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Songwriter puts her words into paper form

Wailin' Jennys Mehta brings her talent to children's book

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/5/2018 (808 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Figuring out how to talk to kids about grief and loss is a difficult bridge for most parents to cross. Local singer-songwriter Nicky Mehta, of the Wailin’ Jennys, decided to tackle it using the lyrics of a lullaby to create a children’s book.

She penned the track — Away But Never Gone — years ago while she was pregnant and it ended up landing on the Jennys’ 2011 album Bright Morning Stars.

Nicky Mehta, a member of the Wailin’ Jennys, is now a published children’s author. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Nicky Mehta, a member of the Wailin’ Jennys, is now a published children’s author. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

The initial intent of the song wasn’t to dive into the ideas of birth and loss and the life cycles of nature, but, as Mehta explains, death has been a constant theme in much of her songwriting and poetry.

"There’s sort of a joke about my songs that there’s the word death in every single one of them, I just focus on death for some reason, I always have," Mehta says.

"I write a lot about that, but also just about questioning what happens when we die. But I’ve often written about it in more abstract terms, like not actually asking the question but writing a lot about nature actually, and this book is all about nature images, so this lullaby I was writing for the boys turned into this unitended exploration of birth and death cycles and the cycles of nature and how we fit into that.

"I think that’s the kind of thing about songs, generally speaking you’re not going to be literal about it, it’s going to be based in imagery, at least for me, and I think at the end of it I realized, because it’s a children’s book, and because it was a lullaby, it became kind of an opening to talk to kids about that kind of thing."

"And I think it could be taken to any level you want it to be, any spirituality or atheism with talking about the actual physics of matter." she later adds.

Mehta’s nature-based lyrics are accompanied by stunning illustrations created by local artist Kimberley Slezak, whose work put the whole book — also called Away But Never Gone — in motion after Mehta stumbled across it at a pop-up craft sale. 

"I saw (Slezak’s) work and it just struck me as the perfect thing for the book. She was really brand new, she had only been painting a couple of years before... it was unbelievable. And she specialized in — in fact she only had — animal portraits and there was just something really... all the eyes of her animals were really soulful and they really struck me, so I talked to her at that pop-up and said, ‘Have you ever considered illustrating a book?’ And she had actually been talking to her sister about it but she’d never actually done it, so she sort of signed on," explains Mehta.

"I just feel like she was the ideal person for it; I never actually liked watercolours but I love her watercolours. There’s a real gentleness. She matched the lyrics really well."

The process of creating a book was a completely new path for Mehta, but she says working with Slezak on the art, the design and layout created by another Winnipeg musician, Keri Latimer, and working with  Friesens Corporation, in Altona, to self-publish the project, from concept to the final proof, went along as smoothly as she could have hoped. 

“For me, the focus on death and trying to understand it is part of a larger need to talk about grief and trauma," says Nicky Mehta. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

“For me, the focus on death and trying to understand it is part of a larger need to talk about grief and trauma," says Nicky Mehta. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

"There were so many unknowns and now I know... it’s like the first time you do anything, you make a whole bunch of mistakes. If I ever did it again, I would be way more on top of it," she says, laughing.

"It’s gone beyond what I initially intended for it, but now it’s selling, there are people that are interested in it, so I’m following through with it a bit more."

Opening a dialogue about grief is just a further extension of the work Mehta and the Wailin’ Jennys have done with mental-health associations in both Canada and the United States.

The Jennys have long been advocates and active supporters of increased mental-health awareness, and at Thursday’s launch event for Away But Never Gone, Mehta will be joined by the Canadian Mental Health Association. As she does at the Jennys’ concerts, Mehta will take time to discuss mental health and how it relates to her writing.

"I mean I’ve always had an interest in that because I have a lot of family members who suffer from it and I myself have dealt with a lot of stuff with depression and anxiety, and I feel like the resources for people with mental illness are so lacking and we underfund it and there’s still so much discrimination against people with mental illness and misunderstanding of what it is," she says.

"I feel it’s very important to speak about it for a whole bunch of different reasons... and the whole mental-health system just does not have funds. And we’re seeing it more and more that people are speaking up about it and being honest about it.

"For me, the focus on death and trying to understand it is part of a larger need to talk about grief and trauma."

Away But Never Gone is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers, Chapters, Toad Hall Toys, Whodunit Mystery Book Store (165 Lilac St.) and Prairie Sky Books (871 Westminster Ave.).  Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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Updated on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 at 10:45 AM CDT: Clarifies relationship with Friesens Corporation

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