The fine new album by the two-time Juno Award-winning musician, Jenny Whiteley, pays tribute to her family’s business — music.
Let’s start with the title. Jenny named her album, The Original Jenny Whiteley, after the Original Sloth Band, the Toronto-based group formed in the 1960s by her dad, Chris Whiteley, and his brother, Ken Whiteley. Like their band, her album is a bluegrass-infused exercise in down-to-earth music making, including traditional numbers she learned from them, and some of her own songs inspired by her childhood.
“This is the music I grew up with,” Whiteley says. “The Original title is a little cheeky, I suppose, but it really stuck with me because of my dad and their band. That’s the reason I got to go to all these festivals and live-music events as a kid. It was a huge influence on me growing up. And seeing the way people are in a band, and the way a family works when someone’s away touring. It seemed the right time to acknowledge the upbringing that I’ve had, and realize how lucky I am. I’ve dedicated the album to my dad.”
One of the standout tracks is a cover of $100, a song written by Toronto clawhammer-banjo player Chris Coole that captures the challenges of the modern musician. “This old hundred dollars won’t go far,” the tune goes, “Came from singing songs in a downtown bar. For a little while you can say it’s mine, but if you want a piece, get in line.”
“That song seemed to reflect the whole period of when I was first starting outside of my family’s influence,” Jenny said. “I’m more or less (from a) middle-class upbringing, and my dad would go to work, but rather than go to an office, he was going to play music. Then I had a band called Heartbreak Hill with my brother and two other folks, and we were working shows every week, and all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m a working musician.’”
But, the song continues, you “pay $800 for a two-bit room, and when it rains the storm comes through. It’s the price you pay when you live in town. Where there’s always something shaking when the sun goes down.”
Jenny and her musician husband, Joey Wright, solved that dilemma 15 years ago by moving to rural Eastern Ontario, settling in the hamlet of Elphin, west of Perth, just down the road from another Juno award winner, David Francey.
“My mom moved to this area close to 20 years ago so we knew the area,” Whiteley said, explaining how they happened to land in Elphin. “When we got married and decided we might like to buy a house, we knew we probably couldn’t buy in Toronto and keep doing what we wanted to be doing so we started looking up here and got this lovely old farmhouse.”
The new album is Whiteley’s first in six long years. During that time, the 45-year-old mother of two daughters took some time away from touring, made another album with her brother (not yet released) and then spent last year in France with her husband and children, fulfilling a dream they’d had for years.
The new one, her fifth solo project, was recorded before the family decamped for France. Jenny joined producer Chris Brown in his Kingston-area Wolfe Island studio with musicians Sam Allison and Teillard Frost. Her dad and uncle are guests on one song, Things Are Coming My Way.
“I knew I wanted to do a record that was really live and really acoustic,” she says, “and I wanted just a few musicians doing simple versions of the songs. “It was very much that: Just the three of us singing and playing songs and recording them really organically.”
Which brings us to another reality expressed in the $100 song: “Well, you get yourself a band and you work real hard, And then you make a record on your credit card. You try to sell a few, but the man at the store, Tells you ‘nobody pays for music anymore.’”
To make ends meet, Jenny and her husband run a catering company. She’s also worked as an event coordinator and operates an annual bluegrass camp for adults. It’s been a few years since she’s toured regularly, but with rave reviews of the album popping up in various countries, there are plans to hit the road, including her first tour of Ireland next spring.
“For me, the key to success in any art is to be able to do it when it’s pleasurable,” Jenny says. “I don’t want to be slogging doing my art to pay the rent. It sucks the life out of it. I did take some time away from touring so now it’s really fun. Change is as good as a rest. Everything seems new again, which is exactly what I was hoping for.”