The Gruff
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The Gruff

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"You don't have to have the blues in order to sing them, nor do you have to hail from Texas in order to play country music. That much is evident on A Trail of Missing Thoughts... It's an impressive and thoughtful stroll through the bluegrass of Kentucky, the trad-country of Texas and the 1970s folk of California."

-Mike Devlin, Times Colonist
Published: Thursday, April 17, 2008


Members of The Gruff aren't anything like their name implies. But you wouldn't blame them for being somewhat surly, given the bumps and bruises they have endured during their eight-year career.

The local folk group, which formed under the name Billy Goats Gruff, got its start as a street-busking unit, sporting a set-list that was heavy on traditional Celtic and Acadian tunes. Tourists loved it, but when Billy Goats Gruff moved into local clubs, the transition produced mixed results.

Things got progressively tougher for the band before they improved. Shortly after the departure of a founding Gruff member, a New York punk act by the same name filed a lawsuit claiming ownership of Billy Goats Gruff. Co-founders Phaedra Kemp and Jenny Ritter entered a new phase as The Gruff, added new players, and shifted their focus toward folk and country material.

The Gruff underwent further membership changes, but Ritter -- a graduate, like Kemp, of the Esquimalt High jazz program -- says The Gruff has arrived at a place that now feels comfortable for everyone.

"It was a really neat progression," Ritter explains. "We played a lot of traditional music because we loved it, and we still do. But as we started writing our own music, we were writing country songs, which was hilarious because we didn't even listen to it. We decided to let that progress as we developed our sound. It took us years to figure out our identities as musicians, but we found our niche."

You don't have to have the blues in order to sing them, nor do you have to hail from Texas in order to play country music. That much is evident on A Trail of Missing Thoughts, the third and latest release from The Gruff.

It's an impressive and thoughtful stroll through the bluegrass of Kentucky, the trad-country of Texas and the 1970s folk of California.

That it should come from a pair of B.C. songwriters two years shy of their 30th birthdays only adds to the appeal. "We always try and write from an outside perspective, but I guess we're a bit too self-involved," Ritter says jokingly of her and Kemp's abilities. "We write a lot about our own experiences."

The group, which also includes bassist Terri Upton and fiddler Adam Iredale-Gray, is turning the corner on its past struggles. In 2007, The Gruff crossed Canada for the first time, and caught the attention of Canada's Magnum Opus Management, whose clients include roots veterans Barney Bentall and John Mann of Spirit of the West.

Ritter says The Gruff are hoping to take A Trail of Missing Thoughts worldwide in 2008, buoyed by their nomination in December at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Wider mention is not out of the question, not with the exceptional A Trail of Missing Thoughts soon in stores and press notices fondly comparing the local group's three-part harmonies to those of Vancouver's The Be Good Tanyas.

Ritter says The Gruff have reassessed their previous bar and pub performances. Originally, they bristled at the audience chatter during their sets. Years later and with considerably more confidence, they welcome noise from their audiences.

"We strive to bring an excited energy to every show we do.

"We prefer to play in a bar where there's potential to dance or talk. We don't mind if people talk, because our music is party music. Turn it up loud enough and it starts to get rockin'." - Times Colonist

"..the three billy goats have become four young women who play folk music with the skill of old-timers."
- Penguin Eggs


Fall, 2005

Picture this - a sunny August day, a phone call from Old Man Luedecke, Chester, Nova Scotia, 2005. “Come on over!” He says. “There’s this all-girl band from Victoria coming over tonight. We’re going to have a bonfire! Bring some guys!” Boy-less, I headed out nonetheless. And what a lovely night it was! I was completely impressed with the ability of these four folkies to switch instruments, sing thoughtfully arranged harmonies, pick Celtic tunes, write songs that you’d think were dug from the vault, and take on random classic-rock requests, in spite of the fact that they’d stayed up all night rocking the after-hours party at the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival the night before. It was clear – these musicians are dedicated to folk music. But what were they doing so far from BC? “Everybody we’ve ever met has said to us, ‘You guys sound like you’re from the East Coast,” says principal songwriter Phaedra Kemp. “They’d say, ‘What you’ve never been? You have to go!’”

The Gruff’s repertoire includes rousing Irish tunes, sweet American and Canadian folksongs, and of course, lots of rootsy originals. I was lucky enough to get a preview of some new songs, including Phaedra’s instant classic “Jack of Clubs” and Jenny’s Tim O’Brien inspired “The General Store,” both which will be featured on their upcoming album to be recorded in October and released in the spring. “It’s going to have a cowboy, pirate theme,” says Phaedra. Like their 2003 album, A Goat on Every Floor, the new disc will be produced by Adrian Nolan from The Bills.

The Gruff certainly are multi-talented. Phaedra, a drop-out from the music program at U. Vic, switches from snare to Irish whistle to guitar to bodran with ease, and Jenny Ritter, a red-head who’s got fire in her fingertips, picks a mean guitar and mandolin. Along with Heather Cunliffe on fiddle and banjo, these old-souls have been making music together since their high school days – about seven years. With the recent addition of stand-up bassist Terry, the three billy goats have become four young women who play folk music with the skill of old-timers.

- Penguin Eggs Magazine

A Gruff act for the Alumni Theatre

Contact: TRU Cultural Events Committee, email, 250.828.5352

October 23, 2008

There were fiddles and banjos, cowboy boots and hand-clapping beats at the Thompson River’s University Clock Tower last Thursday as The Gruff performed a free early afternoon concert for students and fellow Kamloopsians.

With funky, up-beat songs the audience was treated to an intimate and interactive concert.

TRU student, Michelle Apps, hosts a radio show on the campus radio station, CFBX, and after playing The Gruff on air was interested in seeing the band play live.

“It was just really interactive, and they were fun and friendly. It was really good music,” she said.

The band played a mix of songs from their old and new albums, and a couple cover renditions, including a refreshing version of Metallica’s Enter Sandman, and a unique cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

The Gruff take traditional folk sounds and create a modern, yet original musical experience. They have been labelled as a folk band, but don’t like to categorize their music, and dare listeners to find a genre that fits their sound.

With a laid back and engaging stage presence, the group was keen to get the audience involved, as they encouraged sing-a-longs, hooting and hollering, foot stomping and hand clapping to the beat of the music.

The group even invited fans to a meet-and-greet on stage after the show where they sold C.D.’s and signed autographs.

Although TRU student, Brandi Schier, had never heard of the Gruff before, she attended the performance with an open mind, and was impressed with the young talent.

“I thought it was great,” she said. “It was cool to see young people playing a traditional style and putting their own twist on it.”

Hailing from Victoria, B.C., and the group consists of three core members, and an alternating fiddler.

Main composer, Phaedra Kemp, rocked out on the snare drum, Jenny Ritter strummed the guitar, Terri Upton plucked away on the double bass, and Adam Iredale rounded out the group on the fiddle and banjo.

The Gruff will continue to tour around the country, and are set to perform next on October 29 at Lady of the Lake in Brandon Manitoba. -

"...the Gruff.....exudes an easygoing, if not always cheerful, contemporary vibe, especially in the seemingly effortless intertwining of their voices over a buoyant, tastefully embellished musical backdrop."

- Scott Lingley, Penguin Eggs


The Gruff
A Trail of Missing Thoughts
(Goat Tea Records)

Guitarist Jenny Ritter, bassist Terri Upton and drummer Phaedra Kemp all lend their voices to this acoustic trio (plus whatever fiddler they can scare up) from Victoria, produce lovely, tightly knit quasi-country on this, their fourth full-length album.

They’re clearly inspired by all kinds of traditional music — Ritter also keeps company in Victoria’s Irish music scene — the Gruff nonetheless exudes an easygoing, if not always cheerful, contemporary vibe, especially in the seemingly effortless intertwining of their voices over a buoyant, tastefully embellished musical backdrop.

By the end of the 12 songs here, I found myself wishing for a little Hazel & Alice-style grit, but fans of acts like The Be Good Tanyas and Po’ Girl will doubtless find a lot to like in the witty, heart-sore lyrics and unfailingly pretty harmonies.
– By Scott Lingley - Penguin Eggs

"Phaedra Kemp, Jenny Ritter, Terri Upton and token male multi-instrumentalist Adam Iredale have gelled with a balanced combination of original material and tasty instrumental arrangements and interplay."

- Peter North, Freelance for Edmonton Journal
Published: Thursday, July 10, 2008


Years of dues-paying put the Gruff on a smooth road

After eight years that included frequent recording sessions and plenty of roadwork, the gals who spearhead the Gruff believe the quartet "has settled into something we can call our own sound."

Not that the Victoria-based acoustic group doesn't draw on a number of obvious influences in traditional country and folk. It's just that Phaedra Kemp, Jenny Ritter, Terri Upton and token male multi-instrumentalist Adam Iredale have gelled with a balanced combination of original material and tasty instrumental arrangements and interplay.

Nominated last year as best new/emerging act at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, the Gruff have "really worked hard the last four years," Ritter says.

"When Terri joined the band 31/2 years ago, we finally had a group where everyone was really committed," she says of Upton, who plays upright bass.

"Plus, she's a really good harmony singer. With Terri we became more relaxed and started experimenting with different fiddlers, and now there's a real personality to the music," says Ritter, who wrote five of the dozen tunes found on the recently released album, A Trail of Missing Thoughts.

And it hasn't hurt being on the West Coast, where the old-time-country-meets-bluegrass scene is thriving.

For the summer tour that brings the band to the Blue Chair Cafe tonight for its first Edmonton appearance, they've also added pedal steel guitarist Lucas Goetz from Saskatoon's Deep Dark Woods, who adds another colour to hummable tunes like Hole In My Jeans, Sharing Smokes and I Know My Mind.

"We like throwing in a few of our favourite covers too," says Kemp, who plays a small drum kit, sings and shared the writing chores. "We do a Lyle Lovett tune, and a version of the Rheostatics Take Me In Your Hand. You've never heard Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah rocked up like we do it."

The group plays two sets starting at 8 p.m. Call the Blue Chair Cafe at 989-2861.
- The Edmonton Journal 2008

By Meghan Sheffield

The music and personalities behind the three girls in Victoria roots band The Gruff are anything but.

The band’s sweet-voiced, bluegrass-influenced roots music won them Artist-of-the-Year at the Vancouver Island Music Awards earlier this year and has caught the eyes and ears of folkies and would-be folkies at music festivals across the country.

The Gruff’s latest recording was released in October of last year. It shows a shift in the band’s sound. From the traditional-sounding, fiddle-heavy songs of 2004’s A Goat on Every Floor, the newer self-titled album demonstrates a certain comfort that makes the music seem effortlessly more creative.

“I think that between the two albums, we just settled into the sound that we really are,” vocalist Phaedra Kemp said. “Now it’s sort of focused into a more cohesive sound. All of the little sounds we were mixing together actually did get mixed, and now it’s definitely more roots-country than it is Celtic.”

The album is The Gruff’s second full-length album, and was recorded in Victoria with producer Adrian Dolan and a number of guests, including the Duhks’ Tania Elizabeth, Steve Dawson and Old Man Luedecke. Kemp said the artists they chose to play on their album were for the most part representative of the Victoria and Vancouver folk music scenes, while Nova Scotia’s Old Man Luedecke stopped by the studio while touring in Victoria.

Unlike previous albums, The Gruff is heavy on original music. While there are a few traditional songs, such as a pared-down harmonization of The Silver Dagger, the tracks that really stand out are the ones written by both Kemp and the band’s guitar player, Jenny Ritter.

“We’re the two songwriters, and we’ll bring a song to the band all together we’ll arrange it,” Kemp said. “They’re songs about working and just living – songs about hard work and easy work and being on the road.”

Kemp said the inspiration for these songs comes from the most obvious places – the sights and sounds of her own life.

“For me it just comes from the everyday, from the people I meet and the places I go,” she said.

Kemp said the shift the band has made in songwriting towards a more North American-style of roots music is in part due to what they listen to. She said the band’s musical influences range from traditional Irish bands to alt-country act Corb Lund to rock bands like the Rheostatics.

The day’s drive from Lunenburg to Montreal proved a perfect example of the musical spectrum from whom the band chooses their musical influences.

“Today we listened to some Lucinda Williams and Regina Spektor and a band from Vancouver called Dyad,” Kemp said. “That’s a pretty good mix.”

The band originally came together in the streets – literally – while busking, playing Irish drinking tunes, under the name of Billy Goats Gruff.

“We were called Billy Goats Gruff, but we sort of grew out of it,” Kemp said. “People thought we were children’s entertainers.”

After meeting in high school in Victoria, Ritter and Kemp didn’t start playing music until 2001. Three years ago, Tania Upton joined The Gruff, playing the string bass and rounding out the threesome, the core members of the band.

The lineup also includes a rotation of three fiddlers who alternate playing with the band. The current fiddler, Adam Dolan, has been playing with The Gruff for over a year.

While the band’s focus right now is still the last album, that doesn’t mean they’re taking a break. Instead, they’re busy promoting the album in parts of the country where the songs are still brand new, and they’re writing new material. Currently they’re in the middle of a seven-week tour from the west to east coasts and back.

For a band that is still required to hold down day jobs to make ends meet, this is a fairly serious commitment.

“We do have other jobs and some of us just quit the jobs to go on tour. I do seasonal work a lot of the time, in the tree planting industry,” Kemp said. “Ideally, at some point, we won’t have to have day jobs anymore.”

Besides having to schedule touring and travelling into the limits of a conventional job, even the day-to-day work of trying to build a musical career can interfere, Kemp said, making both tasks more difficult.

“Being self-promoted and basically self-managed is a full-time job on its own, and trying to find the time to do it while working another job is really hard,” she said. “Not to mention practising and writing music and playing the shows.”

Thankfully, for Kemp and the rest of The Gruff girls, playing live shows is what makes all of that work worthwhile.

“We have a good time performing. We really like doing it and meeting the audience and getting to know each audience. We get to know the audience and pick the songs based on the mood,” she said. “The aim is to have fun.”

- The Kingston Whig Standard

"...while this outstanding album's sound conjures up images of the Be Good Tanyas or even Indigo Girls, I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that the songwriting is arguably even stronger than that of either of the aforementioned."

- R.C. Joseph, 24 Hours


Sure, Vancouver Island may be full of hippie wildlife artists, burnt-out students, and retirees driving around with their left signals perpetually blinking, but there is no denying that when it comes to music, the residents of the western world's last bastion have impeccable taste. One need look no further than folk trio The Gruff, winners of the 2007 Vancouver Island Music Awards' Artist of the Year, to see that those moose-painting, weed-smoking, slow-driving music fans know what time it is.

Originally performing traditional Irish tunes under the moniker Billy Goat Gruff, vocalist/drummer Phaedrea Kemp, vocalist/guitarist Jenny Ritter, and bassist/vocalist Terri Upton soon evolved their sound to deliver a more contemporary take on the jigs and reels that had made them a staple in the West Coast pub scene. Following this metamorphosis to their rockin' brand of country, bluegrass, and folk, The Gruff has gone on to wow audiences coast-to-coast, playing such acclaimed festivals as Victoria's Rootsfest, the Ottawa Folk Festival, and even The Hillside Festival in Guelph.

But the musical magic isn't just limited to the stage. The Gruff have released three albums of original, toe-tapping, heart-moving ditties. Recorded at Marlborough Studios by producer Adrian Dolan, their self-titled third release even featured such folk heavyweights as guitarist Steve Dawson and violinist Kendel Carson. And while this outstanding album's sound conjures up images of the Be Good Tanyas or even Indigo Girls, I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that the songwriting is arguably even stronger than that of either of the aforementioned. A crazy statement, perhaps, but I know at least the population of Vancouver Island will agree with me. And that's worth something, regardless of how earthy, stoned, or confused they all may be.

The Gruff perform tomorrow at The Media Club with Kent McAlister and the Iron Choir. - by R.C. Joseph, 24 Hours


A Goat on Every Floor - Nov 2003
The Gruff (self-titled) - Oct 2006
A Trail of Missing Thoughts - Feb 2008



"...the three billy goats have become four young women who play folk music with the skill of old-timers."
-Penguin Eggs Magazine

Howdy, and welcome to Gruff Country.
Not your standard “country”, this inspired and talented young band out of Victoria, BC challenges you to pin a label on their music. The Gruff filter numerous folk traditions through the sieve of modern experience to create a truly unique sound. From old-time to country; from bluegrass to good old rock ‘n’ roll; these young songwriters harmonize, sing and shout songs of joy, sorrow, and everything in between; with astounding energy and passion.

With their easy, comfortable stage presence and their obvious delight in performance, The Gruff bring a smile to every audience. Their extensive experience shines through songs of love, heartache, travel, and hard work, interspersed with traditional tunes picked up over their various journeys. Every song has a story behind it, and the audiences learn more about the band through charismatic and amusing stage banter. This group's genuine chemistry is apparent and engaging.

Over the past 8 years, the band has matured creatively and incorporated original songs with a real "coastal country" flavour into their repertoire. Received with enthusiasm by audiences, the young Gruff nurtured this original sound and became the band you know today.

Phaedra Kemp accompanies her edgy country-folk vocals on the standing snare drum and bass drum and plays a melancholy harmonica as well. Jenny Ritter hammers her guitar John Henry himself, and sings with all her heart. Holding down the fort is Terri Upton on the double bass - the big bull fiddle rivals her in size, but she keeps it steady as a pickup on a logging road. The women's three-part harmonies are rich and sweet, but they're not just about the vocals. The Gruff’s instrumental prowess is unusual in such a young group. These three women are now joined on stage by Adam Iredale-Gray, a young fiddler and banjo-ist who shreds on solos and adds lovely textures to an already complex sound. This band has traveled from coast to coast, stomping stages from Coast to Coast. The Gruff have amazed audiences from Nova Scotia's Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival to the Ottawa Folk Festival and the Hillside Festival in Guelph.

The Gruff released their latest album, A Trail of Missing Thoughts in February 2008. It's a self-produced project that reflects perfectly the dreamy roots-country sounds you can find at a live Gruff show. The album features many renowned guest musicians such as Adrian Dolan (The Bills) on fiddle, Adam Dobres (Outlaw Social) on Country Electric Guitar, and Tim Tweedale (Headwater, the Nautical Miles) on Weissenbourn.