When you meet her, Jenie Thai is composed, pleasant, amiable, friendly, and — she won’t like the word but you have to live with it — sweet. She has an open face, long hair, a ready smile and an easy laugh.
And she is also tough, and gritty, and plays barrelhouse piano steeped in the blues — and if that wasn’t enough to get your head around, she also writes and sings tough and tender ballads, direct from her heart to yours.
There’s a new album, Night on Fire, with a sold out show at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room and — while she now calls Toronto home — she lives on the road, and there’s dust on her shoes, love in her heart, and a whole lot of music in her soul.
OK, enough of that. What’s her story? MORE
Born: Jenie Thai Nolan in Chang Mai, Thailand (hence her middle name, which has become her professional name).
Parents: Musicians, travellers, supporters who raised their kids in a small community outside Edmonton, Alberta. Back in the day, you’d call them hippies.
School: Oh, yes, years of it. Fifteen years of private piano lessons, starting when she was five. And her classical training took her, as a teenager, to workshops and camps and festivals. In 2008 she attended Grant MacEwan University’s jazz and contemporary music programme as a performance major.
Rewards: Offered a part-time teaching position at MacEwan, and accepted into Paul McCartney’s music school in Liverpool. She passed on both; it time to get into the real world of playing music for a living.
A debut record: In 2011 she released Lady Flower — an EP with a title track that earned her an honourable mention in the International Songwriting Competition. One of 13 finalists in the performance category; there were 16,000 submissions. And the record also earned her gigs at the Edmonton and Canmore Folk Music Festivals.
And another album: Two years later she released her first full-length album, Only the Moon. “Beautifully crafted… showcasing a voice that has warmth and beauty,” wrote David Farrell. He ought to know; he runs Canada’s music industry website, FYImusicnews.ca.
On the radio: Well, it didn’t get as much airplay as Adele, but Only The Moon was all over all the CBC’s channels, a ton of stations on the left side of your radio dial, and outlets in New York, Florida and a bunch of other American states (in between the right-wing radio chatter and the ads for car dealers and funeral homes).
On the road: Jenie has a 2003 Honda Civic, and she can’t begin to figure out how many hours she’s driven — but one year she put 100,000 kilometres on the clock. It’s not a big car — enough for her, her keyboard, and a couple of suitcases. But it’s carried her from Edmonton to Toronto and back at least half a dozen time, not to mention crossing the Rockies for gigs, and traipsing out to the Maritimes.
Where Jenie plays: Well, just about everywhere. House concerts, sure. Big festivals, sometimes, and some really cool small ones. Toronto’s Massey Hall for the Toronto Women’s Blues Revue. Hotel lounges, because they have pianos and you can practice. Tough-assed bars like the Dakota and the Horseshoe in Toronto, and the Commercial back home in Edmonton. Folk clubs, “listening rooms” like Hugh’s Room Live, and even a series of “couch concerts” in peoples’ houses in southern BC. Most anywhere, in fact, with a roof.
Honours? There have been a few: nominations for Edmonton Music Awards as “Artist to Watch” and “Female Artist of the Year” in 2013 and 2014 and her achievement as semi-finalist at the 30th International Blues Challenge in Memphis (where she represented northern Alberta). Oh, and three Maple Blues award nominations (2016 – Best New Artist of the Year, 2018 and again 2019 for Best Piano Player/Keyboardist of the Year).
Who she sounds like: Always a fool’s game, this — imagine a singer, songwriter and player touched by the music of Tom Waits, Memphis Slim, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, and some people say she sounds a little like Eva Cassidy (“I do?” she queries). She listens to old blues, edgy indie artists, sixties r&b, piano players with chops and soul, and the classic American songwriters.
What’s next: After finishing a Canadian band tour in promotion of her latest album, produced by Stew Crookes (who’s worked with Jason Collett, The Hidden Cameras, Jadea Kelly and more; you know who these respected independent artists are) and completing her inaugural tour throughout California, NY (of which she played to 1,000 people) and the Midwest US – Jenie Thai is currently on the road as a support act for Downchild Blues Band as they celebrate their 50th anniversary. There’s a contemporary r&b sound to her newest record, with more than a nod to old-school tradition. Ten new songs, full of heart.