Sunday, December 03, 2017

Music of Winter: Hope, Faith, and Frames -- Songs from Emily Smith and Carrie Newcomer

Advent: it is a time of preparation, reflection, of turning of season. At times those things -- the silence, the stillness, the preparing of hearts and souls and minds for the miracle of Christmas -- is lost or at least pushed aside by the rush of day to day life and concerns.

Yet, one of the big lessons of Advent, and of winter, for that matter, is the persistence of hope. Faith and hope at times seem at odds. At other times it is clear they are interwoven. Whatever your faith, whether Advent on the calendar forms part of it or not, this is a season for seeing beyond the tinsel and the lights -- and for seeing the lights and the tinsel as pointers to and reminders of hope.

That is an idea Emily Smith explores in her song Find Hope. You may find it, and other excellent songs, on her album Songs for Christmas.

It is an opportunity to consider how we frame things, at Christmas and through the year, too. That is an idea Carrie Newcomer muses on in her song A Shovel is a Prayer. You may find the song on her album called Live at the Burskirk Chumley Theater..

You may also wish to see
Emily Smith: Echoes
Candle in the Window
Songs of Hope
Music for the Heart of Winter: Cathie Ryan
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Travels in Music: Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, and Hanneke Cassel

Ports of Call is an appropriate name for a recording by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Both their personal histories and their work as a duo include many points of the compass.

Fraser is a fiddle player, composer, and master teacher, a native of Scotland who has been long resident in California. Haas, whose instrument is the cello, grew up in California, studied in New York, lived for some years in Quebec, and is based in the Boston area.

That all comes into play through the music they have chosen and composed for Ports of Call. They explore tunes from Sweden, Norway, Galicia, Scotland, Finland, and France. There are original compositions by both of them, as well.

The Silver and Stuff set includes the title tune, a Norwegian bridal march, as well as a Swedish polska and an Norwegian hailing. A departure, you might think, for a pair best known for their interpretations and compositions of the music of Scotland? There are Celtic connections through long history of trade and travel between the Celtic lands and the Nordic ones, though, and Fraser and Haas are both always adventurous travelers across the world of music as well. The march into dance melodies and and then into another sort of dance in will have dancers twirling in your imagination. The music works both in idea and in melody.

That is also true of the reflective piece Walzska for Su-a, which Haas composed for friend and fellow cellist Su-a Lee while Lee was on a visit to Montreal. There’s a hint of love for the dark tones of Nordic cello in this piece, as well as, just maybe, a trace of Quebecois dance.

Lively melodies fill the Keeping Up with Christine set, which comprises a tune Fraser wrote while in Adelaide, Australia, and named for that city. The second tune honors Fraser’s sister, who, Fraser writes in the album’s notes, “has achieved so much as a leader and instigator in the field of education and beyond.”

It is to the familiar place of Scotland they return for the Freedom Come All Ye set, in which that well known song of political comment by Hamish Henderson is imagined anew as an instrumental piece, and paired with an original jig by Haas.

There are more adventures in music to be found on Ports of Call, all of them part of the continuing conversation Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas create with their instruments. They chose these pieces to convey stories both original and traditional, which they do with understanding, clarity, and grace.

Hanneke Cassel knows well how to bring the qualities of clarity, understanding, and grace to her music, as well. A native of the US west coast, Cassel began her fiddling days in western swing. Before long, though, she was drawn into the music of Scotland. One of her teachers along her way into the tunes of Scotland and other Celtic musics was Alasdair Fraser.

Long a resident of the Boston area, Cassel has chosen to call her most recent recording Trip to Walden Pond. There’s a personal connection to that place for Cassel, and there are tunes on the album that connect to Kenya, China, Cape Breton, Scotland, and other places too. Cassel loves to compose tunes, and she also loves the work and the people of Many Hopes. That is a place in Kenya which, as she explains in her notes for the album, “rescues children from poverty and abuse, educating them to lead the next generation with justice and love.” To assist in raising funds to support Many Hopes, Cassel offered to compose tunes in return for donations. She asked donors to tell her their stories. Many of the tunes for Trip to Walden Pond arose from those stories.

Trip to Walden Pond is an adventure in contemporary Scottish American music. Cassel is known as much for her joyful personality and quick wit as she is for her thoughtful and reflective side: all of this comes in to her composing and playing. The Conchas Chinas set brings together three pieces whose melodies flow one into another with quiet strength. Coilsfield House is a tune from Scotland’s tradition: it was composed by famed late eighteenth century fiddler Nathaniel Gow. Cassel dedicates the tune to Carol Ann Wheeler, the teacher back in Oregon from whom she first heard it and the woman who, she says, first taught her to love the fiddle.

The Buddy’s Strathspey set is, as you might think is you know of strathspeys, a lively set which may have you dancing yourself or at least tapping your toes. The title tune of the set is one Cassel composed in honor of the late Buddy Macmaster, a legend in Cape Breton fiddle playing with whom she studied. The set includes two tunes she learned from another top class Cape Breton master, Jerry Holland. A set that celebrates an intricate dialogue between fiddle and piano, These 30 Years (for Jennifer) frame Cassel’s fiddle with piano played by longtime musical collaborator Dave Wiesler.

There are many more tunes on Trip to Walden Pond, ones that will take you from celebrating to dancing to reflecting. Cassel does not sing or speak a word yet the voice of her fiddle speaks eloquently of all these stories. Among them is the one inspired by that trip to Walden Pond.

That is a favorite place for this New England based artist.The tune itself is a lively reel that is based in Scotland while giving an nod now and then to bluegrass and Americana influences. On this tune and across the music of the album you will notice the creative work of Mike Block on cello. Block is part of the Grammy winning Silk Road Ensemble, and is a respected as an innovative teacher and performer. One day, Cassel wanted to show her longtime friend Block Walden Pond. The next day, Block proposed. Soon after, she began writing the tune. Not long after that, the idea for the album began to circle around that piece.

You might also want to listen out for a tune on Ports of Call from Fraser and Haas -- it’s called Hanneke’s Bridal march.

You may also wish to see
Abundance from Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas.
For Reasons Unseen: Hanneke Cassel
Cathie Ryan: The Farthest Wave on which Hanneke Cassel plays a lovely fiddle break on the title track
Sounds of Cape Breton: Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac
A different version of Freedom Come All Ye: Robyn Stapleton sings the song, backed by Skippinish

Waterfall in Skye photograph by Steelogic; performer photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Monday, November 06, 2017

Circle of Song: Jayme Stone's Folklife and Macmath: The Silent Page

How does get passed along? Consider what two groups of musicians have done with very different songs of heritage: they have taken the music into their own lives as artists. By doing that they make the music, the stories it tells, and the lives of those who created it, real and inviting to listeners in the present. Music as time travel and as stories for the future, if you will.

Jayme Stone is an award winning banjo player, producer, and composer. In the project Jayme Stone’s Folklife, he joins up with singer and accordion player Moira Smiley, fiddler Sumala Jackson, and bassist Joe Phillips to explore, imagine, and at times reinvent music from across the landscape of American song. Rather than consider early field recordings and other sources on which they drew only as snapshots from generations past, Stone chose to look at them, he says, as heirloom seeds.

“I’m not collector,” Stone says, “Nor am I particularly nostalgic. I revel in the act of discovery.” With that in mind he brought Phillips, Smiley, and Jackson, three equally adventurous musical friends, together “to help blow the dust off these carefully chosen songs, uncover their hidden histories, and till fresh soil to see what might spring forth from these sturdy seeds.”

Quite a lot does. There are ten tracks on Jayme Stone’s Folklife,, drawn from seedbeds in Caribbean islands and in Mississippi, from the rural church tradition of sacred harp singing to the low down rhythms of a backwoods dance hall. Story, harmony, powerful musicianship with both instruments and voices, and the sheer energy, creativity, and joy of collaboration are what connect this diverse group of songs.

Every cut is worth exploring more than once. Listen out especially for Buttermilk, with guests Dom Flemons and Ron Miles, and Stone’s work on a prepared banjo (that’s one with objects added to the strings, making for a unique sound -- it’s still a banjo, but listen...). You will also want to hear what Moira Smiley does with the lead voice part on There’s More Love Somewhere. All four join on the singing for Hallelujah, along with guests Felicity Williams and Denzel Sinclaire. You may find yourself singing along -- and dancing along -- to these songs, which may feel familiar even if you’ve not heard them -- or not heard them like this -- before. Jayme Stone wishes that for you. “These songs are yours too,” he says. “Sing them, plant them in your yard, graft themto your own musical tree. Keep them watered and even if they lie fallow for a spell, they’ll revive. Folk songs are perennials.”

That is an idea the musicians who joined up as The Macmath Collective understand. It is what they’ve done with their recording Macmath: The Silent Page.

It began with two handwritten books. Perhaps you’ve heard songs referred to as Child ballads? Even if you’ve not you’ve no doubt heard some of the songs themselves, or sung them: Barbara Allen, Matty Groves, The Cherry Tree Carol, and dozens of others have entered the folk and popular song landscape, been adapted, and revised and handed on because Francis James Child, a professor at Harvard, published the books called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in several volumes between 1882 and 1898. William Macmath, from Galloway in southwestern Scotland, loved music and the stories told through it. He was one of the people Child relied on to gather songs for him. Artist Edward Hornel (one oof the group of painters known as the Glasgow Boys ) bought a collection of papers which included those two handwritten books, and they ended up the collection at his home in southwestern Scotland. More than a century later, songwriter and community choir leader Alison Burns came across them, and in her words “began to think about ways to sing this paper collection back to life.”

Most of the songs and stories in the books were told directly to William Macmath by people who knew them and lived them in southwestern Scotland. It seemed natural then to turn to musicians in living and working in that region today with the idea. Wendy Stewart, one of Scotland’s top harp players, joined on, as did flute and fiddle player Claire Mann, who has won many All Ireland titles and been a principal flute tutor on the Scottish Music course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Guitarist and bouzouki player Aaron Jones, who has toured the world with artists including Old Blind Dogs and Kate Rusby, and singer Robyn Stapleton, who was named Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year by BBC Radio Scotland in 2014, were in. So were Jamie McClennan, who brought his fiddle and guitar talents to Scotland from New Zealand more than ten years ago, and Emily Smith, who is five albums into a solo career which includes awards for her songwriting and singing, among them twice being named as Scots Singer of the year by BBC Radio Scotland.

That’s an impressive group, yes. But what does the recording sound like? “We decided early on that our goal was to make a collection of singable songs with great arrangements,” Burns says. To that end, they sometimes tweaked some of the lines to help them fit with the music, and on occasion found local tunes or wrote new melodies where no music for a song existed.

There are thirteen songs on the recording. You may find song lyrics, story lines, perhaps melodies or phrases of music that will seem familiar, but you’ve not heard them quite like this before. There are love songs with happy endings and with not, fantastical tales, song which evoke the natural landscape and the world of fairies, a nonsense rhyme or two, stories of unusual people, advice on marriage, all framed in tales that people enjoyed singing and handing on through hundreds of years.

“We’ve chosen songs that were unusual, rare, or unique to the collection,” Burns points out, adding that while some of the stories may be familiar or you may have heard other versions of the songs, “the reason that you do may well be down to the work of William Macmath in recording and sending them on to Child for publication.”

In the hands and voices of these musicians the songs are no museum pieces, though. Source material, rather, and stories which on their own reflect and share the lively tale telling and singing that has taken place in southwestern Scotland through the centuries. Listen out especially for the lively tale of the cabin by in The Golden Vanitee and the story of love challenged by obstacles real and fantastical in The Queen of the Fairies. The joy of collaboration in music comes through in the singing and playing of the Macmath Collective on every track.

Singing songs back to life, reaching across time to share thoughts, ideas, celebrations, and stories: these are at the heart of the work on Macmath: The Silent Page and on Jayme Stone’s Folklife.

You may also wish to see
Emily Smith: Echoes
Music for Reflection with a song from Robyn Stapleton
Geography of Hope with a song by Moira Smiley
Carrie Newcomer’s album The Beautiful Not Yet which Jayme Stone produced and on which Moira Smiley sings harmony

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Celtic Colours on Cape Breton

Cape Breton is a fascinating place to explore at any time of year. When autumn landscape, community welcome, and generous sharing of the strands of music which weave though life in this island in Atlantic Canada come together each October at the Celtic Colours International Festival, it’s really time to be on Cape Breton.

This year, 2017, the festival runs from 6 through 14 October as it marks its twenty first season of concerts, workshops, community meals, and cultural experiences all across the island. Visiting artists from Scotland, Ireland, the United States and many parts of Canada will inform the music this year. There’s a special emphasis on Canada’s artists this year as Celtic Colours joins in celebrations across Canada marking the150th anniversary of Confederation.

People were coming to this island in the far north of what would become known as Nova Scotia long before 150 years ago, however. They were making music then, too.

The fiddle is one of the most portable of instruments. When people were driven from their homes in the Highlands and Island of Scotland by landlords who thought livestock would bring better profit than farms, often there was little they could take along. The music and dances in their memories and in their hearts survived, and in many cases, so did their fiddles. Those memories and those fiddles became the basis of their music in the new world.

As much as that music and dance carried on the traditions of Scotland, new elements had their influences. Back in Scotland, music and dance continued to evolve, too. One place where all this comes together in the 21st century is at the Celtic Colours Festival.

The theme of Celtic Colours this year is Roots. It’s an idea which encompasses both the depth of connection and community which make up the island’s cultures and the need to nurture and connect and evolve what is now and what’s to come. This is all present in the music which anchors the festival, and is marked in varied ways in the sharing of arts, crafts, community meals, and other events.

A few things you may expect at Celtic Colours this year:

We Walk As One: the Grand Opening, is a concert which takes place in Sydney at Centre 2000, will feature artists from Scotland, Ireland, Nunavut, and from the Acadian and Scottish communities of Cape Breton. The trio of guitarist John Doyle, flute player and piper Michael McGoldrick, and fiddler John McCusker account for some of the Ireland and Scotland presence as they make their festival debut as a trio. Swing du Sutete brings dance from the Acadian tradition, while singer IVA from Nunavut makes her first appearance at the festival and Cape Breton group Coig returns. Fellow Cape Bretoner Heather Rankin, long known for work with her family band, makes her solo debut at the festival this night, while Cathy Ann McPhee and Patsy Seddon add in Scotland’s presence.

This sort of evening is a tradition at Celtic Colours: every concert -- and most nights there a half a dozen or so going on across the island -- includes several acts. Each plays a set and then they join for a finale. Each evening in this way serves as an ambassador for several sorts of music, and the connections among them.

Across the nine days of the festival, you will a fiddle summit, a gathering featuring First Nations artists, a performance which will take place in historic Fortress Louisbourg, and a tribute concert to John MacDougall, who composed 38,000 tunes. Most evenings offer performances from musicians of differing cultural stands, drawing on connections and contrasts so all may celebrate and learn.

Six songwriters from different parts of Canada will have been working for a week to write material for their concert Songs from Scratch. Gaelic song and Gaelic infused piping, fiddling, dance,and piano playing will fill Saint Matthew’s Church one afternoon in Inverness as Seudan, based in that other Inverness meet up with Cape Breton fiddlers Shelly Campbell and Andrea Beaton and others.

There might be a bluegrass and jazz tinge to things as Grammy winning banjo player and composer Alison Brown from the US joins top Cape Breton fiddle player Kimberley Fraser and Scotland’s Paul McKenna for the Cow Bay Ceilidh.
It’s sure to be an evening to remember when Boston based Scottish style fiddler and composer Hanneke Cassel and her band mates Mike Block on cello and guitarist Keith Murphy share the bill with dynamic African American roots based singer Rhiannon Giddens and Cajun/old time singer Dirk Powell -- and take note, Giddens and Powell are both ace banjo players, too. Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald will add Cape Breton pipe and fiddle tunes to the night as well.

The learning and sharing ad collaboration is not limited to each night’s featured concerts. There are workshops, master classes, and talks to do with music, of course, and you’d have many chances to take part as a players, dancer, or observer, in a ceilidh -- a party with music and dance. You’d have the chance to learn a few steps, too, or you could learn a bit of Gaelic, or perhaps how to hook a rug in the longstanding Acadian way, or try your hand at painting sea scene or learn about blacksmithing with a side of tunes and talk. You could go for a guided walk in the outdoors of Cape Breton autumn, take in art exhibits, create your won art as you try your hand a pumpkin carving, and visit farmer’s markets and craft shows.

If you are not quite ready to wind down after the main concerts each night, too, the always popular Festival Club at the Gaelic College at Saint Ann’s keeps things going until the small hours of the morning.

The people of Cape Breton are warm and welcoming, you’ll find, and very ready to talk and to listen as you participate in all these things. Another great time for Cape Breton conversation is over a meal. You’ll have good chance to do that: there are breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas, and dinners a plenty. Seafood is a big deal on this island, and you will find ham, roast beef, turkey, Scottish and Acadian specialities, and plenty of veg and desserts on hand too. Groups across Cape Breton step up each year to prepare and host community meals.

The Grand Finale of the music concerts of this twenty first year of Celtic Colours will take place in Port Hawkesbury. Powerful singer and guitartist JP Cormier will bring in the Cape Breton presence. Imar, a high energy group formed of members from top Celtic nations bands, will likely blow the roof off the hall, but if they have not, then Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell are quite powerful enough to do that all on their own. This year’s festival artists in residence, songwriters Buddy MacDonald and James Keelaghan, will no doubt have surprises to share, as will top irish American group Cherish the Ladies, who have been thrilling audiences across the world with the thoughtful and lively sides of Irish music for more than three decades.

This is just a taste of what’s in store across the nine days of this year’s Celtic Colours Festival. Even if you’ll not make it to Cape Breton for Celtic Colours this year, explore the festival’s website to learn about this vibrant place where, as the festival’s artistic director Dawn Beaton says “Music is a powerful force that feeds the soul.” Keep an eye on the Celtic Colours website too to learn if, as has been the case in past years, some of the festival’s concerts will be live streamed online.

One other thing: as part of the living legacy of the festival and to honor this special anniversary in the story of Canada, Celtic Colours will partner with Strathlorne Nursery in Inverness and community partners across the island to plant a maple tree for every ticket sold. Last year there were around 22,000 tickets purchased, so the spring of 2018 should see a big season of maple planting across Cape Breton!

Photographs of Michael McGoldrick, Alison Brown, Hanneke Cassel, Dirk Powell, Rhiannon Giddens, and Joanie Madden (of Cherish the Ladies) made with permission of the artists, by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Canada’s music: Catherine MacLellan who will take part in the Songs from Scratch project
Celebrating Cape Breton’s Heritage and Connections though Music
Sounds of Cape Breton
Scottish Musicians Look at the Future of Our Past
Women of Ireland: Music
Reflections, Travel, Music: Music and its Power to Connect

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Scotland meets Americana: Elias Alexander & The Bywater Band

Oregon, Scotland, Vermont, New Orleans, Boston: each of these places plays a part in the geography of Elias Alexander’s music, and of Bywater, the band he formed with musical friend Eamon Sefton, Kathleen Parks, and Patrick Bowling.

Alexander grew up in Oregon. On a family visit to Scotland as a teenager he fell in love with the sounds of Scotland’s music. Beginning with whistles (which he still plays), he went on to learn Highland and border pipes, and fiddle. Back in Scotland one day, on a break from work planting trees, he sat by a stream. He had his whistles with him -- good thing, too, as jigs and reels and all sorts of songs and tunes came pouring out. That was when, he says “I knew that traditional music was going to become... something I was wholly dedicated to.”

It wasn’t quite a straight forward path always, though, and for a time he felt he’d lost direction. Dropping out of university in Vermont, he ended up in New Orleans. Busking on the street, he found ways back to the music, leading him to return to Vermont to finish his university studies at Middlebury College. Then he moved to Boston to join the thriving Celtic music scene there. It was tin Boston, too, that he met up with the three friends who’d become the Bywater Band.

The album Bywater, Alexander and the band’s debut recording project, shows how he and they have taken ideas from Celtic traditions along paths which respect that yet create something new. The Reclamation, for instance, begins as a march which leads into bluesy solo turns from pipes and from fiddle. It was written, Alexander says, “in support of those taking back their culture and their land.” The set Murray’s comprises a Gaelic song learned from Gillebride MacMillan (whose music you’ve met here along the music road),a tune from Alexander first pipe teacher, a piece written by the band to honor the place where Eamon Sefton grew up, and a tune called the best session ever, which, Alexander writes “happened in Boston after Hanneke Cassel and Mike Block’s wedding.” You’ve met both Mike’s and Hanneke’s music here before too.

Sunset run is, as its title might suggest, a quieter, more reflective set, which the band handles equally well. The name Bywater is meant to honor both Alexander’s experiences in the New Orleans district and his time by the stream in Scotland, and their connections in Alexander’s life. That thread of connection to water plays out also in the song Earth and Stone, as Alexander sings of his family’s story of emigration, a thoughtful piece that asks good questions as well as tells good stories.

The tunes and songs on the album range across tempo and idea, though they remain grounded in the music of Scotland. Each of the four band members is well accomplished at both taking lead and supporting the other three, and in creating arrangements which allow their talents together and individually to shine. Bywater is an engaging debut> Each of the band members works on other projects, and it will interesting to see what path they take when next they join up.

You may also wish to see
Hanneke Cassel: For Reasons Unseen
A story about the album Mary Ann Kennedy and Na Seoid, with information about Gaelic singer Gillebride MacMillan -- you will have seen him as the bard in Outlander, too
Katie McNally: The Boston States
A bit about bagpipes --mainly Highland pipes -- at Percpetive Travel
Web site of Elias Alexander

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Scotland's music: Emily Smith: Echoes

A meeting with an old friend that might go wrong but in the end goes right, reflections on a seafaring life and a ship put at anchor, a disagreement between two sisters with an unexpected ending, a refection on seed time and harvest, and another on journeys: these are but several of the stories Emily Smith tells through the songs in her recording Echoes.

Many are told in songs arising from traditions of Scotland, framed in arrangements by Smith. A gifted songwriter herself, she well knows how to arrange music in service of story, and how to connect with tradition while keeping music and story fresh. Those are gifts which come through in her clear and expressive singing as well.

That tale of a meeting that seemed to go wrong and then right is one such song from tradition. It is called Reres Hill. Smith also turns to the tradition of Scotland for The Hawk and The Crow. In rather different ways each song holds a touch of wry humour, which Smith conveys with a light touch.

King Orfeo taps the mystical aspect of tradition and legend with several threads of good story in it. Smith tells this tale from Shetland with clarity and good energy that well suits the tale, it path, and its outcome. That’s also true with her take on the gentle, bittersweet classic My Darling Boy.

The Sower’s Song has words by poet Thomas Carlyle set to music composed by Smith and her musical partner and husband Jamie McClennan. Carlyle, a 19th century writer, came from Dumfries and Galloway, which is also Smith’s native place It is a reflective story of the turns of time as framed in seed time and harvest.

Now hands to seed sheet boys
We step and we cast, old Time’s on wing
Partake of harvest joys
The seed we sow in spring

Smith has chosen work from contemporary songwriters for Echoes as well. Among these are reflections on change told through a seaman’s work inThe Final Trawl, written by acclaimed Scottish songwriter Archie Fisher. The Open Door by Americana songwriter Darrell Scott has to do with change too: in the space of three short verses he creates a lasting story which Smith conveys with thoughtful understatement.

It is indeed an interesting, creative and thoughtful journey Smith leads through the music she’s chosen for Echoes. In this she’s well supported by frequent collaborators McClennan, who produced the project and joins in on fiddle guitar, and backing vocals, Mattheu Watson on guitars, Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion, and Ross Hamilton on bass. Special guests sit in as well from time to time, including Jerry Douglas, Tim Edey, Aoife O’Donovan, Rory Butler, Natalie Haas, and Kris Drever.

Following on the idea of journeys and echoes which thread through the music, Smith and McClennan have chosen the song John O’Dreams to draw things together for a quiet close.

Echoes is an album which offers enjoyment, inspiration, and invitation to repeated listening. Every track is a keeper.

Photographs of Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow by Kerry Dexter, made with permission of the artists, the venue, and the festival. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see

Music for Late Winter, a story here at Music Road which includes Emily’s fine holiday recording, Songs for Christmas.

Songs of Hope, part two of a continuing series here at Music Raod, which includes The Sower’s Song

Emily Smith, Jamie McClennan, and Robert Burns

Scotland in Six, a story I’ve done at Perceptive Travel with six Scottish musicians you should know, among them Emily Smith, Eddi Reader, and John McCusker.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Canada's music: Catherine MacLellan

Prince Edward Island, just north of Nova Scotia in the maritime provinces of Canada, has an understated beauty and a depth of story which draws people in.

The same could be said of the music made by songwriter Catherine MacLellan, who comes from Summerside on PEI.

She is an excellent musician in her own right, with a Juno award along with East Coast Music awards and Canadian Folk Music awards in her resume. She is also, as she points out in the notes for her most recent album, a songwriter’s daughter.

That album is called If It’s Alright with You: The Songs of Gene MacLellan. On it are thirteen tracks written by Gene MacLellan. There are country, pop, gospel, folk, and Americana songs songs in the choices, fittingly enough, as his music has been covered by artists from all those genres. What pulls through is the thread of story. What also pulls through is the thread of poetry. Those are elements Catherine understands in her own work, and which she brings to her interpretation of he father’s music.

The songs range from lesser known to well known, enigmatic to straightforward, reflective to forthright. Catherine MacLellan honours her father’s work, while gracefully and graciously putting her own stamp on them.

It took her a while to get to making this album. As she established herself with her own work, she knew it was important to step outside the shadow of her dad’s career. Gradually, she had begun including some of Gene’s music into her live shows. It was the recognition of her music with the Juno award for her album The Raven’s Sun that pointed her toward this recording. "The Juno made me feel as though people know me and appreciated my music,” Catherine says.”Now I want to share my dad's music. It's also an opportunity for me to get to know him better. The more I get to know his songs, the closer I feel to him." Gene MacLellan died when Catherine was a teenager.

The blockbuster hit for Gene, and for Anne Murray, whose signature song it became, was Snowbird. As with any good song, it stands up to differing interpretations. As Murray sang it, the focus -- and the arrangement -- was on the brighter side of things. Catherine, who had added the song to her live shows several years back, decided to slow things down and take a more somber, reflective approach when she sang it. For this album, she was thinking about how to do it in an original way. The result is a thoughtful, quiet version of a song which has become a classic in several genres. “Snowbird was the first song of my dad's that I started performing regularly, and I had already recorded an album and a live version,” Catherine says. “I wanted to do it again, but differently. I got out the Wurlitzer and played it as simply as I think this song needs to be. It's very honest. I also was able to finally record the extra verse that only my dad ever recorded.”

While researching her father’s music, Catherine followed up on something else she’d heard about Snowbird. She kept hearing that it was the second song he ever wrote. What, she wondered, was the first? “Turns out, it was Pages of Time, a real country heartbreak song and we produced it in a throwback sort of way. I always wanted to be a country singer!” Catherine says. She and producer Chris Gauthier decided to make Pages of Time the first track on the album.

Of the title track of If It’s Alright with You, Catherine says “For me, this sums up my dad's songwriting and his personality. He always wanted to make sure everyone was ok, and put others first.” She adds that the song also reflects Gene’s searching for peace. That’s a journey which led him to prefer writing songs to performing them.

Gene MacLellan’s gift for creating memorable stories in just a few words comes through in his most covered songs, as well as his less widely known work. There’s the stone country with a twist drinking song in Face in the Mirror, the poetry of landscape and wandering in Lonesome River and Thorn in My Shoe, and another sort of search, a spiritual one, in Won’t Talk About Love.

Another aspect of that spiritual side comes through in what has proved to be Gene MacLellan’s most recorded song, Put Your Hand in the Hand. That so many had recorded it, artists ranging for Elvis Presley to Ocean to Loretta Lynn to Anne Murray gave Catherine pause when she was considering how to do it for this album. Insight came in collaboration with two musical friends. “When I was on tour this spring with Dave Gunning and JP Cormier, we played it as an encore and it was so fun, just two guitars and three voices,” she says. “We took an afternoon [on the road] in Calgary and recorded our version in three hours and I think it is perfect. I'm very happy with what we captured.”

Among other tracks are Bidin’ My Time, The Call (with guest vocals from John Connolly), and Shilo Song. The production is spare when it needs to be and more complex when that serves a song’s idea. Through it all, Catherine MacLellan’s understanding and respect for her father’s work and the stories told come through.

What would Gene MacLellan think about this recording? "He would be happy to know his songs continue on, being remembered and given a new spark," Catherine says. "It’s a testament to what a young guy from very humble beginnings can do."

You may also wish to see
Catherine MacLellan and Chris Gauthier with a song she’s written, Frost in the Hollows. She has recorded it on her album The Raven’s Sun

Scotland’s music: Karen Matheson: Gaelic, story, and family
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Music in Times of Change: Songs of Hope 4
Celebrating Cape Breton’s Heritage, Music, and Connections Catherine will be part of a Songs from Scratch concert at the Celtic Colours Festival on Cape Breton this coming October. That concert will be in Sydney River.
Discover Prince Edward Island

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