Chenille Sisters still finding their unique groove
This is another one of those “where did the years go” observations: Ann Arbor’s beloved Chenille Sisters have now been together for more than a quarter century.
They celebrated their 25th anniversary as a group in 2010, which means they’re now well into their 28th year together.
During that time, they’ve gone from performing and recording on a part-time basis while still working at their day jobs, to quitting those jobs and devoting themselves to music full time—and then back to their daytime careers and performing part-time. Such are the vagaries of the music industry—and, more to the point, the Michigan economy.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the Chenilles’ commitment to their craft—and to their eclectic mix of vintage jazz, folk music and comedy. Not to mention their pristine, often complex vocal harmonies, which sometimes recall the minor-key discordance of the Roches’ similarly intricate harmony arrangements.
And, throughout, they’ve resisted any temptations to pursue a more “commercial” sound.
“No, we’ve never been interested in going in a mainstream direction,” says Grace Morand, who has been called the “more boisterous” of the three Chenilles—the others being Connie Huber and Cheryl Dawdy. The group had been scheduled to perform at The Ark on Friday, but had to cancel due to illness.
“I like that we don’t make simple music, and that much of it is jazz-tinged and unusual—and that we have a big ‘quirk’ factor: One minute we’re being really silly, and then the next minute, we’re singing a song about a friend who died, and then we’re doing vintage jazz—and that it’s all driven by the vocal harmonies. We like to switch gears a lot, and we always have.
“And we like doing songs that are smart, and literate, and that often tell stories—it’s not just ‘baby, baby, ooh.’ Not that I don’t LIKE ‘baby baby ooh’ sometimes—there’s a place for that—but that’s not what we do. And I like that we have an audience that appreciates that.
“The only people who’ve had a problem with that in the past are the people who’ve tried to market us. Like, one time, I was in a Best Buy, and the category they put our CDs in was ‘Miscellaneous.’ I laughed out loud. I thought, ‘Gee, thanks for THAT validation.’ You’d think they would have at least put us in the ‘Vocal’ category,” she adds with a hearty laugh.
The Chenilles performed their first show together in March of 1985, and by 1986, they were so popular that Morand recalls making several trips to the old Schoolkids Records shop, lugging boxes full of the group’s then-new album. Eventually, they got so many bookings that they quit their day jobs and began touring the country, doing 100 shows a year at the peak of their popularity.
In the late ‘80s, they were employing wacky, ornate stage sets, which at one time included a 30-foot-long pink Cadillac that ferried them on and off stage. (One of their more popular songs was their their sassy interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Pink Cadillac.”
But when the economy in Michigan started to go into its downward spiral in around 2002, they found that they were getting fewer gigs, because the performing arts centers were booking fewer shows in general. So, the three Chenilles went back to their former daytime careers—first part-time, then full-time. Morand is a hair stylist, Huber is a speech therapist for the Washtenaw County Schools, and Dawdy is a grant writer.
Over the years, the Chenilles have done many amusing song parodies. In the '80s, they took the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” and turned it into “Walk Like a Beautician,” which was augmented onstage by their use of combs, brushes and blow dryers for “percussion.” And they re-worked Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” into a hilarious “What’s Chub Got To Do With It”—during which Huber stuffed a cupcake into her mouth while trying—usually with no success—to suppress her laughter.
One more recent parody is “Blowin’ in the Wind: The Female Perspective,” in which the Chenilles take Bob Dylan’s legendary anthem of social change and flip it into a comic litany of the things men do that aggravate women.
Several years ago, the Chenilles also found a passion for tracking down and working up their own versions of vintage jazz tunes written by female songwriters, mostly from the ‘30s—like Dorothy Fields’ “Pick Yourself Up,” Nelley Lutcher’s ‘Hurry On Down” and Una Mae Carlisle’s “Walking by the River.”
“It just seemed like a natural direction for us,” says Morand. “From the time we started, one of our big inspirations were the sister groups, like the Andrews Sisters and Boswell Sisters, and we’ve also covered several of their songs. So, that eventually led us to want to find these great old songs written by women—and these songs have the most beautiful melodies, and lyrics that still hold up today.”
The Chenilles planned to break out a couple of new covers at the now-canceled Ark show, says Morand, speaking before the cancellation. “One is a funny song, and the other involves the ‘kitchen percussion’ that we’ve done over the years.” She’s referring to the fact that she and Dawdy have often accompanied Huber’s guitar playing by using odd kitchen utensils as percussion instruments—like Morand “playing” a taco turner, and Dawdy playing a banana slicer. They’ve also shaken jars of unpopped popcorn to percussive effect.
But back to the group now doing music on a part-time basis—they do about two shows a month—and going back to their daytime careers: Morand remembers doing gigs that weren’t so much fun when they were relying on music bookings for their living—like singing at supermarket openings.
“But now that we’re not doing it full-time, we can pick and choose when and where we want to perform, so the shows are more special. Now, performing for audiences is more precious—and it’s always fun.”
Kevin Ransom is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com