If you were paying any attention at all to the Canadian music scene at the turn of this century, you couldn't have missed the Ennis Sisters.
For a while, the three folksinging siblings were everywhere; they sold tons of records, they had their own Christmas special on CBC, and they won a prestigious Juno Award as the country's Best New Duo or Group.
Today, they are literally a duo and not a group—sisters Maureen and Karen Ennis from St. John's, Newfoundland. Teresa, the youngest, is no longer a part of the act (although she's still in Canada, handling her sisters' business affairs, and still performs with the family on occasion).
The group is now called Ennis, and they're co-headlining the 2014 Savannah Irish Festival, along with returning champions Seven Nations and Mairtin O'Corgain's Pure Drop (both of whom have been interviewed over the years in these pages).
There are three stages, including one dedicated to music and performances for children.
Although Ennis briefly flirted with a more complex sound (there are some fantastic videos on YouTube), these days it's a sweet and supple, mostly acoustic, purely Celtic vibe. Maureen Ennis, in particular, has an ethereal alto singing voice, and Karen sings harmony, plays various instruments and step-dances like the proverbial banshee.
Ennis, incidentally, is Gaelic for "island."
When we reached out to Maureen, she and Karen were somewhere in the Caribbean, on a "Folk 'n Irish" cruise with Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies. We conducted this interview via e-mail when the ship docked somewhere with a wi-fi connection.
CS: First, about your family: I confess I know absolutely nothing about Newfoundland, so did you live in a little town or a big city?
Maureen Ennis: We spent the week going to school in St. John's and spent every weekend and holiday in a small community about 45 minutes out of town called Cape Broyle. We don't consider ourselves "townies." We prefer to think of ourselves as "shore girls."
CS: Was it a musical family—musical parents who encouraged you guys to write and sing together, that sort of thing? A Mom, Dad and Kids Singing Family? Tell me about it?
Maureen Ennis: I can't remember a time when music wasn't a huge part of my life. It's in every memory I have. Our dad plays the button accordion —a very traditional NL instrument. Karen learned a lot of her tunes from him. I learned to play guitar by playing along with him. Our mother plays the piano and she plays a little guitar. They passed on their love of music to the three of us.
We were encouraged to follow whatever made us the happiest in the world. It just happened to be music. They did everything to ensure we experienced it to the fullest.
CS: Do you think the Ennis Sisters' early success in Canada was a good thing, or a detriment in the long run? In other words, were you forced to grow up too soon?
Maureen Ennis: We were very fortunate to experience the music industry together as a family. Our parents protected us from the darker side of the industry early on in our careers. Our dad was our manager. They were on the road with us at all points. When they stopped traveling with us, we had a good understanding of the business and what was expected of us to maintain a career. They kept us very grounded. Through all of our success we never lost sight of what we were doing. We were singing music and having a lot of fun doing so. We've seen all sides of this industry and we've been fortunate to settle into a really great place within it.
We've met so many amazing people and seen some pretty cool places along our way.
We'll never stop learning and growing inside this career. Just when we think we have a handle on it, something will change and we'll need to come at it from another angle. Just like in any other business.
We're still having fun performing and seeing the world because of our music.We always say that when it stops being fun, that's when we'll stop doing this. We get along really well and we work great together. We have so much to be grateful for.
CS: How did you come by your interest in Celtic music and culture?
Maureen Ennis: Our mother and father listened to Irish/Newfoundland folk music. We grew up surrounded by Celtic music and the wonderful culture that accompanies it. We just naturally gravitated to that style of music for what we do.
CS: And how did you decide who was going to dance in the stage show, and who was going to play tin whistle, bodhran et cetera?
Maureen Ennis: Everything happened very organically for us in that regard. I always played the guitar and wrote the songs. Karen loved to dance and she played flute in her school band. We never sat down and assigned roles as such. We just took on the roles that best suited us.
CS: Why did the change happen, when Teresa left, and why change the name? Was that to signify a new sort of direction?
Maureen Ennis: We were throwing around dropping the "sisters" part from the band name for a few years. When Teresa left the group, we decided to try it out. We started off singing folk music in the beginning. We tried a more commercial route for a while. We don't regret a single second of our journey. It made us the musicians and business women we are today.
CS: Tell me about your live show and your band. What can we look forward to?
Maureen Ennis: We are touring right now as a three-piece. Our band is Karen and me and our longtime bandmate, Mark Murphy. We will be singing songs about and from our home in Newfoundland. We will be singing songs and telling stories that show our strong connection to Ireland. Karen will be performing her humorous recitations, and of course she will be bringing her wit and charm along with her throughout our show.
Karen sings and plays the tin whistle and the bodhran. Mark is an amazing singer. He also plays the cajon.
I play the guitar and sing the lead vocal. Mark and I wrote most of the songs we sing in our show which can be found on the CDs we have with us.
Our show will make you cry and laugh. We'll help you forget your worries for a while. :)
Savannah Irish Festival
Where: Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: Feb. 15 & 16
Tickets: $12 (good Saturday or Sunday); $16 both days. Under 14 free. Free Sunday active duty military and family, and/or college students. (Valid ID)
Full schedule: savannahirish.org
10:15 Opening Ceremony; 11:45 Glor na Daire Dancers; 12:45 Na Fidleiri; 1:45 Ennis; 2:45 Brendan Nolan; 3:45 Irish Dancers of Savannah; 4:45 The Pure Drop; 5:45 Savannah Ceili Band; 6:30 Seven Nations
Noon Irish Dancers of Savannah; 1 p.m. Brendan Nolan; 2 p.m. Ennis; 3 p.m. Glor na Daire Dancers; 4 p.m. The Pure Drop; 5 p.m. Savannah Ceili Band