There are fiddle duet albums, and then there are magnum opus-level fiddle duet albums.
On “Brightly or Darkly,” the second recording by Boston-area musicians Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen, their fiddles sync up together, sometimes harmonize, play off one another, even seem to challenge or occasionally – thanks to the use of non-standard tunings – growl at one another, as the duo performs various jigs, reels, hornpipes and other tunes from the Irish tradition (Feddersen and Gourley each have a solo track).
It makes for a thoroughly entrancing listening experience. The basic connectivity between the two, with their sheer expressiveness on the fiddle, is so enthralling in and of itself. Their choice of material and the way they sort it into specific medleys is similarly astute. The crowning touch is their exploration of a fiddle world beyond the instrument’s tried-and-true D (GDAE) tuning; on various tracks, they tune their fiddles to B, B-flat, C-sharp, E-flat, F-sharp and G-sharp. This brings out a markedly different quality to their instruments, and therefore, the tunes they play.
On “The Maids of Mitchelstown/Callaghan” and the latter part of “Morning Thrush/Spike Island Lasses” reel sets, for example – both in B – the lower strings of the fiddle have a strikingly gritty sound to them that drives the rhythm quite compellingly. For “Collier’s/The Bucks of Oranmore,” Gourley plays in F-sharp to Feddersen’s C-sharp, and you’ve never quite heard “The Bucks” (the reel that, as Seamus Ennis once said, can’t be followed by anything else, according to the sleeve notes) this way before. And listen to the harmonies on the set of polkas (“Allistrum’s/Ned Kelly’s”), played in E-flat, or the tonality G-sharp brings to the jigs “I Ne’er Shall Wean Her/Hardiman’s Fancy.”
But the different tunings shouldn’t be regarded as some gimmick: Rather, they enhance the exceptional individual abilities of Feddersen and Gourley, and their rapport with one another.
Gourley, incidentally, also contributes guitar and bouzouki accompaniment on the album, to a particularly lovely effect on the waltz (played in B) “Humours of Glynn.”
Released during the past year, “Brightly or Darkly” is the long-awaited follow-up to “Life Is All Checkered” (both album titles come from a Thomas Moore poem), which Gourley and Feddersen put out in early 2015, roughly two years after they had moved to Boston within several months of one another – Gourley from suburban Minneapolis, Feddersen from New York City – although their paths had already crossed at various musical gatherings.
By the time “Life” was released, both had settled very comfortably into the area Irish music scene, and become a constant presence at sessions as well as performance venues and events. That trend has continued for Gourley and Feddersen, from hosting sessions at the Burren and the Brendan Behan Pub to appearing at BCMFest, Club Passim, the Burren Backroom series and “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn”; in addition to playing as a duo, they’re part of the quartet Ship in the Clouds. And they’ve branched out into individual ventures: Gourley with uilleann piper Joey Abarta as the duo Copley Street, Feddersen with old-timey trio Wooden Nickels.
The two make a point of lauding the Boston Irish music community in the “Brightly or Darkly” sleeve notes, and also cite local references among some of the tunes: “Pride of Roxbury,” associated with the renowned Boston fiddler Paddy Cronin; “Hardiman’s Fancy,” a favorite of another area legend, accordionist Joe Derrane; “Galway to Dublin,” a quite entertaining version of which was recorded by Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band, a popular Boston ensemble in the 1920s and ’30s.
Feddersen and Gourley recently reflected on the process of recording “Brightly or Darkly” and their time in Boston, among other topics.
You recorded “Life Is All Checkered” in 2014/2015. What do you feel you learned from the experience of planning and putting it together?
Feddersen: For “Life is All Checkered,” we recorded in Dimension Sound, which was a very different process. We rehearsed and recorded everything ahead of time and had a plan going in, only did a few takes of each track.
For “Brightly or Darkly,” we recorded in Nathan’s studio. We had basically unlimited time. The upside was we were more comfortable to play around with the tunes and do as many takes as we wanted.
The downside is it took almost three years to record all the tracks!
Gourley: Making albums has been an iterative process for me. After “Life Is All Checkered”, Laura said she’d like us to explore alternate fiddle tunings. We recorded “Wooden Nickels” – Laura’s project with Owen Marshall and Joel Wennerstrom – in my home studio, partially to try and cultivate a relaxed and experimental environment. “Ship in the Clouds” [released in 2020] was my first time playing guitar for a whole album. For me, these three projects laid a lot of the groundwork and were a chance to try out various things that went into “Brightly or Darkly.”
You made these recordings for “Brightly or Darkly” over a period from 2018-21. Was this a case of starting out with the intent of making an album, only to have the pandemic interfere with the plan? Or was it always a play-it-as-it-goes project?
Gourley: It was always an album for me. One downside to a home studio is there’s less scheduling pressure, and the experimental nature of the alternate tunings we used led to a fairly lengthy initial period of exploration. When the pandemic removed most gigs and social events from our calendars, we found ourselves with more time to work on the album.
Feddersen: Another benefit of recording at home was that the process was not really affected by the pandemic. That said, the anxiety and logistics of those times was a general drain on energy, so it probably did slow us down somewhat.
You’ve mentioned the different tunings you used: Is this an aspect of fiddling that’s fairly new for you? What do you like about the different tunings?
Feddersen: Having grown up in Indiana, I’ve heard and played quite a bit of American old time music. All the tunings we’re using would be quite common in that tradition. In Irish music it’s also not uncommon to tune the fiddle a bit higher or lower to match the tuning of a set of B pipes or an E-flat concertina. We like playing with them because they often change the fingerings or resonance just slightly, encouraging different ornamentation, chords, or bowing patterns. It’s an easy way to get a fresh perspective on a tune.
Gourley: Before 2018, I had only tried a couple experiments in alternate tunings, like playing “The Foxhunters” reel in AEAE as James Kelly did on “Traditional Music of Ireland.” When Laura, with a background in old-time music where alternate tunings are commonly used, suggested we try some out, I was initially reluctant but after a bit of experimentation I grew to really love the effect – high bass especially, where the lowest string is tuned up a whole step, has a way of adding resonance and new chordal possibilities without detracting from the melody.
“Life Is All Checkered” came pretty early in your Boston residency, though of course you were making plenty of connections in the local Irish music scene. In the notes for “Brightly or Darkly,” you make mention of being inspired by Boston musicians, present and past. What have been some foundational experiences for you both (together and individually) in terms of the music here?
Feddersen: Coming to Boston, we found a strong community of musicians already established here. I was living in New York at the time and would come up to visit – I always had a great time going to house concerts at Lisa and John Coyne’s place and sessions at the Brendan Behan Pub, so I knew when I moved here there would be no shortage of music. I hope the new generation of musicians who’ve been coming to town recently are feeling that same welcoming energy.
Gourley: There have been so many that it’s hard to know where to start: house concerts and parties at the Coynes’ house; Tuesday nights at the Druid with Joey Abarta, Tina Lech, Teddy Davis, and George Keith; Brian O’Donovan’s Wednesday night concerts at the Burren Backroom. Also, Saturday afternoons at the Behan with Cara Frankowicz, John Coyne, and James Hamilton. Saturday nights at the Burren with Helena Delaney and Sean Clohessy. Sunday afternoons at the Burren with John Gannon. The list goes on and on, and one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Boston is the frequency of musicians moving here or coming through on tour. Over the past year or so, we’ve seen the return of live, in-person music events returning, especially sessions.
Do you get a sense of normalcy? Or are people still kind of feeling their way forward in the Irish music scene, here in Boston or elsewhere?
Feddersen: To me it feels like all is back to normal. In Boston, there are a lot more sessions now than there were before the pandemic.
Gourley: I think we’re all feeling our way forward on a number of fronts. Boston’s weekly sessions have been going strong, and we’ve been lucky with the timing of some trips and concerts, but these are uncertain times. A large part of what drew me to Irish music was the social aspect, so it’s all the more important to appreciate opportunities to be together safely when they present themselves.
For more about Gourley and Feddersen and their recordings, go to nathanandlauramusic.com