(Un)locking the Heart
(Un)locking the Heart
A Q&A with Heather Masse
By Geoff Gehman
Heather Masse’s voice can stop time and end traffic jams of the mind. She sings with pizzazz, panache and presence whether she’s performing a folk hymn with the Wailin’ Jennys, a shot of stardust sorrow with legendary jazz pianist Dick Hyman or a bluegrassy “Wild Horses” with Garrison Keillor, the music-mad master of ceremonies for “A Prairie Home Companion.” She sounds so supple, so balanced, so nuanced, she’s emotionally here even when she’s technically out there.
Masse stretches her chops on “August Love Song” (Red House), her new record with trombonist Roswell Rudd, a venerable veteran of free jazz. The musicians, who met during a 2009 Valentine Day’s edition of “Prairie Home Companion,” improvise sublimely on the likes of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and Masse’s “Love Song for August,” a sweet, suite-like ode to her son, born in August 2012. Cut in the living room of Rudd’s Catskills house, which is eight miles from the home that Masse shares with August and husband Ian Duncan, the CD unfurls, to borrow a Rudd phrase, as one long “sonic embrace.”
Another second home for Masse is the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where she sang and played upright bass with the Wailin’ Jennys on a 2009 live album. On April 10 she’ll return to the 134-year-old venue, where she feels like the driver of a vintage, vaunted vehicle. This time she’ll be joined by pianist Jed Wilson, a fellow graduate of the New England Conservatory and her brother-in-law. Expect the friendly relatives to roam all over the musical map; their recent repertoire runs from “If I Loved You,” a romantic anthem from the musical “Carousel,” to “Mother Nature’s Son,” a delightful ditty from the Beatles’ “White Album.”
Below, in a conversation from her home in Accord, N.Y., Masse discusses her common ground with a pair of jazz octogenarians, her occasionally wild rides with Keillor and her occasionally trombone-playing tyke.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: I loved “The Boy Next Door” from [the musical] “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I learned it from one of those Reader’s Digest family song books, the ones with the easy piano arrangements. When I started listening to recorded music, I fell in love with Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Love Has No Pride”; that song just kills me. Another song I loved early on is Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me.” Ahhhh [big sigh of nostalgic appreciation].
Q: What was the first jazz number that made you think jazz could be pretty cool? There must have been a few juicy tunes on that mixtape that your oldest sister gave you when you were 10 or 11.
A: Lara was always handing me all kinds of great music. Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Good Morning Heartache” was on that mixtape, along with “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Lullaby of Birdland.” Another one I fell in love with was Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Poor Butterfly.” It’s heartbreaking; it was written with the story of Madame Butterfly in mind. I tend to be very romantic and dramatic songs kind of took me. I’m also a big fan of Joni Mitchell; I love “California,” “Blue,” “I Am a Woman of Heart and Mind.”
Q: You tiptoed onto new turf when you cut a record with Roswell Rudd, who’s not only an improvising trombonist but a fabled free-music musician. Did you find any surprising common ground with him?
A: We share a love of all those old standards and Dixieland. At the core we’re both really improvisers; being in the present moment together is where we really found our common ground. We do more free stuff when we’re just hanging out playing; we can improvise in a way that it feels like its own language. For example, we did the first half of “Mood Indigo” just as a duet. We were playing these long tones and harmonizing in a way that just felt that it had always been that way. It was fluid, organic and really magical.
Q: Did you find any surprising common ground with Dick Hyman, your other renowned octogenarian jazzman, while you two were making “Lock My Heart” [Red House, 2013]?
A: I’m more familiar with Dick; I’ve known about him since I was about eight. My mom is a pianist, so his fake book on playing the chords and arrangements of jazz tunes was always on the piano. Dick has such a rich library of tunes. We rehearsed in the music studio at his home in Florida and there were book shelves and book shelves of these original arrangements of songs from way back when, especially old Broadway tunes with intros no one really has heard. Current young artists like me learn the old tunes in a different way, from the fake book or other recordings. He learned the tunes from how they were really written. He’s just so immersed in that time, that music, that culture; that was one of the reasons that I wanted to make my first jazz record with him. I really enjoyed his stories of going into Billie Holiday’s apartment and trying to sell her tunes.
Q: One number that really stands out on “Lock My Heart” is your and Dick’s unusually slow, unusually spacious “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” You two leave loads of room for emotional roaming.
A: That’s also a song I just loved growing up. Dick and I played it together first on “Prairie Home Companion.” We were just following the lyrics; it’s such a sad case of someone in love and the person they love doesn’t love them back in the same way. There’s this feeling of being treated badly, of being trapped in this relationship, of despair. There’s this kind of sad, lonely, vast landscape
Q: Have you led the Wailin’ Jennys to any new pastures during the nine years you’ve been a member of the band?
A: I come from a jazz background, so I’ve been trying to open our music a little bit more. Folk music with three-part harmony is very arranged. You stick to your part; it’s classical music in a way. In the Jennys we don’t write out our parts but we figure them out and then we don’t really stray from them, ever. One of the reasons I wrote “Cherry Blossom Love” is that it could let us sing, and play, more openly. That’s one of the few songs we never perform the same way.
Q: Do you have any indelible memories of recording the Jennys’ 2009 live album in the Mauch Chunk Opera House?
A: Recording a live album was very fun but also a little traumatic. Unlike a regular performance, you have the pressure of getting the right takes. You can’t be completely natural because in the back of your mind you know you’re being recorded and what you record will live forever. I still have a little anxiety playing there, which is strange because it’s such a beautiful, historic room. It’s one of those theaters where you can feel the history, the people who have been there before. It has that old car smell; you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat of a great old car.
Another fond memory I have is that when there wasn’t a bathroom backstage, we would have to go through the back door and all the way around to the bathroom in the front. We would do the “through the woods” thing, except we were in the parking lot [laughs].
Q: You and Garrison Keillor have sung everything from “If You Were Mine” to “Love in Vain” on “A Prairie Home Companion.” The collaboration that surprises me the most is that bluegrassy rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Who the hell put that in your wheelhouse?
A: I thought you’d pick that one. That was Garrison’s crazy idea. He loves to really change a tune from its original recording. [Imitates Keillor’s sonorous, scholarly, sneaky baritone] “Oh, let’s try it maybe in a bluegrass version.” It turned out great; the band on the show is so good, they can do anything.
It’s always a little frantic [on “Prairie Home Companion”]. You never know what will happen because Garrison likes to fly by the seat of his pants. Many times you’re in the middle of a song and he’ll put a sheet of lyrics on your stand. It could be a song you haven’t rehearsed, or one you maybe rehearsed once the day before. He thrives on the improvisational aspect. Often in the middle of a show he will tell the producers “Let’s switch the order” or add a script we didn’t rehearse at all. He does the same thing in his monologue: he writes a sketch and then just goes off. There’s a real sense of he’s just painting this landscape and he doesn’t know which colors to use.
Q: Do you know anyone who loves to sing more than Mr. Keillor, anyone so willing and able to sing pretty much anything at a nod and a wink?
A: I don’t know anyone who loves singing more than he does. It’s amazing. I think it stems from growing up singing hymns with his family.
Q: Which you did growing up with your family.
A: Oh yes, I guess we have that in common. He especially loves duet harmony singing. I think a lot of people don’t give him credit for being such a natural singer. I’ve been noticing lately that when he sings in an upper register it’s so beautiful.
Q: Who loves to sing more, you or Garrison?
A: I think he loves to sing harmony more than me. But I don’t think he loves to
sing more than me. I sing in my sleep [laughs].
Q: Like many jazz/stardust singers, you specialize in proper pronunciation and crisp enunciation. Ah, but what mush-mouthed singers do you dig?
A: Tom Waits. Bob Dylan. Ron Sexsmith. Iris DeMent–she’s one of my favorite songwriters and singers. She enunciates well but it’s a very specific, different style.
Q: Why do you like singing with Jed Wilson’s piano playing? Does it make any difference in chemistry, or alchemy, to share a stage with your brother-in-law?
A: Jed is really one of my favorite musicians to play with and one of my really good friends. We went to the same school [the New England Conservatory] so we have a lot of the same memories and the same musical language. He’s a musical genius; he can play anything. His playing is really heartfelt and beautiful but also humorous. We can go to all sorts of unexpected places. He’ll modulate all of a sudden and I’ll follow him, or I’ll modulate all of a sudden and he’ll follow me. We also share a broad range of material and influences. We can easily change the music: we can play a folk song with jazz chords, or play a jazz tune more folky. It’s really fun and sometimes funny.
Q: While you were thinking up “Love Song for August” did you contemplate any of your favorite parental odes to their kids?
A: I didn’t. When I started it I just thought it was going to be a generic love song, maybe to my husband, not to anyone else. But it just suddenly changed into a song for my son. It just kind of all came out at once; I didn’t have much say in the matter.
Q: Did you try out “Love Song for August” on August before you began recording it with Roswell?
A: I sang it to him when he was two or two and a half. He really liked the line “the birds would bark, the dogs would cheep.” He kept asking [excited Christmas-morning voice]: “When will that part come?”
Q: Does he play his song on that kid-size plastic trombone that Roswell gave him for his second birthday?
A: At first he was obsessed with the pBone. He went through a phase where he would practice every day for hours for six months. He jammed a lot. He had it in his heart and body for a long time.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: Oh man, I’ve never made a Bucket List, so this is tricky. The first thing that came to my head is that I’ve always wanted to be a dancer since I was a little girl. So maybe dancing in some big theater and being really good.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I guess the thing that’s coming up for me right now is more empathy and compassion for those who are dealing with mental illness. One of my family members has schizophrenia and it’s just such a hard life to lead. The realm of mental illness is just so huge, there’s no way of finding someone like you. There’s such a huge range of mental capacities and intellects; there are people with brain damage and people with disillusioned thinking. It’s something the Jennys care a lot about; we’ve invited members from NAMI [the National Alliance on Mental Illness] to talk about mental illness onstage during our shows. We get people to donate money for a raffle where the prizes are a shirt and a Jennys [recording] library. We’re bringing awareness to mental illness and trying to stop the stigma, knowing that the brain is like any other organ in the body
Heather Masse: The Scoop
She grew up in Lovell, Me., with a father who played guitar and sang lead in a country rock band and a mother who played church organ and coaxed her four kids to harmonize to “White Coral Bells” with half sticks of chewing gum.
Her former bands include Heather & the Barbarians and Joy Kills Sorrow
She’s guested with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing trio and the Boston Pops Orchestra,
She informally auditioned for the Wailin’ Jennys in a handicap bathroom at the World Café in Philadelphia.
She wrote “Across the Sea,” a Jennys number, for her husband.
On April 9 she and pianist Jed Wilson will perform a house concert at Buddy’s Room in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. They were supposed to play that night on a Manhattan version of “A Prairie Home Companion” but were replaced when the program switched to all Broadway tunes. “I don’t mind being bumped off,” says Masse. “It’s nice to be able to open up for 40 to 60 people in a living room. You don’t have to worry about playing tunes that aren’t perfect for a live radio audience of a few million.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He kind of likes that bluegrassy “Wild Horses” that Heather Masse sang with Garrison Keillor on “A Prairie Home Companion.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.