Adieu, Annalivia. Hello, Low Lily.
For the better part of a decade, the Eastern Massachusetts-based band Annalivia presented an intriguing brew of folk/acoustic music that encompassed material from Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, English, and American traditions, marked by a skillful level of arrangement and performance, at venues and events such as Club Passim, Irish Connections (ICONS), BCMFest ,and the New Bedford Folk Festival. In their early years, an Annalivia set list or CD would include a brisk Cape Breton march-strathspey-reel medley, a centuries-old ballad from the British Isles that found its way to the Appalachians, a couple of Irish jigs, even a Richard Thompson cover or two.
A series of departures and arrivals altered the band’s line-up – from quartet to quintet, back to quartet and then to trio – and over time its musical focus shifted, concentrating more on the American/Appalachian branches than the Irish-Scottish-British roots. Annalivia also began to integrate more original songs and tunes, further diversifying its sound.
And then last year saw several drastic changes for the band: yet another new line-up, a new base of operations and, last but not least, a new name – Low Lily. Now headquartered in Brattleboro, Vt., Low Lily will mark the recent release of its CD/EP with a concert on Nov. 11 at Club Passim in Harvard Square.
Some things haven’t changed, notably the presence of Annalivia/Low Lily’s co-founders, Flynn Cohen (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Liz Simmons (guitar, percussion vocals), whose musical partnership pre-dates their marriage. They are joined by fiddler-vocalist Lissa Schneckenburger, a Maine native who has been part of the New England folk scene for some years.
Also unchanged are the band’s impressive credentials from the Irish/Celtic domain: Cohen has played with John Whelan, Cathie Ryan and Aoife Clancy; Simmons, who also has sung with Clancy, worked with former Solas vocalist Karan Casey and was a member of the (sadly) now-defunct all-female quartet Long Time Courting; Schneckenburger, along with Cohen, is part of the occasional Celtic band Halali, and also appears with the Boston-based fiddle ensemble Childsplay.
But make no mistake, the line-up and name change reflects a further, definitive step away from what Annalivia was. For all its artistic and critical success, Annalivia also exemplified the challenge of keeping a band together while balancing professional interests and personal considerations, in a day and age when many folk musicians typically juggle several different collaborations.
“Bands tend to be short-lived; you burn hot for a while, then fizzle out,” says Simmons. “I thought that as wonderful a thing as Annalivia was, because of all the roster changes, the potential ultimately faded. We wanted to build something new, have a rebirth in terms of our musical identity and how we manage it.”
“We’re less self-conscious now about categorizing our sound,” explains Cohen. “For us, it’s a multifaceted, inclusive music that is a product of everything we do. So while we certainly are influenced by, and play traditional music, we’re not tied to it. We feel we can draw on other interests and influences – even popular music – that have been part of our musical development.”
The band’s name, chosen via a contest on social media, was a way of acknowledging its past while moving forward. “‘Annalivia’ was a reference to Anna Livia Plurabelle, from Finnegan’s Wake, which besides being the name of a female character was supposed to be an embodiment of the River Liffey,” says Simmons. “A low lily is a type of flower that grows in New England, so we’re keeping that feminine personification in a context that’s closer to home.”
In Schneckenburger, Cohen and Simmons welcomed not only a friend and kindred spirit, but also someone who, like them, has a family life as well as a musical one. The couple wound up moving from Gloucester to Brattleboro, where Schneckenburger lives with her husband, string bass player Corey DiMario (a former member of Crooked Still), and their son. This made working together easier and had the additional benefit of putting them in a more central geographical location, notes Cohen, who still makes frequent forays into Greater Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts.
“”We knew we wanted someone who not only was an excellent musician but could share the lead in singing,” says Simmons. “Lissa fit that description, and she also is in the same domestic situation we are, where you want to stay close to home as much as you can.”
Schneckenburger didn’t need a lot of coaxing to join the band. “Since I have known Liz and Flynn for so many years, part of the attraction was that they were a known quantity of personalities. I knew that I liked them, and we’d get along on the road, which is a big part of being in a band together. But I was also already a fan of their music, and based on what I’d already heard, I knew it would be fun to experiment with arranging the next generation of songs.”
Another attraction for Schneckenburger – also a songwriter and tune composer – was the prospect of incorporating more original material into the band repertoire. “My last solo record was all pop/rock covers, and I found that all the up-close work with other people’s gorgeous material really made me think more deeply about writing songs myself. I used that recording as a bit of a study in how my favorite songs were crafted, and what I like about them. That set me up perfectly to focus more intently on my own songwriting in the following years.”
The Low Lily CD/EP, say the band members, represents a continuation along the route established by Annalivia’s 2012 album, “The Same Way Down,” which included the traditional ballads “False Sir John” (which at one point was the most-played track on folk music radio, Cohen notes) as well as tune sets and songs from, or at least partly inspired by, tradition.
Schneckenburger’s “The Girl’s Not Mine” is one of three original songs on the new CD. She describes it as a reimagining of Rick Springfield’s hit “Jessie’s Girl,” written in her own voice; but here, the theme of yearning for what you can’t have plays out in gentler tones, suffused by gorgeous harmonies from Cohen and Simmons – a Low Lily hallmark – with a mellow chorus of trombones (played by Simmons’ father Fred) adding a poignantly warm undertone.
Simmons’ “Adventurer” and Cohen’s “All Roads Lead to You” (which he co-wrote with Aram Sinnreich) are something of a set-piece – they follow one another on the track list – in that both have to do with traveling, but where distance is measured in something other than miles. Simmons credits her son’s interest in adventure/fantasy stories for inspiring her composition, in which a journey leads back to the starting point, with enlightenment and wisdom as homecoming gifts. Cohen’s “All Roads” is more about traveling as metaphor for growing older: As he puts it, the song came about during a visit with Sinnreich and their families – “Our kids and wives were hanging out, and we sat off in the corner and wrote something grown-up.”
As with “The Girl’s Not Mine,” “Adventurer” and “All Roads” have unmistakable pop music hooks and riffs peeking out from amidst the acoustic guitars, mandolin, fiddle and string bass (the latter played by DiMario). Yet these fit comfortably alongside the CD’s lone traditional song, “House Carpenter,” an American variant of the British Isles ballad “The Demon Lover” that here has its supernatural qualities heightened by Cohen’s mandolin picking and Schneckenburger’s eerie fiddle backing. The other tracks are a Cohen instrumental, “Northern Spy,” that has the character of a Tim O’Brienesque progressive bluegrass piece; and a medley of the old-timey reel “Cherokee Shuffle” with another Cohen tune, “Lucky.”
If one sets one’s mind to it, he or she can still probably detect a hint of the genealogical line extending from Ireland and the British Isles through Low Lily’s music – if not a traditional song like “House Carpenter,” maybe a word, a phrase, a theme, an instrumental passage that hints of links from across the ocean. All well and good, but from the band’s perspective, it’s probably not something in which to get too caught up.
“A fresh start allows you to say, ‘OK, what do we want to sound like?’” Simmons says. “For us now, there’s not as much of a connection to the Irish or other Celtic traditions as before. They certainly influence the way we play, but the material we choose is more the style of home-grown and American, with some traditional but also a very contemporary vibe. It’s folk/acoustic for the modern age.”
For tickets and other information on Low Lily’s Nov. 11 concert at Club Passim, see passim.org.