Scottish Fish go ‘upscale’ in celebrating 10th year as a band

The Scottish Fish ensemble has made the transition from carrying the mantle of the “future of Celtic music” to thoroughly occupying the present. Press photo


2023 is a landmark year for Boston-area quintet Scottish Fish, which is commemorating its first decade as one of the most energetic and creative acts to take root in the local Celtic music scene this century.

After releasing its second full-length album, “Upscale,” late last year, and following a holiday-themed show in December at Club Passim, Scottish Fish celebrated the first-decade milestone with a pair of bravura performances at BCMFest in January, followed by appearances at the St. Patrick’s Festival in Quincy hosted by the New England Freejacks pro rugby team and another St. Patrick’s Day event in Rhode Island.

Whatever the genre, hitting the 10-year mark is no small feat for a band. For “the Fish,” whose members range in age from late teens to early 20s, that 10 years constitutes literally about half a lifetime. And the five – fiddlers Ava Montesi, Julia Homa, Caroline Dressler, and Maggie MacPhail, and cellist Giulia Haible – have been able to sustain their musical partnership through the rigors of high school, college, and early-adulthood life, as well as the Covid pandemic’s many challenges.

Most importantly, the Fish have made the transition from carrying the mantle of the “future of Celtic music” to thoroughly occupying the present; once a precocious, enthusiastic youth group, now a highly experienced and assured ensemble rooted in, but not confined to, Scottish and Cape Breton music. That passage is also a reflection of the nurturing provided through the Boston area’s traditional music community, with supportive parents and other adults, caring mentors and teachers, and resources and opportunities – in the Fish’s case, the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School, where they initially formed – for musical and personal growth.

Appearing at this year’s BCMFest had a special resonance for the quintet, since the 2014 festival marked their more-or-less official public debut, after various informal gigs at the Boston Harbor school and elsewhere. Of course, being able to play anywhere live after the pandemic put the kibosh on in-person events has been a pleasure (the Fish performed an outdoor set at the Summer BCMFest back in July).

“We’d done two years of virtual BCMFests, and that was fine, but virtual anything is so hard to pull off,” says Montesi. “What with this being our 10th year, we were so excited to be actually playing there, and doing two sets made it even better.”

“There’s just something about the energy of a festival,” says Homa. “We’ve played at BCMFest so much, both the winter and summer versions, and it’s one of our most favorite things. It felt so good not only performing, but also talking to people afterwards, and making some new connections as well as keeping up with older ones. That’s always been important for us. It’s why I stuck around in the community when I was a kid.”

Among the more important connections Scottish Fish have made over the years are local fiddlers Hanneke Cassel and Katie McNally (now a resident of Portland, Me.), who figured prominently in their early development – McNally, in fact, produced their first album, “Splash” (2018). Add to that list Neil Pearlman, an innovative pianist who served as the producer for “Upscale.”


From “Splash” to “Upscale”

The new album has the well-known Fish hallmarks: high-energy sets of jigs, reels, strathspeys and the like along with slower, soulful instrumentals, with the full ensemble or in smaller combinations thereof; fiddles and cello alike (with the occasional piano by Haible or Homa) switch off on driving the rhythm as well as the melody, harmonizing, or holding sustained notes. 

Still, subtle differences are evident between “Upscale” and “Splash.” The instruments are just that much more closely aligned with one another, which makes for a noticeably stronger sound. And you get a sense of the Fish marshalling their energy, letting things play out a little more before switching gears – or perhaps just staying in whatever gear they’re in.

“We wanted to showcase the journey we made as a band since we did ‘Splash,’” says Homa. “At that time, a lot of our arrangements were on the spontaneous side, but we were also just starting to become more intentional in how we put things together, and you can hear that in some spots on ‘Splash.’ With ‘Upscale,’ we were looking to show how we’d progressed since then.”

“We all love ‘Splash,’ and of course it’s special to us as our first album,” says Dressler. “We used it as a point of reference for the decisions we made when we were getting ready to record again. And we felt that, instead of playing all together in one room like a ‘live recording,’ we wanted to do it in isolation, so we could each really focus on creating that cohesive blend of sound.”

Adds MacPhail, “It was a different vibe, and much more satisfying. You could pick out random people’s parts and say, ‘Oh, could you make that a little louder? Could you add this?’ It came together really well.”

On “Stomping,” the band lets loose with an intense, brisk-tempo “Ally Bally,” an E-minor jig by Skye fiddler Farquhar MacDonald that has a nifty bit of syncopation in the B part – and accompanied here by, yes, foot stomping. They suddenly segue with nary a hitch into the reel “Flying Home to Shelley” (by Paul Gilitz), the fiddles keeping the momentum while Haible’s cello adds some shading; and then it’s the fiddles that switch to rhythmic bowing and Haible plays a variation on the tune, before resetting for the finish. 

By contrast, “Epic” – the Fish’s take on a Keith Murphy-composed reel – gets a slowly unfolding build-up at the start, Haible playing piano this time as the fiddles branch out into some gorgeous harmonies; then there’s a decrescendo to piano and a single fiddle focused on a four-note riff, gathering speed and in the process giving the tune a markedly different feel. “Greenland Mans,” a traditional tune from Shetland, is moody and sublime, with densely layered harmonies. “Trip to Dingle” encompasses the titular tune, a polka by Alan Kelly in which the Fish tinker with different rhythmic possibilities in the accompaniment – so yes, it’s a polka, but almost doesn’t sound like one; they do a similar turn for Ethan Lewis’ reel “Northbeat,” which follows. 

A seemingly improbable, but well-executed track is “Jupiter,” the band’s adaptation of Gustav Holst’s hymn “Thaxted” that makes up the middle part of the “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity” movement of his orchestral suite “The Planets.” Holst was said to have written “Thaxted” to express the nobility and generosity associated with those born under the Jupiter sign, and the melody was eventually set to a Sir Cecil Spring Rice poem and became the patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” The grandeur of the piece still comes through In the Fish’s setting, but with four fiddles and piano instead of a full orchestra its emotionality also feels more intimate, more immediate.  

Right after “Jupiter” is the album’s last track, appropriately titled “Farewell,” and very much in familiar Fish territory: a magnificent strathspey by the eminent Scottish fiddler composer William Marshall that starts as a piano solo and blossoms into a full-on Fish fiddle phalanx, leading into a more up-tempo traditional strathspey, “Callum Breugach,” and then we’re off and running with “Miss Lyall’s Reel” and finishing with a ceilidh favorite, Dan R. MacDonald’s “Trip to Windsor.” 

The culmination of experience, experimentation, and exploration all have contributed immensely to the progress of Scottish Fish in their 10 years. But where “Upscale” is concerned, the presence of Pearlman – a Portland, Me., resident but with strong ties to Greater Boston (including as director of the Boston Scottish Fiddle Orchestra) – in the role of producer was critical, say the band members.

While they were well acquainted with Pearlman from many previous get-togethers, formal or informal, the Fish felt nervous when it was time to start working in earnest on material for the album. But the band-producer rapport was forged early on. 

“Neil would make us dinner, which I’m pretty sure is not in the job description of a producer,” recalls Montesi. “He was just so welcoming and enthusiastic about working with us.” 

“He’d listen to us run through things from the kitchen, and he’d shout some advice, or he’d just be dancing,” says MacPhail. 

Pearlman also was helpful in getting the Fish to reenergize their repertoire, notes Dressler. “We’ve often had this tendency where we play and play certain sets until we’re sick of them, and want to record them so we don’t have to play them anymore. Neil helped us revive some of the older stuff so that they became new and exciting.”


Keep on keeping on 

The Fish know full well that, difficult as it is now to keep a band together, doing so in the years ahead is going to be even more challenging. They feel they can adjust, however, even if it means a markedly reduced schedule of practicing and performing. That in fact has been the case the past couple of years, not just because of the pandemic, but also with Homa attending Columbia and Dressler at Brown (she has also studied at Tufts and New England Conservatory).

Montesi points out that the Fish were friends before teaming up as a band, so their connections go deeper and further back than music, and that all along they’ve dealt with individual logistics (“There have always been five separate stories to Scottish Fish”) related to school or other activities. 

Dressler notes that the pandemic, disruptive as it was, complicated but did not completely shut down communication within the band. Scottish Fish, she says, “is part of our lives.”

And yet…

“I was thinking about it the other day: ‘What happens if or when one of us has a kid?’” says Montesi. “Do I think it would be career-ending? I don’t know: I see other musicians – like Hanneke [Cassel] – who have started families and are still able to play. 

“In our case, we might not play together as frequently,” she says, “but I don’t think Scottish Fish will completely go away.”

“It certainly won’t have a vicious ending,” declares MacPhail, smiling.

For more about Scottish Fish and “Upscale,” go to