There is no denying that an artist is a reflection of their environment, and the harsh beauty of rural Manitoba is at the heart of Jess Reimer’s work. She has been one of the Winnipeg roots music scene’s best-kept secrets for several years, but with her new album, The Nightjar and The Garden, Jess is set to have the wider world embrace her.
With a voice that combines the grittiness of Lucinda Williams with the pure power of Neko Case, it’s hardly a surprise that Jess attracted the attention of legendary Blue Rodeo founding keyboardist (and Manitoba native) Bob Wiseman, who produced The Nightjar and The Garden. Wiseman’s fondness of vintage sounds and a live approach in the studio emphasizes the raw beauty of Jess’ vocals, as well as the wide range of emotions in her songwriting, from the hard twang of “Maggie The Retriever (Bang Bang)” to the gospel-infused “I Want To Believe.”
There are many moments on the album, such as her interpretation of Warren Zevon’s “Heartache Spoken Here,” where Jess sounds as if she’s on stage at the Grand Ole Opry circa 1963, while at other times she fearlessly expresses her thoughts on current events, as in “The Lonesome Death Of Troy Davis” and her soaring version of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power.” The complete picture of The Nightjar and The Garden displays an artist with many facets, unwaveringly connected to the soul of North American music, much like the album’s special guest, Ron Sexsmith, who contributes harmony vocals on several tracks.
As Jess explains about one of the album’s most affecting songs, “Whippoorwill,” “A nightjar is a family of birds the whippoorwill belongs to. The whippoorwill is known as an omen of death or hardship and sings at dusk. It is supposed to steal souls before they have a chance to move on to the afterlife. I like to believe that’s why Hank Williams and other country artists sang about it.”
Jess’ timeless qualities stem directly from singing and performing country and gospel songs practically since birth. In fact, her childhood could have been the basis for a folk song. She was born in a northern Manitoba mining town on the Burntwood River, and spent her first five years in a house her father, Doug, built with his own hands. As her grandmother loved to say, from the moment Jess could speak, she would make up songs about what she’d seen and done that day.
Her family eventually moved to Winkler, Manitoba, south of Winnipeg on the western edge of the Red River Valley, where Jess’ path toward becoming a singer/songwriter became clear by her teen years, with encouragement from her father, an English Literature professor and bluegrass fanatic. “I never felt any huge repressive weight from my parents,” Jess says. “It was so easy to be a rebel in a small southern Manitoba town, but at the same time I loved singing in our choir.”
She also loved singing with her father, and the pair was soon performing songs like Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe” and even Leonard Cohen’s “Joan Of Arc” at local gatherings. “We made a cassette tape in 1997,” Jess fondly remembers. “It was all traditional covers recorded on our front porch, called Bring It On Home. The two of us played a bunch of festivals that one summer, and it was a lot of fun.”
The following year, they expanded to a full band after Jess met her future husband Jer Hamm, a multi-instrumentalist and instrument builder (the couple now run their own guitar building school in La Riviere on the Pembina River), and Tim Osmond, renowned banjo player and co-founder of the Home Routes house concert organization. That group wrote a significant amount of original material and played many notable festivals, including Winnipeg Folk Festival, Ottawa Folk Festival, and the Stan Rogers Festival.
They recorded a couple of albums, but by 2010 Jess was feeling ready to go out on her own. “It was extremely difficult to make this change,” she says. “My dad and I were intertwined. I loved bluegrass, but it can be restrictive and I wanted to plug in a guitar once in a while. I still play shows with my father whenever we can, but it was time to do my own thing.”
In 2011, Jess formed a new band with Jer and ex-D.Rangers guitarist Chris Saywell, and recorded her first solo album, Sweet Darling and Sorrow, with Grant Siemens, known for his work with Corb Lund. While it retained a traditional style overall, the use of electric guitar and drums on a few tracks were in some ways a trial run for the fully realized country-rock sound of The Nightjar and The Garden, the seed of which was planted when Jess met Bob Wiseman at the Trout Forest Festival in northern Ontario.
“I hadn’t listened to his music, and when I heard it, I was a little skeptical of how we would work together,” Jess says. “I’d never met anyone like him; his great ideas just seemed endless. So I decided to just give him free reign. I sent him pretty much every song I had, and he responded to the ones that stimulated his interest. Almost every suggestion he made was something I would have never thought of, but liked. I really learned a lot making this record, greatly due to Bob.”
Although Wiseman was in charge behind the board, his decisions never compromised Reimer’s artistic vision, which also included commissioning her friend Neil Dyck to do the album’s cover painting. Unlike her previous recordings, she describes The Nightjar and The Garden as her first successful attempt to work out through songwriting some of her most daunting life experiences, dating back to her teenage years.
“The song ‘1,500 Appeals’ was started ten years ago and finished just before we made the album,” she says. “It’s about growing up in a small conservative town, young hormone-soaked love, sneaking around to be alone, and all that good stuff. ‘Whippoorwill’ is similar, and really about getting pregnant at a young age. I didn’t plan on this being such a personal record, but listening to it now I can hear that common thread. I guess the great lesson from all of this was learning how to trust my instincts.”
After making a stellar North By Northeast festival debut in 2014 with Wiseman accompanying her on keyboards (NOW Magazine’s Sarah Greene wrote, “She plays alt-country as it should be: original, engaging, low on the affectation and high on the musicianship, vocals, and songs”), Jess Reimer is ready to assume a rightful place among Canada’s best young roots music artists after a lifetime of preparation.
“Sometimes when things come too easy, it can be a problem,” she surmises. “That’s why I wanted to use the photos of me with my dog and the bow and arrow on the album. It’s part of the artistic tradition dating back to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. The bow and arrow symbolizes longing and dogs symbolize loyalty, and I think a lot of my music combines those two things. My life has always been about finding a balance between my restless spirit and my love of family and home.”