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Arts: Stickin’ to her guns

October 1st, 2006     by Anna Leventhal     Issue 10: Issue 10: Gimme Shelter     Comments

Let’s start with the tattoos. A full sleeve graces her left arm, beginning with outer-space imagery by her shoulder and ending with an underwater scene on her forearm, complete with a pink-haired mermaid playing the banjo. Under her collarbones, a winged heart reads “family.”

Or maybe we should talk about the hair. Close-cropped and bleached blonde, it’s usually spiked into a dandelion crown radiating from her head. It doesn’t take long for the pieces to come together to form a clear picture: this ain’t your typical folk singer.

Jessee Havey, lead vocalist of Winnipeg-based folk-roots band The Duhks, comes off as a stylish rock ‘n’ roll diva, the kind of gal you’d see on the street and make a mental note to copy the next time you had to impress a gang of style Mafioso. But then she opens her mouth and suddenly she’s your best friend, your long-lost sister, the soother of your harried soul. Not content to be just a pretty set of pipes, Jessee has recently started writing for the band, and their next album Migrations — set for release this fall — will feature her song “Out of the Rain.”

Jessee was asked to join The Duhks in 2001, 18 years old and ready to rock, folk-style. Jessee and her four young bandmates — Leonard Podolak, Tania Elizabeth, Jordan McConnell and Scott Senior — paid their dues over the next few years, touring everywhere from clubs in the American deep south to music festivals in Denmark and Australia. Their dedication caught the attention of folk luminaries like Doc Watson and Béla Fleck, whose praise helped raise the band’s profile internationally. They won their first Juno award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year in 2006 for their self-titled 2005 release.

Fast-tracking it to stardom may seem like a fantasy, but for Jessee it’s practically second nature. Both of her parents are folk musicians, and, as early as age five, she was making up songs and singing traditionals to her dad’s acoustic accompaniment. She studied dance, musical theatre and acting, and confesses that she used to dream about winning an Oscar. But before she could pack her bags and head to Hollywood or Broadway, Leonard Podolak made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. An old family friend (and another child of inveterate folkies), Podolak was looking for a singer to front his budding band. Jessee grabbed onto what looked like the break she had been waiting for, and she took to the music life like, ahem, a Duhk to water. But it hasn’t always been easy striking a balance between being successful and upholding her beliefs.

When the band shot their first music video in 2005, Jessee found herself feeling a tad uncomfortable. “I like the video,” she says, “but there were moments when I felt like I was put on the spot as a young woman.”

The night before the shoot, Jessee spoke with the director about her part. “For my solo shot, she wanted me to be running through the halls and singing, and I thought, ‘Cool, that’s great!’” Jessee recalls. The next morning, the band arrived at the film set, Ontario’s former Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, an abandoned, derelict building covered in graffiti. “One of my bandmates picked up the scene breakdown sheet and started reading it out loud and he goes, ‘Scene Two: Jessee singing in bathtub.’ And I say, ‘Ha ha, that’s funny.’ And he says, ‘I’m serious.’”

Jessee refused to do the scene unclothed, but nevertheless, climbing fully dressed into a tub full of icy water in the dead of winter wasn’t exactly her idea of an empowering experience. “It was really, really awful,” she sighs. “I was so cold for the rest of the day. And when you watch the video, you can’t even tell there was water in the bathtub.”

In another incident, Jessee was given a midriff-baring crop-top to wear for a photo shoot. She went along with it, but insisted that the photo be digitally altered afterward so that the shirt covered her navel. “That was a big learning experience for me,” she says, “that I had to be more assertive and say to the people working with us, ‘This is not what I want to be. I know that it’s standard and I don’t blame you for just wanting to go with that formula, but it’s not going to work. We are not going to use sex to sell this band.’”

Being adamant about your image takes guts, but it does get easier, especially when you have women like Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and Tracy Chapman (a few ladies Jessee cites as musical heroes) leading the way. And it’s even easier to stick to your guns when none other than Dolly Parton has complimented you on your singing — and your tattoos.

“I’ve been a freakin’ huge Dolly fan since the movie Straight Talk came out, and I fell in love with her and have had a crush on her for as long as I can remember,” Jessee says, delight written on her face in 10-foot letters.

Before one of Parton’s shows, Jessee finally got to meet her honky-tonk hero backstage. The country diva circled the room, shaking hands and showering everyone with Southern grace and charm. “She got to me and she shook my hand, and I told her I was in a band called The Duhks that was on the same label as her [Sugar Hill], and Dolly said (Jessee affects a honey-smothered Southern drawl) ‘I know who you are! My producer told me all about you. He says you have one of the best voices he’s ever heard!’” Before Jessee could peel her jaw off the floor, Parton asked if she could see her tattoos. “I’m like, ‘You’re Dolly Parton, you do whatever you want!’” Jessee laughs. Parton then insisted the labelmates have their photo taken together, to use one day when they record a duet.

Until that day comes, Jessee will continue to charm audiences and sassify the folk scene like the shameless lady she is. Dolly Parton or not, what a way to make a livin’.

The Duhks’ new album, Migrations, is now out on Sugar Hill Records. Anna Leventhal lives in Montreal, where she dishes out straight talk and bent music on her weekly radio show, Venus.


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