In music there’s nothing quite like the sound of three voices singing together in perfect harmony. And these days, there’s nothing quite like the Ennis Sisters. With their major label debut, Ennis Sisters, Maureen, Teresa and Karen showcase their beautiful triad of voices on eleven of Maureen’s wonderfully crafted songs.
Born and raised in Newfoundland, the Ennis Sisters have climbed aboard the national stage the old fashioned way through hard work and a passion for what they do. Although Ennis Sisters is the girl’s major label debut, they have already sold thousands of records as independent artists.
In 1997, their debut album Red Is The Rose was named Folk Album Of The Year at the Newfoundland and Labrador Music Industry Awards (MIA). A year later they won Group of the Year and Female Artists of the Year. Two years after that they were walking up to the winner’s podium again but this time to accept the award for Album of the Year for their recording 3. Those recordings also earned the girls national recognition when Maclean’s Magazine included them as one of the Top 100 Canadians to watch and YTV chose the Ennis Sisters as top five finalists in YTV’s 1999 Young Achievers Awards.
But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s go back to those voices. The Ennis Sisters are family. They were raised by parents who not only encouraged their ambitions but taught them not to be too anxious and full of themselves. In a world in which newspapers and magazines seem to be full of stories of stage parents who have pushed their children to strive for success to satisfy their own failures, the Ennis’ can be held up as parental role models.
Like most families in Newfoundland, the Ennis household was always full of the traditional music of home and Ireland. And like other homes on the island, the reverie of kitchen parties always led to song. But Maureen and Teresa Ennis had aspirations beyond those parties.
"Whenever we’d have career days," Maureen recalls, "I would draw myself on a stage. Being a singer is all I ever wanted to do."
To that end, Maureen and Teresa were taking singing lessons when their teacher suggested that Karen should join them so that they could enter the Family Music West competition. Although she wasn’t a natural at first, Karen worked even harder than her sisters eventually becoming the one they could all count on to hit the hardest notes.
"Our first gig was playing the Welcome Wagon for Pregnant Women," says Maureen. "We sang ‘Red Is The Rose’ and one other. We loved it and we wanted to play as often as we could. A lot of times we’d sing for food vouchers that would give us a choice of hamburgers or fries."
When the girls had built up enough of a repertoire of traditional and original material written by Maureen, they announced that they wanted to record an album. Their parents reminded them that this was going to be expensive and they’d have to work hard in order to make the money back. They’d have to practically sell the record door to door. But the girls were determined to do it.
Maureen picks up the story, "We didn’t think that this was going to be a career for us. It was supposed to be fun. Five weeks later we made all the money back that we had put into the record. Soon after that the record sold-out and we had to press some more."
That first album not only gave them a best-selling calling card, it also introduced them to producer Mark Murphy who has since become Maureen’s longtime songwriting partner.
Encouraged by their success at home, the Ennis’ took their show to Halifax in 1998 to showcase at the East Coast Music Awards. This marked the first time the girls had performed outside of Newfoundland and Maureen still remembers playing in that room full of music industry executives as "the scariest thing of my whole life."
After the showcase the room was abuzz and the girl’s dressing room was filled with suitors from every major record label. The next day they performed at a packed Halifax shopping mall as word had already spread around town about these three voices. Each of the record label presidents were there too.
Everyone who has dreamed of a life in the music business has fantasized a moment like this. But the reality was that things weren’t quite right. Most of the companies were anxious to have the girls sign a contract right away. But their father didn’t believe the girls were ready yet. He thought they still needed to work on their professionalism and learn more about the business. And besides, Teresa was still in high school and her education was the priority over music.
"Dad taught us a lot about business and trust of each other. We eventually even learned to let go of each other."
One by one, the record companies called but the girls’ father said not yet. They were warned that the music business was a fickle animal and they’d lose their place in line. The family decided that they’d be fine with that, if it was true. But they believed in themselves and that’s all that mattered. Eventually the labels stopped calling. All but one that is.
"From the beginning, Warner always said, ‘Take you’re time. Whenever you’re ready," Maureen states appreciatively. "Every month there would be a call just asking how the family was, how my songwriting was going and how Teresa was doing in school. That meant a lot to us."
Later that same year, their second recording, Christmas on Ennis Road led to their own CBC Television Christmas Special, which was broadcast throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. The record was released on the heels of their performances in the Celtic musical Needfire at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in the summer of 1998.
What was not supposed to be a career had now definitely turned into one. The Ennis Sisters could now be seen on stages throughout North America. They have made appearances at numerous festivals including The Stan Rogers Folk Festival, the Montreal Celtic Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the prestigious Merlefest in North Carolina.
In the spring of 2000, the Ennis Sisters were ready to finally take the next step. Their parents, who had guided their career to this point and had traveled with them to all of their shows, were ready to step aside. The group signed on with manager Andre Bourgeois who had already been instrumental in building the international success of Natalie MacMaster.
In February 2001 everyone’s patience paid off as Warner Music Canada and The Ennis Sisters signed a deal at the East Coast Music Awards in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. That same weekend they were awarded an East Coast Music Award for Roots/Traditional Group of the Year. With the contract signed, the girls got work preparing for their major label debut.
In the time since they first started performing together, Maureen had become quite a prolific songwriter. As they entered the studio, the girls made the decision that this record, unlike the others, which were a combination of original and traditional material, would be all original songs written by Maureen and Mark.
The Ennis Sisters entered Great Big Music studios in the spring of 2001 with producer Tim Thorney and emerged a few months later with a shimmering recording of eleven new songs that highlight not only the group’s soaring vocals but the immense depth of Maureen’s songwriting skills.
"I was afraid to fail as a songwriter," says Maureen somewhat matter-of-factly, "But I was in a songwriting workshop with Bruce Guthro and Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle who complimented me on my songs. When you get recognition from your piers, your confidence is bound to pick up."
The Ennis Sisters have plenty of reasons to be confident. The release of their major label debut precedes a tour that will take them across the country, across the continent in fact and around the world. And with each performance, the Ennis Sisters vow to grow even more.
"When I hear what our songs mean to people it makes me want to sing them even better," says Maureen. "It makes me want to reach as many people as possible."