Singer and songwriter Jolene Higgins, a.k.a Little Miss Higgins, understands the importance of history. Born in Independence, Kansas but raised in B.C. and now residing in Saskatchewan, Higgins takes inspiration for her spirited and highly infectious music from some of the biggest legends in jazz, country and blues. It’s a philosophy that works: as a musician, she’s been hailed as a “favourite new discovery” and her latest album, Junction City, was nominated for Blues Album of the Year at the 2008 Juno Awards.
With the accolades and recognition, Little Miss Higgins has preferred to keep a low profile, residing in the small town of Nokomis, Saskatchewan (population: 400). She feels at home tending to her garden, curling up to a good book, or just taking in the idyllic charms of small town life. But sounds of passing trains and ever-changing prairie weather are also inspirations, helping her to weave the intimate and grand in her country blues sound.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
WC: What is your earliest musical memory?
JH: I remember my dad bringing a grand piano from the bar down the street from where we lived in Independence, Kansas. When it came to the house, I remember saying that it was my piano and I even carved my name into the side of it.
WC: When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician?
JH: It wasn’t an actual realization, it was just always a part of my life and it seemed to continue being a part of my life no matter what I did. It seemed to be the easiest thing to do!
WC: What are your influences as a singer and songwriter?
JH: Well, when I was a teenager, I started playing guitar and I wasn’t really listening to a lot of what my friends were listening to. You know, like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, which all are fabulous bands, but I was listening to a lot of folk-songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. I was really drawn to it because of the lyrics. That’s when I started trying to find out who those people were influenced by, so I kept going back in time to the early history of jazz and the blues from the ’40s and even earlier than that.
WC: What did you discover going back that far?
JH: I gravitated a lot to Billie Holiday and her singing. But I also found a musician by the name of Memphis Minnie, who was an amazing singer, songwriter and guitar player. Luckily she had a record deal so a lot of her music was recorded and available so she really influenced me, especially with my guitar playing and songwriting.
THE HIGGINS SOUND
WC: How would you describe your music to people who may have never heard it before?
JH: It’s rooted in that old country blues, with a little bit of jazz and country, and a little bit of folk. There’s also a theatrical element to it I think.
WC: Do you feel like you’re showcasing music that most people may not be exposed to?
JH: Yeah, definitely. People are always interested in classical music and traditional country music, so I think this is another style of music that is terrific and rich in history. I think a lot of bands now are returning to the roots of music because of how important it is. People still want to hear it, I think, so if I can contribute to that then I feel good about it.
WC: Do you incorporate your theatre background and training into your music?
JH: I studied theatre and performance straight out of high school. I did some acting and I think it definitely gives me confidence as a performer on stage. I bring that to the music as well, so that I’m bringing both elements together. I like to tell stories as well as play music. The fans seem to like it.
WC: Do you think there’s something specific about your personality that helps you write and perform?
JH: I’ve always remembered what my parents taught me about appreciating and respecting things from the past and tradition. I always loved the stories my parents told about, you know, growing up because it was so different than the world right now. Especially when you think of how hectic and modern life is, so I think that I really try to maintain that part of my life and appreciate things that have been used in the past, including music.
WC: Do you have a rigid schedule or do you write whenever you feel inspired?
JH: Well, when I’m on the road it’s hard to keep to a schedule so I don’t do a lot of writing, I just try to do it whenever I can. When I’m at home, I try to have a schedule where I do yoga and writing and I try do that every day. I may not use all the stuff I write but it’s just in case something comes along that may be useful. It’s a good habit to get into, I think.
WC: When you’re writing a song, does the melody come first, or are there excerpts of music that get into your head?
JH: There’s usually no rhyme or reason for me. I will come up with a little melody or I’ll come up with a lyric or something on the guitar. It usually starts from there and then I start building it up. For me, the important thing is to be open to the experience and recognizing it and using it, whatever it might be, whether it’s on the guitar or on my notepad.
WC: You have a working relationship with Foy Taylor, your partner. Is that partnership a collaborative effort or do you guys work independently and then meet in the middle?
JH: Yeah, we spend so much time together that I like to have my time to just write and practice on my own. We then come together to perform and occasionally we’ll collaborate on a song.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
WC: How often are you on the road?
JH: Right now our booking agent in Ontario keeps us pretty busy, which is great. We’re on the road but we take some time off here and there to write and work on some new material. We’re hoping to record this coming fall. The summer will be busier with various music festivals. I’ve never really figured out how much we’re on the road and how much we’re off. We usually go between two to five weeks on the road to a couple of weeks at home, or a couple of months at home. It depends on what we’re focusing on at the time. If we’re focusing on touring then we’ll have a lot more shows and we scale it back when I’m more focused on writing.
WC: What’s a typical day like for you when you’re not working?
JH: When I’m at home in Nokomis, I like to do yoga as much as I can. I try to do it on the road as well but it’s a lot more difficult. I do a lot of gardening when I’m at home. I have a huge vegetable garden, and even though we go on the road a lot, we just toss a bunch of seeds in the ground and wish them luck. When I get back home, I’ll do the weeding and harvesting, you know, in order to really appreciate that aspect of life.
WC: It all sounds very relaxing.
JH: It’s actually really busy and hard work but it’s good work, you know. It’s that kind of work that just makes me feel good. I’m the kind of person that has a hard time relaxing, so I’m always busy doing things. I crochet in the van when we’re traveling or on the airplane in between shows. And I love to read when I get the chance.
WC: What are you reading right now?
JH: I’m reading a book called Louis Riel: A Comic Strip by Chester Brown. It’s a biography about Louis Riel but it’s done in a comic-strip style and it’s a brilliant book. They should have taught this book while I was in school.
WC: You’re currently living in Nokomis, Saskatchewan. Do you think that small town life influences your music in any way?
JH: Oh, absolutely. As a singer and songwriter, I take some of my life experience and sing about that so definitely my surroundings play a big part of that. I draw influence from where I live. It’s definitely snuck its way into my songs.
WC: Do you have a favourite city to perform in?
JH: That’s a tough one! Saskatoon would have be one of my favourite cities. It’s such a great music city and the people who come out are amazing. It’s always a good time in Saskatoon. We also went to Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival and that was an amazing time. The city has great clubs and great food. I guess when I’m home, Saskatoon is my favourite but internationally is Austin, right now. But we’re heading overseas in the fall.
WC: You’re offering a lot of songs for download on your website and on your Myspace page. Are you on board and embracing the digital revolution in music?
JH: I’m trying to be. I’m trying to get myself more involved in that but I don’t have a lot of knowledge in that area. I’m hoping that with the next album, I can have people help me contribute more so I can finally really embrace it. I’m open to it, though. I have faith in the actual CD but I definitely want to embrace the digital world because that’s where a lot of people are finding music. It’s great especially with independent artists who want to reach audiences. We’ve made a lot of fans through the Internet so it definitely helps.
WC: What’s coming up for you in the future?
JH: We’re hoping to record new material for the album in late fall. In the meantime, we recorded our live show in Saskatoon and we’re going to do the same thing in Calgary as well. We’re hoping to release a live album before our latest studio album. It’s cool.—Richard Saad