July 30, 2015
It all seems to fit together: Lindsay Straw, who has a pretty lucrative business as a wedding entertainer – when she’s not asserting herself as one of the better singers and guitar/bouzouki players in the Boston Irish music scene, that is – releases a solo CD of traditional songs that are all about love and relationships.
Coincidence? Actually, says Straw, it is.
“That wasn’t the plan,” she says with a laugh. “When I was going through my repertoire, deciding which songs to consider recording, my choices were just based on ‘How much do I like this one?’ It wasn’t until later that I realized they had a common theme.”
The more meaningful link between the 10 songs on “My Mind from Love Being Free” – the album’s somewhat ironic title is from a line in the concluding song, the splendidly delivered “Lurgy Stream” – is that they attest to the major influences that have guided Straw’s musical development over the past 10 years or so. Among the foremost are storied female traditional singers like Donegal’s Rita Gallagher, and Scotland’s Jeannie Robertson, and Robertson’s daughter Lizzie Higgins. Straw also can point to more latter-day folk/acoustic music performers like Jaqui McShee, June Tabor, Maddy Prior, and Karine Polwart as providing inspiration.
It’s worth underlining the fact that these and other influences have surfaced in Straw’s life only during the past decade, because her Montana childhood was not spent in a flurry of fleadhs, ceilidhs, sessions, or folk festivals. Straw’s first real inkling of folk music didn’t come until high school – in choir class, of all things – and her true, full-on immersion into Irish music came after she arrived in Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated in 2010.
Ultimately, “My Mind from Love Being Free” is a love story in and of itself – that of Straw’s love for traditional songs, an affection that has been nurtured in no small way by friendships she has cultivated during her time in Boston, as well as her diligent research via source recordings and other materials.
And that adoration comes through loud and clear on the album, in a voice that is quiet but solidly self-assured, nestled comfortably in the alto range, and supported by her dexterous, fluid guitar and bouzouki accompaniment. Straw doesn’t go for self-consciously dramatic delivery, affected accents, or other histrionics. In the CD liner notes (available on her website, lindsaystraw.com), she offers this part-disclaimer, part-declaration: “I’m an American – specifically one from the Far West with no ties to old world ancestors, Irish, Scottish, or otherwise. I prefer singing in my own accent and freely adapting songs as I see fit, so I almost always alter the phrasing and wording of a song to make it feel more natural to my manner of speaking and vocabulary. The end results are Americanized, but hopefully no less traditional, versions of Scottish and Irish songs.”
However you categorize them, the end results are nothing short of sublime, beginning with the opening track, “Far Over the Forth,” which Straw learned from the singing of Higgins; this is no wide-eyed, giddy romanticism, but a song of steadfast hope and faith – a woman awaiting news of her lover, and father of her child – and Straw conveys the resolve as well as the tenderness in the narrator. “The Mermaid,” from Rita Gallagher’s repertoire, by contrast, is haunting and mystical in its tragedy, which Straw underscores with a spare guitar accompaniment and an added harmony vocal track.
Elsewhere, Straw puts her stamp on the classic ballad “Yarrow” and the venerable “Bonny Light Horseman” (tacking on a winsome waltz at the end), as well as “When I Was Not But Sweet Sixteen” which, as she points out in her liner notes, may not be as sad and regretful as it seems. Straw also sings unaccompanied on two tracks: the heartrending “Lord Lovat,” with its idiosyncratic cadence and ornamentation, redolent of Higgins’ version; and the familiar but nonetheless magnificent “When I Was in My Prime,” full of hard-won wisdom and horticultural metaphors.
“When I Was in My Prime” occupies a rather significant place in Straw’s musical history. Contrary to what one might think, she was not born with guitar in hand and song in heart: “As a little kid, I was more into drawing and other art than singing,” she says. Listening to The Beatles turned her onto music, and later in childhood, she entered what she calls her “pop-star phase,” watching VH1 and indulging a penchant for 1970s/80s rock. But around high school, Straw – although by this time interested in playing jazz – found herself increasingly drawn to the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and Joan Baez, and their interpretations of folk songs. And then came the day in choir class when her group was given “When I Was in My Prime” to learn.
“It was like nothing I’d heard before,” she recalls. “The melody, the words seemed so unusual, kind of eerie in a way. But I was the only one who liked it. I made a photocopy to keep, but wasn’t sure where to go with it.”
Later, Straw was to discover the version sung unaccompanied by Jaqui McShee on the “Cruel Sister” album by Pentangle. A memorable track on a landmark record of the 1960s/70s folk revival that has inspired many singers, it helped intensify Straw’s interest in folk and traditional music.
Meanwhile, Straw – by then an avid guitarist – had decided that she wanted to study music, and began looking at performing arts colleges. Before her senior year of high school, she attended a summer program at Berklee and wound up falling in love with Boston.
“There was nothing else I wanted but to get into Berklee and be in Boston,” she says. “I barely met all the requirements, but I made it, and by November of senior year I was accepted.”
Once at Berklee, Straw kept hearing one faculty member’s name pop up: John McGann, guitarist-mandolinist extraordinaire and a mentor to countless students and other musicians. When she took his Celtic ensemble class, her entry into Irish music was all but assured; in addition, through his influence she was motivated to take up playing bouzouki.
“I just said ‘Irish music, that’s it!’ John was just so encouraging – intense but not intimidating, and with so much energy,” she says of McGann, who died in 2012. “I still wish I could go back and take more lessons from him.”
Taking the plunge into Boston’s Irish music scene brought Straw in contact with numerous musicians who provided further support and encouragement. One of the most important happened to be her apartment mate and fellow Berklee student Armand Aromin, also a devotee of Irish music. Through her association with Aromin she met two other musicians with Boston ties: Caroline O’Shea, a Milton native studying at Providence College, and then-Boston College undergraduate Dan Accardi. The four began playing together regularly and in 2011 decided to form a band, The Ivy Leaf, releasing a well-received album the following year.
Straw has been involved in plenty of other collaborations, occasional or ongoing – last month, for example, she performed at the Summer BCMFest in a trio with uilleann piper Joey Abarta and fiddler Danny Noveck, and she has duetted with another guitar-bouzouki player, Owen Marshall; she’s also working on an EP project with guitarist-fiddler-singer Eoghan O’Shaughnessy. In the midst of it all, she’s devoted time to the craft and character of traditional song, listening to recordings of singers like Gallagher and Robertson, reading and noting documentation on songs, and continuing to shape herself as a performer.
“I find it difficult sometimes not to ‘copy’ other singers, and I still kind of struggle with stage presence,” she says. “These are things you just keep working at, and it’s also a matter of being exposed to more opportunities to build on what you’ve been doing. And that includes simply listening to music: I used to think of myself as a soprano, but when I heard Rita Gallagher, I found I really loved that ‘low end’ of her voice. So that was something I began trying to do in my singing, and I feel really comfortable with it.”
Having accumulated a good store of material, Straw had begun thinking during the past year or so of making a solo recording. “I’d always wanted to, but felt I wasn’t ready. People kept telling me I should, and ultimately I felt it was a good way to move forward, to mark this phase of my life as a musician. At first I was unsure what exactly I wanted to do – maybe just a five or six-song EP instead of a full-length CD? But a couple of my friends, like Owen [Marshall], said, ‘Just do the whole thing.’
“Once I had the goal, the pieces came together. I thought of the songs I’ve most enjoyed singing over the years, from ‘When I Was in My Prime’ on, and choosing 10 was pretty easy. I wanted the album to be as much of a true-to-life representation of my sound, but since it wasn’t a live performance, I thought I could dress it up a little, by double-tracking instruments or vocals.”
Straw is quick to credit Jim Prendergast, who recorded and mastered the CD: “Jim gave me some excellent feedback on what I was doing. It was a great experience working with him.”
When it came to promoting her CD, though, Straw admits she “didn’t have much of game plan.” But after a trip to Europe that included a stint performing with some friends, she decided to seek reviews from the music press: “I wanted to see what people who weren’t familiar with me or my music thought. I felt it was a good way to improve myself.” So she sent copies off to, among others, England’s Folk Roots, a well-established journal with distinguished, knowledgeable, and often very discerning writers. She was rewarded with a glowing review, and a place on the magazine’s monthly podcast of folk and ethnic music recordings.
“I couldn’t have been happier,” she says of the review. “The best part was that they said ‘she sounds like nobody but herself’ – that was very important to me.”
Now, what about that wedding entertainer business?
For a while, Straw went back and forth on the question of whether to support herself as a full-time musician, or to take the so-called “real job” to pay the rent and keep her supplied with guitar strings. When she went for the latter option a few years ago, she discovered her income was largely the same as when she worked as a musician.
“I just thought, well, if I’m going to be poor I might as well be doing music,” she says.
Straw had played occasionally at weddings and other special events, and found it was something she could do well. So she made a conscientious effort to promote herself in that domain, devoting part of her website to her wedding/special event services (the section includes her repertoire for such occasions, covering songs by acts ranging from the Beach Boys to Coldplay to Carole King to the Dixie Chicks). She’s done upwards of 40 or more weddings a year, she estimates.
“It’s music, sure, but I think of it as something separate – it’s definitely different than what I sing for myself,” she says. And yet, she adds, the wall between her interests isn’t always impregnable. “Sometimes, people want something for the wedding that’s a little out of the ordinary, so when they find out about the ‘other’ music I do, they get interested and want to hear the Irish/trad stuff.”
Whether she’s singing a centuries-old folk ballad at a pub session, or Keith Urban’s “Only You Can Love Me This Way” for a happy couple’s first dance, Straw is content to have music at the center of her life. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” she says.
Lindsay Straw will perform on Aug. 25 at noon as part of Club Passim’s free concert series in Kendall Center, Cambridge; she also will appear at the Passim Labor Day Campfire festival [see passim.org/campfire-festival for details].