July 1, 2015
The partnership of Boston-area musicians Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen is proof that, sometimes, good things happen because they simply should.
To start with, the pair have some significant things in common: Both are from the Midwest, both came from musically nurturing families with a fiddle-playing father, both took up classical violin at age 5 but eventually became immersed in traditional fiddle styles, notably Irish.
When they first met seven years ago at the annual Catskills Irish Arts Week in upstate New York, Gourley and Feddersen just clicked. And continued to do so whenever they encountered one another at various other events and gatherings in Boston or elsewhere.
“There was something so natural about how we sounded together,” says Gourley, and Feddersen agrees: “We just seemed to have a real groove, and could play off of one another in a way that we both liked a lot.”
Finally – inevitably, perhaps – about two years ago, they wound up relocating to Boston within a few months of each other, and were able to devote more time to their partnership.
This year has marked another milestone in the Gourley-Feddersen enterprise: the release of their first album, “Life Is All Checkered: Traditional Irish Music on Two Fiddles.” The 15-track CD is a highlight reel of their individual and collective experiences on the path to becoming top-notch fiddlers, and an expression of times and places.
“All of the tunes are special in some way, in that they were learned from good friends, or they were tunes Nathan or I had been playing for a long time,” Feddersen explains. “So going through them, working on them, and then hearing the final product was like sifting through memories: That tune I first heard so-and-so play late one night in the Catskills, for example, this one I learned off that album I got back in high school, this one from that session in Chicago, and so on.”
In fact, “Life Is All Checkered” can be viewed as an exemplar of what Feddersen calls American-Irish, “the American style of Irish music,” which she describes as an amalgam of the styles and influences that developed over time in places like Boston, New York City, Chicago and wherever else strong Irish music communities have thrived.
“It’s not that ‘American-Irish’ is a distinct genre of music,” she says, “but that Irish music in America is a strong tradition in and of itself that’s developed over several generations of musicians in this country, both those who emigrated here – from Michael Coleman to James Kelly and Paddy O’Brien – and those who were born here – from Johnny McGreevy to Liz Carroll to Devin Shepherd and Jesse Smith.
“Irish music has certainly been influenced by its environment here in America, perhaps by cadence of the Appalachian and jazz traditions, perhaps by the culture, perhaps even by the landscape around us. But thanks to the ease of communication now, it hasn’t diverged from the music in Ireland to create a distinct musical style, so much as it has been a constant conversation, the one influencing the other.”
Adds Gourley, “American-Irish has offshoots of the regional traditions that originated in Ireland, but it’s also dependent on the individual player who’s playing it. And that’s what draws us: the player, rather than the style.”
Best not to get too hung up on classifications and etymologies when listening to “Life Is All Checkered,” really, or else you’ll miss out on some excellent musicianship that channels the obvious affection Feddersen and Gourley feel for these tunes. Sometimes they play in strict unison, other times use harmony or counterpoint – neither of which has a firm place in Irish fiddle tradition, but it’s hard to argue with the results here.
Reels and jigs abound, but there are also a medley of polkas (“Happy Days Again/Padraig O’Keefe’s”) and a hornpipe, “The Fairest Rose,” composed by one-time area resident Tommy Peoples; the late legendary Cape Breton fiddler (and Brockton native) Jerry Holland’s “My Otis Tomas Mandolin” makes a somewhat surprising but entirely welcome appearance in one set of reels. On another hornpipe “The Blackbird,” Gourley supplies an accompaniment that enhances the tune’s rhythm as well as its melodic qualities.
“I had this idea for arranging ‘Blackbird,’” says Gourley. “It’s something I wouldn’t think of doing with most musicians, but I had a feeling it would be perfect for Laura, and it worked out very well.”
Another track features a pair of tunes (“Lament for O’Donnell/The Star Above the Garter”) popularized by Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford on the landmark “Kerry Fiddles” album; on the latter tune, Gourley and Feddersen recreate the Sliabh Luachra sound, with one fiddle doubling the melody an octave lower than the other.
Most of the backing on the album comes courtesy of Gourley’s longtime friend and collaborator Brian Miller (guitar, bouzouki) – Gourley displays his own considerable prowess as a guitarist on the jig set “Child of My Heart/Blarney Pilgrim/Paddy O’Rafferty”
A Madison, Wisc., native, Gourley remembers that he always played at least some Irish music, even when he was primarily a classical violinist. His father, an old-time-style fiddler, took him to various festivals – including the Festival of American Fiddle Music in Washington state – which piqued his interest in folk and traditional styles, enough so that at age 19 he quit playing classical altogether. Moving to Minnesota to attend college brought him in contact with musicians like Miller, Miller’s wife Norah Rendell of The Outside Track, Paddy O’Brien of the band Chulrua (which Gourley played in for a while), and Daithi Sproule of Altan, and affirmed his enthusiasm for Irish music.
Feddersen, who grew up in Bloomington, Ind., jokes that her father – who has played with Grey Larsen, among others – “feels bad about dragging me to all his various gigs” when she was a small child, but clearly she feels no resentment. When she was five, her grandmother posed her a question: “Not ‘Do you want to play music?’” Feddersen says, “but ‘Which instrument – violin or piano?’” Like Gourley, she started out on classical, but the Irish music she’d hear via her father “stayed in my head,” and she’d pick out the tunes on a toy piano, then later on violin.
Bloomington had its share of excellent fiddlers with whom to play and learn from, Feddersen says, such as Danny Noveck, Eric Merrill and Sam Bartlett, as well as other musicians who proved to be friends and mentors: “It’s a solid scene, a good community of people to be around when you’re learning to play.”
Feddersen wound up living in New York City for a while, but felt Boston would ultimately be her destination, and on St. Patrick’s Day in 2013 she made the move. Ironically, Gourley had been planning to relocate to New York City, but in January of that same year he had stopped over in Boston for what he thought would be a brief stay before heading to the Big Apple. After a few weeks, he changed his mind.
Following about a year’s worth of playing together in sessions, parties or in their respective living rooms, Gourley and Feddersen discussed the idea of making an album, although their motivations were different. “For me, this was ‘a project,’ and I love working on projects,” says Gourley, who does frequent recordings on his home equipment, and has recorded with musicians in Minneapolis. “It just seemed to me a very worthwhile focus of time and energy, and a great way to put ourselves out there.”
In fact, Gourley’s home recordings of Feddersen playing with Miller provided additional inspiration: “They sounded great together, and I felt if I was in there, too, it wouldn’t sound that bad.”
For Feddersen, there was a road-not-taken aspect to the idea. “A friend of mine in New York had once encouraged me to record, as a way to capture this particular time and place in my life, but I didn’t feel ready. In retrospect, I regretted not having done that. This time, I felt ready; I’d reached this stage of my musical development, so recording was a way to put that behind me and move along to another stage.”
What that next stage will be, of course, is open to speculation. But as long as there are more tunes to learn, and people to play them with – whether at the Catskills, in Boston, or elsewhere – Gourley and Feddersen look forward to continuing their partnership.
“When you travel around, and you play with different musicians, there’s always the possibility you find somebody with whom everything clicks,” says Gourley. “We’ve had a lot of fun, learned a lot from each other, so who knows what else we can do?”