Jessee Havey remembers the day she took the Duhk call like it was ... well ... 2011.
Four years after leaving the Duhks, one of the Canadian neo-folk scene’s most influential roots acts, the stunning songbird was sitting in the backseat of a taxicab heading toward her day job as school administrator at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People in Winnipeg.
Leonard Podolak, who had known Havey since she was a baby, was phoning with a proposition. The founder, frontman, and clawhammer banjo player of the Duhks (rhymes with shucks) had to know: Would she “be into” returning to the band she joined fresh out of high school?
“And I immediately, before I could even say anything, tears started streaming down my face and I was, ‘Yes, I want my band back! Yes!’ ” Havey enthusiastically recalled over the phone last month from her home in Winnipeg.
“And this cab driver must have thought I was a lunatic. It’s not the first time or the last that I cried hysterically in the back of a cab. But, yeah, that was a pretty amazing moment.”
Calling it her second chance, Havey was reborn, along with the Duhks, who nearly became as extinct as the dodo. Now that there’s an intact quintet again, with three new members — Rosie Newton (fiddle), Kevin Garcia (drums/percussion), and Colin Savoie-Levac (guitar/bouzouki) — this tasty potpourri of cultural influences, styles and substance sounds as vital as ever on Beyond the Blue.
A lot has transpired since Havey left in 2007. So much, in fact, that she stayed on the phone for 30 more minutes after sharing Duhk tales for an hour with Podolak, who had to run after joining this joint interview on Victoria Day from the North End St. John’s bungalow he and his wife own in Manitoba’s capital.
The two self-proclaimed Winnipeg babies (born and raised) barely got around to promoting the album, which initially required going to crowd-funding website Indiegogo, where they raised $18,276.
The band subsequently signed with Compass, the label co-founded by banjo virtuoso Alison Brown and her husband Garry West. That partnership almost happened much earlier, when, according to Podolak, a deal was “99 percent of the way there” shortly after the Duhks were hatched in 2001, the year Havey said, “Leonard and I had our first jam (and simultaneous ‘aha’ moment).”
After self-releasing Your Daughters & Your Sons in 2003, three studio albums (including one without Havey) for Sugar Hill followed. Now that Beyond the Blue is almost upon us, Podolak has a simple plea for anyone with ears: “Gee whiz, just give it a listen.”
Urging loyal fans who have been there from the beginning or jump-on-the-bandwagon aficionados with a sense of adventure, he added, “It’s new and it’s fresh, but in Duhks tradition, it spans a wide variety of styles and traditions and it’s new and it’s old at the same time. And if you want to listen to an experimental folk record, listen to the Duhks.”
“Tradition” means a lot to Podolak, who also shares an extraordinary gift of gab with Havey. In what goes around/comes around fashion, the two original lucky Duhks like to say they have come full circle. But to see how they got here from there requires going back in time.
Learning to Fly
Before there were the Duhks, there was Scruj MacDuhk, pronounced just like the Disney cartoon character. A 19-year-old Podolak formed that group in 1995 after a jam session he now calls “the most amazing night of music that I had ever had up until that point.”
The players that evening included Geoff Butler, an accordionist from Newfoundland group Figgy Duff, and Dan Baseley, who brought a tin whistle and, much to Podolak’s amazement, also could play Irish and Scottish tunes on the steel drum. They planned their first gig for St. Patrick’s Day.
But before Scruj MacDuhk there was — honest to God — Duckworth Donald, whom Podolak called “a killer bluegrass mandolin player and tenor singer” from Winnipeg who often performed with Cathy Fink.
“He was 4-foot-11 or something and he weighed like 100 pounds,” Podolak said. “He was just an amazing character, an amazing guy. So when we were coming up with a band name, my dad (local folk hero Mitch Podolak), who was sitting around the same table, said, ‘Yeah, it has to be something with Duck.’
“So then someone yelled, ‘Fuck a Duck.’ And then somehow Scrooge McDuck came up. And I didn’t even really realize that was a Disney character. I didn’t watch Disney. It just sounded funny. And then Dan ran out of the room and came up with the (alternate) spelling.”
In my 2010 interview with Moody, she called the Wolseley neighborhood where Podolak also grew up “the granola belt of Winnipeg.”
Podolak, who went to school with Moody from their kindergarten days and remembers singing with her in the 12th grade choir (“I needed an extra credit”), inserted an adjective (“hippie”), then added, “Now it’s become yuppie, hoity-toity. But when I was a kid, it was like [laughing], it was where all the artistes and all the freaks lived. And Ruth and my families couldn’t be more different. I come from hippie Communist Jews and she comes from Australian, classical music people.”
When Scruj MacDuhk broke up in 2001 (“We had a falling out and this and that like the way bands do,” Podolak said), the Duhks were born.
“I was literally just graduating from high school,” said Havey, who also attended Kelvin, but, as she was thrilled to point out, “eight whole years” after Podolak.
Havey was recommended by her Uncle Marshall, who then was living in the Podolak family’s basement.
"Something my mom told me years later was that I wrote a letter to Scruj MacDuhk because I was obsessed with them when I was a teenager," Havey said, thinking that might have happened when she was 14. "And they were my favorite band. And apparently I wrote them a letter professing my undying love for them and saying that I loved Ruth Moody's singing but if she ever decided she wanted to do something else, I would like to be the singer in their band."
Though their families knew each other socially, Podolak wasn’t aware that Havey was a singer until her uncle told him.
“I was already a rock star in town here, and she was a kid,” he said tongue-in-cheekily. “And so, I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve got absolutely nothing to lose.’ ”
He invited Havey over to his parents’ new house in Wolseley, where they played a couple of old-timey tunes together in the kitchen, including “I’m Going to the West.”
“I taught her the words, very simple, and we were like face to face singing harmonies together,” Podolak said. “You make this connection and it’s like you’ve been playing or knowing each other the whole time. The whole family connection just made sense in that one moment. It immediately felt right for both of us.”
The Sugar Hill contract they signed on the advice of a lawyer, who Podolak recalls saying, “It looks like a record deal,” gave them incredible exposure (NPR’s All Things Considered, records produced by Bela Fleck and Tim O’Brien, spots at prestigious festivals like MerleFest and Telluride), but little spending money.
Still, Podolak said, “We went for it. And in some ways, I’m sure it was really great. I know it was really great. We were there. We experienced it. We met some amazing people.”
That made the split in 2007 even more painful.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
“I was terrified to tell Leonard because Leonard is my brother,” Havey said. “When I was leaving, it was the hardest thing that I ever had to do. And I was really scared and didn’t want to let him down. And he said to me something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I’m probably gonna cry because I do every time I say this. But he just said, ‘Jess, we’ve made a lot of amazing music together and I’m really proud of all the work we’ve done together and I have absolutely no doubt that our musical career is not done together. That we have a long way to go on our journey. And I just held the phone away and went, [hushed tone] ‘What’s happening right now?’ And that’s where we left it. And he was right.”
Havey left officially to pursue other interests. Her friend Robbie Rousseau talked her into putting together a funk/R&B band called Jessee Havey and the Quirks that played a couple of shows around Winnipeg in 2007, and she made a still-unreleased EP with then-boyfriend JD Edwards that included “Beyond the Blue,” written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, which became the new Duhks' enchanting title track.
While Havey was eventually drawn in by the Supremes, the Shirelles, Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald, it was musical theatre that first developed her love for singing, with performers such as Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Bernadette Peters and Ann Reinking. Now starting to write more, she contributed “Suffer No Fools” to the album, but prefers the term song interpreter, taking a page “from Bettye LaVette’s book.”
Along with her desk job (“I sat there and my eyes would gloss over as I looked at spreadsheets”), she was able to teach and make stage appearances that included The Cat Came Back, a musical puppet show starring Canadian children’s performer Fred Penner.
That might have been like living in another universe for Havey, whose years with the Duhks were filled with late nights, nonstop touring and worldwide adulation. Not to mention chance meetings with idols from her childhood like Dolly Parton.
From the age of 5, when her grandparents gave her a two-song tape from Straight Talk that they received free with a liquor store purchase, Havey was obsessed with one of country music’s most enduring icons. For a time, Parton’s theme song from the 1992 film even played on Havey’s outgoing voicemail messages.
She relishes telling the story of her personal Parton moment at Washington’s Tacoma Dome, arranged by then-Sugar Hill VP Steve Buckingham.
The informal meet-and-greet, according to Havey, was like an out-of-body experience:
“I think I maybe said my name and she went (Havey began speaking in a spot-on Southern accent), ‘Oh, I know who you are. Steve Buckingham’s told me all about you. He said you’re one of the best singers he’s ever heard and I’ve known him for a long time. He doesn’t just say that about anyone.’
“And I was like, ‘Ahhhhh.’ And people were staring like ‘Who is this person?’ And then she said, ‘I hear you have tattoos. Do you mind?’ And she starts taking off my jean jacket. And I’m standing there like, ‘Dolly Parton is undressing me right now.’ And I’m like freaking out. And she goes, ‘Well, we better get a shot together so that we got one when we do some singing together.’ And there’s this picture and she looks all perfect and poised. And I look like I have seen a ghost.”
Though she’s only 31, today it’s Havey and her phenomenal voice that are inspiring a number of up-and-coming singers such as Phoebe Cryar (the Vespers), Emma Beaton (formerly of Joy Kills Sorrow) and Jess Rae Ayre of Winnipeg female trio Sweet Alibi.
“She told me that I was the reason that she started singing, which is like ... I get flabbergasted and flustered and don’t even know what to say in those situations,” Havey said of Ayre. “But I’m very humbled and ... yeah. It’s fun to be a big kid and not be a little kid anymore.”
Despite spending four years without such close encounters, Havey isn’t regretful.
“I don’t know if I would still be standing here today if I hadn’t left the band at that point, quite honestly,” she said. “It was just crazy. We were all so burnt out and ... I felt like I was being a hypocrite because what the Duhks have always been about is just spreading joy and spreading love and making people feel like they’re a part of things. I just got to the point where I couldn’t be genuinely good and giving to those people unless I could be good to myself. ...
“I know so many people who are just so brilliantly talented and not getting heard. And I realize that most people don’t get a first chance like I had. And the fact that I’m getting a second chance is just mind-blowing and I count my blessings and thank my lucky stars every day. And I am going to hold onto this like nothing before.”
Duhks on the Pond
Podolak has dealt with a number of lineup changes over the years. He once invited innovative guitarist Jordan McConnell over for homemade pizza with mounds of shrimps and scallops before firing him in the waning days of Scruj MacDuhk because the rest of the band didn’t like his playing.
“I think those guys are all idiots. And this band is breaking up and I know it,“ Podolak recalls telling McConnell, who was rehired for the original Duhks and remains close to his ex-leader after moving on to become a luthier.
But when Podolak lost Havey, he and his surviving members felt like sitting Duhks.
Podolak admitted he experienced “a momentary freak-out” because “at that point it was really hard to imagine replacing Jess because she’s the lead vocalist of a band that made quite a big friggin’ deal in the Americana scene over the course of, at that point, five or six years. But at the same time I figured, well, the music is sort of the thing that carries it and if we can still present good music and bring in cool, creative people, then it could still work.”
It did for a while, and Podolak felt fortunate to have siblings Sarah and Christian Dugas join a group that ultimately, he said, “led a very Spinal Tapian kind of existence” involving “record company and management and internal band craziness and this and that and it hit a wall all on its own, too.”
Podolak said he could tell some great stories, but politely declined to share any. After Havey jokingly suggested he “save it for the documentary; probably a mockumentary,” Podolak went on to say, “Really what it was ... I mean, honestly, it was the amount of work we were all doing for the amount of remuneration we were all receiving for our time away and our time investing in it and how much had to keep constantly going back into it and how many people ... you know the way the money flowed was very like rock ‘n’ roll.
“Except we were a folk band. It was incongruous. It didn’t jive. We came from a scene that we were kind of starting to ignore. And who are people around us we’re starting to belittle and find less and less important. And really that was the scene that lifted us up and carried us and would have been a fantastic support system to the group as we grew. Whatever, it hit a wall and we were in debt.”
As the Dugas pair more got involved with other projects (Zac Brown Band, Southern Ground Records), they became less available to the Duhks, who went on hiatus.
Podolak kept playing, though. And like any masterful storyteller, he offered meticulous details about collaborating with JD Edwards and “total goofball” Nathan Rogers, the son of the late Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers.
He couldn’t believe their covers of YouTube hits such as “Double Rainbow All The Way Across the Sky” and “Pants on the Ground” got better reaction than the authentic folk tunes they played at Winnipeg bars such as one Rogers called “Shannon’s Canadian Pub (with Irish furniture).”
The trio still persevered, adding bassist Gilles Fournier to form Dry Bones. Podolak also performed with New York fiddler/clogger/hambonist Matt Gordon, opening up for Steve Knightley’s Show of Hands in 1,500-seat theaters in England after getting involved in the Cecil Sharp Project at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival with fine folk artists such as Caroline Herring. One of her heartbreaking songs, “Black Mountain Lullaby,” is beautifully interpreted by Havey on Beyond the Blue.
“What it’s really done for me, too, with the band taking that time off, with those other projects, all of a sudden I had to be more of a frontperson in a lot of ways,” Podolak said. “And really go out there and like say, ‘Who cares. I’m gonna go out and start hamboning in front of a thousand people. I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing, but I’m gonna do it anyway. And then I’ll get good at it.’ Now I kind of have. It sort of really gained my confidence. With the Duhks, it’s always been this wall of sound. If you screw up, there’s other awesome geniuses on the stage to distract the audience. But when it’s two of you or three of you, you have to kind of step up a bit.”
Podolak will be back in England this summer with Gordon.
“Again, most of those gigs don’t happen because of our popularity out in the world,” Podolak said. “It’s more because of our connections in the scene among musical directors who know that we’re gonna bring something cool. And so they’ll hire us. And that’s what’s great about the folk scene. The true folk scene.
“People will hire you because you’re gonna bring something cool, not necessarily because of how many tickets you’re gonna sell. It’s really all about the music. I’d say the folk scene has really lifted me up in the time when the band was down.”
Birds of a Feather
With their Duhks in a row again (“If you don’t give up, you can’t fail,” Podolak said), the next several months of touring might provide a litmus test for the band.
Havey pledges not to make the same mistakes twice, saying, “We’re never going to do those two-month tours with absolutely no breaks, and shows six or seven days a week. It’s just too much. We’re sort of doing a grown-up version of what we used to do. And making it sustainable and healthy.”
Garcia, Newton and Savoie-Levac are considered full-time Duhks, and Podolak wants to keep it that way. “It’s really important that we find people that are like-minded and have the ability, wherewithal and want to ... embark on a similar journey,” he said. “Because the music has always been influenced by all the different band members.”
But don’t be surprised to see the occasional return of some exes who continue to contribute to the cause.
“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Podolak said. “They’re our family. Jordan’s always a Duhk, no matter. He asked me the other day, ‘Hey, can I write a statement to the fans saying I’m officially replaced and no longer a Duhk anymore?’ (laughing) And I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ ”
Friends and co-conspirators seem to last forever in this Duhk dynasty. Havey recalls meeting Mike + Ruthy at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2001 or 2002, when they were in the Mammals, and it was like finding “our soulmates,” she said. “We called them our spouse band for a while.”
Borrowing the term “bandmance” to describe their relationship, Havey said the Duhks and Mammals played shows together as Platypus until both bands fell apart.
So when it came time to find a producer for Beyond the Blue, the only logical choices were Mike Merenda and Ruth Unger, now married with two children and living in upstate New York.
“I literally was saying that it was basically my equivalent of having Aretha Franklin produce my vocals for this record because I admire her singing so much and really look up to her,” Havey said of Ruth, the daughter of Jay Unger. “We were at their house, the kids were running around and coming into the studio. It was just a really comfortable, organic, easygoing experience.”
The sessions must have felt like a social gathering (McConnell is one of 12 guest musicians). Another original member, Tania Elizabeth (mandolin, fiddle, harmony vocals), who eventually steered Garcia toward the Duhks, is featured, along with guitarist Jefferson Hamer, whom Podolak tried to hire full-time after McConnell left.
A friendship with Lydia Garrison, Podolak’s “favorite old-time banjo player” who also played on the album, paid off for Newton years after she met King Duhk at a fiddler’s convention in West Virginia.
The search for the latest additions was challenging enough and several attempts to find a wish-list guitarist failed when Ana Egge and Victoria wunderkind Quinn Bachand declined invitations.
As the moment of truth drew closer, Podolak ran into Quebec trio De Temps Antan at the Vancouver Airport after playing Wintergrass in March. Guitarist Eric Beaudry suggested Savoie-Levac, raised on folk and jams in Joliette, Quebec, by his mother, who is a traditional flutist.
Now that the lineup seems set, Podolak and Havey hope to keep pinch hitters to a minimum.
“I think both Jess and I would agree that we really don’t to be subbing people all the time,” Podolak said. “We’re trying to make a band. That’s the goal. And hopefully these new folks will ... they’ll be lifted up and embraced by our scene, by our fans, by our culture and want to stick around just like us.”
That makes sense. After all, the only thing more natural in neo-folk than a progressive band that keeps progressing might be how a Duhk takes to water.
Photos courtesy of the Duhks and Compass Records.