The Prairies have always been a promise as well as a place: a boundary between new and old worlds, known and unknown possibilities. In a deeply romantic tradition, it's where we go to shuck our troublesome pasts and presents; find or prove our mettle and be remade into better, stronger, wilder people; to collide unpredictably with other utopians, opportunists, and rugged individualists who have likewise struck out westward.
Jolene Higgins has been around the Prairies—both real and imagined. Born in Alberta, raised in Kansas, making Saskatchewan home and Manitoba her stomping grounds, she's seen plenty of swaying seas of grass, thunderhead-filled skies and chirring Richardson's ground squirrels. But she also headed west in a poetic sense, into the junctures of country-blues, rural jazz and pop Americana, synthesizing elements from the '20s to early '50s, with her lyrics suggesting an equally blurred, expansive “Westishness” roomy enough to include Louis Riel, teepee rings and farmer-friendly auctions. Her aural identity coalesced alongside a sort of roadhouse flapper-raconteur persona—the kind of outsized, brassy, fire-blooded character one readily envisions roaming the vintage heartland.
So it's been Little Miss Higgins who's made five progressively more accomplished albums, the sassy hustle of her early days giving way to a more coherent, intimate, polished sound on her latest made live-off-the-floor recording with the Winnipeg Five (who play as the F-Holes without Higgins). Bison Ranch Recording Sessions seems so eerily reminiscent of a certain era—one that doesn't actually exist as a package—that you expect to hear the hisses, pops and spitting of old-timey shellacs on top of its slow swinging ballads, jaunty portraits of countrified slices of life, and Depression Era-type hope-raising shuffles.
“I don't know how to explain it; it just happens,” Higgins confesses of her stylistic mélange, laughing easily and often. “I guess I take from my surroundings to create the music, the lyrics, the performance, just being the Prairie girl that I am. I love the Prairies; always have. I've spent time in other places, but I just seem to feel at home in the North American Plains. My family is from the Prairies, and I loved hearing stories of how they grew up. I loved learning to drive on gravel roads with my dad when I was eight years old; going to explore old farmhouses and barns; looking for teepee rings. My dad had a collection of arrowheads and I was fascinated by them, and fossils and stuff like that. They gave me an appreciation of history. Those are the kinds of things I really loved and still do, so I guess it weaves into my art. It's not the biggest or only part of it, but it's found its way into my art because a big thing for me is writing about what I know, then turning that into something that might be engaging for an audience, wherever that audience might be.”
Her performances borrow from history, too: Higgins takes it for granted that her job is to entertain, and that making people laugh, dance and forget their troubles is a worthy task.
“Something I learned from theatre school was: 'Leave the rest of the world at the door, come in and be in the moment, and tell your story,'” she explains. “And that helps when I'm on stage. I'm here in this moment, and these people, they're here to listen and watch, and that's the most important thing right now.”
Thu, Sept 26 (7 pm)
Little Miss Higgins & the Winnipeg Five