Interview: Ruth Moody
We get to know the two-time Juno Award winning singer-songwriter from Canada who’s a featured vocalist for Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler
uth Moody is an Australian-born, two-time Juno Award winning singer-songwriter from Winnipeg, Canada. A founding member of the Billboard-charting trio The Wailin’ Jennys, she has performed in sold-out venues around the world, made numerous critically-acclaimed albums, and has appeared countless times on the popular American radio show A Prairie Home Companion.
In 2010, Ruth released her first solo album, The Garden. Produced by David Travers-Smith, it was nominated for two Juno Awards, a Western Canadian Music Award and three Canadian Folk Music Awards. Its title track was the fourth most played song of 2010 on North American Folk Radio.
These Wilder Things, the highly anticipated follow-up to The Garden, was released in 2013 to further critical acclaim. Once again produced by Travers-Smith, it features guest appearances by Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, and The Wailin’ Jennys. The release tour included a string of dates opening for Mark Knopfler in Europe, six of which were at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. Ruth continues to tour worldwide with her all-star band in support of the new record.
Ruth has also been recognised by the USA Songwriting Competition and the International Songwriting Competition for several of her compositions. Her song Storm Comin, from the Jennys’ latest album Bright Morning Stars, won first place in 2012 in the gospel category of the International Songwriting Competition.
Songwriting caught up with Ruth taking some rare time off before hitting the road again, to talk inspiration, juggling a relentless schedule and long-distance relationships…
When were you first inspired to start writing your own songs?
“I actually started late, because I joined a Celtic band when I was 20 years old and didn’t write songs at that point. But as I discovered more and more traditional music and fell in love with bluegrass and Cajun music, I think delving into those different genres has influenced my songwriting. But I started writing songs in my mid-20s. They probably weren’t any good, but it came to me naturally. It was almost like therapy at first. I had music all around me, I was touring in a band, and the obvious way of working through personal stuff that was going on in my life, or if there was something I was interested in, was to write about it. I taught myself the guitar and the next thing you know you’re writing songs.”
Who were your influences?
“Joni is a big one, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Dirk Powell, Richard Thompon. Let’s see… there are the obvious ones like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but I was very influenced by Celtic music and musicians. Gillian Welch is also a really big influence for me – everything she’s done is part of me!”
“I was only about eight months old when my parents moved to Canada, so I feel more Canadian than Australian, but I’m in the process of applying for an Australian passport now. We’re heading over there right after this UK tour actually. I still feel a tie to Australia – I’ve got relatives and friends there and I’ve been back a lot in my life.”
Where’s home for you right now?
“Right now I’m in Portland. I actually just got off the road – I was on tour with the Jennys in Washington State for a couple of days, so I just drove back and my boyfriend lives here. I’ve got a month off, so I’ll stay here for a couple of weeks and then go back to Winnipeg.”
Do your spend your time off doing songwriting or do you switch off and come back to it when you back at ‘work’?
“Yes, well that’s always the goal, but it’s a real challenge in my life. I manage my own band and also co-manage The Jennys, so the administration work takes up much more time than I’d want it to, and songwriting gets put on the backburner. So the answer is ‘no’ but I’ll have ideas running through my head and maybe I’ll record a melody on my phone. You have to carve out time, otherwise the work that comes with managing a band takes over.”
It’s pretty impressive that you’re able to juggle the responsibility of performer, songwriter and manager.
“It’s rewarding to have a hand in all areas of your business, but at the same time you can get into burn-out territory. The thing that’s going to go first is the creative side, because it takes a certain kind of space, whereas responding to emails doesn’t!”
How did The Wailin’ Jennys get together as a band?
“That happened way after I started writing songs. My band at the time, Scruj MacDuhk broke up and I craved singing with women again – I grew up singing with my two sisters – and I just loved the idea of focusing on three-part harmony and collaborating on each other’s songs. I’d heard of these two women in Winnipeg, but because I’d been touring so much I hadn’t actually met them. So I thought, why don’t I approach them and see if they would want to do a show. They were into it, so we sang together and the show sold out, then suddenly it became clear there was some energy behind the project and before we knew it we were touring across the country. Now, 13 years later we’re still touring.”
You’ve also done very well in some big songwriting competitions. What made you enter them at a time, when you’d already established your career?
“I didn’t know much about them – it was probably my label who encouraged us to enter our songs. I can’t even remember what prompted me to do it and it does take a lot of work to keep up with the deadlines, but I certainly was honoured to win the International Songwriting Competition with the gospel category.”
Is gospel a style of music you intended to write in?
“It’s an uplifting song, but it’s got nothing to do with religion. Sometimes I write in that vein because I love country-gospel. I write about a lot of darker subjects too, but I like to remember the hope aspect of it, so I think a lot of my songs feel that way.
“That’s a good question. I think it comes from trying to make sense of things and navigating our way through some of these difficult experiences. Listening-wise, I gravitate towards darker songs and I feel like it’s therapeutic, so I’ve never been afraid to write about darker subjects either. I think you have to write what’s in your heart and we all have baggage we need to work through and understand better.”
One & Only is a fantastic, upbeat track that’s an obvious choice for a single – it certainly doesn’t sound like it came from a dark place. How did that song come about?
“That song is really light-hearted and fun, but it’s inspired by an ‘international’ romance from a while back. The hazard of being a touring musician is you meet a lot of people all over the place, and if you’re never in one place it’s going to be hard to meet someone. That and Life Is Long are two songs that I dusted off, re-approached them and re-wrote parts. It’s funny that One & Only, one of the most upbeat, positive-sounding songs and These Wilder Things, that I think explores darker and perhaps more painful feelings, was the last song I wrote for the album.
Did you start with a specific theme for the album or did you see how the songs would fit together as you made it?
“More of the latter. I knew I wanted to make this album because my band and I had written a bunch of songs, so we had half an album ready to go, but I didn’t know what it sound like as a whole. That’s the exciting thing about making an album: you don’t know what you’re going to get at the end of the journey.
Are you looking to do any more collaborating, writing for other people or being in a band again? Or, are you happy focusing on your own thing?
“I’m in the throws of trying to decide all that now. I’ve been touring with my band and The Jennys for the last year and a half, so I haven’t had a minute to think about the next record or what I want to do yet. I’m sort of having some murmurings because I’ve had ideas and lyrics pop into my head, and I’ve been writing them down, but I haven’t had a chance to delve into that yet.
“I was in Nashville recently and almost every person I met told me that ‘maybe we should write sometime’. So I know I could do that if I wanted to, but I’m pretty private about it – it’s such a personal process for me. So when I get the time I’ll probably stick to doing it that way. I think it would be fun, but I’m not dying to co-write at this time – I’m looking forward to getting back into it on my own first.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Ruth Moody’s latest album These Wilder Things is out now on True North Records. You’ll also be able to hear Ruth on Mark Knopfler’s new album, Tracker, that’s coming out this year.