Matt & Shannon Heaton: Fine Winter's Night
Matt and Shannon Heaton made their holiday album, Fine Winter’s Night, “just because we wanted to,” Shannon says. “There’s no contest you’re going to win, or festival you’re going to get into or not get get into, because you have a Christmas record.” The pair, who have been part of the band Siucra and worked as supporting musicians with a range of top Celtic players including Robbie O’Connell, Aoife Clancy, and Boys of the Lough, decided about a two years ago to focus on their work as a duo. They've released two well received albums, and a Christmas project felt like the next right step.
To choose the material, they followed their usual practice in preparing for tour and recording, which includes playing through songs and tunes and seeing what stands out and what works best. Shannon plays flutes and whistles, Matt guitar and bouzouki. They both sing, they both write songs and tunes. Grounded in Celtic tradition, they bring their varied experiences with other musics into their workas well.
“Through rehearsing, we came up with things that have have been meaningful to us in the past, like the Wexford Carol, “ Shannon says. That’s an Irish Christmas piece dating back to the twelfth century. They included familiar American songs on the project too. “We wanted to to put on a couple of recognizable carols, but do our own thing with them,” she said. They approached O Little Town of Bethlehem as a lullabye and set It Came Upon a Midnight Clear to an air which sounds familiar and yet differs from the one generally sung.
There’s a mix of songs and instrumentals, and of traditional music with original work on the collection, which reminds of nothing so much as a pair of really talented friends sharing songs around the fireside on that fine winter’s night. As the project unfolded, they decided to forgo inviting other musicians to sit in, with the exception of Eric Merrill, who added fiddle to one of Matt’s original songs, First Snowfall of December. “We just heard fiddle on that, fiddle in the dance hall in the background,” Shannon says.
The dance hall she’s talking of is part of the story of the song, set in Victorian Boston. “We assigned each other original carols to create. I said, why don’t you write something set in our own town, and he said, why don’t you write something a bit obscure and about the Nativity. We’ll do that for each other, try to help inspire, help brainstorm,” Shannon explained. The results were that vignette of an unexpected connection of a winter’s evening in First Snowfall of December, and the gentle story of a barn yard cat cat preparing his home to receive the Holy Family. That latter song helped relax the recording process, too. “It’s hard to take yourself too seriously, or get too stressed out about deadlines, when you’re saying ‘he shrugged the sleep from his furry head and and found a spot for the manager bed,’” Shannon said, laughing. They did have to take into account recording the album during the summer, though. “I think we made the album that we did because we made in July, and we had to really shut down what was going on around us, and focus on the music, focus on the stories of the music, and pull it from within,” she said.
“In winter, there's’ this sort of feeling of solitary facing of the season, that you have to do on your own, but it’s important to surround yourself with people while you do that, too,” she continued. Those aspects of understanding the holiday season are well balanced on Fine Winter’s Night. It is music which the pair look forward to sharing with holiday audiences, as well. “I think people are open and receptive as music listeners this time of year, more contemplative whatever
their tradition, even through the hustle and bustle of the holidays,” Shannon Heaton says. “I think we bring something to people with this music, and people definitely bring something to us. It’s very unique to our work the rest of the year. It’s a gift to us as performers, very much of a gift.”
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