspire(d): What would the “ultimate show” be?

Z: Garrison Keilor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a round-the-world music tour, Carnegie Hall, or Sarah Palin’s presidential inauguration.

Inspire(d): Can you tell us about the musical advantages of being a family band?

Z: Quinn would most definitely say the food. We would say living and raising a family in Alaska is an amazing opportunity. Our remote location in Juneau, which can only be accessed by air or water, poses some serious restrictions on travel. We have found that the travel afforded by the entertainment industry has been an incredible boon. Young pickers also learn faster and are more nimble than their elders and they breathe new life into old songs.

Singing in harmony is an ongoing challenge. It’s a spine tingling moment when the pitches meld together so perfectly that the harmonics buzz in your ear. Because we are family our voices naturally sound similar and identical phrasing and breathing becomes intuitive. We do not personally detect a difference in our blend compared to other musical groups that are not tied by blood, however many who have heard us sing do say we possess a sound heard only in family ensembles.

Inspire(d): What has the biggest highlight of the past year been – musically, and non-musically?

Z: Completing a summer season of Southeast Alaskan Odyssey Shows in our homeport of Juneau on board Norwegian and Holland America Cruise lines. Doing a chapel service as well as the Southeast Alaskan Odyssey Show in the 2500 seat Belcher Center for the Arts at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, one day and giving an Alaskan String Band performance at Curtis Rountree’s Bluegrass Pickin’ Place in Lonestar, Texas, the following day. Sharing stages across the country with other awe inspiring musicians as well as meeting other family string bands who are following a similar dream. Enjoying untracked deep powder slopes at the Eaglecrest ski area in Juneau during a record breaking 20-foot snow fall winter followed up with a summer of record-breaking sunny days and warm temperatures in our rainforest home.

Inspire(d): What is the temperature out right now where you are, and what was the last wildlife that any of you saw before answering these questions?

Z: We are on North Padre Island, on the Gulf of Mexico in southern Texas. It is 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

Abigail: a jackrabbit
Laura: a sand crab
Quinn: a sea worm
Melissa: a pelican
Paul: an out-of-control Texas road hog

Inspire(d): What do you miss the most about home and Alaska when you are not
there?

Z: Family, friends, regular aerobic exercise, excellent mountain drinking water, our spacious home, pristine wilderness, abundant wildlife, and alpine meadows.

In response to one of Quinn’s Vocational Tech classroom assignments Quinn is currently keeping a travel blog entitled Quinn’s Extraordinary Travel Ramblings. This is an ongoing account of his adventures with the Alaska String Band and can be accessed via the Alaska String Band website www.alaskastringband.net.

Benji Nichols is completely inspire(d) by the Zahasky family and their adventures. He also has to thank his Dad, Paul Nichols, for tipping him off about the Alaska String Band. Benji is no stranger to old busses and touring – and looks forward to more escapades to come, along with the comforting hum of a diesel generator lullaby…

A Rare Bird: Interview with Artist Pam Kester

By Becky Idstrom

Pam Kester’s art studio is full of material ripe for creating. In just 10 short minutes she has already listed at least 15 different types of semi-precious stones, pulling open drawers and lifting box lids as she speaks. There are the river stones, the glass beads, the copper metal plates, the soldering materials, the fossils, the pictures, the coins – all different shapes, sizes, and colors.

In the 14 years I have known Pam, the precision, attention to detail, and artistry that she brings to her work – from a birthday card to a two-day educational hawk festival for the Audubon Society – has impressed me. Her jewelry is no less impressive. She mixes her varied raw materials to design and create one-of-a-kind necklaces and earrings in a collection she’s dubbed Rare Bird Artful Adornments.

Rare Bird Artful Adornments – jewelry inspired by nature and the beauty of the human soul – was born only two years ago. When Pam felt the urge to work with her hands, to create something, she turned her attention to jewelry making – something she had experimented with since age 18. Her creative passion has grown one bead at a time.

Looking at the materials she has laid out before us, it’s hard to imagine where one would begin. “I just start with one bead,” she says, “and ask—how can I use this? I choose something I’m attracted to, like this stone that reminds me of the delicate pattern on a dragonfly’s wing. Then the necklace just starts to build itself.”

Experimentation is key with jewelry building. Pam likes to bring together raw materials like fossils or river stones and embellish them with something delicate. She uses jade, garnets, topaz, kyonite, lolite, jasper, pearls, fossils, and more. She knows her materials well and chooses them carefully from all over the world. No matter what she makes, Pam brings a level of art to it. But it’s jewelry-making that she finds the most satisfying.

“I don’t make anything that doesn’t feel right. It’s good to have an outlet for my perfectionism,” she laughs, “because it wasn’t happening with housework.”

Rare Bird jewelry is more than simple precision. I look at a piece with chunks of light and bright blue kyonite along the front, the clasp a part of the decoration on the side, and a silver chain around the back. It has an almost living quality. Some women have told Pam they feel empowered when they wear her jewelry, that the piece embodies something especially for them. “It’s wonderful to create a piece and then find the person who was meant to wear it,” she says.

“The beauty of nature has always inspired my creativity,” Pam writes on her website. Her strong connection to the natural world has further sharpened her artistic eye, reproducing in her jewelry things from the natural world, like the beautiful sculpted scales in a milkweed pod or the shape of a butterfly chrysalis.

“I love that there is debris in these stones,” she says, gazing into a box of round river stones. “I’m not concerned with the perfect stone but the overall feel and look of it.”

While Pam makes all types of necklaces, she has themes for two special kinds: Amulets and Portals. The Amulets are a single round stone set in a large clasp on a chain. They have been used across cultures for centuries, Pam says, and are designed to bring protection, strength, and good luck to those who wear them. The Portals are more whimsical pieces: tiny collages or vintage photographs framed in glass or metal. They may contain mini collections of treasures, natural elements, or words and sayings.

The jewelry also tells stories. Some beautiful frosty-looking light blue and white beads, broken roughly into small rectangular shapes, tell a tale of another country. “I bought these at a bead show in Milwaukee from a family from Afghanistan,” she says. The father explained how the pieces are fragments of vessels, such as olive jars, which were transported along the Silk Road. The fragments are surfacing now after the current bombings in Afghanistan and people are finding them and making them into beads. Buried for centuries, the ancient glass has been given a texture and patina by the weather. Pam loves the idea of making something beautiful out of something that comes from such tragedy. “There is such a feeling of antiquity in the beads,” she says. “And it meant so much to this man to tell me their story.”

In the two years since Rare Bird Artful Adornment’s start, Pam has exhibited in a variety of shows and her work has grown. She is excited to see where the future will take her.

“I feel so fortunate to be standing in a landscape of creative possibilities that stretches beyond the horizon,” she says.

More info at www.rarebirdjewelry.com.