February 24, 2004
All Grown Up
By Adrian Chamberlain, Victoria Times Colonist

The Ennis sisters were deemed by their dad to be too young to sign a record deal back when they made a smash at the East Coast Music awards in 1998. But after a few years of experience, the Maritime trio have a major label and headline status

The Ennis Sisters were mere musical ducklings when they played the East Coast Music Awards six years ago. A week ago the Celtic trio returned as seasoned pros, swanning off with an ECMA award for best roots/traditional album of the year.

The sisters -- who perform tonight at Camosun College -- won the award for their new album, Can't Be the Same. A departure from their pop-flavoured eponymous disc released in 2001, this latest recording is a deliberate return to traditional Newfoundland folk fare.

When the St. John's vocal group made their debut at the ECMAs in Halifax in 1998, it marked the first time they'd ever performed outside Newfoundland.

"We'll never forget that," said 24-year-old Karen Ennis, the self-confessed shy sis who recalls being horribly intimidated by the whole thing. After a 20-minute set, the Ennis Sisters received a standing ovation. "I thought everyone was getting up to leave. I thought, 'My God, were we that bad?' "

Even before that initial showcase, there had been an industry buzz surrounding the sisters, who boast the sort of seraphic vocal harmonies only siblings can manage. After they sang, record labels clamoured to sign them immediately. But their father, John, said no. After all, sister Teresa hadn't even finished high school yet.

Karen says she, Teresa and Maureen were seriously cheesed off.

"Everyone was saying your father is cracked. Record companies don't wait around! And the labels were saying we're not used to waiting. But dad never buckled under the pressure."

Today, the Ennis Sisters credit dear old pater for doing the right thing. It was too soon. They eventually signed with Warner Music Canada.

"In hindsight, it definitely was (for the best). We were able to go out and gain experience on our own. At the bargaining table, we had more to bargain with. We didn't go cap in hand."

Three years ago, the Ennis Sisters played free shows in Victoria at A & B Sound and Mayfair Mall. In 2002, they returned to open for Jann Arden at the Royal Theatre. This time, the sisters are headlining at Camosun College's Gibson Auditorium, with another band, Easily Amused, opening for them.

They are steadily building a solid career. The Ennis Sisters have already won a Juno award for best new country artist. They now have distribution in the United States, and booking agents in both Canada and the U.S. What's more important, it appears the trio has a firmer idea of its musical identity than ever before.

While their debut Warner album spawned a radio hit, It's Not About You,  Karen believes the CD blurred the lines between country and pop too much, causing confusion among both fans and radio programmers. She says their next disc will deliver a more cohesive and mature identity for the group -- a cross between Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks, only more Celtic than bluegrass.

In the meantime, the Ennis Sisters released Can't Be the Same to reassure long-time followers they have not abandoned their traditional roots. It features such trad-folk favourites as Red is the Rose and Paddy McGinty's Goat. The inside cover is decorated with homey family snapshots, including their father with his button accordion (he plays it on the album) and their parents' wedding day (dad sports a powder-blue tux).

"We wanted to let our fans know we still care deeply about that music," said Karen, who vows that future Ennis Sisters concerts will always showcase traditional Celtic favourites.

Ultimately, the Ennis Sisters want to present themselves not as country-tinctured pop fluffsters, but independent and sophisticated women playing music that can be taken seriously.

"We are stronger and we know what we want," she said. "We have a very clear image of what we want to accomplish."