Connections – Musicians and their Instruments

Editor’s Note – The following article is presented courtesy of its author, Sue Barrett. All publishing rights remain solely hers.

Connections – Musicians and Their Instruments

By Sue Barrett

What exactly is an orchestra? A famous conductor was once asked that question. After a great deal of thought, he replied, “It’s a collection of people scraping, blowing and banging things all at once.” Oddly enough, the conductor was quite right.

(Introduction to The Instruments of the Orchestra (45 rpm), narrated by Joseph Cooper, with the Sinfonia of London)

Growing up in Australia, generations of children learnt about music through the Australian Broadcasting Commission, including ABC radio’s school broadcasts.

In 1969, for example, the Singing and Listening program (for senior primary grades) included ‘Maranoa Lullaby’ (Australian Aboriginal song), ‘Ma Bella Bimba’ (Italian folk song), ‘Little David’ (African American spiritual) and Mozart’s ‘The Birdcatcher’. Whilst the Let’s Have Music program (for grades three and four) included the Yiddish song ‘A Fiddler’, Paul Yarrow and Leonard Lipton’s ‘Puff (The Magic Dragon)’, ‘Tingalayo’ (a calypso song from the West Indies), Tom Paxton’s ‘The Marvellous Toy’ (“It went ‘zip’ when it moved, and ‘bop’ when it stopped, And whirr when it stood still”) and the ‘Skye Boat Song’ (by Annie MacLeod and Sir Harold Boulton).

In 1972, Singing and Listening included ‘Tortillas’ (Chilean folksong), Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘With Catlike Tread’ (from The Pirates of Penzance), the Canadian song ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ and Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drover’ (set to an Irish tune). And Let’s Have Music included Woodie Guthrie’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You’, the Arabic folk song ‘Tafta Hindi’, Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Yellow Submarine’ and the Kentucky mountain song, ‘The Old Maid’.

Now FolkBlog explores musical instruments, music making and introducing children to music with Ruth Hazleton (an Australian singer, guitarist, clawhammer banjo player and folklorist), Kara Square (an American singer/songwriter, videographer, composer and ukulele player), Liz Frencham (an Australian double bass player, singer and songwriter) and Rachel Hair (a Scottish harpist, composer and music teacher).

RUTH HAZLETON (Australia – Banjo)

www.kateandruth.com

Ruth Hazleton is an Australian singer, guitarist, clawhammer banjo player and folklorist. She was born in Sydney, but moved a lot during her childhood due to her father’s work as a Baptist Minister. Ruth has a university degree in history and, while living in Canberra, worked in an organic fruit and vegetable shop. She has also studied Australian Folklife at a postgraduate level. Ruth now lives in Melbourne. For more than a decade, Ruth Hazleton and (songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist) Kate Burke have performed together as a traditional music duo (Kate & Ruth / Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton). In addition, Ruth has been part of a number of bands, including Closet Klezmer (Eastern European Jewish folk music), The Horse’s Leotard (American old-timey music), Dev’lish Mary (all-girl old timey band with country and swing leanings) and Bill Jackson’s Acoustic Orchestra. As a folklorist, Ruth has undertaken work for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Section, collected children’s folklore for an Australian Research Council project and contributed a chapter (‘Where did that tune come from? Transmission of traditional music and song in contemporary Australia’) for the book, Antipodean Traditions: Australian Folklore in the 20th Century (2011). Ruth has also served as secretary of Folk Alliance Australia. In 2015, Ruth Hazleton and Kate Burke released their fifth album, Declaration.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

My parents played a lot of music when I was a child and these are the earliest musical memories that spring to mind. Both used to play guitar and sing – a mixture of rebel Irish songs, popular songs and political folk songs (Dylan, Baez, Donovan, Simon & Garfunkel and the like). My mum has an enduring habit of spontaneously bursting into song! My father was very attached to his reel-to-reel player, so we also listened to music. On long car journeys, there was lots of singing as well.

When and how did you start playing a musical instrument?

I started learning the piano when I was five or six with a family friend. I continued on and off throughout my schooling years, though never with much seriousness (or discipline, unfortunately). I preferred dabbling (and still do), so at primary school I tried quite a few instruments, including oboe, flute and trumpet.

What is the full array of instruments that you play?

In public, I can get away with banjo, guitar and accordion. I sometimes tinker on other instruments at home including ukulele, mandolin and fiddle, though I’m certainly no expert on these. I primarily think of myself as a singer, which I should include here as an instrument too.

Tell us about your banjo. And does he/she have a name?

The banjo I’ve played for a long time is a 5-string open back English Windsor Premier from the 1920s, though I’ve just purchased a new one that I can plug in, travel with and isn’t so valuable. I use standard D’Addario strings. No names I’m afraid – though I do sometimes call the old one Mr Plunky. I play clawhammer style (or “frailing”), which is characteristic of American old timey music or string band music. The tunings I most commonly use are gDGCD (sawmill or mountain minor), gCGCD (also known as double C tuning), gDGBD.

What makes a good banjo player, including in terms of connection with audiences?

Being able to tune and re-tune easily is a great help (insert banjo joke here!). Really, playing the banjo is no different from playing any other instrument well. Some might disagree with me, but I think that while technique and musical proficiency are important in a good player, I also think that feel, sensitivity to the instrument, knowing when NOT to play and how you play in relation to the music and repertoire you’re working with are essential. Stagecraft is equally a natural and learned skill, but vital to a good performance. Essentially you want people to be able to relate to your music and be engaged with what you’re trying to communicate.

How do you keep your playing technically sound and emotionally fresh?

It’s easiest when you’re performing often to hone playing skills, though it doesn’t necessarily keep you fresh! I’ve been away from music performance for a number of years until recently, so it’s been nice to return with a new approach and enthusiasm. As a mum, I don’t have the luxury of practising at whim anymore, so it’s whatever I can whenever I can really.

 

With your banjo playing, including special guest appearances, how much of your playing is arranged and how much is improvised?

Mostly arranged, especially with Kate [Burke], as our parts have been carefully developed to create the sound we want, though there is always some spontaneity in terms of rhythm and emphasis live. If I’m playing socially, or with my partner Bill, I’ll improvise more often. Essentially I’m a rhythm player but have enjoyed improvising more lately.

 

What is the role of a banjo in the music you perform?

Five string banjo, especially when playing clawhammer style, is very much a rhythm-based instrument. It keeps the music rolling and provides fluidity. On my latest duo album with Kate however, I’ve experimented in using the banjo more melodically and texturally to provide atmosphere while Kate takes the role of setting the rhythm. It’s been a great process and given me a different approach to playing generally.

 

How do you go about selecting music for performing live and for recording?

I do a lot of listening and researching. On the latest duo album, Declaration, Kate and Luke Plumb (our producer) and I started with a collective long list of around 60 songs before we honed it down to 15 and started arranging seriously. If it’s traditional music, for me the story has to have some relevance and the melody has to appeal. I have no problem changing lyrics, melody or feel in interpreting traditional music. The same with covers too. The skill of folk music is in the interpretation of material; I would never play something exactly the same way as I originally heard it. For both studio and performance I think you also have to be aware of presenting different feels and topics and avoiding repertoire with too much of the same theme or tone.

 

To what extent, and in what ways, is performing in a recording studio, performing for radio or television and performing on a concert stage similar and different?

Performing live on stage is very much an organic experience that depends on the atmosphere and the audience. There are so many factors that contribute to any single performance being wonderful or difficult, so you have to be open to the experience at the same time as being focused on what you’re doing. There’s a lot of space created in regard to energy and output once you’ve established a relationship with the audience. It’s a very special place to be. With radio and TV, unless I’ve been doing it frequently, I find it confronting performing with almost no audience because you can’t immediately gauge how it’s being received. It’s a slightly different mental state. And recording is a totally different experience where all your senses are intensely focused on what you’re doing. It’s a fine line between trying to give the best technical performance possible while maintaining a freshness and energy. I love both, but they require very different skills.

 

Do you do session work (instrument or vocals)? And, if so, what are some of the ups and downs of doing session work?

I have done quite a bit of session work. The obvious downside is hoping and wondering whether or not you’re providing what is expected of you! A definite upside is in playing music that you’re not so emotionally immersed in, which gives you freedom to relax and be open to trying different things.

[In an interview a few years ago, Ruth Hazleton said that Australian singer/songwriter Judy Small’s album, Live at The Artery, was “the first time that I’d recorded a live album in front of an audience. And it was a challenge! As a performing artist, I found the atmosphere familiar and comfortable, though it was difficult in terms of having only one chance to get it right and do a good job, which is a bit scary.”]

Who are some of the instrumentalists and vocalists that you most respect?

Tricky question. There are so many, both professional and non-professional. The people who have taught me, inspired me and mentored me are people who don’t often perform or record – these people I respect greatly, and probably most of all. In terms of respect via professional influence, I’d have to mention songwriters and musicians such as June Tabor, Maddy Prior, Márta Sebestyén, Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Bob Dylan, Andy Irvine, Dirk Powell, Bruce Molsky, Gillian Welch, Paul Simon, Derroll Adams, Leonard Cohen, Richard and Linda Thompson, Billie Holiday, Ella, Hank Williams, Townes, Guy Clark, John Prine…and that’s just a small few! I’d best stop there!

For you, to what extent is music much more than just a profession?

Music has become a huge part of my life and is a fundamental part of who I am even away from the stage. As with other creative pursuits, music is a form of self-expression. To be able to create is something I’m careful to nurture and foster for the sake of my general well being.

What do you see as the roles of music in this world?

Given my history and folklore background, I’ve always been interested in the topical, commentary and political nature of music. I really love that music is something that will always be aligned with social justice. These days we are saturated with music around advertising and commercialism, which I find frustrating. The current industry climate is a very challenging place for independent musicians, but I believe this is changing slowly. I live in Melbourne, which is a great city for music. In this context I highly value that the big life events that happen in my community always involve live music and sharing music socially.

What are your suggestions for introducing children to music?

I spent a few years in my 20s teaching music to children, though I don’t see myself as a very good teacher. It’s a gift you either do or don’t have! That said I believe that kids need to be engaged to learn. Let them experiment and play music they love alongside the technical repertoire. Take them to see live music and let them establish their own musical tastes by encouraging them to listen. I struggled for years seeing parents who forced their kids to learn against their will, which can be a total passion killer.

What are some of your favourite pieces of music? And what music would we see on a playlist for your birthday, wedding or funeral?

I’m not sure I can answer this with a list of actual songs. I’m very much a mood listener, and my list might change from day to day. My funeral might include Fauré’s Requiem, Op. 48 – Agnus Dei, ‘The Falling Polska’ by Väsen or even a song by June Tabor, Run DMC, Midnight Oil, Portishead or The Drones! I love electronic music, soul, country, Americana, folk, rock, western swing, and the list goes on (and on and on). While most of what I perform is traditionally-based, my listening reaches far beyond that. Good music is good music!

Apart from music, what are some of the other things that are important in your life?

My family is very important. My little boy is about to turn five and start school next year [2016]. I love gardening and am involved in my local sustainability group. I’m also continuing my work as a folklorist next year and looking forward to getting back into it.

What’s been happening in your world over the past year? And what’s coming up?

I stopped working in event management and as a tour agent eighteen months ago, so the past year has pretty much been solely devoted to raising my boy, supporting my partner’s music career (Bill Jackson – www.billjacksonmusic.com) and releasing the new album with Kate. It’s been insanely busy but very rewarding. Sadly, balancing the music industry and parenthood can be really tough, but we’ve done all we can to juggle both.

Next year I will be performing with Kate at a number of festivals (still to be announced) and I have been invited to perform as a guest with a few wonderful acts during festival season, which I’m very excited about. I’m also beginning to concentrate a bit more on song writing and toy from time to time with the idea of doing a solo album. As mentioned above I’m also getting back into folklore work. So it’s another busy year ahead and I’m looking forward to it.

 

KARA SQUARE (USA – Ukulele)
www.karasquare.com
www.teamsmileandnod.com
www.thinkrootrecords.com

Kara Square is an American singer/songwriter, videographer, composer and ukulele player from Columbus, Ohio. As a teenager, Kara wrote folk songs on the guitar. She later undertook a recording engineering course at the Recording Workshop School of Audio and Music Production, Chillicothe, Ohio. Kara has been both a solo performer and (with Rich Ratvasky) part of the electro pop duo, Team Smile and Nod. In 2008, Kara founded the record label, Thinkroot Records, later transforming it into a music licensing business. Kara is an active member of the community music remixing site ccMixter (www.ccmixter.org), with her vocals appearing on Turkish musician Murat Ses’ album, Light Cone (2012 – track 2, ‘Chiral of Past’). Kara Square established Mind Map That – a solo multi-media project for “weird, humorous, and occasionally serious songs”, including the Halloween dance music video, ‘DJ Death’ (2012). In 2013, Kara released the album, Love Songs for Everyone but Especially Uke, as well as the depression-crushing ukulele rock anthem sing-along song, ‘Too Depressed for the Ukulele’. The next year, Kara released the surfer pop rock album, Square Meter, with Italian multi-instrumentalist and producer Piero Peluche. Following the 2015 Supreme Court of the United States marriage equality decision (Obergefell v. Hodges), Kara put out the single, ‘Yeah, I Do’. In November 2015, Kara Square released an acoustic instrumental album, Ukulele Duels.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

As a child, I loved listening to my parents’ records from the ’60s and ’70s. Some of my favorites included Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the album that inspired me to become a songwriter: Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

When and how did you start playing a musical instrument?

My mom played piano and encouraged my siblings and me to take piano lessons. I played for a few years when I was in elementary school. In middle school, I took up the trombone. And in high school, I got my first guitar, took three lessons, and started writing songs. I picked up the ukulele around 2010 after I had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands. The nylon strings and small neck are much easier on my hands than guitar.

What is the full array of instruments that you play?

Ukulele, keyboard, guitar, banjo, banjolele, trombone, and a bit of bass ukulele (which is tuned like a bass guitar).

Tell us about your ukulele

I play an Oscar Schmidt OU5 with Aquila strings and standard tuning (GCEA). My style is primarily rhythm, but I often finger pick in a banjo-like rolling style. I’ve never been one to name my instruments.

What makes a good ukulele player, including in terms of connection with audiences?

The ability to perform in an emotionally compelling way.

How do you keep your playing technically sound and emotionally fresh?

I challenge myself to learn different playing techniques and constantly expose myself to different genres.

With your ukulele playing, including special guest appearances, how much of your playing is arranged and how much is improvised?

Most of my ukulele playing is arranged.

What is the role of a ukulele in the music you perform? And how do you go about selecting music for performing live and for recording?

The ukulele is my primary song writing instrument for my folk and pop rock music composition.

I record everything I write in my home studio, but not all of it is released. I no longer perform live.

To what extent, and in what ways, is performing in a recording studio, performing for radio or television and performing on a concert stage similar and different?

For me, it’s extremely different. Because I’m a recording engineer, performing in my home studio is a laid-back, freeing experience. In contrast, I deal with a lot of anxiety with any type of live performance.

Who are some of the instrumentalists and vocalists that you most respect?

The first people who come to mind are folks I collaborate with on Thinkroot Records. Piero Peluche and Jack Burgess amaze me with their multi-instrumentalist abilities. Moira Waugh’s expressive voice and spell-binding songwriting captivate me. Mark Bass’ acoustic guitar playing and cool, smoky voice is inspiring. Siobhan Dakay’s elaborate compositions and detailed attention to production stands out. TheDICE’s memorable piano melodies are enchanting. I also highly respect a lot of singer/songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III, Cheryl Wheeler, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Chris Pureka, Nicole Reynolds, and so many more.

For you, to what extent is music much more than just a profession?

Music is how I process life. Sharing my music allows me to make connections with others.

What do you see as the roles of music in this world?

Music makes things better. It enhances movies, TV, video games, and other multi-media projects. It adds excitement to parties. It can make the listener feel understood and connected to humanity.

What are your suggestions for introducing children to music?

Give them a ukulele! It’s one of the easiest instruments to pick up, but it’s challenging to master.

What are some of your favourite pieces of music? And what music would we see on a playlist for your birthday, wedding or funeral?

Here’s a selection of some of my favorite songs…a multi-purpose playlist:

  • My Brightest Diamond – ‘Before the Words’
  • Cloud Cult – ‘No One Said It Would Be Easy’
  • Beirut – ‘No No No’
  • Thao & Mirah – ‘Spaced Out Orbit’
  • Telekinesis – ‘Ghosts and Creatures’
  • Melanie – ‘Mama, Mama’
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – ‘Free Fallin’’
  • Janis Joplin – ‘Piece of My Heart’
  • Dolly Parton – ‘9 to 5’
  • Fever Ray – ‘When I Grow Up’
  • Tori Amos – ‘Scarlet’s Walk’
  • The XX – ‘VCR’
  • Ani DiFranco – ‘As Is’
  • The Kills – ‘Black Balloon’
  • First Aid Kit – ‘You’re Not Coming Home Tonight’
  • Joni Mitchell – ‘A Case of You’
  • Lucy Kaplansky – ‘The Red Thread’
  • Ane Brun – ‘The Puzzle’
  • The Smiths – ‘Nowhere Fast’
  • Bat for Lashes – ‘Trophy’
  • Emiliana Torrini – ‘Sunny Road’
  • Death Cab for Cutie – ‘I Will Follow You into the Dark’
  • Kathleen Edwards – ‘One More Song the Radio Won’t Like’
  • Lovers – ‘Winter Takes A Lover’
  • My Brightest Diamond – ‘Pressure’
  • Regina Spektor – ‘Consequence of Sound’
  • Rilo Kiley – ‘With Arms Outstretched’
  • M.I.A. – ‘Paper Planes’

Apart from music, what are some of the other things that are important in your life?

My wife, Katie. She is amazingly loving, supportive, and hilarious. Family and friends. And, of course, my awesome cat, Murmur. I also love spending time in nature, birding, staring at the night sky, cooking and eating delicious vegetarian food, and reading.

What’s been happening in your world over the past year? And what’s coming up?

This has been an exciting year for my label, Thinkroot Records. We converted our website to sell song licenses, expanded our artist roster, added lots of music to the catalog, and licensed many songs. You’ll hear our music all over YouTube, in many video games, advertising spots, book trailers, websites, and even at dance clubs around the world. I was also busy composing custom music, collaborating with Piero Peluche and Jack Burgess, and preparing Ukulele Duels for release. We’ve got an enchanting holiday song by Moira Waugh coming out on 1 December 2015, ‘Under the Christmas Tree’. It’s the first single from her album with Siobhan Dakay called The Wrong Girl, which will be released in 2016. We also hope to release the third Team Smile and Nod album next year. I’ll continue composing custom music. Writing music to communicate the mood of visuals has become a major passion of mine.

LIZ FRENCHAM (Australia – Double Bass)
www.lizfrencham.com

Liz Frencham is an Australian double bass player, singer and songwriter. She was born into a musical family in New South Wales and now lives in Victoria’s central highlands. Liz studied jazz double bass at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and undertook singing lessons with Joy Yates. She has been part of several bands, including The Dead Sticks (with Lindsay Martin, Quentin Fraser, Bruce Fumini), Settlers Match (John Spillane, Alan Morrison, Andy Irving, Mal Pritchard), Jigzag (Greg Bryce, Caroline Trengove), Dev’lish Mary (which included Ruth Hazleton) and the bluegrass-inspired acoustic trio Jimmy The Fish (with Robbie Long and Pete Fidler). In addition, Liz has been in duos with Fred Smith (Frencham Smith) and Myles White (Red Juliet). Her music has taken her around the world, including performing at the Skagen Celtic Festival (Denmark), Leamington Peace Festival (England), Femme Funk Festival (New Caledonia), Newport Jazz Festival (USA), Islands Folk Festival (Canada), Wellington Folk Festival (New Zealand) and the Woodford Folk Festival, National Folk Festival and Port Fairy Folk Festival (Australia). Liz has also been part of Fred Smith’s theatre show, Dust of Uruzgan. Several years ago, Liz began her You & Me duet album series. In 2015, Liz Frencham is launching her third duet album, You & Me – Vol 3, which features David Bridie, Co-Cheól, David Francey, Mike Nock, David LaMotte, John Flanagan, Alanna Egan, Alicia Egan, Marcus Holden, Tim Clarkson, Robbie Melville, Tim Bradley and Pete Fidler.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

I remember singing acapella hymns in harmony with my mum and sisters at home and always wanting to find a part that no one else was singing. Sometimes mum would teach me a beautiful, elaborate descant harmony that would weave around the other harmonies, and I remember being amazed by how a part that had such a different shape to the other parts would still fit in and add to the beauty of the whole without obscuring the melody. I also have vivid memories from when me and my younger sister Leanne converted a fridge box into an elaborate stage. We would set up chairs and put on performances for the rest of the family so we could perform songs we had written together, along with comedy routines and choreographed dance routines. A regular couple of vaudevillians!

When and how did you start playing a musical instrument?

There were always instruments lying around the house and my dad in particular encouraged us to try them out. No formal lessons however.

What is the full array of instruments that you play?

I sing and play double bass. That’s it. I have picked up a few instruments in order to write songs or to make noises on recordings (piano, bouzouki, tenor guitar, ukulele) but I don’t consider them instruments that I can play.

Tell us about your double bass. And does he/she have a name?

I have two basses. One is a small bodied semi-acoustic Sase bass made by Sydney luthier Neville Whitehead. His name is Sebastian, and he’s a great instrument to travel with. His sound suits genres more traditionally assigned to electric bass guitar, as the smaller body makes the notes really responsive and the nature of the design means he has oodles of sustain. Sonically he is a kind of half way instrument between the double bass and a fretless electric bass. My main instrument (James Brown) is a Czech factory double bass from the 1940s. He was the second bass I owned, which means I’ve been playing him for 20 years and I know exactly how to coax him into song. Both instruments are currently strung up with Evah Pirazzi light gauge string, and they both have a very low jazz-style action. I studied jazz but consider myself most competent at accompanying songs. I mostly play pizzicato and like being expressive with vibrato, so I need the sustain of metal strings. I use standard bass tuning, though I have the advantage of a C-extension which allows me a few lower choices on the E-string.

What makes a good double bass player?

People often dismiss bass as an easy role without understanding its potential importance. Bass played well not only anchors the harmony, it provides narrative sign posts that subliminally lead the listener through a piece on an emotional level. A good bass player needs more than just good intonation, feel and time. They need to be responsive to dynamics and understand the story being told by the piece. The best bassists know intuitively what to play to guide a listener’s ear right into that world and to carry them through it. They apply their harmonic knowledge like an experienced artist blends and applies paint. They know all the emotional qualities of different chord voicings and have more say in how a chord is perceived than the chord players themselves. They also know how to balance the space, when to hold back or drop out, and when to anchor or drive something strongly.

How do you keep your playing technically sound and emotionally fresh?

I try to challenge myself to learn new techniques and to hone my intonation and technique regularly. I don’t force myself to play when I don’t want to, so staying emotionally fresh doesn’t become a problem. I also listen to as much new music as I can and get regularly inspired by hearing something really original.

With your double bass playing, including special guest appearances at music festivals, how much of your playing is arranged and how much is improvised?

I’m not a player of bass solos in general but I am an improviser. When I’ve played a song many times I may settle on a particular bass line for certain crucial sections, but only because I’ve worked out over time that it’s the strongest choice. Everything else I play is mostly what feels right on that day. When I play solo I arrange pieces more because the bass has to step up to becoming my only accompaniment and the pieces become more complex and harder to invent on the fly.

Tell us about travelling with a double bass

I drive wherever I can, because it means I can travel with my acoustic bass. It’s not a big deal to get it around unless there isn’t good access to a venue. I get a little weary of all the “big guitar” comments and tired one-liners, but I never get tired of seeing little kids light up when they see me open up the case and take out this giant violin. My Sase bass has a flight case and the whole thing weighs only 23kg, so it’s not too tough to get on and off a plane. I did drop it on the foot of a tour manager once only five minutes after meeting her which was a bit mortifying! She forgave me eventually…I think.

What is the role of a double bass in the music you perform?

The bass anchors the harmony and the low timbre gives a piece emotional solid ground. So it’s just as important to choose NOT play when it’s appropriate.

How do you go about selecting music for performing live and for recording?

For a folk audience I like to offer as much variety as I can, with at least a couple of light-hearted or sing-a-long songs every set. Recordings are different, they are for me alone to express where I am at the time. The duet sessions are very random, time constraints might force us to choose from shared repertoire, sometimes I approach people with a song in mind, other times my duet partner brings a song along. No rules for that project!

To what extent, and in what ways, is performing in a recording studio, performing for radio or television and performing on a concert stage similar and different?

It’s all the same in theory, there are people who will be listening at some stage to your performance, so you put love and energy into all types of performance and if people aren’t sitting in front of me, I imagine them where they will be listening instead. It feels very different when you don’t have a live audience to communicate directly with. You don’t get the same opportunity for that deeply satisfying, upward spiralling energy exchange of a live audience.

Your session work has included work with Jodi Martin, Chris While and Julie Matthews and others. What are some of the ups and downs of doing session work?

I love session work, though I would never describe myself as a natural session musician. I don’t read musical notation and I’m definitely not as accurate and efficient as the best session players. I only do the kind of session where an artist is particularly after “my” sound. The benefit of this is I get to be myself, take my time and craft a part that I feel supports the piece whilst not having to hide my own voice or avoid going out on a limb. The downside is that once in a while I do something that feels really special and beautiful and perfect that I’m proud of but doesn’t fit the vision of the artist. The disappointment can be quite painful, but letting go and starting again is all part of the process.

Who are some of the instrumentalists and vocalists that you most respect?

I love the double-bass playing of Edgar Meyer, Bridget Kearney and Danny Thompson and I’m a great admirer of UK fretless electric bassist Steve Lawson. I think Chris Thile is an incredibly complete musician and his breadth of stylistic mastery is endlessly inspiring. There are too many voices I love so I can only really grab a handful to name, Billie Holiday, Carl Pannuzzo, Lucie Thorne, Rachael Price, Chris While, Glen Hansard, Rowena Wise, Nat King Cole, Jo Jo Smith, Amy Winehouse, Carmen McRae….and more! I mostly listen to music for the songs, however, and some of the best songs are not necessarily performed by great instrumentalists or singers.

For you, to what extent is music much more than just a profession?

I guess it comes down to the fact that if nobody paid me I would still be doing it. I would still be writing, recording, playing when I got the chance and enjoying the journey towards being a better musical communicator. It is part of me. It is the gateway to real mindfulness, real flow.

What do you see as the roles of music in this world?

Music is an art form and therefore a communication tool and one that doesn’t rely heavily on a shared language. It appears to be pretty universal throughout human cultures across the earth. I’m not really sure I know what its role is precisely, but I have seen it sooth, enliven and devastate listeners. I’ve also seen it change lives. That’s good enough for me.

What are your suggestions for introducing children to music?

I hear too many stories from people I meet of kids quitting music lessons as soon as they were old enough to have a choice. It pains me to think that musical opportunities are felt by so many young people as a burden. I think kids should be given instruments really early and allowed to explore them at their own pace. I don’t think they should be criticised for losing interest or moving around from instrument to instrument without committed practise. Encouragement should be present in the background, but so much more is gained if a kid learns early how to find the reward in the learning itself. I also think teaching kids easy things to play in a group is another way to help them feel that joy of being part of something bigger.

What makes some essentially beautiful voices bland and other voices, which might not be as technically good, full of emotion and feeling?

Liking a voice is a matter of taste, I guess, but I definitely prefer voices with interesting quirks that could be described as technical flaws. A voice is beautiful to me when the owner of that voice uses it to communicate a story or feeling so effectively, that I lose myself in it, willingly. The tone is only one part. I’m also affected by how a singer phrases a lyric, how natural that lyric sounds, how a singer manipulates dynamics and how they use intonation in expressive ways. Maybe the flaws are a kind of “wabi sabi”, emphasising the human frailty behind a song and identifying the singer as a kindred spirit.

What are some of your favourite pieces of music? And what music would we see on a playlist for your birthday, wedding or funeral?

That is an IMPOSSIBLE question. My favourite pieces of music change from day to day, minute to minute! I guess there are certain albums I return to. James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, Joni Mitchell – Blue, Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days, Suzanne Vega – Suzanne Vega, Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the soundtrack from Once, Lucie Thorne – Black Across the Field and Clare Bowditch – Autumn Bone. There are also a lot of really good newer Australian acoustic musicians on the scene that I listen to and love like The Mae Trio, Sarah Humphreys, Jack Carty, John Flanagan and those ridiculously talented Wise girls.

Apart from music, what are some of the other things that are important in your life?

My relationship with my gorgeous husband, Steve is the centre of my life. I can keep everything in perspective with him to come home to and we sing and laugh and cook together in all the hours we can squeeze between life commitments. I love gardening. It is the perfect compliment to the cloistered, nocturnal life of a musician. It’s also a very beautiful metaphor for life in so many ways. The seasons, the growth cycles and the need for weeding, pruning, nourishment and sunshine in order to get things to grow. I also love to draw and paint, take photos, make film clips, sew and make jewellery, though I never get much time these days.

What’s been happening in your world over the past year? And what’s coming up?

I’ve just been on a lovely double bill tour with John Flanagan around Australia and then to Wellington Folk Festival in New Zealand with Fred Smith. I’m also preparing for an album next year [2016] with a lovely guitarist, Robbie Melville and I’m hoping that will turn into some touring too!

RACHEL HAIR (Scotland – Celtic Harp)
www.rachelhair.com

Rachel Hair is an harpist, composer and music teacher, who was born on the north-west coast of the Highlands of Scotland, in the fishing village of Ullapool (which is also the main terminus for the ferry to Stornoway). When she was sixteen, Rachel’s family moved to Edinburgh. These days, Rachel lives in Glasgow, where she received a first class honours degree in music from the University of Strathclyde. Rachel performs both solo and with the Rachel Hair Trio (whose music includes traditional and contemporary works). She has performed/taught in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man, Europe, United States of America and Canada, including at music festivals such as the Edinburgh International Harp Festival (Scotland), Somerset Folk Harp Festival (USA), Arfavita (Russia), Rencontres Internationales de Harpe Celtique (France), Harfentreffen (Germany), Festival Internacional Arpa Sentmenat (Spain) and Celtic Days (Switzerland), Bardonecchia Harp Festival (Italy), Zileghen Folk Festival (Belgium) and Lowender Peran Festival (Cornwall). Rachel has also undertaken schools tours, including in Norway and Denmark. In 2014, Rachel performed at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. In addition, she has published three books of harp arrangements and compositions and her music has been part of the syllabuses for the Trinity College London harp and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland harp exams and national clarsach competitions. In 2015, the Rachel Hair Trio (now consisting of Rachel Hair, Jenn Butterworth and Cameron Maxwell) released a new album, Trì.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

One of my earliest memories, ever, is of being at a concert of the Scottish fiddle orchestra, with my grandfather. It must have been at a theatre somewhere in Glasgow, and I can remember leaning over the box in the theatre to see more. Both my grandfathers played piano and organ. I can remember my Irish granpa coming to visit us in Ullapool (the Scottish highland village where I grew up) and sitting at the piano and playing with me.

When and how did you start playing a musical instrument?

My parents have always believed that music should be a part of my and my younger brothers’ upbringing. My mum played piano in church so there was always music being played in the house. When I was five, I started recorder lessons, and after a few years I moved on to piano. When I was nine, I had the chance to attend a “Feis” in my village. This was a holiday school where the kids learnt to play traditional music. I had to choose a main instrument on which I would have two group sessions of learning it a day. My best friend choose the clarsach, the Scottish harp, so I was desperate to copy her! I did really well at the Feis, and afterwards the tutor spoke to my parents and suggested they get lessons for me. For the first year I shared a clarsach with my best friend, before I hired my own.

What is the full array of instruments that you play?

I’m known as a harp player, so the celtic harp is what I perform on in public. I dabble a bit in pedal harp, the big harp they have in orchestras, but I don’t own my own pedal harp. They’re incredibly expensive instruments, and my heart is in the celtic harp, so that’s what I’ve decided to stick to.

Tell us about your celtic harp

I play a 34-string celtic harp, which is the standard professional size. Historically celtic harps were are a lot smaller, with fewer strings, in order for them to be easily transportable. The modern celtic harp is a kind of half way house between the historical celtic harp and the pedal harp.

In the past quarter of a century they’ve gone through a lot of innovation, and I’m proud to say that my harp maker, Starfish, is one of the lutheirs at the forefront of this. They’ve really worked with professional harp players such as myself to listen to what we need in a harp and produced it for us. I own two of their Glenelle models in walnut. As a professional player who needs to fly with my instrument, they’ve produced a lightweight harp (by hollowing out sections of wood), with lightweight titanium tuning pins. Combined with their specially crafted flight case, this means I can travel with my harp, and not get charged excess baggage rates as it’s usually lighter than my suitcase.

My harp strings are made of gut. Some players use gut or carbon fibre strings, but gut is what I like. My harp is tuned to E flat major, but with my fantastic delacour fast levers, I can play in keys from E flat to E major. I’m very happy with the two harps I have. They’re identical apart from one has a few bashes on it from five years of travelling. It’s crucial for me to have two harps with the same set up as when travelling, at times my harp can arrive home a day later than me, and I need to have a spare in case! I don’t have any names for my instruments…just the new one and the old one!

What makes a good celtic harp player, including in terms of connection with audiences?

One of the most important parts of my performance is actually the chat to the audience between when I actually play the instrument. A lot of the tunes I play have stories behind them, and I love to talk about these. It gives the audience an insight into why I’ve written that tune or why I’ve chosen to play it. I love, as an audience member, to feel connected to the music that someone is playing, so I think it’s important to give the audience more reasons to connect to the music, and I hope I do this by telling them more about it.

How do you keep your playing technically sound and emotionally fresh?

I listen to a lot of music, and I go to a lot of gigs. I’m currently based in the city of Glasgow, and it’s one of the busiest cities in the UK for live music. There is always a gig to go to, and there are traditional music sessions on every night of the week. Listening to so much live music really influences my playing and the musicians inspire me to keep playing, practicing and developing. You never stop learning as a musician, so I’m always trying out new things.

With your celtic harp playing, including special guest appearances, how much of your playing is arranged and how much is improvised?

With my trio, sets are fully arranged, though at times there are improvised sections. I play with double bass and guitar, and with my left hand, that means there are three accompaniment lines in the music we perform. It’s crucial that it’s therefore arranged so that we’re playing the same thing, and can keep the “tight” sound that we’re known for. However as a soloist, I would say it’s a 50/50 split to arranged and to roughly arranged. One of the things I love about being a harpist is that what I do in my left hand (the accompaniment) can completely change the feel of the music I play. I tend to play around with this and sometimes do so live…it keeps me on edge, but a good edge in live gigs! There comes a point though when I need to probably arrange sets, normally if I’ve a student playing with me, or if I want to record what I’m doing and publish it one of my harp books.

Tell us about travelling with a celtic harp

It can be an experience! You get lots of looks and people tend to come and ask what it is. Thankfully my harp makers Starfish have made things a lot easier by making me a lightweight harp and flight case. This means that my harp weighs less than the luggage limit for a suitcase. Most airlines just charge you the cost for a second suitcase. It can be quite scary putting it in the hold, but it’s heavy enough that the baggage handlers can’t throw around…they’d break their backs if they tried! Day to day I do a lot of travelling in my car. My harp just slips in the back seat which is handy. We’re expert packers my trio too which helps…right now we’re on tour and in the car we have a harp, guitar, double bass, PA system, three bags and three musicians. It’s a squeeze, but all our feet touch the floor!

What is the role of a celtic harp in the music you perform?

In my trio, I carry the melody. We’re one of the only bands in Scotland that has the harp at the forefront of our music. We play a mixture of traditional Scottish, Irish and Manx music combined with our own compositions, which are influenced by the traditional music of Scotland and the melting pot of genres in Glasgow, where we all live.

How do you go about selecting music for performing live and for recording?

We only perform music we like to play. We all write music, so that makes up a good proportion of what we play. I love to delve into the old collections of music that we have in Scotland so I love sourcing out old tunes that haven’t been played for years. Usually we have an idea of a way that a set is going to go, so we’ll try to find tunes that will suit that.

To what extent, and in what ways, is performing in a recording studio, performing for radio or television and performing on a concert stage similar and different?

There’s nothing really like playing in front of a live audience. The nerves and adrenalin keep you on edge, and you can feed off the audience reaction you get. In the studio, it’s very much a “concentration face” experience. Head down, concentrating on what you’re doing. We tend to move around a lot on stage, so it’s very different when we’re in the studio. We’re perfectionists in the studio, so we’ll do take after take until we’re 100% happy with what we have. I personally prefer performing to a live audience, as I like to feed of both their energy and the energy I get from my adrenalin.

What are some of the ups and downs of doing session work?

I’ve done a good deal of session work, on albums for Gaelic singers and country fiddle players to albums for Christmas songs and new hymnarys. As someone who primarily splits her time being a soloist and the leader of a band, it can sometimes be a challenge to realise that in session work, it’s not me who’s in charge creatively. I’m so used to being the one who makes the calls on what happens in my music that it can sometimes take a while to get used to the fact that someone else is in charge of telling me how to play! I enjoy it though and it’s a different kind of challenge to try and imagine what sounds they want me to create with the harp.

Who are some of the instrumentalists and vocalists that you most respect?

I have great respect for the musicians who manage to diversify in what they do. Musicians who are not only talented instrumentalists/vocalist, but also skilled composers and educators. I guess I admire them because it’s what I aspire to be able to do myself. I must say there are too many to name!

For you, to what extent is music much more than just a profession?

Music is my life, and my life is music. And I love it. I feel so privileged to be able to call my career the thing I love. It has led me to being able to travel throughout the world, and led me to have many friends throughout the world. I am passionate about the music I play, that is Scottish and Manx music. I love dearly that I not only get to perform it, but get to teach it to other harpers and musicians throughout the world, passing on this passion so that others can get the same enjoyment from it that I do.

What do you see as the roles of music in this world?

I was once part of a project when one of the lead soloists, who had very little English, announced to the audience “Music is a universal language”. What he said is so true. Music crosses borders and barriers, and love of music brings people together, no matter what nation, religion or creed. For many like myself, it is a means to a career, but for most it is a way of escapism, relaxation and healing. I recently lost a close relative and I found my only real way of healing through it was to sit and play my harp, and this was very important to me.

What are your suggestions for introducing children to music?

For several years now my band has been a touring band for the schools concert tour schemes run and funded by the Governments in Denmark and Norway. These countries believe that every child has the right to see live music, and they believe in this so strongly that they fund live music performances in their schools. It’s a privilege to be part of such a scheme, and I dearly wish the governments in the UK and Scotland would respect live music as much as they do in Scandinavia. Most children will hear recorded music in their daily lives, but I feel very strongly in exposing children to live music, enabling them to experience the “buzz” of being an audience member and seeing people create music in front of them. If you have a child, try your best to expose them to as much live music as possible. If there’s a free concert in your town, take them down to it. If there’s a busker outside the supermarket, stop and let your child listen to them, and then talk about it afterwards. It might just inspire them to take up an instrument and enable them to explore creativity themselves.

What are some of your favourite pieces of music? And what music would we see on a playlist for your birthday, wedding or funeral?

My favourite pieces are always changing, but one of my current faves is a version of the Manx piece ‘Irree Ny Greiney’ (written by Robert Carswell) by the band Barrule. My other half is in the group, but their arrangement of it just makes my hairs stand on end. Outside of the celtic music genre, I’m currently loving the music by Glasgow electronica trio Chrvrches. I studied alongside Martin from the band and Iain was one our lecturers on our degree. I love their use of synths and their nod to the ’80s. It makes me so happy to see them doing so well on the international stage.

What’s been happening in your world over the past year? And what’s coming up?

My trio, the Rachel Hair Trio, released a new album earlier this year, so we’ve been busy promoting that. Over the next year we’ve three school tours in Scandinavia as well as a Scottish tour, and a smattering of European dates. I’m hoping to get back out to the US to teach at some more harp festivals. I love it out there, so really want to return. And I’ve my usual monthly visits to the Isle of Man to teach Manx traditional harp…needless to say I’ll be earning lots of airmiles again!

Apart from music, what are some of the other things that are important in your life?

Family and friends are very important to me in life. I became an auntie for the first time 20 months ago, so I spend a lot of time with my little niece Eilidh. The current challenge is to try to get her to say my name. She tends to give up and call me dada instead!

SUE BARRETT is an Australian music writer, whose great grandmother played violin and whose great uncle played organ.
© 2015

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