By Sean Smith
Boston Irish Contributor
It took Celtic fiddler Jenna Moynihan a while before she realized she was making her first album as a singer. About four years ago, Moynihan – currently living in Gloucester but a habitué of Boston’s Celtic/folk music scene since moving here more than a decade ago – took up an invitation to visit the studio where she had recently recorded an album as a member of Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards. In addition to playing fiddle, Moynihan had contributed some vocal harmonies, and the studio’s owner/producer/engineer, Sam Kassirer, was impressed enough to tell her she should try singing lead.
“I had no idea, no plan to make an album, certainly not as a singer,” recalls Moynihan, a native of New York’s Southern Tier and graduate of the Berklee College of Music. “But Sam was so encouraging: He said, ‘Let’s do some songs and see what happens.’”
What happened wound up taking four recording sessions, the last in January of 2020, but the result was the EP “Five Songs,” which Moynihan released this past fall. A low-key, sometimes subdued blending of folk/acoustic and contemporary styles, the album includes three songs from the Irish and American folk traditions plus covers of lesser-known compositions by two accomplished but nearly forgotten singer-songwriters – the author of an iconic 1960s anthem, and a pop music maverick who turned his back on commercial success.
“Five Songs” is the latest milestone in the progress of Moynihan, who as a child became infatuated with Scottish fiddle through listening to Alasdair Fraser and Jeremy Kittel, among others. Since coming to Boston, she has released her first solo album, 2015’s “Woven,” formed a duet and recorded with Scottish harpist Mairi Chaimbeul, performed locally at BCMFest and Club Passim, and at Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops, and twice appeared in “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.” She has also broadened her horizons by exploring American fiddle stylings and indie/acoustic pop, in collaborations with Cortese as well as the Milk Carton Kids.
And, somewhere in there, she also learned to sing.
“It was nothing formal – I didn’t take lessons or study under someone,” says Moynihan. “Most of my singing was at music parties or jam sessions, and then I started getting more opportunities to sing harmonies in performance. And I listened to different kinds of music, and just took what I liked.”
It’s not as if she was operating at a disadvantage, either, Moynihan adds. “As a fiddler, I’m melody-driven. A lot of folk songs, especially traditional ones, have melodies that feel good to me, like a fiddle tune, so I think that’s helped me in finding my voice. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole experience and keep learning.”
On “Five Songs,” Moynihan has a quiet, understated delivery, putting each song squarely at the center of attention, melodically and lyrically. But there's also a confidence and purposefulness to her singing, with the occasional ornamentation or bending of the note, that keeps you engaged. Kassirer helps matters by giving Moynihan lots of space, arrangement- and engineering-wise, while playing piano on each track – spare, almost minimalist chording, arpeggios and improvisations, but constituting what Moynihan calls “the backbone” for the album; at various times, he adds vibraphone, marimba, electric piano, organ, and synthesizer for texture and effect.
“I feel that, with Sam’s piano – washy and dark – there is a thread through the five tracks,” she explains. “The EP is a reimagining of what folk music can be: There are songs that are very old, from tradition, and then there are others that are more recent but speak to similar emotions and situations. Sam’s piano, and the other instruments, give these songs a common context.”
Sean Trischka also provides a light touch on drums and acoustic and electric guitars here and there on the EP, and Deitrich Strausse adds some very mellow brass accompaniment, as well as guitar and bass. Moynihan's fiddle peeks out every so often for a solo, or provides a subtle backdrop for her vocals.
The EP's centerpiece is "Across the Western Ocean," which Moynihan released as a single, an Irish song of immigration dating from the Great Famine (like many traditional folk songs, it has shared elements with other songs, in this case the sea shanty "Leave Her, Johnny"). The narrator in the song is focused less on what he's leaving behind than what he's heading for: "a land of plenty," to be sure, but first he has to survive the crossing by packet ship, often perilous for reasons that go beyond the stormy sea (“They’ll steal your gold and your stores away”).
There’s something about Moynihan's phrasing during the "Amelia, where you bound?" that puts an emphasis on "bound," and in so doing points up the word's multiple definitions: the state of being restrained or confined; or of being in transit. For her part, though, Moynihan focuses more on the latter meaning, which she says has taken on greater significance in the past year.
"I’ve come to feel there’s a lot of comfort in the song, and the idea of being on a journey: As we’ve seen in recent years, an incredible amount of people across the world have taken journeys, and faced many kinds of dangers and obstacles. And if you think about it, we’ve all been on a journey ourselves these many months with the pandemic.
“So we’re all going through the unknown, but you have to believe there’s something better at the other end."
Also from the Irish tradition is "Streets of Derry," famously recorded by Andy Irvine and Paul Brady on their landmark LP, which is where Moynihan heard it. The song’s narrative is a twist on the familiar damsel-in-distress trope: In this case, it is the damsel who is the savior, out to stop her lover’s execution.
“I really like the strong female role, where she’s the hero and rides to the rescue,” Moynihan says. “But above all, it’s a beautiful love story, and the melody is so gorgeous. I was glad to be able to do my own version of it.”
Moynihan goes to the American tradition with an abbreviated rendition of “The Blackest Crow,” featuring a graceful fiddle-piano break juxtaposed against a pulsing, sequenced beat. Sometimes known as “My Dearest Dear,” and thought to have originated in the Appalachians and Ozarks in the immediate post-Civil War era, the song has been a mainstay of American folk music for decades, recorded by performers ranging from Tommy Jarrell and Jean Ritchie to Bruce Molsky and the all-female band Uncle Earl.
“It’s a ‘forever’ song for me,” says Moynihan. “I’ve heard ‘Blackest Crow’ for years, and even before I sang publicly, I would enjoy singing it just for myself.”
Those three traditional songs actually constituted the mid-point of the “Five Songs” creation. On that first day in 2017 when Moynihan came to Kassirer’s studio, her first track was Harry Nilsson’s “Turn On Your Radio” – a barebones valediction, with music as the keepsake (“Turn on your radio, baby/Listen to my song”). Nilsson blazed brightest from 1968-73, when his songs “Without You” and “Coconut” were international bestsellers and his cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’” won a Grammy, though he never did major public concerts or toured; he became a drinking buddy of John Lennon (who, along with his Fab Four bandmates, referred to Nilsson as "the American Beatle") and avoided any further dalliances with the commercial music scene in favor of going his own route.
“I’ve listened to Nilsson’s music for many years,” says Moynihan. “I really like the heartbeat of the song, and how it pushes things along. Recording it was totally an experiment, but I liked what we were able to do with it.”
The EP’s final song is “Something on Your Mind,” written by the enigmatic Dino Valenti, one of several pseudonyms used by Chet Powers. Raised in a carnival family, Powers/Valenti ran away at 17 and became a staple of the late ’50s/early ’60s Greenwich Village folk circuit, then headed off to Los Angeles where he penned “Everybody Get Together,” which became a 1960s musical touchstone, and eventually joined the popular San Francisco psychedelic rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Among Powers/Valenti’s friends and acquaintances of the Greenwich Village days was Texas-born blues singer Karen Dalton, who recorded a version of his “Something on Your Mind” – which in turn inspired Moynihan to include it in her repertoire, struck as she was by the undercurrent of tension in the lyrics (“You can't make it without ever even trying/And something’s on your mind”).
“It evokes a feeling of not knowing for sure where things stand,” she says. “To me, it feels like you’re singing ‘Hang in there’ to yourself.”
Moynihan was able to complete the EP through a grant from Cambridge nonprofit Passim’s Iguana Fund, and is grateful for the support, which she says went beyond financial.
“Passim said, ‘We like your idea. Go for it,’” she explains. “I can’t overstate what that means when you’re trying something new. I wanted to create a setting in which my voice was front and center, in a way it had never been before, and to see how this connected with me as a musician. I was so happy Passim gave me the chance to do that.”
Like many performers, Moynihan has been largely sidelined by the pandemic, except for virtual concerts and events like the 2020 “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” but in addition to working on her own music, she has found another important outlet.
“I’ve been doing a lot more teaching, and that’s been a positive development,” she says. “Teaching feels like the most natural avenue to share your music. You feel like you’re connecting in a very important way, and keeping in touch with the music community out there.”
For more about Jenna Moynihan, and to listen to “Five Songs” and other recordings, go to jennamoynihan.com.