A fortunate return to their roots

in Arts & Culture/Featured by

The first time sisters Maureen, Karen, and Teresa Ennis performed a gig together was at a Welcome Wagon show for pregnant women, where they were given decorative hangers as payment. “We knew four songs, and they gave us an encore, so we had to repeat the first song we did,” Karen recalls with a laugh.

Growing up in St. John’s, the Ennis girls were constantly surrounded by traditional music, from their mother singing to keep them awake on the drive to their cabin in Cape Broyle to their father playing his accordion at family functions.

When they enrolled in voice lessons, sang in the Kiwanis Music Festival and released their debut album Red is the Rose in 1997, the Ennis Sisters, as they had begun calling themselves, were still only in their early teens.

Then, in 2002, they won the Juno for ‘Best New Country Artist/Group’ and signed with Rounder Records to release their music in the United States.

That was 10 years ago. A lot has changed since then.

When youngest sister Teresa left the group to concentrate on her own projects, Maureen and Karen virtually started over as a duo, this time calling themselves Ennis. They also dropped the radio-friendly pop-country tunes in favour of the traditional music of their childhood that others warned them was too regional.

They have also never felt more like fortunate ones.

“We went through the whole thing: writing with different people, trying to come up with different ways to approach it – clothes, weight, everything had to be considered; it was always somebody else telling us what to do,” says Maureen.

“And then, when we came back to this, we realized that, of all the music in the world, when we’re talking about Newfoundland and we’re singing the music that we know, that’s when we feel we make a real connection.”

tomorrow made from yesterday

“Every time we’d have to show up at a country fair or a radio station, it was a constant audition,” Maureen says of their earlier days. “We couldn’t get away from playing ‘Red is the Rose,’ ‘If Anything Happened to You,’ ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat,’ ‘Out From St. Leonard’s,’ and the people that were sitting in these commercial country audiences didn’t know what we were singing about, didn’t care what we were singing about, and there was always this confusion about what exactly we did.”

“I think it really hit home when we spent a year in Nashville about four years ago, promoting our CD Be Here Awhile,” Karen adds. “Every time we’d go into a country radio station to try to get them to play the songs, you’d feel phony. Your influences are not Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline – they’re the Irish Rovers,” Karen adds.

Despite going through that experience, Ennis have not become disheartened or even cynical towards the music industry. If anything, it prepared them for the next juncture of their career. In 2009, Maureen and Karen released the aptly titled Lessons Learned, and their latest record, The Fortunate Ones, is due for release on July 10. Ennis’ sophomore effort presents a marked return to folksy story-songs accented with obvious trad influences and beautiful harmonies.

“Every time we’d go into a country radio station to try to get them to play the songs, you’d feel phony. Your influences are not Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline – they’re the Irish Rovers.”
– Karen Ennis

The optimistic attitude is evident throughout the album, from the title track paying homage to those who recognize the value of home to the upbeat “Rise Up Winds,” which opens: “We are tomorrow made from yesterday / Living on stony shallow soil / Stubborn beauty under a fickle sun / Looking back to see how far we’ve come.”

Maureen is the principal songwriter, singer and guitarist, and Karen colours the songs with tin whistle, bodhran, vocals and, during live shows, recitations and tap dancing. Together with Mark Murphy, who had produced and worked closely with the Ennis Sisters for over a decade, the group is no longer seeking fame. Instead they’re treating Ennis as a career and are happy to be doing it their way.

a fortunate move forward

Interestingly, despite a return to the sound they’re most comfortable with, The Fortunate Ones may be one of the most unique records the ladies have worked on. The album was recorded at the Sound Solution studio in St. John’s and features a host of local talent. The only “non-Newfoundland” part may be Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”. And, unlike previous releases, many of the songs were tested on the road, with Maureen taking over the role of producer.

“It was an awesome experience but it was a little stressful,” she recalls. “I realized how I had to step back, because I’d start to nitpick at the tiniest little things that no one in a million years would ever hear!”

It was also the first time that the group had guest producers on individual tracks. Billy Sutton took over the tune-based “Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel Set” while Alan Doyle produced “Ladies Lounge,” a song he wrote with Russell Crowe and wanted to record Maureen singing live in front of an audience at the Duke of Duckworth.

“Alan took me completely out of my comfort zone – I organize things, I think about things, and Alan does things sort of on a whim. I went in to record this vocal, and I’m singing in pitch, I’m using some technique, and then he goes, ‘Maureen, you don’t sound like you’ve had a few drinks!’” she laughs.

“Then I went at it like I was out for the evening, and I couldn’t listen to that song – it took me forever, because he wanted something a little more rough, which I was not used to in any way, so he really opened my eyes on this project.”

“I’ve never felt more confident as an artist, and more happy with the fact that we chose this.”
– Maureen Ennis

Following the album release party at the Irish Benevolent Society on July 10, Ennis have a busy schedule ahead of them. Teresa will temporarily rejoin them this month to record a Christmas CD as the Ennis Sisters, slated for a release this holiday season. After that it’s back on the road, knowing that, fortunately, all roads eventually lead right back here.

“The fortunate ones are the ones that don’t have to move – wherever they want, they can just stay,” explains Karen.

“I do consider myself a fortunate one,” says Maureen. “I can go and make a living, and come back home and restart in Newfoundland. I’ve never felt more confident as an artist, and more happy with the fact that we chose this. We’re finding our own way through this folk world, and I’m OK with that.”

Advance tickets for the album release party at the Benevolent Irish Society on July 10 are $17 and available at O’Brien’s Music. Check out Ennis’ web site for more info.