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Ruth Moody on Canadian Roots Music, Parenthood, and Being a ‘Wanderer’

May 24, 2024

Ruth Moody on Canadian Roots Music, Parenthood, and Being a 'Wanderer'

Ruth Moody has a singular voice, whether she’s joining the soaring three-part harmonies of the Wailin’ Jennys, or carving her own path on her new solo album, Wanderer (released May 17.) The project was almost a decade in the making and finds Moody betting on herself as a songwriter, co-producer, and now-label head for her own Blue Muse Records. The album is parallel to Moody’s own journey at continuing to define herself, with its emphasis on confronting the past and carving away detritus that is no longer needed.

Moody splits her time between Nashville and Vancouver Island. The pull between her sense of place, as well as her identities as artist, wife, and mother, characterize Wanderer. The album was recorded at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville and was co-produced with Dan Knobler (Allison Russell, Lake Street Dive) and mixed by Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, First Aid Kit, The Decemberists).

As discussed below, Moody waited until the time was right to bring her favorite musicians together for the record: her partner Sam Howard, who plays upright bass and provides backing vocals; her older brother Richard Moody; The Wailin’ Jennys’ touring band member Anthony da Costa (guitars); Jason Burger (drums); Kai Welch (keyboards); Russ Pahl (pedal steel); Adrian Dolan (string arrangements); and duet partner Joey Landreth (on “The Spell of the Lilac Bloom”). Moody’s patient commitment to executing Wanderer the way she wanted to shows in its transcendent arrangements.

In our BGS interview, Moody discusses how she establishes her sense of self amidst the competing demands in her life, the factors that give Canadian roots music their own special quality, and the lessons she’s learned from doing Wanderer exactly the way she intended to.

What do you think it is about Canadian roots music in particular? It does have a different feel than roots music in the States.

Ruth Moody: You know, I’ve been asked this question for so long. It’s a very valid question, because I think there is something, but it’s really hard to have a clear answer. In Canada there’s such a range of geography and music culture. You can’t really pin it to one thing.

I grew up in Winnipeg and the winters are so harsh that I think music and art are one of the things that get people through. It’s something you can do in the winter. I also think that there’s something about the landscape and the winter that creates a certain work ethic because you’re so small against the elements, really. So consciously or subconsciously, that enters into the picture for people. And so I think people tend to work hard and really apply themselves. And when it comes to touring, especially if you’re from Winnipeg, it takes some effort to get to the next town. It’s a six-hour drive before you get to the next major town. So I think right from the start, young musicians know they have to go out in the world to tour and get their music out.

We’re pretty diverse and we’re also influenced by so many different cultures and types of music. So I think there is a very exploratory aspect to Canadian music. And a lot of cross-pollination between genres and scenes. We are very lucky to have government support for the arts and I think that helps artists thrive, obviously, but it also helps to create music communities and bring artists together in collaborative situations.

Well, it’s always good to start an interview out by asking you to speak for your entire country! But Wanderer focuses on the idea of home, and I know you’ve lived many different places. Did I read that you grew up in Australia?

I was born in Australia, and my parents are Australian, but they came back to Canada when I was only a year old. I grew up in Winnipeg, but, as an adult, I’ve moved around a ton and that was what inspired the title track. I’ve been touring for over 25 years at this point. “Wanderer” is a love song that I wrote for my partner, because he helped me have that feeling of home for the first time in my adult life.

There are a number of songs about young love and new love on the album. Was there something that was making you reminisce about those times in your life?

These songs were all written across a long time-span – over 10 years really – since my last record. So the songs come from different stages and sides of love, right into motherhood. Some songs deal with heartbreak too and some are more reflective about the past. During the pandemic, I was reflecting a lot about how we internalize the messages we receive from society, how as a woman I took on the expectations of others and how that has affected my life. I was looking back, looking for clues, curious about where fear comes from, where strength and resilience come from. How we learn how to be our authentic selves when there are so many outside pressures and confusing messages. “Seventeen” isn’t about that, at all, but it ended up coming out of that period of reminiscing. It’s a song that came from my own experiences but that is essentially about being in love and not being ready or able to face it or express it, which I think is probably a pretty common experience.

These are all things I’m thinking about a lot now that I have a child, too, because they become very relevant. You’re trying to model behaviors for a young person and it really makes you face yourself. You have to look at why you do and say certain things and what you want to teach and how you want to be.

Speaking of wandering, I read that you split your time between Nashville and Vancouver Island.

I just got back from British Columbia, and I’ll be back in BC in the summer, so yes, I’m back and forth. I tour a lot, so I try to get home to BC when I’m already out traveling. But I work a lot in Nashville and so does my partner, so we’re still figuring that out.

Do you feel you are different when you are in these two different places?

Definitely. That’s been a real theme becoming a mother, really. Suddenly, you’re responsible for another human life. You have to let go of a lot of ways that you used to do things and prioritize what matters. I’m always shifting modes.

When I’m on tour, I operate in a certain way. When I’m in BC, I’m close to my parents and that brings out certain things. When I’m on my own, I have a bit more freedom to maybe be my creative self and when I’m in parenting mode, that goes out the window. Additionally, a partnership requires a lot of work and time, too. There are a lot of different parts of life that I’m juggling. But it keeps it interesting.

This isn’t meant to be a conversation about being a musician and motherhood and “having it all,” but it is a big theme of the record!

It has been a big theme of my life of late. Actually, I wanted to make this record about eight years ago and then I put it on hold, because I wasn’t able to line up all the musicians I wanted involved. I thought, “I’ll do it next year.” And then I had my son and I just didn’t know that motherhood would be such an all-consuming thing. It doesn’t have to be – and everyone’s different!

I really want to do a good job at everything that I do, and so I found it hard [to balance everything.] I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job at being a parent and I wasn’t doing a good enough job at performing. That was really hard on me. And I think now, with this new way of looking at things, I’m just being easier on myself and thinking to myself, “Maybe I was enough. Maybe we can’t be perfect at every single thing.” Maybe we don’t have to attempt to be perfect at everything.

First and foremost I think that any woman should have the choice to [balance motherhood and work] in the way she wants to do it. I am still figuring out how to juggle everything – especially since for this record, I decided to put it out on my own label. It’s really exciting and I think will be really rewarding, but it is a ton of work and the learning curve is quite steep.

Wanderer is your fourth solo album. Do you feel this process is different than when you’re working with another artist or with The Wailin’ Jennys?

It is different. The Jennys – I mean, we’ve been together for so long and we have a certain way of working. We’re talking about making a new record, which is really exciting. It’ll be different, because it’s been a while and we’re all changing all the time, you know? That feels like it will be an exciting new experience.

But it is of course different working on my own, especially in this case, because I co-produced this record. When you’re on your own, you draw on a different part of your brain and even your heart. Wanderer is a really personal collection of songs. With the Jennys, we tend to maybe gravitate towards songs that call for three part harmony, so they end up being a bit more anthemic. With these really personal, intimate songs, I connect to them in a different way.

What lessons do you feel like you can take away now that you’ve finished making Wanderer that you want to take with you on your next project?

I’ve learned so much in doing this. Because it took so long to make it and these songs were waiting in the wings for so long, it felt really important for me to make it. The stakes felt high, because it had been so long in the making.

Now that it’s done and I’m putting it out, I am really excited and proud of it. I want to just keep releasing expectations and I’m very excited to dig into creative work again.

Photo Credit: Jacqueline Justice

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Ruth Moody on Canadian Roots Music, Parenthood, and Being a 'Wanderer'
Ruth Moody on Canadian Roots Music, Parenthood, and Being a 'Wanderer'