Eileen Ivers ranks as one of the world's premier Irish fiddlers. Although born in the Bronx (her parents are from County Mayo), she spent her childhood summers in Ireland, winning nine All-Ireland Fiddle Championships.
The three-year-old girl who once mimicked playing the fiddle using a pink plastic guitar and a wooden spoon is now known for "rocking the house" before presidents and royalty. Gaining mainstream attention for her featured role in "Riverdance," the Grammy Award-winner has shared the stage with everyone from The Chieftains to The Boston Pops. She took time out during her current tour to chat by phone about her upcoming concert at the Lowell Summer Music Series. An edited portion of our conversation follows.
BIR: So how did a little girl from the Bronx come to spend her summers in Ireland?
EI: (Laughing) The little perks of the airline business. My father used to work for KLM Airlines, and because of that, he was able to take the whole family back to Ireland. We would stay there for two months. Dad would join us for the last two weeks of the summer. [My folks'] parents were there, and so many relatives and cousins. My gosh, it was great. I know in a sense we were spoiled because it was just 'Okay, time to go standby' and hope we'd get on the flight.
BIR: It must have been an unusual culture clash.
EI: It was a great complement to growing up in a really cool setting like New York . . . to really appreciate and understand your Irish heritage and hear the 'real deal' stories from the people who lived there . . . Seven or eight years ago my husband and I built a house on my father's land over in Mayo. My folks are over there for the summer, so now it's kind of reversed, you know.
BIR: What was it like winning all those championships in Ireland and besting all the locals?
EI: It was little bit unusual back in that day, for sure. I remember some of the big moments of the competitions . . . It was this huge wooden hall, and you'd have to go up to the stage, and I just remember going 'clunk clunk clunk' from the back of the hall to the front and being terrified playing in front of these judges . . . In a strange way, by winning over there, it helped legitimize you. 'Yeah, you're doing okay. You're feeling this music. You're playing well.' On a larger scale, you became aware of the larger Irish community that's out there.
BIR: How did you meet Bill Whelan and wind up in "Riverdance."
EI: What a great man he is. I met him, funny enough, in the early part of the '90s He came to New York and was working on -- I think it was going to be a Broadway play of the wonderful book Trinity -- and he was writing the music. I guess he had known of me, and he rang me up, and I participated in some recordings he was doing at the time. It was my first real introduction to his writing. There were a few pieces in these really wild, odd-metered time signatures that were a lot of fun to be a part of. We just really hit it off right away.
Then, years later, with 'Riverdance,' he rang me out of the blue and was really egging me on to come to London for the premiere over there. I initially said no because I had some commitments stateside. He was so cute. He said, 'I'll write you some tunes, I'll broaden the scope of the fiddle.' . . . [Eventually] it worked out and I went to London and it was just a wonderful experience to be a part of that show. There was so much pride [in taking] that music and the song and dance of Ireland all around the world.
BIR: Now you have loyal fans of your own all around the world. What do you think makes Irish music so accessible to such a broad audience?
EI: At the end of the day. the music is very honest, passionate. The music of the people. We just played in Colorado at what's primarily a classical music festival. We were one of the few [groups] outside of the classical realm participating in the program this year. It was a very diverse audience. All ages, all ethnicities and backgrounds. Yet, they were all screaming and roaring and standing and singing. There was actually a small conga line at the back of the hall. It was fantastic to see how this music reached people from all across the board.
BIR: These days, it seems like there's an Irish pub in just about every small town in America.
EI: In every town in the world really. It's just mind-blowing.
BIR: I get the feeling you'd be just as content playing in a small pub as you would at Radio City Music Hall.
EI: Are you kidding! I love it. It's so important to really to get back to playing sessions. Years ago, folks weren't performing Irish music on this incredible world stage. I remind myself, and the guys in the band as well, this is such a privilege to play this music and bring it out to so many new audiences. You can't take it lightly. At the same time, performing is, of course, different from playing for sheer enjoyment and the sheer social interaction with folks in the little corner of a pub somewhere. When you get opportunities to just jam, it's so fun. It really [makes you] more aware of why you love this music.
BIR: So what can your fans expect to hear in Lowell?
EI: (We'll be playing) a lot of tunes in the tradition. Some slow tunes, really beautiful airs . . . And of course the band will be rocking on some of the more upbeat tunes. There'll be some originals thrown in . . . Actually, we're going into the studio in the fall, so there'll be a couple of new pieces from the new record that are hopefully audience-friendly and interactive.
Lowell is one of our favorite places to play. We have a wonderful history that goes back many years with Boarding House Park and also The Lowell Folk Festival. It's exciting to get back there.
Eileen Ivers And Immigrant Soul will appear August 21 at the Lowell Summer Music Series. Tickets: lowellsummermusic.org.