An Interview With Canadian Bluegrass Band, Hay Fever
Hay Fever is an innovative bluegrass band based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The band members mostly have classical music backgrounds, but bring in influences that include jazz, pop, and country music.
The band’s lead singer and primary songwriter Zohreh Gervais took some time out to speak to me about the band’s formation, how they go about creating music, and their sources of inspiration. She also talked about the themes that are explored on Hay Fever’s latest album, The River, and the recording process for the album.
Interview With Zohreh Gervais of Hay Fever
Karl Magi: How did Hay Fever get started as a band?
Zohreh Gervais: Maddy Hildebrand (bass) and I studied music together at university so a few years ago I asked her if she wanted to start a band. I’d actually never been in a band before, and was really nervous about playing my songs with other people. I’d done a lot of work as a classical musician, but I’d never ‘jammed’ or played in a less formal setting. She agreed to humor me and we decided to get together to play some of the songs that I’d written. When we were putting Hay Fever together we realized that we really needed a banjo player. I knew that Greg Hay played banjo so we contacted him and brought him into the band. Lucky for us he also plays dobro, mandolin and fiddle. From there, he brought Mason into the band. Mason’s our guitar player and the other lead singer in the band. Eventually we met Ameena Bajer-Koulack, who became our main fiddler and who also plays clawhammer banjo.The fact that three of us can swap instruments and vocals makes it a super fun group to work with. We have a lot of instrumental colours to choose from for any given song, which is a huge bonus for me as a songwriter.
KM: Talk about the various influences that each band member brings to Hay Fever?
ZG: Most of us are classically trained musicians, but each of us comes from slightly different backgrounds. I am very influenced by early jazz recordings, western swing, southern roots music/gospel, and by my ‘day job’ singing classical art song and opera. Maddy is a concert pianist who grew up in the Mennonite community of Steinbach outside of Winnipeg. They have a strong choral music tradition there, so she brings a lot of interesting harmonies into the band, as well as a great ear for harmonic structure.
Mason’s an encyclopedia of country music and rock ’n roll. He can sing absolutely any song by Neil Young or Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Ian Tyson…even incredibly obscure tunes. As the only one of us without formal training, he brings a lot of spontaneous and unorthodox ideas to our songs. He also makes us way look and sound way cooler than we actually are. He was also the only one of us who knew how to work with microphones and pickups when we started!
Ameena’s dad (Daniel Koulack) is one of Manitoba’s finest folk musicians, so she grew up being trucked around to various festivals and fiddle camps. She’s played with some of the best folk musicians from all over the world, so she has a really interesting set of skills and fantastic folk music and fiddle tunes in her repertoire. We love that she brings that to the table. Greg plays viola in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and he just really loves bluegrass. He brings a more formal idea of the structure we’re looking for as well as fresh ideas for instrumentation into the band.
KM. How does the song writing process work for you?
ZG: I’ve written songs since I was a tiny little kid. They just pop into my head constantly. For me, it’s never a question of having a lyric or a melody. The words and the music come together because the rhythm of the lyrics influences the sound of the music. Song writing is a pretty organic process for me. It takes me about an hour to finish a song draft, then i will tweak lyrics or chords a bit over the next few days as the song settles.
I really enjoy writing songs in a bluegrass-influenced style. The way that the song structure works and the general lyrical content of bluegrass music resonates with me.
I’m somewhat limited by my skills as a fairly terrible pianist, but I know enough to get around a piano. I wish I could play guitar because that would help a lot. Learning to play guitar has been on my to-do list for many years.
After I write a song, I’ll usually send them to Greg. I’ll send him a recording of me singing and playing the piano. When he gets the songs, he’ll chose the instruments that he thinks will fit best. I try not to give him any ideas because I’m curious to see what he comes up with. Everyone else in the band also brings in their ideas about the instruments they’d like to hear. Greg always laughs because we go through a lot of songs and I just veto the songs that don’t immediately grab him.
KM: What were the themes that you wanted to explore on The River?
ZG: Living in Winnipeg, there’s this constant undercurrent of news about missing and murdered women. When I first moved to Winnipeg, I witnessed some pretty atrocious and violent things happen to women in the neighbourhood that I was living in. It was a pretty sketchy part of town. It’s always been something that I’ve struggled with because I love living here. I think its a fantastic town and the people here are wonderful, but there’s this dark underbelly, a blind eye that’s turned.
Everywhere you go in Winnipeg there’s very easy access to the river. It’s so murky and filled with sediment tha you can put something it in, it’s gone in 20 seconds and you can’t find it for the life of you. It’s terrifying. I would never let my children anywhere near that river.
All of these news stories were coming out and I was deeply affected by them, so that’s where the inspiration for the song “The River” came from. Some of the other songs like the first track on the album “Break My Back” and “Old John” were also inspired by those news stories. The songs went together because it was something that was on my mind. They weren’t written together, but they’re part of the same fictional character’s story.
The other songs on the album are snippets of life told from a woman’s perspective. There’s a song about the love between a mother and child and one that talks about the difficulties in a marriage. They’re songs about things that people deal with on a daily basis told from my perspective. Mason contributed one song to the album which is incorrectly attributed to me. He wrote “Realign” which is a song that was written in conjunction with conversations he’d had with his next door neighbour, Percy, who’s a residential school survivor. It was cool to work on that song and tell Percy’s story in it.
We made a music video for The River as well. We collaborated with Deco Dawson, a Winnipeg filmmaker who is pretty well known here and has made some internationally recognized art films and music videos for Metric. He was fantastic to work with and really brought our vision for the song to life.
KM: How did the recording process work for The River?
ZG: This recording is the first time we’ve ever worked with a producer. Mason brought in his good friend Grant Siemens. We loved working with him, he was great. We rehearsed three or four times and he came in and brought his guitar. He added things where he thought we should add them and asked me to write an extra verse here or there just to make the song structure smoother. We went into the studio with him and Shawn Dealey who was the recording engineer. They were really fabulous to work with. We did a super quick recording session. We did the entire recording in a day and a half. We recorded Friday night, Saturday all day and Sunday we did the initial mix on the tracks.
It was really interesting to see, in the few sessions that followed, what Grant and Shawn wanted to hear in a track and what Greg and I wanted to hear in a track. Greg and I have both done a lot of classical recordings, so what our ears were listening for was quite different than what Grant and Shawn we’re listening for. I think we all found it to be quite an interesting learning experience.
We had some great discussion trying to find the balance during the mixing process. For example, we have a beautiful string arrangement on The River. Shawn and Grant hadn’t really ever worked with a string arrangement like that, so they wanted it to be loud the whole way through because they thought it was so beautiful and so lush. They wanted to feature it, but Greg and I both agreed that it wasn’t a feature, it was just supposed to be a backdrop. It’s the banjo that was the feature. We all had to compromise on different points in the end, but we have a record we’re really happy with at the end of it.
KM: What are Hay Fever’s future plans?
ZG: We have, on purpose, held back from doing a ton of shows and touring because we all have busy solo careers as musicians, so it’s very hard to coordinate our schedules. This summer we have a little mini-tour to Clear Lake, Manitoba and around that region. We’re looking forward to doing some low key gigs this summer. We’ve been working on a bunch of new songs, so I’m hoping that we’ll have another album underway in the next year. We have some cool collaborations coming up that have to do with our connections to the classical music world. We’re just seeing where things go, taking it easy and really enjoying writing songs and music together.
KM: How do you collectively recharge your creative batteries?
ZG: All of us have different ways of doing that obviously but one of the overriding feelings that we have is that we all love working together but as soon as we have too many things going on at once, this project starts to feel too much like work. We started Hay Fever as a way to have fun and play creatively with music in a totally different way than we usually do professionally.
We just had our CD launch a couple of weekends ago and that same weekend we played at Festival Du Voyageur, it was back to back shows. It felt great because we were really tight, but afterwards we were like, “No more of this! We just need to do other things for a while.” We’ll get back together to start playing with some new material as soon as we’re all feeling recharged.
For some of us that means travelling, for others it means working on totally different projects. All of us love food, so eating and baking together is our favourite non-musical way to recharge as a group. Greg makes the most amazing bagels, and we’ve had many a band practice with a pie baking in the oven. A band that bakes together stays together, right?