Natalya Kay, who left Boston for Nashville four years ago, knew little or nothing about Gaelic Storm when they invited her to join them – but she’s fit right in. “We can most definitely call her one of the family,” says bandmate Steve Twigger. Sean Smith photo
Understand: It’s not as if Massachusetts native Natalya Kay pined and prepared for years to be the fiddler for Gaelic Storm.
The 27-year-old Kay, who grew up in Lowell and spent time in Boston before moving to Nashville, joined the popular Celtic rock group a year ago, becoming the newest member of “that band from ‘Titanic’” – the cameo appearance in the 1997 blockbuster a particularly notable chapter in their 26-year story.
But the offer to join Gaelic Storm came out of the blue, spurred by a recommendation from a fellow performer in a show in which Kay appeared during late 2020. Kay wasn’t familiar with the band’s repertoire and for that matter, hadn’t even contemplated becoming a full-time touring musician.
“I knew the name ‘Gaelic Storm,’ but I didn’t know what they looked like, what their music was all about,” she says. “I didn’t even know anything about them being in ‘Titanic.’”
A year later, though, Kay – a former student of Greater Boston traditional fiddler Laurel Martin and a two-time qualifier for the All-Ireland Fleadh – is settling in just fine: She has gotten used to tour schedules and the traveling that goes with them, and to a type of performance that’s quite different from that in traditional Irish circles, with rock-n-roll-type stylings that help amp up the crowd.
“At concerts featuring traditional music, you often see some people close their eyes while they listen, very focused on following every note or the sound of an instrument,” she says. “For us, we’d think it would be weird if anyone was sitting with their eyes closed at one of our shows. Gaelic Storm concerts are all about being interactive, call-and-response, and dancing around.”
This past St. Patrick’s Day weekend found Kay back on home turf, as Gaelic Storm played a concert in a dual bill with The High Kings at Medford’s Chevalier Theatre, and she reflected on a career turn that may have been unexpected – and came in the wake of some personal upheaval which led to her relocating to Nashville – but is proving to be a growth experience. More to the point, it’s fun, and the kind of thing you can perhaps take in stride more easily at this point in your life. So why not?
“I was able to tip-toe into it,” she says, explaining that for her first several shows with the band she shared fiddling duties with her predecessor, Katie Grennan. “I was nervous getting ready to do my first show on my own, without Katie. But when I walked out there with the band, I was just in the moment; you can’t be on stage playing and at the same time freaking out that you can’t do it. The guys [Patrick Murphy, Steve Twigger, Ryan Lacey, and Peter Purvis] have been great to me. They’ve been touring for so long and have a lot of the same songs and routines; I was able to plug myself into that ‘system.’ Gaelic Storm is a really well-oiled machine, and everyone has their role.
“Sometimes, if it’s a really big audience, or if we’re doing some new material, I might feel ‘stomach nervous.’ But then I’ll get out there, and the audiences are so happy, so friendly and giving, and they just want to have fun. Sure, sometimes we might hit a wrong note or forget lyrics in a song, but everything can be turned into a funny joke, so it’s just a very comfortable place to be. It’s not about making every note perfect, it’s about the energy of the night.”
“Natalya has breathed new life into songs and tunes that we have played a thousand times, reminding us of the joy we had creating them and performing them for the first time,” says Twigger, who co-founded the band. “She has a precise and articulate playing style and a visual presence that enhances the music. There are no preconceived ‘moves’ or ‘tricks of the trade’: She lets the energy of the songs and the audience dictate her movements. It’s a true pleasure to see her perform and our crowds can feel the enjoyment she brings every night.”
Kay started out as a classical violinist, but her grandfather – from a Scottish background – started giving her fiddle lessons on her seventh birthday. She continued with classical, although her teacher taught her some elements of Irish music, until it became apparent that she was best suited to focus on Irish. Fiddle legend Seamus Connolly was living in Lowell at the time, and though he wasn’t teaching anymore he put her in touch with Martin, his protégé, and Kay studied under her for five years; in 2010, Martin received a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to support her teaching of Kay, and the two performed together.
In her teens, Kay expanded her musical involvement as well as her circle of musical friends and acquaintances, performing in the quartet Skylark with three other students of Martin (they appeared at BCMFest), making the rounds of sessions in Lowell and elsewhere, and taking a trip to Ireland – a sojourn that included performing in Tulla with students of Mary MacNamara. In 2012, she competed for the first time in the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil, her second-place finish earning her an invitation to the All-Irelands in Cavan; she also attended the Scoil Éigse, a series of classes and workshops held as part of the Fleadh Cheoil.
“I really felt like I had the ‘impostor syndrome’ when I went to the All-Irelands; I was so in my head,” she recalls. “I was very nervous and didn’t play my best, but it was definitely worthwhile to go there.”
Kay won her Mid-Atlantic Fleadh category the following year, but instead went to the Catskills Irish Arts Week, and appeared as a special guest at the week’s kick-off concert. It was at the Catskills where she made the acquaintance of fiddler Patrick Ourceau, and finding his iteration of the Clare/East Galway style appealing, began taking lessons from him via Skype. She won consecutive first-place ribbons in the Lowell Fiddle and Banjo Contest and started anchoring a weekly session in downtown Lowell.
Outside of music, Kay went to college and then ventured into the workplace. She wound up doing a “kitchen sink-type job” for a start-up, and during 2019 she entered into an existential crisis. “The trouble was, I didn’t know how to say ‘No’ – I’ve gotten better at that – and my job kept expanding to all these different functions, and I got so burnt out. I was good about saving up my money, and I really didn’t want to let a career make me give up on myself: You know, where between the work and the commuting and the stress, you don’t eat right or get enough rest, and your physical and mental health just declines. So I finally left and took some time off.”
The time off ended when a friend in Nashville persuaded her to come down and care for a woman who needed daily-living assistance for herself and her mother while undergoing medical treatment. “I lived with Elena for a month. She was this sweet woman who was always happy, didn’t complain; we’d go shopping, go out to eat and I’d take her to her appointments, help her mom. It was like being in rehab. I just felt rejuvenated.
“I decided that this opportunity must have come for a reason, so I packed up my stuff in Boston and moved to Nashville. A few months later came Covid, and I remember thinking that if I’d been in Boston when the lockdown came, I would’ve given up on hopes and dreams and just ‘settled.’”
As it happened, just before the lockdown she also met Jay, a Chicago native who’d been living in Nashville for about a decade, and he became yet another reason why her decision to uproot seemed a smart one.
The thing that was missing, however, was music. “Playing was a big part of my social life in Boston,” says Kay, and while there is an Irish/Celtic scene in Nashville, she found it simply isn’t as extensive as what she was used to in Boston. On St. Patrick’s Day last year, Kay recalls thinking, “Wow, Irish music used to be such a big part of me, my identity – ‘I play Irish fiddle!’ – and yet I’m hardly playing it anymore.”
She had, however, appeared in the “Christmas with the Celts” production in late 2020, at the invitation of Ric Blair, a member of the Irish Americana-styled band Nashville Celts. Although she enjoyed it, when he invited her again the following year, she declined: She was working and studying business management and felt taking time to be in the show would be too much of a distraction. But shortly thereafter, fiddler-vocalist Luisa Marion, another “Christmas with the Celts” performer, wound up recommending her to Gaelic Storm as they searched for a successor to Grennan.
And so, one April day, Kay got the call. It flummoxed her. On the one hand, here was an interesting musical opportunity, Kay says, but she hadn’t been playing much at all and felt she might get in over her head.
“I hadn’t had this kind of experience before. I didn’t know their music, I had some questions about the financial end of things – I just had trouble putting it together in my head,” she recalls, “So I tried to talk their manager out of his interest in me. Jay was there while I was on the phone, and afterwards he said, ‘What did you do that for?’ Two weeks went by, and I didn’t hear back, and Jay said, ‘You totally blew it.’ But then they reached out again, and they were still interested.”
So, Kay went on a Gaelic Storm binge, learned a few of their songs and auditioned for them in Chicago.
“She was not the most seasoned of the players we auditioned, she didn’t have the greatest depth or breadth of musical knowledge,” says Twigger, “but she brought a wonderful honesty and natural, spirited approach. She had prepared well and played the audition material with life and precision at the blistering speed we required. I would say she ‘nailed it.’”
“And they called me the next day,” says Kay, “and I kind of said ‘Yes,’ even though inside I was saying ‘Agh! What am I doing?’”
What she was doing was joining an outfit that had grown from a California pub band to an immensely popular group known for a loyal nationwide following and an ambitious work schedule that often saw them rack up some 200 days of travel a year – not to mention regular appearances at the top of the Billboard World Music albums chart and on the same bill with such acts as the Zac Brown Band, the Goo Goo Dolls, Emmylou Harris. and Lyle Lovett. (Kay notes that, since three of the band members have families now, they’re on the road less, playing “only” 110 shows a year.)
“It’s always difficult to judge whether a new player will fit into the team and touring lifestyle,” says Twigger. “The stage is just a small part of the life of a professional touring player, but in the short chat we had afterwards with Natalya, it was clear that she was a warm and thoughtful person who would bring new enjoyment to some of the touring elements that us road-weary veterans have become jaded with. It’s proven to be refreshing and invigorating to once again experience the music, the venues, towns, cities, sights, the restaurants, bars, museums, and the enthusiastic fans through fresh eyes.”
Kay had to learn almost two dozen songs and tune sets for her first tour with the band. She has taken delight in, for example, “Johnny Jump Up” and “Faithful Land,” a slower, soulful number penned by Twigger, Murphy, and former member Steve Wehmeyer — “I really like the moment of stillness it brings to our mostly high-energy, free-spirited, rockin’ show,” she noted in a post for the band’s blog – as well as a perennial crowd favorite, “The Night Pat Murphy Died.” “The Salt Lick,” which features her in duet with piper-whistle player Purvis, is a slow jig-and-reels set that brings Kay’s fiddle to the forefront.
She also got used to constantly being around four veteran rockers. “After a few weeks, I said, ‘Gee, you guys are pretty chill,’” she laughs. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we’re just trying to behave for a little while until you get used to us.’ But they’re great guys, and everyone gets along really well.”
Kay also acknowledges becoming something of a fashion plate: between make-up, hair, and wardrobe, it can take her as much as an hour to get ready for a show – a far cry from the come-as-you-are look in the trad world. “I don’t really have to do all this,” she says with a sly smile, modeling a mirror-ball dress. “But hey, I’m the only woman on this tour, so I just decided I get to do extra glitz and glam if I want to. And you know what? It’s really fun, and also a kind of self-care – just a way of feeling good – for when you’re in a new hotel every night.
“My favorite part of wearing this,” she adds, “is there are almost always some little girls who come to the show, and they’ll yell ‘I love your dress!’ at me. It’s so cute.”
“She is a team player and a popular addition on and off stage, and we can most definitely call her one of the family,” says Twigger. “Can’t wait to see what the future brings.
Gaelic Storm will appear at Plymouth Memorial Hall on June 15. Go to memorialhall.com for tickets and details.