Katie McNally answers big challenge with élan Whirlwind tour with Carlos Nunez

Boston-area fiddler Katie McNally already knew it was going to be a busy fall, what with recording her first album, getting ready for her annual stint with the Childsplay ensemble and, basically, living life as a college grad trying to make it as a Celtic musician.
Then, suddenly, opportunity came knocking.

McNally, a Westford native and Somerville resident, got the chance to go on tour in October with Carlos Nuñez, an internationally renowned bagpiper whose extensive resume includes collaborations with The Chieftains, Jackson Browne, Sharon Shannon, and Ry Cooder. It meant a frenzied couple of weeks learning a whole new repertoire to play with musicians she had never met before, followed by a slate of performances (one of them at The Burren in Somerville) interspersed with thousands of miles of travel across North America, and between-gigs downtime that featured a memorable museum tour, sing-alongs in a piano bar, and even a phone conversation with a pop music icon.

All pretty heady stuff for someone who, only six months before, had been finishing up her senior year at Tufts University – and McNally not only enjoyed just about every minute of the experience, but in her view, emerged from it as a better performer.

“The biggest thing I feel I learned from Carlos is the difference between being just a musician and being an entertainer,” explains McNally. “Those involve two skill sets, and just because you have one set doesn’t necessarily mean you have the other. Carlos has both and that’s why he’s so successful.”

McNally started out at age 8 as a classical violinist, but when she was 11 her teacher, Joe Jewett, introduced her to fiddle tunes from Celtic traditions. A class with Catriona MacDonald, a fiddle player from the Shetland Islands, at the Gaelic Roots Festival and Summer School at Boston College inspired her to further explorations of Celtic music, especially from Scotland and Cape Breton. She attended the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School and then studied with Hanneke Cassel, a highly acclaimed Boston-area fiddler in the American-Scottish style.

All the while, McNally was venturing more and more into the concert spotlight, with various bands or as a soloist, and taking on the role of fiddle teacher. Then in 2009, she was invited to join Childsplay, which gathers some of the most celebrated traditional and folk performers from Boston and elsewhere in New England for an annual tour and occasional recordings and concert videos; she has played with the group every year since then.

The past few years also have seen McNally turn increasingly to her own tradition-inspired compositions, while building a partnership with guitarist-mandolinist Eric McDonald. Earlier this year, McNally decided the time was ripe to record a CD, so she enlisted the help of McDonald and other musicians, including friend and mentor Cassel, who agreed to serve as producer. In late summer, McNally launched a campaign to fund her CD project, “Flourish,” on the Kickstarter website; she met her goal in two days, and wound up raising nearly twice the amount she had originally asked for.

Dramatic life events can often have unlikely, nondescript beginnings. So it was, during the recording of “Flourish,” when Cassel mentioned that Nuñez had invited her to go on his first-ever North American tour but, because of scheduling problems and tendonitis in her arm, she doubted she could do it. One day, after Cassel noted her unsuccessful efforts thus far to recruit a replacement, McNally piped up: “I’ll do it.”

“I was almost kidding,” recalls McNally, “because Carlos is so high-profile, and I didn’t have the reputation that Hanneke has. But because she’s worked with me so much, Hanneke had confidence in me, and Carlos trusted her judgment.”

Says Cassel, “Carlos was looking for someone with a similar vibe as mine, and I had no problem recommending Katie. She is, first and foremost, an amazing player and a hard worker. She’s able to learn tunes quickly and very well, and she’s very good with people.”

However spur-of-the-moment her “I’ll do it” comment might seem, McNally says her interest in taking Cassel’s place was not some rash impulse. She recognized that this was a prime opportunity for somebody trying to get established as a musician.

“It was a chance to play at large-sized venues I wouldn’t be able to by myself. It was a way to get my name out there, a jump-start. And, of course, it was a pretty good challenge for me as a musician.”

One aspect of that challenge was taking a crash course in the music of Galicia, the Celtic-influenced region of Spain that is Nuñez’s birthplace. McNally wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Galician tunes, thanks to her stints with Childsplay, but after putting finishing touches on “Flourish,” she set about learning in earnest her new repertoire through sheet music, sound files and even a Skype session with Nuñez himself.

“It was incredible, for all the differences, how Galician music was similar to Scots and Cape Breton,” she says. “Muñeiras, for example, are in 6/8 time like a jig, but they have a Spanish flavor and even an Arab influence, particularly in the harmonies. There also is the commonality of the bagpipe between the Galician and Scottish traditions, although Galician pipes are more subtle and sensitive than the great Highland bagpipes.”

The other challenge that awaited McNally was getting used to the dynamics of an ensemble built around a featured performer, and a very distinctive one at that. Nuñez is known for his rock star-like energy and charisma, as well as his virtuosity, and McNally knew she had some high standards to meet. What’s more, she didn’t have a chance to rehearse with Nuñez until the day of the first show.

Fortunately, notes McNally, she quickly found Nuñez and her new colleagues were a delight. “They’ve been playing and touring together for years, so they are total pros. They were very supportive of me. At the end of the tour, I had four friends.”

Cassel, who has played as a back-up musician to performers like Cathie Ryan, agrees that adjusting to personalities and temperaments is a fact of band life, but by no means an unpleasant one.

“It’s something you just don’t really learn about until you’re on tour,” she says. “I’ve personally found it a lot of fun, getting to interact with different people. And the traveling is awesome.”

For McNally, those nearly four weeks on tour live on as a kaleidoscope of memories, sights, and sensations. There was the stop in Seattle, playing in front of an enthusiastic audience at a concert hall that is home to the city’s symphony orchestra, followed by a huge reception attended by a number of Spanish dignitaries and ex-pats. Then there was the show at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum, enhanced by a private tour of the museum, with its collection of some 13,000 instruments.

“We were like kids in a candy shop,” says McNally. “It was so cool seeing fiddles from around the world. This was a real spiritual experience, because it showed you the connectedness of different music from different cultures.”

And then there was Minneapolis, where the group had a few days off; the itinerary included a visit to the Mall of America and an evening at a piano bar, where McNally took part in some band sing-alongs of classic hits by the likes of Billy Joel and The Beatles.

One night, hanging out with the guys, McNally heard Nuñez’s brother Xurxo speaking on his cell phone. “There is a beautiful girl here you must talk to,” he said, and handed McNally the phone. At the other end of the line was Jackson Browne, who was celebrating his birthday. McNally wished him many happy returns of the day.

“He was very nice, very complimentary. He told me, ‘You have to be a real monster to play with Carlos.’ ”

It might have been easy to get swept up in all the excitement, but McNally was indeed a quick study – not only of the music she was playing but also of the traveling-musician lifestyle.

“I learned the importance of pacing myself,” she says. “It was key to take time to just chill out, not be overwhelmed by all the travel, the performances, the people we met.”

As the tour went on, McNally’s respect for Nuñez only grew. “I was amazed at how hard Carlos was working, not just at the music but everything else: e-mails or calls to promoters, organizers, radio announcers – he really paid attention to a lot of those details.”
Most of all, however different their personal styles and deportment might be, McNally saw in Nuñez a worthy role model for striking a rapport with one’s audience.

“It sounds simple: standing up rather than sitting down when you play, for example, and smiling a lot more during the performance. But you have to pay attention to these things, because they bring you closer to the people who are watching and listening to you. It’s not being phony; it’s just a way to show the audience that you really care about what you’re doing.”

McNally didn’t have a whole lot of time to kick back when the tour was over. There were still some details on the CD to attend to, and she had the Childsplay tour for which to prepare. December was a bit more low-key, but this month she’ll be playing with McDonald at BCMFest in Harvard Square (January 11 and 12) and on January 18 at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain as part of the notloB Parlour Concerts series, as well as recording a new album and concert video with Childsplay. There’s also her CD release concert at Club Passim on January 24.

That may all sound humdrum compared to gallivanting around the country with a quartet of genial, fun-loving Spanish musicians, but McNally is perfectly delighted to be playing close to home.

“I just love being able to have this music, and the people I play it with, in my life,” she says. “I don’t know where it will take me, but considering where I’ve been already, I have to think the possibilities are pretty exciting.”

For more on Katie McNally, see katieandericmusic.com.