Katie McNally with Neil Pearlman (center) and Shauncey Ali. The trio is preparing to release its second album, "Now More Than Ever."
Like any number of Celtic musicians – and practically just about everyone else, for that matter – Boston-area native Katie McNally has had to significantly scale back the plans she made for this year.
For McNally, who grew up in Westford and lived in Somerville before moving to Portland, Me., the year 2020 was supposed to include not one but two milestones. First, her trio with pianist Neil Pearlman and violist Shauncey Ali was set to launch its second album in the spring, and follow up with a fall tour. And this month was to be the debut of the Boston States Fiddle Camp, a weeklong program of traditional Scottish and Cape Breton music and dance taking place west of Boston that McNally had co-founded (“Boston States” is the Cape Breton nickname for Greater Boston, a destination for generations of islanders).
But the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the timeline for releasing “Now More Than Ever,” to the point where McNally wondered whether it made sense to just wait until next year. Ultimately, she decided to make it available via pre-order through her website, katiemcnally.com.
Not surprisingly, the coronavirus also necessitated a reimagining of the camp by McNally and her co-organizers. It will now take place in a virtual format from August 17 to 21, featuring classes for Scottish and Cape Breton-style fiddle as well as piano, guitar, Cape Breton step dance and Gaelic song, along with slow and fast jam sessions, and a climactic gala concert. In addition to McNally and Pearlman, faculty performers include Hanneke Cassel (a former teacher of McNally), Adam Sutherland, Galen Fraser, Jake Brillhart, Natalie Haas, Eamon Sefton, and the duo of Maura Shawn Scanlin and Conor Hearn. [Details available at bostonstatesfiddle.com/online2020.]
Not exactly how McNally pictured 2020 unfolding.
Still, the past several months have allowed McNally to reflect on a life lived largely in music – she began performing as a Scottish/Cape Breton fiddler when she was barely in high school – and full of exciting, enriching opportunities and collaborations that shaped her development as a musician and tune composer. Her perspective is clear: She knows she’s got plenty of company in the best-laid-plans-of-mice-and-men predicament, but whatever went awry, she takes comfort in the fact that salvaging at least some of the objectives is possible.
In fact, the title of the new album speaks to this resolve.
“‘Now More Than Ever’ was originally suggested a while back by a friend, really as a joke – it sounded earnest but also kind of goofy,” she explains. “Then, having gone through the realization that we couldn’t do the tour to support the album – and probably not until some time in 2021 – I wondered ‘What do I do with it? Do I wait?’
“And then I thought, ‘No, we need to get it out now – now more than ever,’ because I felt that it was important to move forward, and not keep putting life on hold. So from that standpoint, it seemed like a very appropriate title.”
The Katie McNally Trio is not her only outlet. She and Pearlman – who often perform as a duo – are part of the quartet Fàrsan which plays Scottish and Cape Breton music, including songs in Scots Gaelic. Those are just her most recent ventures, however. She’s also been a member of the now-defunct female Celtic quartet Long Time Courting and all-fiddle ensemble Childsplay, and once toured with internationally renowned Galician bagpiper Carlos Nuñez, just a few months after graduating from Tufts. In addition to “The Boston States” – the trio’s debut album in 2017 — “Now More Than Ever” and her debut CD, “Flourish,” McNally’s recording credits include appearances on three Childsplay albums, Kyle Carey’s “North Star,” Rachel Reeds’ “Sparkjoy” and even “Toddlerbilly Riot,” an album of kids’ music by local guitarist-vocalist Matt Heaton (she also served as producer for “Splash,” by Boston-area teen fiddle band Scottish Fish).
The above doesn’t even include various one-off or ad hoc collaborations over the years. But while McNally hasn’t shied away from, and has quite enjoyed, opportunities to go beyond her Scottish-Cape Breton background, she feels confident and secure in the musical identity she’s cultivated.
“I feel like I’m narrowing in as a musician and composer,” she sums up. “With ‘The Boston States,’ I was exploring what it means to be an American playing Celtic music; so there was a lot of looking back, learning the history and repertoire. ‘Now More Than Ever’ is perhaps more forward-looking.”
The trio’s essence derives from a fascinating chemistry that begins with McNally’s mix of fiddle styles: Scottish, with its classical and European influences; feisty, rugged, highly rhythmic Cape Breton; and touches of American, Irish, Galician, or Scandinavian. Ali, who has a strong background in bluegrass, complements McNally by playing melody, harmony, bowed or percussive rhythm – and sometimes improvising – with effective use of the viola’s deeper tones. Pearlman is well-grounded in Cape Breton piano accompaniment, with its boogie-woogie-inspired walking bass, but also adds jazz, Latin, and other modern elements to nudge, push, lead, or gently entwine as necessary.
Where the trio’s first release was a concept album of sorts – rooted in Boston’s Cape Breton music legacy while interpolating modern ideas and techniques – the new recording is “both more experimental and more refined,” according to McNally.
“I feel that in the past few years we’ve definitely established a very particular sound, where we’re more cohesive and settled into our roles, and we’ve carried that through to ‘Now More Than Ever.’ There’s no cool hook or theme, although I’d say it’s more personal in some ways: There’s a tune written by Shauncey and two by Neil, and a lot of the ones I wrote were commissions and/or dedicated to people and places.”
One example of this personal dimension is the set that begins with “June Right’s Arm” – written for a fiddle student of McNally’s who suffered a broken arm and was devastated at not being able to play or have lessons – a zesty, charming reel which includes solos by Pearlman and Ali, and is followed by Ali’s “Cape Town Hustle” (composed in remembrance of his adventures in the South African city), which churns along until a sudden break by McNally and Ali where they play the tune’s rhythmic contours, then ramp back up again.
The gentle, contemplative “Worthley Pond” was McNally’s composition for the wedding of Maine musicians Owen Marshall and Liona Wolk. Pearlman’s solo intro, played in the piano’s upper register, sets the stage for McNally’s arrival, then Ali’s, and the result is a sweet-not-saccharine piece that speaks to the solemnity, as well as the festiveness, in the joining of two souls.
Other delights include a medley of Flynn Cohen’s ebullient reel “Fletch Taylor” – which showcases the McNally-Ali dynamic exquisitely – and a pair of jigs, “Marcel Aucoin” by Cape Breton legend Jerry Holland, and “Matthew Robinson’s,” composed by Pearlman, whose melodic dexterity is in fine form.
Arguably the most ambitious set – all in the key of F – opens with McNally’s exuberant strathspey “Compliments to Bob McIntyre” (a generous benefactor for the trio’s first album), then transitions into a pair of Irish reels, “The Westport Reel” and “Lad O’Beirne’s,” both of which Pearlman flavors with a more characteristic Cape Breton-style backing; and so on into another McNally original, the Quebecois-tinted “Hommage à Leanne Hebert,” composed for her mother. A lot going on there, but none of it feels beyond the trio’s ken, and the energy is infectious.
Even as the trio worked on “Now More Than Ever” last year, McNally was busy hatching the concept for the Boston States Fiddle Camp with Dorene Higgins, Katharine MacPhail, and Rachel Reeds. All had been regulars at the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School that had taken place on Thompson Island each August since 2003, and as its future looked at best uncertain (even before the pandemic, the school website announced it would not be held in 2020 “nor for the foreseeable future”), McNally and her co-planners sought to create something that would offer a similar experience.
“Boston Harbor was so important to me when I was younger and really just starting out,” says McNally, who went on to become one of the school’s regular faculty performers. “Having the access to Scottish and Cape Breton music meant a lot – there are not many music camps that offer both kinds of music, but Boston Harbor did every year. Getting together in that setting for a week, you really felt part of a community; you had a chance to meet new people, play around just for fun, and it made the music special to you. We wanted to preserve that.”
The Boston States co-organizers found what they felt was a perfect location: the 247-acre Grotonwood Camp, located in Groton just to the west of Route 495. It was already a known entity to many in the Boston Harbor crowd as the venue for the annual Pure Dead Brilliant Fiddle Weekend, and boasted an outdoor stage as well as a pond.
“We were really looking forward to it,” says McNally. “We felt being in Grotonwood would give the camp that same kind of community feeling as Boston Harbor did, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for it.”
McNally and her co-organizers believe the camp can still deliver much the same satisfaction in online form, and apparently so does their target audience: A majority of those who originally signed up plan to take part in the virtual version, she says.
“There are some who feel an online camp is just not for them, and that’s perfectly okay. But a lot of people are eager to connect with their Scottish and Cape Breton community, even if it’s through social media or Zoom or something else. Neil and I have been leading online sessions for the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club, and while of course we all would prefer to be in the same room together, there’s something so lovely and hopeful about these sessions. It’s a way of saying that, at a time when there’s so much anxiety and uncertainty, we need to share our love of music however we can.
“Now more than ever,” she adds.