Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll has long been known as a master of Irish traditional music. An all-Ireland fiddle champion and National Heritage Award-winner, the Chicago mayor's office named a day in honor of its talented native daughter. In May, 2001 Liz's album, Lost in the Loop (Green Linnet), was named Album of the Year in the Celtic/British Isles Category by the Association for Independent Music.
(This interview was recorded in 2000, on Liz Carroll's first visit to Scotland.)
Happily I've met up with Liz Carroll at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. It's not only the first time you've been to Celtic Connections, but the first time you've been to Scotland, so it's great to have you here.
I'm really happy to be here. We've wanted to come to Scotland for a very long time. My husband and I have said "Look at Scotland, its got great music, golf and Scotch, the 3 things we care about most." So I'm delighted to be here.
Unfortunately I'm here without him. In his honor I wanted to hop on a bus or train, whatever, and head to a golf course at some point, but the music is just too good and I'm rooted to this hotel and this festival. And have not seen the golf course -- saw the Scotch but no golf course!
The Scotch goes hand in hand with the music probably better than the golf does.
Oh yeah! you'll get no argument out of me!
Now, one of the things you were involved with over here was a great night of music called String Sisters. Tell us a bit about that.
Yeah, I'll probably look back at this as one of the best things I've been involved with. There's a few of those things that come along and you just go, "this was really great." I had dinner with Liz Knowles this evening and we were just saying we were proud to have been a part of it.
It was women fiddlers and Catriona MacDonald from Shetland was the girl who called me up and called Liz Knowles from the States, and Annbjorg Lien from Norway, Natalie McMaster from Cape Breton & Mairead Mooney from Ireland and just said "Come on let's get together and do a concert." So I said yes, maybe too soon.
I'm not one to want to work too hard at things and so I was thinking, "oh great I'll come in with my own little thing for 15 minutes, brilliant, I'll do it!" And she said great that you can come; now let me tell you about it. And when she told me about it turned out that it was going to be a whole lot of work. Hopefully it was going to be a good outcome.
So she faxed me over a ton of music. Everybody had contributed 4 or 5 selections for the other people to check out or learn and actually when I got mine, which would have been last Wednesday or Thursday, I didn't even send off the girls any music from me.
Number one, I'm in shock looking at this much music. They're going to be tearing their hair out if I send them another four selections but I had the feeling everyone wouldn't be learning all this material. So, last Sunday my husband was cooking up a chicken dinner, I leaned on the counter and said "Do you realize I'm trying to learn 24 tunes in one week?"
He said I think you should start practicing right now and start drinking heavily, as you know they all are. But at the back of my mind, I didn't want to be the one that didn't put in any effort. I want to arrive there and know it, at least get it as close as I can.
So I was killing myself and they were too. Because when we all got together, and there we were 6 of us in the room, and there's a whole band ready to play behind us, at the rehearsal last Wednesday, they had their act together.
Well it really showed and what was really special is that very often, as you mentioned yourself, when you do get a gathering of people who are fiddlers, guitarists, pipers or play a variety of instruments, and you bring them together in a show, it's a series of people all doing their own bit, they all have a jam at the end and its a lot of fun.
But this was differently conceived and you did play together and there were points when each of you were leading off the tune, but it was an ensemble and you were backed up by seven blokes all playing a variety of instruments.
So it was musically much more rewarding for the audience and more challenging for you, and it was much more dramatic. Then the staging of it and the way it all came across.
A lot of people were saying after the concert, "This was the best thing I've seen in years," and certainly one of the things that Celtic Connections has been known for, which is bringing people together and giving them a platform on which they can try something out that they haven't done before. So for all these reasons it was a very special night.
Yeah, I really hope Catriona is pleased. We went backstage and just playing in the concert itself -- I think that there were a couple of different things going on. It was just really cool being on the stage and seeing how everybody performs. That was great. There was one moment when Annbjorg (Lien, left) was next to me, it was very early on, and she just twirled, and around she went! I was so surprised and then Natalie started tapping out a dance. It wasn't like a performance, it was like she was having fun.
It was really great watching everybody perform. And the other thing that was going on was...well you had to be there! No, I'm kidding! Well the other thing was we were getting very emotional with the sound of all these fiddles together -- emotional about how it was sounding -- how very lovely we were all thinking it was. And also that it was all going by.
After you have put an effort into something and to just see it all just slipping away as the night went on, I think I was just being jokey at the beginning of the night and just looked to the girls on my left and put up two fingers, in other words two down, another one gone by, but it was striking me it was rather sad as the night was going on after all that one has gone and we loved it, and we won't be doing it again.
Well the building emotional pitch was palable from out in the audience as we could see you were all relaxing into it and having a good time, having fun and, well, ceilidh-ing up there on stage.
I don't know what that snake dance was! I wasn't ready for that it was really silly. Natalie led that, it was really funny. It was very good, you see the silly side of everybody.
And this to come hot on the heels of another landmark for you which is the release, after a good many years, of your album, which I have to say has been, to use a cliche, long awaited.
Yeah it's been a long time. It feels great. It just came to the point where there were some tunes that I felt like I'm ready, this needs to go out. I feel that there is quality here in what these are. It's not just there is a rush to get something together for the next tour so I have something to sell.
I feel I just have to share this now. I'm on my own with these little tunes and the way they're played. You can't bring them to a session really, you know how these Irish sessions are, everybody wants to pretty much to play together. So if you introduce something new and most people don't bring tape reorders to sessions any more.
So you play it once and you're on your own and you were to come back the next week and play it again, you would be rather rude, or perceived to be rude maybe, so if you have something nice it was a forum to just go ahead and put them out and say "There, now in your own time you can take that in and if you like it you can learn it or know it and if you don't, that's fine too."
And you involved a lot of other musicians on there, some or many of whom you have worked with through the years. Can you lead us in a run down of the musicians, as folks who listen to The Thistle & Shamrock will be well familiar with many of them.
Well I started off by calling up Seamus Egan and Win Horan up in New York. Well, up and over, and I asked them about co-producing it. Winnie ended up saying to go ahead and let Seamus do that and she'd be a musician on it, I don't think you need to be looking at two different people. So she baled out. But I would have really liked her to have been equally involved. But she plays absolutely beautifully on it.
Seamus I first met at a Philedelphia Irish Festival probably when he was about 12 yrs old. He had come over from Ireland, so he had been there with his family for a certain amount of time, born in Philadelphia, living in Foxford, Mayo, and then came back to the States.
Eugene O'Donnell, the great fiddle player from Derry, living in Philadelphia then, grabbed me and dragged me over and said you have to hear this fella play the flute. So that's the first time I met him. Honestly probably he was 12.
Winnie, I went one time to do a concert for Johnny Cronin in New York and he brought out Michael Flatley and myself to go and do a concert at the Tower Ballroom and that night Donny Golden, a great dancer, said you have to hear this girl play the fiddle. She was a dancing student of his but was also playing the fiddle.
He said "This is Winnifred Horan." She played me a tune and I went Oh my God! there's a great fiddle player. I met her then, she was probably 9 or 10 and she disappeared from the music part of the Irish scene, although she kept up the dancing. She told me her parents were very much into her being a classical violinist and so she followed that route. So I didn't hear from her for a long time, until there was a space for a dancer in Cherish the Ladies and Joanie Madden had given her a call about dancing.
She was dancing with Cherish, but she was watching Eileen and also watching Seamus' sister, Siobhan, as well. Eileen went on to move out of that group and Winnie just said "I can do this." She pulled out her fiddle and apparently just worked and worked and worked to get into shape to play Irish music. She talks about hours, hours a day. Six, seven hours and she did it. She's brilliant, absolutely beautiful.
So, I love her playing and I wanted her to do some second fiddling on this album and support it and use her imagination to come up with counter melodies and lines. Use her mind, bring her on board.
Everybody else -- John Doyle is on it and of course he is the guitar player with Solas and of course I've been hearing him on their recordings and seen him playing first with Chanting House in New York. It's a great driving guitar playing. I'm a kinda drivey fiddle player so that would be a great match so even although I hadn't played with him per se, in a session or something, I just would really love to have John Doyle.
So we went from there. Daithi Sproule is on it. Daithi is my old buddy always, from Trian. The last album, which was a solo album that came out in '88 Daithi was my guitar player all the way through that, so it was just the two of us. So I wanted Daithi to come on it especially as a friend. We played a set of jigs together, we also did a sort of reprise of what was on the '88 album where he had composed a tune at that time for Mairead and Anna Mhaonaigh and it's a beautiful tune.
He opened it with the guitar and I met him half way and we finished it off together. He had this absolutely beautiful tune he had sent me on tape called "The Crow in the Sun" and I wanted him to do it on the album so again he does the entire tune himself and I join him. It's kinda nice to go back to the old album and do that again.
Jackie Moran is a drummer in Chicago and I just think he's the best of the best in our area of the country, and all over. I don't want to give him a swelled head but he's a really terrific drummer. He's the only Chicago connection that I did.
I said, well if it's a solo album and I've done lots of group things and, God knows, lots of gigs with different combinations of instruments, accordions, flutes and everything, so I really just said I'm grabbing the back-up. Anne MacLeod is on there playing the bouzouki and a little bit of guitar.
There's a couple of people I didn't know before but Seamus brought into the project. One is Chico Hoff, he's a bass player in Philadelphia. Great, nice guy. And Michael Aaron and I did realise I had meet Michael before but he used to be in a group called Trapezoid, which was a great group over there on the east coast. I know bunches of people from that, including Frieda Epstein, Ralph Gordon and all of them. So he plays piano and a little bit of cello and a little bit of bass. Another great addition.
To go into that project with all this music and then to work through it and see it start to evolve, and become arranged and to start to take shape, are you able yet to stand back from it and know how you feel about it, or are you still too close to the project.
I'm going to get emotional! Just hearing it arranged like that, funnily enough its different, like, from hearing your voice back -- when maybe someday I hear this on a radio I'm going to hate it. For whatever reason just because of the way it is recorded or whatever, I'm loving it!
I'm very relaxed with it, probably more relaxed than I've been with any recording. Trian albums were always great as well. It's the sound and it's just the question of when am I going to come down from enjoying what Seamus did for it and what all those musicians did for the arrangements.
It's simple, it's not fancy. There's only a couple of tracks that really get dance with other musicians in. It's the sound that I like and I hope that it's a nice album to listen from beginning to end.
I look at albums that I totally love from other genres. I really loved the Graceland album which I liked because it just went from beginning to end and it all had one kind of spirit. If something jumps around too much I get a little uncomfortable with an album so I didn't want it to be that there is just one good track, I didn't want it to be too different personnel from track to track, so this is why those people weave in and out all the way through it and hopefully it is going to be something you are able to listen to the first note, listen to the last note and it will be like a completed little book.
It's a little difficult to ask you to do this because you've mentioned all the artists who are involved and your favourite connections with all of them. You've mentioned the tune with Daithi, but could you pick out another couple of high points from the album that you might want to talk a little bit about to take us to a couple of different directions.
There's a slower piece on it. I think a lot of times I'm known as a fast reel player. Its ended up when I've been in the Green Fields and it comes to my turn to play, the gang are "all right, rip into it Liz," so I don't often get the chance to play the slower stuff.
Anyway there is a tune of mine down here that I do like that I'll point out. My parents are from Ireland, so here I am in the United States, and I really love Irish music. And that is an odd situation, I'm sure it's odd for anyone playing the music from another country. But my parents come from Ireland so that explains that.
And yet you love America. And I know that history. So there is this affection, maybe call it affection, for Ireland which is probably fairly odd for the Irish themselves. You don't quite know where to place yourself. You go over to Ireland and you don't quite belong. I've been in situations there: you're sitting there in a session playing Irish tunes for 2 hours and then someone will turn to you and say "lets play some of your music" and they'll tear into "Turkey in the Straw". And I'll go "Its not my music", that's not it! No!
Then when you're in the States and let's say it comes up to St. Patrick's Day. First of all most people's idea when it comes to music on St Patrick's Day is your "Heuch!" (does that describe it?). It is that "up" singing, swing the glasses. So this music doesn't really fit in, in Chicago on St Patrick's Day.
Unless you're playing for a dancer, then you get an incredible amount of attention. But if you get what I'm getting at -- you don't quite belong in America and you don't quite belong in Ireland, just because of this dual thing going on. So I would imagine that it's the same for those people in England whose parents or grandparents come from Ireland and they have this great love.
In any case I have this tune on there called "The Lament of the First Generation". It speaks to the confusion, like I say, of the affection for this place that we're not from.
Back to that first generation, that second generation and that third generation in America now from Ireland. They have created this amazing legacy of music, Irish-American music. Yes, there is Irish music but I think that people are more and more recognising that the Irish-American community have a contribution to make.
So much of that energy and drive is from Irish-American players, especially from women, Irish-American players. You have mentioned Win, Eileen Ivers, yourself, Joannie Madden and a whole lot of other players. What's happening with Irish-America and with Irish-American women? It seems to something of a golden age.
Well I think everybody is getting a little more comfortable. What I was saying about we're all from there and there is a certain confusion goes on --0 I think there is a point where we wanted it so much to sound right, so we went to great lengths to make it sound traditional and not to use any other influences. But as time went by all of us would become so involved in festivals. That's where you would go to get to play on a stage.
So you're at a festival and you've got tremendous Bluegrass music going on, and over here a tremendous duel of blues and Texas swing over there. It's just wide open who you're meeting at that time, and I'm talking late '60s early '70s for me, but we were trying so hard to be traditional.
We were hearing things on albums coming out of Ireland say, with a little bit of Bluegrass and we would be joking about that in Chicago. We might record ourselves doing it but we would never think of putting it on an album and would not think of putting it on a stage because we'd go "that wouldn't be traditional".
I think the Irish led the way as soon as they heard other stuff they were comfortable with the fact that "no matter what I play, I am Irish." So they didn't have this confusion going on, where we were going "if we do that, we're not Irish" or whatever we wanted to be.
Certainly not me, but certainly Eileen and Martin Hayes, who's not from America but he's in America for a while now and he's broken out to play other influences. I think there's a great thing going on in America now.
I think everybody got bold and went "all right, if they can do it, we can do it". It's all around us, there's very little Irish music around us, all the other types of music are and so why not just grab them. It's great fun. I see Irish musicians all the time sitting down and sharing music with a completely different other player and just boldly diving in. Going at it even if they didn't know what they were doing: being bold. I'm proud of it.
So there is a confidence level there. And it shows. I think people are confident to, as you say, share, move across these invisible boundaries. It's happening in Scotland as you've probably seen.
A festival like Celtic Connections, that's what it's about. It's about crossing those boundaries. It's happened with Cape Breton music and other Canadian music, with the North American influence. And of course in Ireland too, there has been a great kind of exchanging and sharing. This desire to share and exchange has brought people together. To do it presumably privately as you practice and share in a session and then also on he public stage and on recordings. It has opened everything up.
Yeah, but it has also given people comfort to not go crazy. If they love the really old stuff there is a forum for that too. So you can play in an old traditional style you have found and you love that, and you're comfortable playing that way. You can either grow up on a stage with what we have here, a 10 piece band, or you can be comfortable just playing yourself with one other. Or you can be all by yourself, and there's a place for you to be now.
I think it's like fashion. We've had every kind of pants now. We've had the elephant pants, the bell-bottoms and we've had straight leg. And now we can walk out of the house and wear whatever length and whatever look. It's all OK, finally. Probably one thing is more fashionable at the moment but you can wear anything now. It's perfect. People have got to be happy.
It says a lot about the strength and vitality of Celtic music in a broad sense, or Irish traditions, that people can feel comfortable to experiment with them; move around with them, but also know at the core there is a strong collection of people and a strong body of recordings and performances that are continuing to nurture and work with that tradition at its absolute core.
So it's not being shifted away from or lost in any way. It's the well-spring that feeds into these other explorations so it feels that everything is in a very healthy state. You must be proud of that too. This has been your life and to be able to look at the music you have been so much a part of and know its been around for a long time and its not going anywhere. To be part of that must be really good.
Yeah. We were talking last night. We were taking a photograph of the girls and we had the blondes with the straight hair on the end, the blondes with the curly hair next. In the middle was myself and Annbjorg and we got talking about ourselves as the Amazons in the middle! Amazon wouldn't be quite the right word for me. But I do feel like I'm looking round and going "this is great, good to see all the girls playing. Great to see the music so wonderful."
It's always been wonderful but it seems its larger than life right now. It's great to be watching it. The session is still the great equalizer. You all get done with the gigs and you come into this little room over here and you sit down and you all start playing. Everybody really finds out what it's about then. All the back-up instruments are gone and you're there and you're playing and that's what you sound like. We all know and we're all grounded on who we are and nobody's flying off the handle. Comfort.
Thanks a lot for talking to us in Scotland, for your first visit here.
It was a hoot! It was a hoot, mon!
Haste ye back as they say. We'll no doubt bump into you in Chicago or Glasgow, or somewhere down the line.
You'd be very welcome in Chicago. You know, I was in a Mexican restaurant sitting down having a little meal with a guitar player friend of mine when we we heard the guy behind.
He was sitting in the booth with a buddy. The one guy goes "well I've gotta go now." "You're taking off so soon?" He says, "Yeah I go home at this time every Sunday (well it was Sunday at the time) night to listen to this program. Do you ever hear it -- Thistle & Shamrock?"
We couldn't believe our ears. He was just a little old geezer guy. Not to say that's who you are attracting (we were getting ready to leave ourselves), but I thought that was wonderful. He says "Oh yeah there's this great program. It's got all this great Celtic music on it and I listen to it every night." So it was great.
That's great. Well, thanks Liz. It's great to catch up with you and good luck with the album.
Thanks Fiona, thanks.