As free-spirited as its proponents would like to think folk music is, the genre has some unwritten fashion rules--as the Wailin' Jennys' Cara Luft found out.
"When we started playing together, we all started dressing nicely," says Luft, on the phone from her Winnipeg home. She's the alto in the three-part-harmonizing troupe, whose other members are Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody. "But instead of dressing nice with an alternative flair I was dressing nice with a nice flair, which is fine, but isn't really me. So I thought 'How do I balance between the two?' "
Luft compromised with short boots from a famous Vancouver shoe boutique along with tights and a skirt. "That was looking kinda funky. And then," the singer adds with a big laugh, "on our last tour I bought knee-high socks totally striped with different colours and decided to wear them on-stage with clothes that maybe didn't match. When I came out of my room and asked 'What do you think?' they [Moody and Mehta] just went, 'Umm.' I think they were trying to support me in my endeavour without being too 'You can't wear that.' "
The Wailin' Jennys find a far more harmonious balance on 40 Days, their debut full-length. The Winnipeggers vocalize beautifully on traditional folk tunes, originals, and contemporary covers by the likes of John Hiatt ("Take It Down") and Neil Young ("Old Man", the video of which is currently in rotation on CMT). Of the tracks written by the band, Mehta's "Arlington" is a haunting downer, Moody's "Heaven When We're Home" is an upbeat acoustic travellin' song, and Luft's "Untitled" verges on pop.
Luft credits the range of songwriting styles to the Jennys' different musical backgrounds. Moody, she says, listens to a lot of classical and Celtic, and Mehta is a fan of Britpop. Luft brings the rock, though she grew up in a folk-music household.
"My parents were folksingers in Calgary," says the Alberta-raised artist. "They did it professionally on weekends and in the summer. It was a very interesting upbringing. We didn't have a television, and we were surrounded by instruments and records. Lots of musicians touring through town would stay with us. We often had house concerts in our basement."
On 40 Days, Luft adds electric guitar where she can, but mostly the three Jennys play acoustic. Moody also contributes bodhran, while on-stage she and Luft have added accordion and mandolin to their respective repertoires.
"We're trying to expand our sound," Luft says. "Though I have to admit, touring with all these instruments is not very easy!"
Expanding its sonic palette is an admirable goal for an ensemble that came together only two years ago, for what was to be a one-off gig at a Winnipeg guitar shop. All three had musical careers prior: Moody was lead singer with roots act Scríƒ ¼j MacDuhk, and each of them had released solo records. But with their chemistry apparent to all who hear their harmonies, they've made the band their priority. And aside from the occasional apparel faux pas, it's been a pretty smooth ride so far.
"One time we had done a showcase and then we were supposed to chat it up with agents," says Luft, who displays her keen fashion sense, while the other Jennys look on, at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Saturday and Sunday (July 17 and 18). "And I was wearing this outfit on-stage and it was warm so after the show I thought 'I'm not wearing these clothes, they make me sweat!' So I changed into these secondhand red-and-white-checkered shorts and pink top with a picture of Fozzie Bear and sandals and came out and said, 'I'm ready!' " She cackles. "And I said, 'How does this look?' And they said, 'You're not really going to wear that, are you? The colours don't really match!' And I said, 'I think they do,' and I wore it anyway."