Hay Fever is a bluegrass ensemble whose members grew up under the same yawning Canadian prairie sky but with wildly different musical upbringings. Their union in studio and on stage has produced a dynamic, peerless sound: naked and yearning at turns, bright and plucky at others, coloured with jazz, blues, folk and rock influences.
The band formed in 2015 with Zohreh Gervais combining her fiddling and vocals with Maddy Hildebrand’s upright bass. They later filled out their rich sound with Greg Hay (banjo, dobro, mandolin and fiddle), Mason Melle (vocals and guitar) and Ameena Bajer-Koulack (fiddle and banjo).
In their debut album The River, a collection of dark acoustic folk songs tinged with blues, Hay Fever explores the physical and emotional landscape of the Canadian prairies, unafraid to peer into the more troubling corners of the human experience.
With a sound that evokes Levon Helm and the Andrews Sisters, The River contemplates the loneliness that creeps into a mature marriage, the thanklessness of motherhood and all the uncertainties one must face after losing a partner.
The starting point for every track was the simple act of storytelling, Gervais says. “We wanted to showcase certain instruments but our goal was foremost to let the words come through so the stories could be heard.”
In the charging fiddle-driven narrative “Old John,” Hay Fever reveals the grisly secrets hidden along the banks of the city’s rivers. In a time of infinite global crises, a parent offers their child gentle reassurance in “Sing Me to Sleep,” a modern lullaby with honeyed harmonies backed by soothing, spare guitar.
The texture and depth in Hay Fever’s instrumentals comes from its members’ eclectic backgrounds, which combine to create a soulful and timeless bluegrass sound.
Gervais, a Franco-Albertan, is a classically trained violinist and singer from Spruce Grove, Alberta. After studying music into adulthood, she rejected the perfectionist nature of her practice, instead gravitating towards the experimental nature of jazz, the storytelling tradition of old work songs and the appealing imperfection of fiddling.
Melle came from a punk and hardcore background, but after many long drives around his hometown of Weyburn, Saskatchewan with nothing but big sky, flat land and his car’s stereo, he discovered the poetry in folk and roots rock. After starting and dropping lessons in piano and saxophone, he unlocked the sound he was looking for after learning his first guitar chords.
While Bajer-Koulack was trained in classical violin and piano when growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, her childhood exposure to 1930s jazz violin legends such as Stephane Grappelli and excursions with her father to fiddle jamborees in Northern Manitoba made her trade her more traditional strings for a fiddle and a banjo.
Raised in Steinbach, Manitoba, Hildebrand’s adolescence was steeped in Mennonite church hymns and old-time gospel, which have influenced Hay Fever’s sound. She plays bass guitar in the band but is an accomplished pianist who performs solo and with chamber music ensembles.
Hay, a violist with the Winnipeg Symphony, has toured North and South America and Europe. He grew up in Brandon, Manitoba playing violin but yearned for exposure to other instruments, to more unexpected sounds. After dabbling in piano and guitar like many of his peers, he moved to Winnipeg and on to the more unusual: the viola, mandolin, banjo and dobro.