May 3, 2019
BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
There are, of course, many reasons why Celtic musicians decide to team up. What brought the Boston-based duo Rakish – fiddler Maura Shawn Scanlin and guitarist Conor Hearn – together was less an affinity for hot fiddle tunes than a shared affection for slow ones.
Not that Scanlin and Hearn aren’t fond of blazing away on an Irish jig or Scottish reel, as is evident on the CD/EP they released late last year. However, much like the celebrated fiddle-guitar duo of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Scanlin and Hearn take pleasure in a more contemplative, colloquial approach: giving space to the subtleties and nuances of a tune or song, and building a groove that they can comfortably inhabit.
And when that happens, they reveal a set of influences and interests that extend from Irish and Scottish tradition to Americana and classical music, not to mention poetry and literature. Most of all, Scanlin and Hearn display an intuitive feel for how, and when, to bring it all together.
“Conor is always listening, reacting, adjusting – he’s always very in tune with what we’re trying to achieve in the moment. It’s not unlike chamber music in the classical sense,” explains Scanlin, a native of Boone, NC, and a two-time National Scottish Fiddle Champion. “We’re constantly playing off of what the other one is doing. It’s fun to take risks melodically with variations and stuff because I know he’ll be right there with me.”
“We bonded over classic, obvious things – the fast reels and jigs, Liz Carroll and John Doyle – but we found what we really like are the slow tunes,” says Hearn. “It’s a great way to get into the music and explore all the possibilities, and I think it’s a big reason why we have this strong interactivity to our playing.”
The Scanlin-Hearn partnership hasn’t taken place in a vacuum: They also are members of the innovative quintet Pumpkin Bread. Scanlin, a New England Conservatory grad, has been pursuing a master’s degree at the Yale School of Music for the past two years, and Hearn has been involved in a number of informal, formal, and temporary collaborations since moving from Silver Springs, Md., to the Boston area to enroll in the Tufts/NEC dual-degree program, through which he met Scanlin.
Even as they and their three friends began putting their talents together to form Pumpkin Bread, Hearn and Scanlin found themselves playing together on the side, and liking what they heard. So during 2018 they began to break out on their own when time and energy permitted.
These experiences have been complementary while also serving as a point of departure for Scanlin and Hearn, delineating the qualities that make their connection a special one.
“Conor has a vast range of capabilities on guitar and always is able to find just the right sort of tone, whether that’s a really open lyrical line or super driving rhythm,” says Scanlin. “We’ve also had some fun trading melodic and accompaniment roles: I’ll accompany him while he plays the melody.
“We try to explore a lot of different settings of a tune or song in order to create something that really feels right to us.”
Hearn and Scanlin share some commonalities in their musical development: Both came from musical households, in which parents and siblings played instruments, with a fondness for folk and traditional styles; both started out on violin very young – Hearn added guitar when he was 12 (“I was the only one among my friends who could play guitar, so people wanted me to play with them”); both also regularly attended festivals and music camps, where they soaked up tunes from different genres, whether Appalachian, old-timey, Irish, or Scottish.
Scanlin had a classical component to her music, and chose New England Conservatory for its strings department and chamber music offerings. Although she leaned more toward Scottish music early on, during her time in Boston she has dived deep into the area Irish scene. Hearn, who wound up majoring in English literature, knew he wanted to attend college in a place with a strong music community, and realized he was acquainted with a lot of fiddlers in the Boston area, and opted for Tufts/NEC; for all his Celtic music activity, he has spent a lot of time in Boston’s bluegrass community.
Even as they and their three NEC classmates began putting their talents together to form Pumpkin Bread, Hearn and Scanlin found themselves playing together on the side, and liking what they heard. So during 2018 they began to break out on their own when time and energy permitted.
The five-track Rakish CD/EP is a window onto Scanlin and Hearn’s brand of eclectic interactiveness, particularly the track “Inion Ni Scannlain.” The titular tune, a tender waltz written by Donogh Hennessy (former guitarist for the band Lúnasa), begins with Hearn first joining Scanlin on melody before shifting to a definitive chordal accompaniment. There’s a brief transition, and then Scanlin’s bowing and intonation take on a different character, as she plays a minuet movement from a Bach piece for solo violin; after about a minute-and-a-half, Scanlin returns to the waltz with some improvisational passages while Hearn’s chording and strumming serve to ratchet up tension; to close out, they hearken back to the tranquil tone from the outset of the track.
Another track features Hearn leading “Waterbound,” by Kentucky-born singer-songwriter-musician Dirk Powell, Scanlin’s bowing and Hearn’s flat-picking providing the Appalachian ambiance – until, suddenly, Scanlin kicks in a break with a looser, Americanized version of “Lucy Farr’s,” a sprightly Irish barn dance named for a noted East Galway fiddler. It seems like an odd counterpart to the apocalyptic imagery in Powell’s lyrics, but it works.
Hearn’s singing, along with Scanlin’s fine harmony vocals, are in the spotlight again on “The Stolen Child,” his setting of the William Butler Yeats poem, based on Irish mythology. It’s by no means the first musical adaptation: Loreena McKennitt, The Waterboys and Phil Callery (of The Voice Squad) are among those who have recorded versions. But the Rakish take stakes out some new ground, with a pulsing guitar accompaniment and fiddle riffs that draw on Celtic and American folk styles.
The other two tracks, “Sadbdh” and “The Birds” are more reflective of the Irish and Scottish aspects of Scanlin and Hearn’s resumés, as well as their modernist approach to arrangements of traditional tunes. On the latter, Scanlin and Hearn first deconstruct “The Bird’s Hornpipe,” slowing the pace and easing off the archetypal hornpipe swagger. Then they ramp up into “The Bird’s Nest,” a reel with ties to the Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton traditions; during the third pass they reduce the tune to its essential rhythmic components while they slowly morph into a major key and proceed onwards; the master strokes come in the final go-round of the B part, as Hearn switches from rhythm to flat-picking a harmony. The set is a wonderful construction of build-up and resolution, a little audacious and, above all, great fun to listen to.
“We had a great time putting the album together, though it was a kind of speedy process” says Scanlin. “People kept asking us if we had CDs, so we thought, “Maybe we better make one.’ ”
“When you get into a recording mode,” says Hearn, “you’re really thinking ‘What do we want to sound like?’ After all, a CD is something that lasts – more or less, anyway – so ideally you want it to be as representative as possible of all your music. So we tried out some new ideas and worked on them to be ready for the recording.”
Hearn credits Scanlin for coming up with the concept for “Inion Ni Scannlain,” which they had planned to present at a special concert organized by WGBH “Celtic Sojourn” announcer Brian O’Donovan, who asked the duo to serve as opening act for a performance by classical musicians. Scanlin notes that baroque and Irish music aren’t as disparate as they might seem, since both are related to dance traditions (“Music serving dance”).
As it turned out, they wound up doing a different piece – a jig paired with another baroque tune – but “the experience of putting ‘Inion Ni Scannlain’ together gave us a mindset for how we approached making the album,” says Hearn.
“The Stolen Child,” meanwhile, was a case of Hearn following his literary bent and indulging his interest in adapting poems to music. “I liked the fact that it had a chorus, and I really didn’t have to alter or tweak the text,” says Hearn. “And, obviously, it’s an amazing poem, and very much connected to Irish legend and folklore, so it fit in with what we were doing.”
The release of Pumpkin Bread’s second album last month means that, for the immediate future, Rakish will be on somewhat of a hiatus – although Hearn and Scanlin will play at the Club Passim Music Brunch on April 21, and have a couple of gigs in Washington, DC, next month – but there are plans for concerts in West Virginia and North Carolina in late summer and an appearance at the Bellingham Irish Festival in Washington state this October.
For those who might wonder, Scanlin and Hearn say the Pumpkin Bread-Rakish balance is an enjoyable one to strike – both collaborations fire their imaginations, in different ways.
“Pumpkin Bread is about playing mostly original music, although some of it is rooted in folk and traditional music, and the goal is to write songs,” explains Hearn. “With Rakish, we don’t really have to write anything – we have a traditional repertoire we can dip into, so we can put our energy and focus into figuring out what we want to play, and how we want it to sound.”
“There’s a little overlap sometimes, but I’m finding I can keep Pumpkin Bread and Rakish separate,” says Scanlin. “It’s just great to have both of them in our lives.”
Rakish will play at the Club Passim Music Brunch on April 21 from 10a.m.-2 p.m. See passim.org/live-music/brunch for details. For more about Rakish, go to rakishmusic.com.