THE WAILIN' JENNYS at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Saturday (May 22). $10. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
It's a sweaty mid-May Wednesday in Toronto when I call up Cara Luft at her Winnipeg home, but Luft, one-third of folk-pop trio the Wailin' Jennys, is bundled up in a woolly toque-and-sweater combo. She's just returned from playing a show at the 'Peg legislature building in honour of Manitoba Day (don't worry - she didn't know the holiday existed either), and she's cursing the massive prairie snowstorm that's got authorities advising local folks to stay home.
The freak flurries are an appropriate backdrop, Luft laughs, since she credits weather extremes with maintaining the thriving Winnipeg music scene.
"Everything's so extreme here," she explains in her chirpy prairie cadence. "The winters are brutal, and the summers are pretty extreme as well.
"There's something about those extremes that encourages people to look beyond their surroundings. People say that Manitoba's friendly, and it's true - there's not much to do here, so we have more of a sense of community."
That strong sense of community, and the support system of arts funding exemplified by organizations like Manitoba Film and Sound and MARIA (the Manitoba Audio Recording Industry Assocation) have helped kick Luft's musical career into high gear.
The daughter of professional folksingers who daylighted as teachers, the Calgary-born Luft's been singing rootsy tunes onstage since she was in kindergarten. She played her first solo show at age 12 and was opening for local acts at folk clubs by 14.
But it was only after hanging out at a Winnipeg guitar shop called Sled Dog Music that she was blindsided in one of those weird karmic moments that speckle pop music history.
Sled Dog's owner urged Luft to team up with two other local folkies - Celtic belter Ruth Moody of Scruj MacDuhk and backing-vocalist-turned-frontwoman Nicky Mehta - for a one-night stand at his store in January 2002.
"We honestly didn't think beyond that one night," offers Luft. "It was a weird process entering into a working relationship with strangers. We only knew we had a month to prepare.
"On top of learning and trying to memorize 20 new songs, you're trying to work with people you don't know anything about. You're spending energy just getting to know each other."
They clicked musically, winning invites to play sold-out showcases at folk fests and healthy airplay on the CBC, and set aside their solo shticks to become the Wailin' Jennys, but maintain musical autonomy by operating as a collective - each member receives individual writing credit and lead vocal duties for her own songs.
This sets them apart from that other Canuck roots-pop trio, the Be Good Tanyas, who've become post-O Brother music scene darlings. So do the Jennys' aesthetics. Their brand new 40 Days (Jericho Beach) disc showcases a far more contemporary folk-pop sound more in keeping with Joan Baez, the Indigo Girls and Lilith Fair-style campfire music than with the Tanyas' Americana newgrass vibe. While the Jennys' songs may lack the same creaky backroads country soul, they benefit from the trio's strong vocals, which combine Luft's rich alto, Mehta's mezzo and Moody's angelic soprano into choirgirl three-part harmonies.
"There aren't a lot of harmony groups out there these days," proclaims Luft. "We're an anomaly, and people often tell us how great it is to hear women's voices in harmony."
The Jennys have become quite successful in a short time, considering that earnest folkie tunes don't exactly have the insta-popular cool cachet of, say, disco-punk. Luft thinks it's related to their geographical locale.
"The biggest folk festivals are on the prairies," she explains. "Calgary has the most folk clubs per capita of any city in North America - something like 10 or 12 that run year-round. I heard a rumour that it was because of all the draft dodgers from Seattle and that area who came up to Calgary and started the folk boom there."