The Duhks Take Wing

Canadian Folk Band Find Success With "Mists of Down Below"

When the Duhks came together in early 2002, founder Leonard Podolak had a very basic notion about what he was looking for: “a really fun dance band playing traditional kinds of music.”

In search of that vibe, the ambitious banjo player tracked down a raspy rock singer, an introspective guitar-builder, a freethinking fiddler and a salsa drummer. Despite the variety of influences and personalities — or more likely because of it — the ensemble immediately clicked.

“I didn’t even really know the scope and the breadth of the musicians that I had recruited,” Podolak admits now. “And also, to a certain extent, we’re all discovering that scope and discovering what we each have and what we can bring.”

After numerous shows on the folk circuit in western Canada, they signed with Sugar Hill (after releasing a project on their own) and filmed an eerie music video for “Mists of Down Below” at a Toronto mental institution. The song was written from the perspective of a migrating duck, but the video conjures an uneasy sense of darkness and lost souls.

However, it’s quite the opposite scene on the day of the interview, as Podolak and guitarist Jordan McConnell are soaking up the sun on the patio of a Nashville coffeehouse just across the street from Belmont University. The night before, they wrapped a five-week tour, one of their shortest stretches this year.

“I can barely even remember the beginning of it,” McConnell says, still waking up. “Where did we start off?”

“We started off in Cleveland,” says Podolak, who has already had his coffee. “We did a few gigs in Ohio, then we went to a few gigs in Pennsylvania.”

“New York was fun,” McConnell interjects. “MerleFest.”

And now that it’s summer, they’ll hit the festival circuit: Telluride, High Sierra, Bumbershoot, Strawberry Festival and Springfest in the U.S., as well as the Cambridge Folk Festival in the U.K. and the Tonder Festival in Denmark.

“To have that all in one year,” Podolak says. “It’s crazy. It feels like we’re getting a lot of props and a lot of respect. … When we were making the record, I was like, ‘I know this is going to do us well because I’ve never heard a record like this before. I’ve never made a record like this before.’ There was this feeling that something cool was happening, and it sure was.”

Podolak’s parents founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival — the band is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba — and his family often hosted musicians in their home. Jessica Havey, now the Duhks’ vocalist, has known Podolak her whole life because her mom was actively involved with the festival. Havey’s uncle also lived with Podolak’s family at one point.

Meanwhile, when McConnell graduated from high school, he was too burned out for college. Instead, he studied as a luthier for seven weeks with a teacher in Saskatchewan and plays his handcrafted guitar on stage.

“It totally energized me and gave me a new direction to focus on,” he says about the class. “I loved it and took to it really quickly as well. It seemed like a natural thing for me to be doing, for some reason. Right away, I thought that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life. It’s like a craft and something you can pursue for the rest of your life and still not know everything there is to know about it, by a long shot. I was really excited to start following that path.”

He started a workshop in his hometown, then decided to hone his craft in Spain. When he ultimately returned to Canada, Podolak persuaded him to join the Duhks. (McDonnell had once toured for a few weeks with Podolak’s previous band, Scruj MacDuhk.)

Flattery, as some say, will get you everywhere.

“I said to him, ‘Brother, you’re a beautiful guitar builder. And you have a natural talent that is unbelievable.’ But I also said, ‘You’re also a natural guitar player, and you’ll be able to build guitars for your entire life. But the time for this … is now!’”

Podolak cracks up at the memory. “And he went with it, man! I love him for it. I really do. We were actually just talking about that before we got here and how happy we are and how much we love and trust each other.”

Fiddler Tania Elizabeth joined after a call from Podolak although she already had a solo career going. Not keen on constant touring, the original drummer suggested percussionist Scott Senior, whose instruments and rhythms come from all over the world. Together, the young quintet — whose ages range from 21 to 29 — hit the highways, blending Celtic music with world music with nods to bluegrass and folk music.

The band hired eclectic banjoist Bela Fleck to produce their new album in Nashville, with assistance from Gary Paczosa, known for his studio work with acoustic ensembles like Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek and the Greencards. In addition to their own material, they included songs written by Paul Brady, Leonard Cohen and Sting.

“The funny thing is, there’s not one sound that we all like,” McConnell says. “The coolest thing about it is, we all have different ideas and nobody says, ‘That doesn’t work.’ … I mean, what sounds right to Scott, when he does these crazy polyrhythms. Like, Afro-Cuban – I don’t even know what they are half the time.”

“It usually sounds pretty damn good!” Podolak says.

“It usually sounds good,” McConnell continues, “but sometimes it’s like, ‘That’s really weird.’ But he’s really into it, so we just roll with it. Eventually, everybody starts to understand what’s happening. Everybody just trusts everybody else to do their own thing, and lets it all comes together.”