Jolene Higgins’ Barn Jamboree

The pride of Nokomis makes records on ranches

by Chris Morin

higgins

Little Miss Higgins
Wednesday 13
The Exchange

Country-blues artist Little Miss Higgins recorded her latest album, Bison Ranch Recording Sessions, within the dusty confines of a barn. fitting for someone who made her home amidst the swaying wheat fields of the Saskatchewan prairies.

After setting up camp in a bison ranch in rural Manitoba, east of Winnipeg, Higgins (a.k.a. Jolene Higgins) recorded the creaks of the weathered structure along with her rootsy, vintage sounds. Given the circumstances, what resulted was an appropriately old-timey, folk-country collection of songs.

Although, Higgins says that the sessions weren’t without challenges. “Well, it was a barn. It’s still a barn,” she says.

“The space has a huge loft and it had been renovated and turned into something of a recreational space. There was shuffleboard and a ping-pong table and a wood stove and a lot of homey stuff like tables and chairs. But it wasn’t a recording studio by any means,” says Higgins.

“Although, there was power at least — and an outhouse.”

Higgins recorded the entirety of Bison Ranch Recording Sessions with her backing band the Winnipeg Five, a group of musicians who also tour and release their own albums under the name the F-Holes. Higgins has released four previous albums — Cobbler Shop Sessions (2005), Junction City (2007), Live: Two Nights In March (2009) and Across The Plains (2010) — but Bison Ranch is her most realized recording to date. Combining gently plucked acoustic instruments and the skit-skat of minimalist percussion, Higgins is a kindred spirit with the soul singers of early 20th-century music — think Billie Holiday backed by the ramshackle musicianship of a small-town bar-band. She says that her influences extend well beyond the scope of classic country, though, and cites a kinship with artists such as Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Cab Calloway and k.d. lang.

While her music has always been equal parts lively and sultry, on Bison Ranch those vintage sounds are even more exaggerated. With vocals that could have been plucked straight from the Grand Ole Opry, Higgins has perfectly captured an old-school country vibe.

“We essentially had to create the recording studio ourselves,” says Higgins. “Recording engineer Steve Loree, who is from Alberta, brought all his gear and set everything up. We had to build a bunch of sound baffles to break up the space and we bought a bunch of giant black theatre curtains to try and create different spaces.

“Plus, we chose to do all of this in April, thinking that it won’t be too cold and it won’t be too hot,” she says. “It’s springtime, right? And yet it was one of the coldest Aprils on record in the Prairies.

“So we bought a bunch of wood to keep the stove going. We also had some heaters going, but that was tough because if we ran them at the same time as our amps, it would blow the breakers.”

No one said music was an easy game.

The Regina show launches a nine-stop Eastern tour that continues through Nov. 30. Hopefully it’ll be smoother than the recent trip out west, which included having a bunch of equipment ripped off in Vancouver.

MUSIC AND THEATRE

Higgins was born in Brooks, Alberta, and raised in Independence, Kansas. She moved back to Canada and eventually settled in Nokomis, a town located just over an hour and a half east of Saskatoon. With a population a smidge under 500 people, it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, nor does it strike one as a bastion for all things culture and music.

But it’s been a home base that’s served Higgins well, especially when it comes to songwriting.

“It’s not surprising that there’s a huge Prairies influence [in my music],” says Higgins. “It’s just who I am. I write about what I know. It’s something that I’ve learned about while collaborating with other people or taking classes in a theatre school — during that time of growth I was always told to write about what you know, and from there you can take it and do whatever you want with it.

“And I think that’s something I’ve always done — writing about my experiences and my surroundings. My surroundings happen to be the Prairies a lot of the time.”

Higgins  grew up playing piano and studied theatre in Alberta, acting in several plays while simultaneously developing her hybrid style of vintage blues and country. She eventually switched to music full-time and began touring on the folk festival circuit and recording albums at a furious pace, garnering awards such as the Western Canadian Music Award for Outstanding Blues Recording as well as a Juno nomination for Blues Album of the Year.

Higgins has also performed on Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café for CBC radio.

She also generated buzz after releasing a salty video for the song “Bargain Shop Panties”, which featured Higgins traveling to Watrous to buy her panties from the bargain shop. It’s hilarious, and it showcases that background in theatre, which Higgins says has helped establish her persona.

“I’ve been involved with I guess what you call the arts — as in theatre and visual art — as well. And I love working with these other types of artists on projects.”

Higgins says that playing with other musicians — like the Winnipeg Five — has given her a chance to expand on her own songwriting.

“Having this whole band, who are all very talented, was very exciting in that they all brought something different to the songwriting, or else musically with what they do on their instruments,” says Higgins.

“I’ve been with the full band for over a year — maybe even closer to two years. I’ve worked with the trumpet player [James McKee] for even longer — he was on my live album and Across The Plains. We did some shows and then started to talk about writing songs, and so far it’s worked really well.

“As a songwriter I don’t want to repeat myself, but I want to stay true to the form that I do and love — and they totally respected that. But I think they also opened up a few more doors for the songs in terms of lyrics or chord progressions or arrangements.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Oct. 3 edition of Planet S magazine. Little Miss Higgins plays at the Exchange on Wednesday, Nov. 13 as part of the Regina Folk Festival Concert Series. Doors at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $19 in advance, $25 at the door.

2013-10-31