Heather Masse

November 10, 2009

New York-based singer song-maker Heather Masse, is a member of the acclaimed Juno-award winning Canadian band The Wailin' Jennys, and has performed at hundreds of venues across Europe, Canada, and the states. She appears regularly on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, where she has been privileged to share the stage with Wynton Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Arlo Guthrie and Tom Rush. She has performed with the bluegrass band The Wayfaring Strangers on NPR's World Cafe, and at Boston's Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Heather also performs locally with a Brooklyn-based collaboration, "Heather & the Barbarians." Heather grew up in rural Maine and began singing at an early age. Having taken a degree in Jazz Voice from the New England Conservatory of Music, Heather is steeped in the jazz tradition, which informs her distinct approach to singing music of all sorts. Heather's rich, soulful, voice elegantly moves through numerous styles organically and with sincerity — a quality learned from some of her early influences disparate as Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, and Chet Baker. Earlier this past summer, The Wailin' Jennys released their first live album entitled "Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House." Heather will release her first full length solo album on November 10th. "Birdsong" will feature many of Heather's original songs. She took the time to answer some questions about her musical background, appearing on APHC, and her new album.


How did you get your start in music? 

I come from a very musical family.  My mother is a classical pianist, music teacher, and church organist, my dad was the lead singer/guitarist for a country rock band for about 8 years in the 80s and I have 4 very musical siblings.  So I was singing and listening to music very early on.  My first experience performing though, was when I was about 8 years old.  I attempted to sing a solo at church with my mother accompanying me on piano, but as she began to play the introduction, I suddenly got shy and ran downstairs crying.   I'm still surprised when I think back to that awful morning that I became a professional musician! 


Who were your earliest influences, and where do your influences come from today?

My earliest influences came from singing hymns and folk songs with my family, and then later I became totally immersed in the singing of Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Bonnie Raitt, as well as the singing and songwriting of Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young and many more.  These days so many artists influence me.  To name a few:  Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown,  Iris Dement, Leslie Feist, Nancy King, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Mississippi John Hurt, Gillian Welch, Eva Cassidy, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Chet Baker, and by many musicians and teachers I met while attending The New England Conservatory of Music.


Your group The Wailin' Jennys, are known for the crisp vocal harmonies of the three lead voices along with great songwriting.  How did you come to join the group?

I got a call from my good friend Aoife O'Donovan (who sings in the band Crooked Still).  She told me about this great band that was looking for a new alto voice.  Ruth and Nicky are mutual friends of Aoife and they had asked her for recommendations.  Luckily, Aoife recommended me!  So I went to Philadelphia to hear them perform and have an informal audition — it happened in the World Cafe's handicap women's bathroom to be exact.  I loved their concert and they loved the music we made in the bathroom so we called it a deal!


Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House is the brand new release from The Wailin' Jennys.  It's a live album — tell us a bit of history about how the cd came about.  Did the Jennys write all the songs for this album?

I joined the band in 2007 and we basically rode on a whirlwind of performances from the first tour we did together in April 2007 until September 2008.  We were touring so heavily that we didn't have time to make a new studio album, but we had lots of new material, and there was a demand from our fans for a new record.  So when the idea of recording a live show came up, we thought it was a good one and decided on the Mauch Chunk Opera House- a beautiful theater in Jim Thorpe, PA.   We had performed there before and really loved the energy and acoustics of the room.  The album includes two originals by each of us, as well as Gershwin's "Summertime", the spiritual "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child",  "One more Dollar" by Gillian Welch, "Bring Me Li'l Water Silvy" by Lead Belly, "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry, Ella Jenkin's "Racing with the Sun", and  "Bold Reilly" a traditional.


Do you have any favorite tracks on the album? What makes them stand out for you?

I really love singing and playing "One More Dollar."  It's a beautiful song and feels really natural to sing with the band.  It was a song that we arranged quickly and organically and it feels that way when I listen to it on the album.


Along these same lines — is  there a particular song on this collection that carries special meaning  for you? 

"Calling All Angels" is a song that is always inspiring, no matter how many times you play it.  I find in singing and performing that song, I am transported to some other place.  It seems to resonate a chord with everyone that hears it and I really like the universal quality that it creates.


Which songs get the greatest reactions at your live performances?

Our audiences seem to really enjoy all of the a cappella songs we sing and Jeremy's fiddle solos on Deeper Well always gets everybody going!


Are you presently performing with other ensembles?

I am.   I am releasing my first full-length solo album called Bird Song on Red House Records November 10th, 2009.  I am lucky to be backed up by an incredible band that I've been calling the Heather Masse Band.  We will be performing a short east coast tour in November and January for the release.  I will also be playing some shows with Mark O'Connor's Hot Jazz Band this January.  I play locally in the NYC area with a band called Heather and the Barbarians as well.


Earlier this year, you released a solo EP.  Can you compare what it's like to create a solo recording relative to being part of a group endeavor? 

It is quite different to create a solo recording, but specifically different in this case because my E.P. Many Moons was kind of an accident.  The pianist on the E.P. Jed Wilson, is also my brother-in-law and good friend.  I was visiting him and my sister in Portland, OR, when we decided to go into a friend's studio to record a few songs just for fun.  We didn't plan, we just pick songs we both liked and knew.  We ended up really loving what happened, so we released it.  It includes a couple of my original songs, a few Bill Monroe tunes, and a couple jazz standards.  The hugest difference that I've found in working in a group project like the Wailin Jennys, and solo projects, is that with three-part harmony singing, there isn't much room to change things up vocally in performance or in the studio.  I've really enjoyed this aspect of the Jennys.  Its been fun to really perfect and find space to be creative on a vocal part that always stays that same.  I also really enjoy being able to change melodies in response to whatever else is happening within the music, so it has been nice to have a good balance between my solo projects and with the Jennys.


How does the group collectively decide what to record? 

With the Live Record, we basically decided to record everything new that wasn't on any of the Jenny's other studio albums, with the exception of a couple songs that are considerably different arrangements in our live performances then on the studio albums.


What do each of you bring separately to the group that together works so beautifully?

I think we each bring our different musical backgrounds and individual sounds to the group, but I think we also each give up some of our individual characteristics as artist, for the greater group sound.  I think we all find a kind of magic in that aspect of the group, and it does feel like a higher form when we come together in that way musically.


In light of the recent 35th anniversary performance of A Prairie Home Companion, do you have a favorite memory of performing on the show?

My grandfather Keith Clark was also a musician.  He was a very esteemed trumpet player and always respected Wynton Marsalis' trumpet playing.  I have so many incredible memories from performing on Prairie Home, but the one that sticks out in my mind was a moment while I was singing "Peel me a Grape" at Town Hall in NYC with Wynton Marsalis and the Shoe Band.  There was a point in the middle of the song where time felt liked it stopped, and I looked around at the crowd and the unbelievable musicians I was playing with, and for a moment I felt my grandfather's presence looking down and smiling.  


Were there any experiences of singing duets with Garrison Keillor or performing with the program's other guests that stand out?

We played an hour and a half encore at Tanglewood this summer.  It was a magical night and the encore brought an amazing feeling of unity through the crowd and on stage.  There were so many great moments singing with Garrison and the sea of a crowd on a freshly rained lawn with the night just falling on us all.  It felt like we were all one big family (as cheesy as it sounds)! 


Would you describe yourself as a fan of A Prairie Home Companion? If so, what draws you to the program?

Absolutely! I've been listening to the show for about 15 years.  There is nothing quite like A Prairie Home Companion.  The combination of great music, stories, and Garrison's incredible and unique take on life and performance makes it engaging and interesting for everyone!


What's next for you? Major projects or tours, either solo or with the Wailin' Jennys? Tell us how to keep up with your appearances.

The Jennys are going into the studio this November to record a new studio album and then touring again starting in February 2010 after our year hiatus.  I will be touring with my own band in January and also in the spring.  You can find my tour dates and updates about my music on my website www.heathermasse.com.

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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