Little Miss Higgins
Struttin in the Shoe Shop
by Levi Soulodre
August 4, 2009
Try to forget for a minute about pop-plasticized, technology-tuned songs that span the sound waves of your latest cell phone model, or that are used in the current iTunes commercial. Little Miss Higgins, along with rhythm guitarist Foy Taylor, are out to create music that brings their listeners back to a simpler and more ‘hands on’ era of musical style and recording. The proof is in their excellently constructed debut full-length CD, the lovable Cobbler Shop Sessions, which after nearly a year in production saw its official release on October 27th of 2005. The album features a distinct type of music, reminiscent of early twentieth-century country & blues, while also incorporating folk, jazz and rockabilly vibes. Although some might write this particular style off as being from a bygone era, Little Miss Higgins and her bandmates bring a renewed sense of importance to the sound.
She stresses more than once: “music transcends the borders of time.” While this is a pivotal focus defining the group’s musical ideology, this becomes even more important given the fact that the Nokomis, Saskatchewan-based Little Miss Higgins writes and performs music that - although it may sound as if it has time-traveled from the early twentieth century - remains fresh and engaging in today’s fast-paced and digitally swamped music medium. Simply put, theirs is a sound that is seeped in nostalgic feel and swagger, yet remains as relevant and pertinent today as it was back then.
Their sound is attracting quite a diverse fan base. Rhythm guitarist Foy Taylor says, “A wide range of people are attracted to (our) music. However, a lot of people aren’t used to this type of blues.” This is an important trend, especially when today’s main approach in popular rock music, for example, concerns the revival of ‘60s/‘70s garage rock and pop. In any case, Little Miss Higgins is doing their part in capturing the spirit and essence of this music, which paradoxically is rekindling its light to life and finding many new listeners in many places.
Little Miss herself recalls that she’s had “music all (her) life”. She began playing the piano, then switched to the guitar in her teenage years. Her listening tastes were whetted with the folk persona and storytelling of Joni Mitchell. Little Miss Higgins then discovered the voices of Maria Muldaur, Billie Holliday and one of her largest influences, Memphis Minnie, who is one of the 20th century’s most influential female country & blues singers. Combined with a love of musical theatre, Little Miss Higgins has developed her own sweet, distinct voice, which calls up her influences but does not merely imitate them.
Studying in Regina, she met Foy at an open stage, where they found they shared a love for the same type of music. This pushed them to start performing together sometime in late 2002. The performing lineup for Cobbler Shop Sessions includes Little Miss and Foy, as well as drummer Melodi ‘Pistol’ Hawkesford and a special guest appearance by Big Dave McLean, who lent his musical talents to the mix as well. Today, the band has welcomed the addition of a bassist, Chris Prpich, whom they deem “the most handsome Croatian in the room.” Before the first album, Little Miss had also recorded a solo demo with Dave Lang.
Cobbler Shop Sessions was not created in any normal recording environment; instead of taking their songs to a contemporary studio, the band established themselves in an actual cobbler shop, which was built in the 1930s and is located in Meacham, Saskatchewan, 45 minutes east of Saskatoon. Although it originally existed as a shoe-repair shop, it has experienced many transformations over the years. Foy relates that the building still bears “the original wood floor, and you can still see where the old main counter was.” The decision to record there came after Little Miss became acquainted with Ley Ward and Flo Frank, who have based their studio EON music out of the shop. Flo, who had previously worked with Foy, mentioned EON studios to him around 2003, and LMH decided to partner up for the debut album.
Even before beginning the recording process, the group literally “helped bring the studio up” with EON Music. LMH then made use of Ley’s recording knowledge, as “(he) brought alternative techniques to the table,” Foy explains. 'Raw' is a key term the band bounces around in how they wanted their album to sound. In recording vocals, the warm, comforting tones of a tube microphone was used to capture the charming intricacies of Little Miss’ voice. The group stresses that a live approach was used for the recordings on every song, save for very few voice harmonies and bass guitar overdubs. Foy explains how Ley employed an old ‘30s method of recording by setting two stereo microphones perpendicular to the voice microphone, which helped crystallize the intimacy of the voice setting, all the while enjoying the roomy, natural sounds of live instruments off the floor. In all, LMH tried to remain as close as possible to the recording manners that their predecessors employed, while enjoying the conveniences of modern technology to reproduce their nostalgic sound within a cleaner, clearer and more workable context. As Foy puts it, the recordings employed “old analog equipment through a Macintosh computer.” Foy continues, “we wanted the album to sound as if people were hearing us live - a natural sound.”
Where many musical acts today struggle to reproduce their studio sound in a live setting, Little Miss Higgins undoubtedly has achieved this, which will further their successes on stage and within the group as a whole. This process, however, came at the cost of hard work and many months spent in the studio. Foy recalls that tracking occurred between November of 2004 and the beginning of March 2005. The disc was completed and ready to please ears as it was shipped off to Canada Disc & Tape for manufacturing in June 2005.
In order to recreate the sounds of ‘30s and ‘40s country-style blues both live and on the album, Little Miss and Foy pull no stops in employing the use of vintage guitars and custom-fabricated amplification. Both enthusiastically praise the work of Brian Hart, the creator of HEB Cabinets. He aided LMH in creating custom-made speaker boxes which aid in producing the warmest, homegrown tones. The duo explains that although Brian (who works out of White City, eighteen kilometers out of Regina) specializes in the construction of 2x12 cabinets, he helped LMH design their own special, high-quality birch plywood-based cabinet boxes. (Cobbler Shop Sessions offers a glimpse of these cabinets in one of the liner note photographs). According to Foy, the cabinets were designed from scratch, and took six months to build. “Hart was willing to go there for us,” he happily adds. The cabs, outfitted with Eminence speakers, are also adorned with tweed fabric ordered from the States. “We wanted them designed almost like old radios,” Little Miss offers. The HEBs are plugged into their Fender Blues Juniors, which provide the amplification. The group also employs some interesting guitars; Little Miss plays a Kay guitar, which “probably comes from the early ‘60s”, she guesses, jovially adding, “it’s an old Sears-Roebuck guitar.” Foy uses a Jazz Harmony, which is equipped with nickel-plated Dearmond pickups, as well as a Silvertone. He explains that the quasi-archaic pickups on these guitars are, in essence, beneficial to LMH’s music; “The limitations of these old pickups bring a certain style and charm to the sound,” he explains.
Little Miss clarifies that, although the music is rooted in the elements of early country & blues, her lyrical content stems from her everyday life and surroundings. “I write music from experiences around me today,” she explains. Foy recalls that blues player Tim Williams once stated, “their recording branches Tom Waits and Memphis Minnie.” Indeed, a listener not familiar with their style of music might be fooled (having not seen the date of release) into believing that these recordings were actually from the ‘40s. In particular, songs like "Radville" and "Ferry Boat Blues" sound as if they would have complemented any popular soda shop jukebox. "How & Why & When", penned by Little Miss Higgins, and one of the album’s most melodic and catchy tunes, flows with a romantic innocence which recalls the good ol’ days of teenage courtship.
Both Foy and Little Miss Higgins talk excitedly about Big Dave McLean’s role on the album. “He’s such a wonderful, natural musician,” Little Miss says. Interestingly, they explain that the particular arrangement of "Radville" (as heard on the album) was principally fashioned around Big Dave’s harmonica solo. In terms of musical roles, Little Miss plays the majority of leads, while Foy is comfortable “filling in the role for rhythm guitars.” However, Little Miss nicely adds that Foy does his share of lead licking, as featured on "Slaughterhouse". Nevertheless, as a duo they’re both happy within their respective roles; Foy on rhythm and Little Miss on lead and rhythm. They also share some enjoyable vocal duets, as on "She Wouldn’t Give Me None". This interplay creates a very fun atmosphere, which allows their songs to prosper and blossom out of a bygone era into today’s ears. Little Miss does the majority of songwriting, but the album also contains covers of artists like Memphis Minnie and Bob Dylan, painting a worthy homage to their musical forerunners. Although an overall soothing and calming gloss coats the album, it rocks as well! Favourites like "Jimmy Jube-Jube Strut" and "I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuits" storm along with horse-and-buggy-like drum chugging, while Little Miss and Foy show that they aren’t afraid to let their songs run loose.
In terms of performing preferences, Little Miss quickly responds, “I like it all!” They enjoy playing everything from house parties to big stages. Fortunately, they add that they’re equipped with a self-contained PA system, so that they can bring their live show to life just about anywhere they want (bookers and readers take note!) LMH also states that there is already a growing demand for new recordings. “This eagerness,” Foy explains, “helped solidify us for a new album; there definitely is enough material for a second album now.” However, rather than jumping into the studio (or shoe-repair shop) again, LMH is keen on focusing their energies on promoting Cobbler Shop Sessions, and rightfully so; the album is an overall terrific achievement which spans both the catchy, nostalgic qualities of early country & blues with the strength of quality songwriting. Combined with a very unique recording experience, Cobbler Shop Sessions is sure to turn more than just a few heads, especially with people who are not familiar with this style of music. LMH is scheduled to perform at the Brass Monkey in Saskatoon on March 17th and 18th, and are planning to tour Alberta in June, making their way to Yellowknife for the summer folk festival circuit. The group is also ecstatic about having being commissioned to perform live music for the entirety of the run of ‘Oh, George!’, a ‘30s vaudeville-esque comedic play which is running at Regina’s Globe Theatre, from its opening night on April 27th until May 13th. It’s a perfect opportunity for LMH, as “the music and play are intertwined,” Foy says. Undoubtedly, this will gain them many new fans as well.
When asked what they would do if they could travel back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, Foy responds, “I’d like to go back and get some of the guitars!” Little Miss excitedly says, “I’d like to go back and get some of the clothes!” It’s easy to imagine that LMH really did come from the past to make music for today’s audiences. It practically seems that way, in any case!