The Duhks(2)

With his wiry canopy of hair and his horn-rimmed glasses, Leonard Podolak could don a lab coat and land a part as a mad scientist. But there’s nothing crazy about his five-year-old musical experiment known as the Duhks. When the Winnipeg, Manitoba-raised banjo player set about forming a new band, he certainly wasn’t afraid to mix volatile elements and ingredients. The result is a blend of Irish fiddle tunes, French-Canadian balladry, Afro-Cuban grooves, Appalachian music, and Deep South soul/gospel. In less capable hands, this radical eclecticism could become a multi-genre train wreck. But the Duhks usually make the pieces fit. Podolak thinks of it as playing matchmaker to an “arranged marriage,” and three albums into this musical matrimony, everyone seems genuinely happy.

“We’re all very, very different as people, and we’re very different in terms of our musical tastes,” says lead singer Jessee Havey, whose winged-heart “Family” tattoo was borrowed for some prominent cover art on the band’s new CD, Migrations [Sugar Hill]. “But I feel so blessed to have it be such an easy, pleasant, fun experience to make music with these guys.”

Fiddler Tania Elizabeth agrees, saying the band’s chemistry was surprisingly organic. “We never really talked about philosophies,” she says. “We just sort of dove in. The biggest clashes happen in the van over what to listen to. But, other than that, everybody has so much respect for everybody else that it never really occurred to anyone to clash over music. Everyone is so clearly an expert in their field—and everyone has such a defined role in the band—that we never needed to talk about it that much.”

Havey was just out of high school, and on her way to Vancouver to pursue theater, when Podolak invited her to start a band. He’d grown up around professional folk music—his father founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the 1970s—and he’d known Havey for years as a family friend. Podolak’s previous band, Scruj MacDuhk, had broken up, and he was looking to assemble a similar lineup of old-time banjo, fiddle, guitar, vocals, bass, and percussion.

The third musician at the first rehearsal of what would become the Duhks was Jordan McConnell, a guitarist and luthier who had toured with Scruj MacDuhk. He remembers that Podolak was interested in his full-bodied, Celtic rhythm playing. At the time, McConnell was also involved in punk rock and classical music, but he found his wide-ranging interests were welcome.

“There were all these other influences in the band, and I was almost resisting them at first, trying to keep it more traditional Irish sounding ,” says McConnell, “But I started listening more and more—especially when we started playing with Scott.”

Scott is percussionist Scott “Señor” Senior—a servant of rhythm who studied percussion in Cuba, and who builds his own wooden-box drums called cajons. He was not the first percussionist in the Duhks. Podolak had initially tapped Winnipeg’s well-known

Rodrigo “Papa Mambo” Munoz, along with upright bass player Gilles Fournier. Those musicians were part of the Duhks’ first self-released album, Your Daughters and Your Sons. But those two musicians were not ready to take the plunge into heavy touring. Munoz recommended Senior, and he and McConnell set about building a rhythm section.

“Jordan has shown me a new way to hear music,” Senior says. “All my life, I played in bands that had a bass player. This group doesn’t have a bass player, but Jordan really fills up the sound with his own unique style.”

Podolak agrees, noting that McConnell plays an extra heavy low-E string that creates a heavy underpinning for the rest of the band.

“My guitar style,” says McConnell, “is formed more around bass lines than traditional harmony or anything else. The first thing I think of when I’m listening to a song is, ‘What would the bass player do?’ So what I do is not exactly Irish, and it’s not exactly jazz. It’s even a bit bluegrass-y.”

In between tours, McConnell maintains the thriving guitar-building business he’d started by the time the Duhks formed. His total immersion in the art of luthiery has had a direct effect on his place in the band—at least insofar as he plays every night on the first guitar he ever built. It all began because his woodworker father built him an electric guitar—another instrument that McConnell still plays. When McConnell finished high school, he enrolled in a guitar-building course in Saskatchewan, where he built his own steel-string acoustic. Then, he studied classical guitar building in Spain with luthier Jose Romanios who had built instruments for world-class players such as Julian Bream.

“Guitar-building felt like a really natural thing to do,” says McConnell, who recently received a commission for a guitar from Celtic guitar wizard John Doyle. “So I went home, bought the tools I needed, and took over my dad’s workshop. I was lucky enough to get a grant from the Canadian government for young entrepreneurs, which went toward wood and tools.”

Rounding out the Duhks’ cast of over-achievers is perhaps the most precocious of them all. Fiddler Tania Elizabeth quit school before she finished ninth grade to release her own albums and book her own folk tours.

“I can’t believe I actually did that,” Elizabeth says. “When you don’t know that you aren’t supposed to be able to do something,, you have no idea it’s not possible.”

Elizabeth’s precise fiddling gives the Duhks a polished instrumental attack, but the band’s center of gravity on stage is Havey. With her shock of bleached hair, her armload of tattoos, and her rock star confidence, she looks like nobody else on the folk or Americana scenes. And her weighty, earthy voice can stroke a gospel song like “Moses, Don’t Get Lost,” or revitalize a folk/rock standard such as Tracy Chapman’s “Mountains o’ Things”—both on the new CD. On the old English song, “Three Fishers,” she channels the Celtic song styles of Kate Rusby and Sandy Denny. Havey also took her first foray into songwriting on Migrations with “Out of the Rain.”

“Jessee is so refreshing,” says Elizabeth. “She has a real original sense of where she’s coming from, and the influences she has are not what a lot of the people around her have at all.”

“Jessee and I share a love of urban music, hip-hop, and soul and gospel,” adds Senior. “Our CD collections look more similar than Jordan’s and Leonard’s would. We share that love of beats. She inspires me. When I hear her vocals, her energy makes me play better. If she’s having a good time, I’m having an extra good time.”

The Duhks parlayed its first CD into a label deal with Sugar Hill Records, and the band’s eponymous 2004 album was produced by newgrass banjo master Béla Fleck. The label helped the band get on a Stephen Foster tribute album that went on to win the Contemporary Folk Grammy Award. The band also won a Canadian Juno Award, and became huge favorites at Folk Alliance—an annual convention where non-traditional experimentation is sometimes, but not always, rewarded.

The set-up for the Migrations album could hardly have been better. The last puzzle piece was a strong producer, and the band sought out progressive bluegrass artist Tim O’Brien.

“It was natural,” says Podolak. “Here’s someone who has all these connections with so many of the styles of music we’re playing. In his own career, he has already tapped into blues and gospel, Irish and Scottish music, and, of course, bluegrass. Not only that, he’s an incredible vocalist, and he understands where the roots of our music come from.”

O’Brien proved an enthusiastic supporter in and out of the studio.

“They’re a great combination of incredibly enthusiastic and open-minded musicians,” commented O’Brien via e-mail. “Sometimes, a band can be like the Senate Armed Services Committee—lots of separate forces jockeying for positions. But the Duhks seem to have found a path where no one has to hold back anything. Their music is designed in such a way to let everybody have their role, and then they just let it fly. It’s a blast, because they give you a clear picture of what they’re going for, so you just follow their lead, and help them make it as good as it can be. At the same time, the music is not so defined that you can’t shape things.”

With the band’s new video receiving substantial airplay on country networks CMT and GAC, the Duhks may be poised to travel a similar path as label mates Nickel Creek, which burst the boundaries of bluegrass and rode successful videos—despite predictably little radio play—to two gold albums. Both bands are reminders that what Thomas Jefferson said about democracy holds true for folk music: “A little rebellion now and then is good for the system.”