Ennis Sisters’ Christmas Gift
Sisters Bring Music, Donations, New Album on Provincial Tour
By Ryan Belbin
As long as they’ve been making music together, sisters Maureen, Karen, and Teresa Ennis have had no shortage of holiday spirit. With two Christmas albums of original materials and carols (Christmas on Ennis Road in 1998 and It’s Christmas in 2012), this year marks the Ennis Sisters’ fifth year of touring churches throughout Newfoundland for their “It’s Christmas” Tour.
“We actually got our start singing at Christmas Eve mass in Cape Broyle,” Karen recalls. “We were still very young, teenagers, and at the end of it, people stood up and gave us a standing ovation. To this day, that is one of the fondest memories that I have.”
Their latest tour has been a 21-date excursion across the island, with stops at places few tour buses visit, including Bird Cove on the Northern Peninsula and Tilting on Fogo Island. Getting to play in intimate settings in these spots is a big appeal to the sisters.
“This tour goes right back to the basics,” Karen explains, noting that they begin seeking sponsors in January so that the tour is able to return a significant portion of ticket sales to the communities along the way. The list of sponsors includes Subway, Delta Hotels, Compusult Computer Ltd., Newfoundland and Labrador Credit Union, and VOCM, as well as a growing list of local businesses helping to fill gift bags at each stop on the tour.
The Sisters are in the spotlight on stage, but it’s clear that the tour has grown into a massive cooperative effort.
“A lot of times, we’re going to communities where concerts of this magnitude don’t really go off, so it’s something very special, and these communities really get behind it. It’s really an event that means something. It’s what the spirit of Christmas is meant to be—people getting together, sharing music, laughter, and helping people,” says Karen.
That helping has an added personal touch this year. In 2008, the family lost a cousin to suicide, and have since become proponents for increased awareness of mental health issues in the province. The song “Sing You Home” on the 2009 release Lessons Learned is a tribute to him, and they are selling tickets on this tour for Maureen’s guitar, to be drawn for on Old Christmas Day, in their cousin Steve’s memory.
All the proceeds go to Think Twice, an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association geared at providing resources for teenagers.
“We knew that we wanted to raise money for mental health, especially at Christmas. I thought that [the program] was an incredible idea—in that crucial part of your life, before you go out in the world, to start to accept the fact that it’s OK to be unique, and if there’s something that you’re dealing with, to be given tools specifically for that particular issue. It happens there, instead of later on down the road,” Maureen explained.
“The Pines” by The Ennis Sisters
Next Stage for the Ennis Sisters
In addition to their Christmas music, the Ennis Sisters have been performing songs from Stages, their newest album released at the end of November. In part a reflection on the different stages of their own lives (“Summer of my Dreams” hearkens to a bygone childhood, “A Lullaby” embraces motherhood, and “Out from St. Leonard’s” is a re-recording of the song that helped launch the band in 1997), the album draws other subtler parallels.
“Generations of our family have used fishing stages,” Karen says.
“We work on a different kind of stage, talking about what they did on that stage,” Maureen adds.
Fans can expect strong harmonies, instrumentation ranging from bare-bones vocals in “Sailor’s Boots” to the full production of “The Pines,” and a blend of traditional tunes interspersed with personal lyrics about the journey thus far.
With many songs on the album reflecting on Newfoundland culture and memories, the Ennis Sisters also give a nod to the Irish folk tradition with “Red Haired Mary.” The song about a chance romantic encounter was re-written by Maureen to be told from the woman’s perspective, which led to an interesting discussion on how the band has approached the role of women in folk music.
“A lot of the female songs are very piney—the ones that I’ve heard, the topics are weaker, it’s waiting for the man to come home, or not being able to move on somehow. And I just refuse to sing it,” Maureen says. “I’m always looking for powerful women songs, and if they’re not there, I’m going to write it.”
“The songs we grew up with, they’re important to where we come from. My favourite memories, there’s [traditional folk music] playing. So I’m not going to shy away from it, I’m just going to present some of these songs in a more female-powerful way.”
Stages was produced by Maureen and Billy Sutton, no stranger to the traditional music scene in the province. This was the first time Maureen got to work directly with him from a production point of view, and made sure to get the most out of the learning experience.
“If I’m stuck on something, I’m blown away all the time with his ability to take something and make it new,” she says. “If I give him an hour, he’ll come back with something so amazing and fresh. Learning from Billy is an ongoing thing—we’re developing a cool musical relationship, where we can look at each other and go, ‘That isn’t really working,’ without getting into a big discussion on it.”
Some 20 years have passed since that first standing ovation in a church in Cape Broyle, and as far as the Ennis Sisters have taken their music and their lives, they haven’t lost sight of that place.
“You look at artists and the concept of being rich and famous, and you think that’s got to happen—but you get in the industry long enough, you realize that’s all just smoke and mirrors,” Karen says.
“At the end of the day, you’re just doing something you love. We’re here to make the world a better place than when we found it, and for us that vehicle is music and entertaining, and we just get so much joy out of being able to do that.”