By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
Here’s a little sampler of what New Jersey fiddler Haley Richardson has done over the past six years or so: Won Junior Fiddler of Dooney honors, plus seven Mid-Atlantic Fleadh and two All-Ireland Fleadh titles; performed on the worldwide FleadhTV webcast; was featured in Fiddler Magazine; and appeared on stage with, among others, The Chieftains, Mick Moloney, the John Whelan Band, and Paddy Keenan.
Not a bad six years, especially when you consider that the period constitutes about half of her lifespan – she turned 13 this past summer.
Haley, who has studied under the renowned Sligo fiddler Brian Conway, also has an album to her credit, “Heart on a String,” on which she is accompanied mainly by her older brother Dylan on guitar and bouzouki. When a recording showcases a 12-year-old musician, it might be easy to regard the album more as a benchmark toward future development, instead of appreciating the work on its own terms. And that would be a mistake, because while Haley shows every intention of continuing to refine her craft, on “Heart on a String” she already displays a command of the fiddle, and a focus and lift to her playing, that belies her age.
The arrangements on the album are straightforward, mostly just her and Dylan – Conway joins her on one track, Whelan on another; Flynn Cohen guest-stars on guitar for the slow air “Dear Irish Boy” – and thus put her firmly in the spotlight. And Haley doesn’t take the easy route when it comes to repertoire; sure, there are plenty of jigs and reels, but also slow airs, barndances and hornpipes – including J. Scott Skinner’s outrageously intricate “The Mathematician,” a high-wire act in and of itself – all of which exert their own particular demands and idiosyncrasies on the fiddler.
Yet while it’s important to assess “Heart on a String” on merits alone, rather than as a harbinger of things to come, it’s difficult nonetheless not to speculate on the progress of Haley’s music over the next few years. If a stray note or a phrase here and there might not sound quite so strong or smooth, well, these are the sorts of things that are typically resolved with time and practice. Perhaps she’ll make her arrangements more varied and adventurous, and perhaps there are collaborations down the road that will expand her perspective and creativity. The possibilities do seem endless, and that’s an undeniable part of her appeal.
Earlier this year, Haley and Dylan, along with uilleann piper Keegan Loesel – with whom they’ve begun playing as the trio Méara Meara (“Lively Fingers”) – traveled to Somerville, where they were the opening act for the Maírtin O’Connor Trio in The Burren’s Backroom series. With a combined age of only 44 – Dylan and Keegan at the time were, respectively, 17 and 15 – the three served notice that, as host Brian O’Donovan declared in his introduction, “There’s no danger of this music going away anytime soon.”
Before the concert, Haley took some time to talk about her music and life, and made an impression as a poised, polite, and altogether affable young woman, who’s probably going to be doing a lot of interviews.
Q. You began playing classical violin at age 3 and then started on Irish fiddle just a few years later. How did that transition take place?
“When I was almost 5, I went to a Kevin Burke concert, and I really loved what I heard. So I started teaching myself tunes by watching his DVD and listening to his CD. After that I began to study with Kathy DeAngelo, and then when I was six I played at the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh, and that’s where I met Brian Conway; a few months later, he became my teacher. Playing classical music was fine, but everything felt kind of cookie-cutter. With Irish, you can add your own variations and bowings, so it’s really a kind of a personal style. I still do play classical, because it’s a good way to learn technique.”
Q. How did the CD project come about?
“I’d wanted to do a CD for a while, and John Whelan approached us with the idea. But at the time I had a kind of a “small sound,” because I was playing a three-quarter size fiddle. So I had to wait until I found something bigger and deeper, and then when I did, John brought up the idea of doing the CD again. We did some of the recording at John’s studio but also in our basement.”
Q. What was it like to hear the final result? Did you feel good about it?
“Well, nothing is ever really perfect – you just have to accept that. But you may be the only one who notices anything wrong. Anyway, John was very helpful, and gave us a lot of advice, so that was definitely a plus.”
Q. What are some other helpful learning-type experiences you’ve had?
“I went to a nine-day camp called “studio2stage” in 2014, in which dancers and musicians work on a show together and then perform it. The whole thing really opened up my eyes to what kind of different experiences you can have with Irish music, because I wasn’t playing something that I had arranged; I had to be part of a bigger production, so it was a lot more deliberate and involved than I had been used to.”
Q. How do you work fiddle-playing into the rest of your life?
“ I’m home-schooled, so I have a certain amount of freedom to my schedule, although of course I have to make time to do assignments and other things. Some days I might busk for an hour, then rehearse for a few hours, and then go play sessions. But I don’t look on it as “work”; it’s just tunes.”