The New England folk trio Low Lily takes its name from a flower commonly found in the region, but its musical vision evokes the arboreal: roots and branches.
Flynn Cohen (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Liz Simmons (guitar, piano, vocals), and Lissa Schneckenburger (fiddle, vocals) – all of whom once lived in Greater Boston/Eastern Massachusetts, and now reside in Brattleboro – have solid backgrounds and extensive experience in Irish and other Celtic music. Yet Low Lily’s tastes and interests have long ranged beyond those traditions, and their American descendants in New England and Appalachia, to encompass contemporary folk and even pop.
Since Cohen and Simmons (whose musical partnership predates their marriage) formally joined up about four years ago with longtime acquaintance and collaborator Schneckenburger, they’ve continued to move among the far branches of the metaphorical musical tree while keeping the roots within sight.
On April 12, Low Lily will return to its former Boston-area stomping grounds with a concert at Harvard Square’s Club Passim to celebrate the release of its first full-length album, “10,000 Days Like These” (the trio recorded a six-track CD/EP in 2015).
“We felt like we had a bigger canvas to work with this time,” says Simmons of the new recording. “So as the album took shape, we thought of how to feature each vocalist in the band, utilize more of our compositional and arrangement skills. And we were able to work on a wider variety of songs and tunes.”
“Variety” is putting it mildly. The album starts off with Simmons leading a revamp of the traditional British Isles ballad “Sovay,” with a decidedly modern sheen to it – breezy backing vocals by Cohen and Schneckenburger and cruise-control rhythm courtesy of string bassist Corey Dimario (Schneckenburger’s husband and the band’s sometime fourth member) and drummer Stefan Amidon.
Other hints of traditional roots are found in two instrumentals, Cohen’s “The Good Part” and “Single Girl,” a Schneckenburger original she plays solo; the sweep of Schneckenburger’s bow, Cohen’s nifty mandolin picking, Simmons’ fine guitar backing – there’s a clear line to Appalachia and New England, and Ireland and Scotland, in it all.
But listen elsewhere, and you’ll hear covers of Dire Straits’s anti-war anthem “Brothers in Arms,” singer-songwriter Gillian Welch’s neo-gospel “Rock of Ages,” and “The Grumblinoby One,” a helter-skelter dash through the surrealistic landscape conceived by Rushad Eggleston, former cellist for Crooked Still.
In addition to “Single Girl,” Schneckenburger penned two of the songs on the album, including “Hope Lingers On,” an a cappella number in the style of spirituals sung to promote civil rights and social change – the trio’s gorgeous vocal harmonies are on full display here.
This might be head-scratching to those who associate Cohen with his stints as accompanist for legendary Irish accordionist John Whelan and vocalist Aoife Clancy; or who remember Simmons – who worked with ex-Solas vocalist Karan Casey – as co-founder of the Irish/Celtic/trad quartet Long Time Courting; or whose impression of Schneckenburger was formed by her performances with bands like the Scottish/Cape Breton–influenced Halali (of which Cohen is a member) and her presence in the New England contra dance circuit; or, for that matter, those who recall the early, Irish/Cape Breton incarnation of Low Lily’s predecessor, Annalivia, which Simmons and Cohen formed back around 2007.
But their diverse musical interests were there all along. Cohen has always been equally at home playing bluegrass runs on guitar and mandolin as backing an Irish reel or Cape Breton strathspey, for example, and he and Simmons might just as easily belt out Natalie Imbruglia’s hit “Torn” as a trad song. Three years after she released an album of New England contra dance tunes, Schneckenburger recorded covers of songs like “The Only Living Boy in New York,” “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and the Magnetic Fields’ “I Think I Need a New Heart.”
With Low Lily, Cohen, Simmons and Schneckenburger reside in a musical territory where folk/acoustic and pop don’t eye one another warily from a distance, explains Simmons.
“We’re lucky to be part of a scene – like the one in Boston – that explores American roots on into the contemporary landscape. So you’re talking about not only about Irish, English, and Scottish, but also African music. And the branches keep going: They incorporate the urban sensibility, the multiple genres of music that have come about through the generations, from blues to rock to pop. We’ve grown up with all these influences.”
Being in Low Lily also has encouraged its members’ experimentation, as Simmons notes. “I’ve always liked ‘Sovay,’ because it’s cheeky and clever, and the woman gets the last word. But there’s no naturalized American version of the song – the only ones you find are from the British Isles. So I decided to write it as an American ballad, with a bluesy American feel and a ‘crooked’ chorus, that would musically communicate the sassy nature of the song.”
With the title track, Simmons tried her hand at songwriting – along with friend Sarah Yanni, whose “Dark Skies Again” also appears on the album – in the domain of another folk music tradition, shape note singing. “We had the idea to write a sort of non-denominational gospel song, so we went through books about the shape note tradition. We found certain phrases that occur a lot in these kinds of songs, and so we used them to create a kind of modern-day spiritual – about being free of suffering, reaching a state of heaven.”
Schneckenburger’s “Hope Lingers On” was crafted along similar lines, says Simmons. “There’s definitely a sociopolitical dimension to it – about yearning for hope and peace in this troubled era – but the gospel/spiritual style gives the song an ‘old’ sound that makes the sentiments expressed timeless and enduring, rather than specifically tied to the here and now.”
Amidst these creative explorations, Low Lily continues to stay connected to its roots. Over the past year or so, for example, they’ve teamed up with Whelan and Boston-area fiddler Katie McNally (Simmons’ former Long Time Courting bandmate) for several concerts, which Simmons says is an opportunity for the trio to enjoy the various facets of its musical character.
“It allows us to express that mix of American and British Isles music ingrained in ourselves,” she says. “We’ll have a blast of tunes together and go off on our various paths – maybe it’s a set of reels with John and Katie, and then Low Lily will do something a cappella, and so on. It’s educational for those audiences who don’t necessarily know about the connections in American and British Isles and Irish music.
“But because the three of us, and John and Katie represent different generations, we show how the joy in sharing music transcends age – we may come at it in different ways, but there’s something in it all that binds us, too. I was deeply obsessed with Irish music for a good 10 years, and that’s a part of who I am as a musician and a person. So even while I’m writing my own stuff or doing covers of other people’s songs, I’m always glad to share that side of me.”
For tickets and other information about Low Lily’s concert at Club Passim, go to passim.org. Find out more about Low Lily at lowlily.com.