Strong Roots (Roots Musicians Profiled): Zohreh Gervais, Hay Fever

by Krlmagi

I talk to two members of Hay Fever about songwriting, musical inspiration and Winnipeg's collaborative musical community.

Although the founding members of Hay Fever are classically trained musicians, they share a fascination with bluegrass. Zohreh Gervais started the band with the current bass player Maddy Hildebrand after a conversation they’d had. Zohreh says, “She liked the idea so we started off playing some tunes I’d written that weren’t really very bluegrass-y. We decided that we needed a banjo player at that point. That was when we found Greg (Hay)."

Greg adds, “Apparently we knew each other from doing an opera together but I don’t honestly remember too much about it. My Facebook profile picture is me sitting on a tractor with my banjo so that’s how Zohreh discovered that I played the banjo.”

Hay Fever
Hay Fever

He continues, “Mason, our guitar player, is my barber. I’d been going to him for haircuts for the last five or six years. Every time we’d end up talking about music so I just casually asked him about jamming with us. It was a good fit, everyone really seemed to like him. I don’t think he knew a ton about bluegrass music but he caught onto it fairly quickly.”

The storytelling aspect of bluegrass songs is one of the reasons that Zohreh is passionate about the music.  She says, “I love the simple melodies and the distintive harmonies. It’s a unique kind of sound.”

Greg’s interest in bluegrass comes from a desire to learn music that differs from what he plays as a violist in the Winnipeg Philharmonic. He explains, “I was looking for something that I had to learn from scratch. I made a point of not learning how to play the banjo from sheet music and tabs.  I really wanted to learn to play the instrument completely by ear in the bluegrass tradition.”

When it comes to songwriting, Zohreh takes two different approaches depending on her inspiration. She says, “Sometimes I’ll get a melody stuck in my head that won’t go away. I’ll play it out on my fiddle or the piano and figure out lyrics to go with it. Alternatively I’ll have a phrase that sticks out in my mind that will make a good song lyric, so I’ll build it around that.”

Once she’s got a song down, she records it and sends it to the other band members for their input. She explains, “Usually it’s Greg who gets veto rights. Either he likes the song or he doesn’t and if he likes it then we do it. We all gather together and when we’re jamming, we try out different ideas and arrangements for the songs.”

Greg points out, “I love hearing those tunes and trying to decide how we’re going to approach them because it’s not always super obvious. there have been some tunes that started off going in one direction but we’ve taken them in a totally different direction so there’s no semblance of the original tune left at all.”

The variety of instrumentation that the band can bring to bear is something that Greg enjoys. He says, “The really great thing about playing in this band is that Ameena plays fiddle and clawhammer banjo, I play a little fiddle, bluegrass banjo and mandolin and dobro and Zohreh plays fiddle.  We have a lot of different instrumental combinations so that we can bring completely different sounds to each song.”


















  I've Been Waitin' by Hay Fever


A big challenge for Hay Fever right is trying to get everyone in the same room.  Zohreh says, “The main problem we’ve had is trying to coordinate five professional musician’s schedules. We’re all very busy. Greg plays in the symphony so he’s busy most nights when we’re playing gigs.”

One of the features that Zohreh has noticed about Winnipeg’s music scene is the lack of strong competitiveness. She points out, “When I first came to Winnipeg, I was really impressed with how collaborative the music scene is here. There’s a lot of crossover between the indie scene, the bluegrass scene and the classical scene. It’s a non-competitive environment and everybody’s very supportive which is super cool.”

The band’s future plans include more touring and recording a full length album in the next year. Recording with Hay Fever is something that Zohreh has enjoyed. When they made their demo, she says, “It was super fun because we recorded a lot of the stuff half live or live whereas on a lot of the other albums I’ve worked on, you’re in another room recording your part.”

Greg says, “I think that all of us really enjoy playing in the band but at the same time, none of us are hoping to leave our jobs and go out on the road. As far as I’m concerned, I want to continue what we’re doing, playing at more venues and developing as individuals and as a band.”

Ultimately Zohreh’s inspiration is the stories that haven’t been told yet. She says, “I think that music is a really great vehicle for social change. It can help people step outside of themselves too. As long as I can help do that, I’ll be able to keep writing songs.”

Trying to learn the musical language of bluegrass is something that motivates Greg. He says, “I’m still trying to figure this music out and it’s great. It’s just a question of learning the language and it’s a very different language from what I do. It’s based on a pentatonic scale and the element of improvising is not something a lot of classical musicians are comfortable with. It takes some time to develop that confidence to get up and do that on stage but the more we do it, the more comfortable we become.”

For more information on Hay Fever, please visit them here.

This profile is based on a telephone interview with Zohreh Gervais and Greg Hay conducted and recorded on July 27,2016.

Updated: 07/31/2016, Krlmagi
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