Published Oct 17, 2014"I don't think I could have gone from the Doug and Jess Band to The Nightjar and the Garden," says La Rivière, MB-based singer-songwriter Jess Reimer of her exceptional Bob Wiseman-produced sophomore solo album, out now via Pipe & Hat/MapleMusic. "It would have felt like I was betraying bluegrass."
Reimer — who has sang and played upright bass for years in the Doug and Jess Band alongside her father, Doug Reimer, and husband, luthier and multi-instrumentalist Jer Hamm — recorded her debut solo album Sweet Darling and Sorrow in 2011 with Grant Siemens (guitarist in Corb Lund's Hurtin' Albertans band) producing.
"The guitar playing on that record is stupidly good," Reimer tells Exclaim! "But we kept it pretty traditional — somewhere in between bluegrass and whatever we are doing now."
"Whatever we are doing now" stands at the crossroads of Americana: smart yet heartfelt alt-country, country rock and alt-pop, with nods to gospel and folk's protest song tradition, all carried effortlessly by Reimer's strong, natural and expressive alto.
She attributes a lot of her recent growth as a singer to working with former Blue Rodeo keyboardist Wiseman, a Winnipeg native. "I don't want to say he taught me to sing," she says. "But he took my vocals to a completely different place; it was very exciting for me.
"As a bluegrass singer, I belted it out my whole life, which is great, but in the recording sessions Bob had me sing more quietly. He'd say, 'think about the words.' He heard vibrato in my voice and he said, 'can you control that?' So on 'Great Awakening,' I tried that and it worked and it was like taking your first steps: it was very cheesy and special."
Wiseman also encouraged Reimer to flex her muscles as a musician. "I wasn't planning on doing my own guitar tracks," she says. "But Bob said, 'You can play your own guitar parts — why not?' He was good at pushing me any time I was being a weenie about anything."
Recorded over a couple weeks in December and January when it was "so bloody cold," in a dingy warehouse on Ross Avenue in Winnipeg, guests on The Nightjar and the Garden include Ron Sexsmith, Keri Latimer (from local folk band Nathan), pedal steel player Burke Caroll, Doug Reimer, and Reimer's children on backup vocals.
"It was a huge brick warehouse," Reimer says. "Everything was whitewashed a light greenish-white and it was kind of ghostly in there. The floors are really old, dirty wood, and Bob had this great big table with his stuff set up and I'd stand by the window and sing and he'd turn around and say, 'Do it again, more feeling.'"
At lunchtime the two would walk over to Mondragon, in the Exchange, and Wiseman would tell Reimer stories about the buildings and the musicians he'd seen play there as a kid, tagging along with his older brothers to shows.
Reimer jokes that the album was a "Christmas miracle" as Wiseman nearly lost the initial bed tracks back in Toronto on the TTC between sessions. Luckily someone had stashed his knapsack (with his Macbook in it) away for him.
Many of the songs on the record were years in gestation, including "1,500 Appeals" (about a "self-absorbed high school boyfriend") and "Whipoorwill," a beautiful country rock song about an early, accidental pregnancy. (Reimer's daughter Sofia is 15 now.)
"That song is a really big deal for me," says Reimer. "It was just really humiliating, making that mistake of getting pregnant — only after people that I knew started going through something similar was I able to process my own experience."
Other songs are well-chosen covers, such as a gentler (but still powerful) version of Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" and an early Johnny Cash-style rendition of Warren Zevon's "Heartache Spoken Here."
"My dad came in to sing the high part," Reimer says of the Zevon tune, "and he started talking to Bob about how the guy in the song is obviously trying to get with this woman, and Bob says, 'Oh, I never looked at it that way, I always thought it was more platonic,' and my dad says, 'Nah, he's trying to get with her.'"
Although Nightjar has seen Reimer branch out, she's finding ways to incorporate something she loves about bluegrass — everyone singing and playing around a mic — into her live solo shows.
"At our last gig we played a lot closer and Jer jumped in and shared my mic a few times for harmonizing and it had that weird melding of bluegrass with the intimacy of the mic," says Reimer. "I get bored if I don't have the buzz of someone's body playing close to me."
Reimer plays Hugh's Room in Toronto tonight (October 17). You can see all her other Canadian tour dates below.
10/17 Toronto, ON - Hugh's Room
10/17-19 Toronto, ON - Folk Music Ontario Conference
10/20 Toronto, ON - The Cameron House Back Room
10/23 Toronto, ON - Tranzac
10/24 Haliburton, ON - House Concert
11/06 Winnipeg, MB - West End Cultural Centre