Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ireland's music: Matt and Shannon Heaton: Tell You In Earnest

For their album Tell You in Earnest Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to choose songs framed in conversation between two people. The reason for that choice, Shannon says, was twofold. For one thing though Matt and Shannon both have been and continue to be involved in bands and side projects, for a good while now, “ and now maybe more than ever,” Shannon says -- the husband and wife have made their duo performances and recording their home base in music. The second reason, she explains, builds on that.

“It’s great to play with a whole band, it’s lovely,” she says, “ but there’s something just really intimate and spectacularly expressive about a conversation between two people. Maybe a third party wanders into the story in a song, maybe a cello wanders in, but ultimately it’s about the essence of two people and what they can say to each other and how they can listen to each other. So I think,” she continues, “ it was meant to be this overt demonstration, musically, of what a duo is, which is a bunch of different conversations in a bunch of different moods.”

Different moods and different sources, too.

To open the recording, there’s Cruel Salt Sea, a song which had its origins in the traditional ballad Outlandish Knight. Shannon describes the evolution of the song to the version on Tell Me in Earnest. “That song always grabbed me. I always thought it was the outlandish knight, like the craaazy knight! But he was from the northlands, the outlands,” Shannon says. From the traditional version she’s learned on a recording by Shirley Collins “I started changing the words around - of course -- first because I wanted to condense some of the verses. People aren’t going to listen to twenty five verses. So to condense, I have to rewrite a little bit, and then I always like to change any super weird vernacular stuff. But there were still a lot of verses, and so I felt like there had to be resting places, so I added the repeating lines, and then I added a bridge -- I really like the bridge -- and then before I knew it I’d taken away the words outlandish knight and added the words cruel salt sea. So I changed the title. Tinkering around, that’s what trad musicians do!”

Giving their own stamp and creativity to music from the tradition as well as creating their own music is indeed what the Heatons do. On Tell You in Earnest focusing on the idea of dialogue or conversation songs (“Each song is like a mini play,” Matt says), they also take on the Child ballad Gallant Hussar, following mostly traditional words and melody enhanced with original instrumental breaks. There’s Richard Thompson’s classic set of conversations between a guy and a girl about a bike -- and much more -- in Vincent Black Lightning 1952. There’s the dialogue between mother and son that creates a powerful anti war message, all the more powerful when you realize it was written some centuries back -- called Mrs. McGrath. There is a mostly traditional version of a song called The Demon Lover, framed in a conversation with the devil and its consequences, and on a happier note, an over the top Thai love song, Mon Rak Dawk Kam sung in Thai, blending the Heatons’ understanding of Irish traditional music with Shannon’s longtime connections with Thailand. That song, whose title translates as The Enchanted Flower of Kam Tai, proved to be a way into an aspect of this recording the Heatons had not expected. Shannon credits her time spent as an exchange student in Thailand with opening the door to her love of traditional music -- her own heritage tradition of Irish music -- by immersing her in another set of older traditions from another culture. In recent years, on occasion they have worked some of this in to their Irish music repertoire. “As we were thinking about conversation songs, Mon Rak Dawk Tam Kai is a beautiful conversation song, so we thought let’s try it. We were messing around with the idea of including a Thai song on the album and then it got a little deeper. We realized, you know what, that’s part of who I am. And Matt -- he loves electric guitar, he loves surf guitar, he’s played in rock bands since he was a kid.” Parts of that aspect of Matt’s music come out on his work on On Rak Dawk Tam Kai as well as his funny original Easy Come East Go and the well traveled traditional ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low. In the past, they have included touches of these things here and there in their bedrock devotion to Irish traditional music. “But this time,” Shannon continues, having those touches in their music on this album “That’s really our authentic musical expression, that’s really who we are.”

Matt and Shannon Heaton met in Chicago, when flute player Shannon was called for a wedding gig and needed a guitar player to accompany her. Matt grew up in Pennsylvania, turing the pages for his father;s professional concerts before heading off into his own explorations of rock, surf, tango, and Irish guitar. Shannon’s parents took their kids with them as they lived in several different countries; it was as a young child in Nigeria that she first fund herself drawn to the flute. Later, she studied classical music and ethnomusicology in addition to spending that time in Thailand.

All that may not sound exactly like the background you would expect for two of the most highly regarded players, composers, singers, and teachers in contemporary Irish music. That is a the strong strand of their heritage, however, and they have spent time learning music in Ireland as well as immersed in the vibrant Irish music community of their home base in New England.

The characters in the songs on Tell You in Earnest come alive through the conversations in the lyrics, and through the conversations opened up through the Heatons’ lead and harmony singing, and through their thoughtful and well conceived melodies and intros and instrumental breaks as well. They offer a range of human experience, from the hauntingly poetic murder ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low to Matt’s funny original song Easy Come Easy Go, in which he imagines what could happen if a bit of story often found in traditional songs went awry. There are grim conversations and supernatural elements, over the top love songs and funny ones, all told in conversations framed in the Heatons' always creative take on carrying tradition into the present.

Give a listen -- these are conversations you will want to return to again and again.

Photographs of Matt and Shannon Heaton (with guest Mike Block on cello in the top one) by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Lovers' Well: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Another Fine Winter's Night: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Listening to Ireland: Patrick season

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Anonymous Sheryl said...

Thanks for another thoughtful and beautifully written recommendation, Kerry!

4:56 PM  
Blogger Jane Louise Boursaw said...

I love that idea and agree there's something special about an intimate conversation. I used to love to listen to conversations and them write them down (which ok, would be super stalker-ish in this day and age).

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart said...

It must be interesting to do such creative work with your spouse. My hubby and I work pretty well when I help with certain projects (like helping him when he needs it as he builds something at home), but I wonder about the challenges of a bigger collaboration for these musicians. Good for them.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous merr said...

Your music knowledge is deep and thoughtful. Thank you.

6:41 PM  

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