This all-female quartet is a study in tight harmony and subtle instrumentation
It is an intimate thing to be among four women in song. Floating around the room with a camera as the Wilder Janes played, it was a struggle to not be a clumsy intrusion, a lumbering bull in this china shop of harmonies.
The Wilder Janes is a bit of a dream group, both in sound and origin. Heather Fiereabend, pronounced like “fire robin,” which might also be the best poetic descriptor of her voice, explained, “We used to kinda joke about it. ‘When we have our girl band...’ And I couldn’t really play instruments at all then, about six years ago.”
Becca Babin, a ringer on bass, harp, and harmony for numerous area bands, said, “I used to fill in on bass with [Heather’s band] Fugitive Poets, and Heather and I talked about forming a girl band.”
“Then Becca moved away, and I kept practicing,” Fiereabend said. “I saw Becca again when she’d moved back to town at one of the fundraisers at the Red Dragon. Jodi James was playing that night, and I said, ‘Becca, this is Jodi. She should be in our girl band, too.’ They ran into each other again and then called me up. ‘About that girl band…let’s really do it.’”
Lynn Wood at Birdman Coffee & Books in St. Francisville heard they were forming a group last year and booked them for the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival before they even had any songs. “She said, ‘I know you three and I want to hire you,’” remembered Fiereabend. And so a band was formed.
Jodi James has since left the group to forge her solo career, and now the Wilder Janes are a quartet with marimbist Melissa Wilson and Rebecca Richard singing and playing flute, piano, fiddle, and upright bass.
Fiereabend’s living room is a nest of mirrors and stringed instruments of every stripe. “We have so many instruments lying around that we’ll play a song and ask the songwriter if they have any ideas of what instruments. One night we were working on a song and Rebecca brought her flute to practice, and I never thought about having a flute on it. Once she played, it I just loved it.”
Fiereabend opens the tune “Arlington” on a skinny-necked tenor guitar, four-stringed and almost prickly in demeanor when Richard’s flute wanders in like a ghost’s breathing. Wilson’s four-mallet marimba throb sets a muted pulse, a tension like a tide pulling on a mooring rope. Babin’s bowed double bass lines anchor the song to the earth. No matter which woman you look at in the room, it seems there is another right behind her playing in a mirror.
These are some talented musicians. Wilson is a classically trained percussionist, and Babin has a deep resume ranging from bluegrass bands to the concert hall. “I have a lot of folk and classical in my background. I studied classical harp and piano, and I have a harp degree. I’ve played in a lot of rock bands around town—country rock, mostly.”
Fiereabend trained in theatre and has played with the Fugitive Poets for the last six years; Richard played in the folk-group Calico as well as with a rotating cast of Cajun musicians.
What is particularly striking about the Wilder Janes is their harmonies—not just that they can nail a synergistic chord, but how their voices intertwine into that of a cosmic Woman-with-a-capital-W, singing her way through collected experiences. It’s like how one slice of cake has all the layers in it.
“I think the harmonies are just the icing on top,” said Richard, conveniently completing the metaphor. “We bring most of our songs written already, but when you bring it to a group of four women who can sing, they are going to put harmonies in it.”
Members of the group are naturally oblique when describing their music, which is connected so closely to their intrinsic talents. “I was thinking about a song Rebecca wrote called ‘Abyss,’” said Fiereabend. “It’s pretty creamy.”
Babin cites Wilson’s marimba as the creaminess agent. “The marimba is very subtle, and we’ve had to be more subtle in our arrangements. That’s the advantage of playing with women. In a band with a guy, someone would want to add drums or make it too loud. Instead we come down to her level. It’s a quiet, subtle beauty.”
Perhaps that is the thing that gives the Wilder Janes’ songs such a magical gravity, the combined presence of women, that fearless openness to emotion and connection.
“Abyss” comes on like a slo-mo bluesy dawn. The tight harmonies are constellations against the velveteen night. Like putting an ear right up on the wet beat of an actual heart. It’s hard to explain what is happening in a mechanism this tight. Richard sings in “Abyss”:
I still don’t know what love is
Never tasted its sweetness
Gave my all and hoped to fall
Deep into the abyss
The Wilder Janes are a bit like butterflies in a garden, switching instruments, getting at each one’s peculiar nectar. The harmonies are that cross-pollination of spirits that, in each tune, forms a radiant, unique bloom. There is the seed, the soil, the sun, and the flower in their songs.
Shot by Alex V. Cook.
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The Wilder Janes will appear at
The Red Dragon Listening Room on December 11. Chas Justus of the Red Stick Ramblers will open.
2401 Florida Street
Baton Rouge, La.