Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Interview with Liz Carroll: Part Two

Welcome to part two of the interview series with Liz Carroll. We'll talk about Liz's tune compositions, how she comes up with her masterful melodies, and a few more tune-related topics.

If you haven't already read Part One, here's the link!

This past Summer, Liz and I sat down to chat in an interview format. What follows is the first of three interview transcripts of our conversation adapted for print posting.  

What is your tune writing process like?
Sometimes tunes come all at once. Other times, it may be only half a part-- like an A or a B part. Then I’ll beat myself up about it for a year, trying to complete it. Sometimes I just say, “I wonder what I can make up today.” Then, I sit down with the accordion or the whistle or the fiddle and usually the piano and work it out. Sometimes I have to write for a job, and I force myself to sit down and write. I might have a thought in my head and write it down. It’s nice when somebody asks me to write something because then I focus on that and it puts a little push behind me to think of something. It is really nice when I just have a little thought of a few notes. One of my favorite moments writing was a few years ago when I did a little phrase, then a few years later thought of something to go with it. It’s really worth saving everything. Sometimes the answer is on the page in front of you, or just a few pages back.

What are your top 5 favorite tunes that you’ve written?
I never think of it as having favorites. Usually my most recent tune is my favorite. I like Lost in the Loop. My husband came home from work and I said, “I have a tune!” So, I recorded both the piano and fiddle, over-dubbed the two, and presented it to my husband. He said, “I think that’s the best tune you ever wrote.” I liked that response, and think it influenced how i feel about that particular tune. It crosses boundaries so old time musicians like it. Other people like it, too, not just Irish musicians. The Road to Recovery is a favorite. That’s Right, Too and The Leading Role, also. I was channeling Johnny McGreevy for those tunes so it puts me in this nice space of remembering Johnny.

I really like the slow pieces and I didn’t used to do those. I was always writing dance tunes. I was influenced by Johnny and Phil Cunningham who did some beautiful things with Silly Wizard. I was thinking Irish music, the slow stuff would be airs so there’s no real timing. I listened to Scottish players and learned that you can write nice melodies with timing. I liked doing Isle in the Woods and The Air Tune. In almost all of them, there’s a space to slow down. In some of the fast tunes, the notes go by so fast you don’t know they were nice notes and wonder if anyone gets it. The fast tunes can be a little convoluted with twists and turns so if the accompanist doesn’t know the tune it can die in a session. I love the twisty-turny ones that go fast but other musicians don’t get it if they don’t know it. With the slow pieces, people get it.

Top 5 favorite tunes to play at the moment?
I liked learning all the Altan stuff off their new album. I had a gas doing that--all of that stuff was really good. The East Pointers are great, and I’m starting to learn all their tunes from their first album. I was learning a couple of tunes from that album the other day. I’m open to almost anything, whatever’s latest. I think it might be a sickness. We want the newest thing. We want to know everything. 

Do you have other favorite genres besides Irish?
I do. I enjoy Cape Breton and French Canadian. With Cape Breton, I can listen to a lot of it, but then when I go back to something Irish I sigh . . . it’s my comfort zone. I have a friend who is a Cape Breton piano player who does the same thing the opposite way. There is real happiness with the Irish music. I can listen to a lot of French Canadian, and like the whole fantastic 40’s-50’s Stephane Grappelli jazz swing. There are so many great players like Stuff Smith and Joe Venuto. It is great, but when I put my fingers to play in their genre, I get nowhere.  I’m jealous of Jeremy Kittel, who can do it all. I listen to rock records and whatever is coming out on the radio. I like that a lot. You listen to a new song with either a great beat or you can sing to it, and become inspired to write a tune. It might be a nice chord you hear that starts you singing a tune. I really like the Texas Swing guys such as Benny Thomasson. He had a smooth style. Mark O’Connor learned a lot listening to him.

Do you sing tunes?
Sometimes I tell the class to put the fiddles down to sing. Sometimes they seem to get it better once they get it with their voice. I do it myself when I am in the car. When I come up with a phrase for a new tune, I get my phone and record myself singing it when the fiddle isn’t handy. When I get an idea of a phrase, I try to think out of the box of Irish music and write any tune I want.

This is part two of a three part series on Liz Carroll. Stay tuned for the last installment of the trio, coming next week.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Interview with Liz Carroll: Part One

Liz Carroll, a phenomenal Chicago born fiddle player, grew up immersed in Irish music. Her father, an accordion player, influenced her to start playing the accordion and whistle around the age of four. She learned fiddle from a nun at school named Sister Francine, transposing tunes she already knew on the other instruments to her fiddle. She has been one of my favorite fiddlers since I first met her at The Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival, when I was about seven or eight years old, where she headlined with Dáithí Sproule. I have been taking workshops from her over the past several years at the Swannanoa Gathering near Asheville, North Carolina.

Liz Carroll and Haley Richardson
At the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival.

Liz and I sat down to chat in an interview format recently. What follows is the first of three interview transcripts of our conversation adapted for print posting.  

Who were your mentors growing up?
My dad and mom. Neither of them were critical of anything I tried, and put up with any scratchy sounds I was making when starting out. They never took me to a meeting of the Irish Musicians Association when I played the accordion or the tin whistle, but they took me when I started the fiddle. So I don’t know if they were saying, “Oh she’s pretty good at that.” The flip side being, “Oh she’s not very good at the other ones.” But they used to take me to hear the music. On Sunday nights there was a radio show with really good musicians. Before I hardly knew who I was watching, I saw Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan, both very famous accordion players. I also watched Johnny McGreevey play the fiddle. He really stood out for me. As for mentors there were a whole cast of characters when we went to the Irish Musicians’ meetings like Tom O’Malley, president of the Association and Tom Masterson, a Leitrim flute player. They were all really great mentors happy to have a young girl there. Hugh Gallagher was a nice fiddle player from Donegal but living in Chicago. A very clean player. There was also a nice man, Mr. Duffy, who gave me copies of old tunes out of an O’Neill’s book for me to learn. There was another old man, Mr. Shanley, who all he ever said was “Slow down.” But I liked him, too.  Mary McDonnough mostly played piano, but she also played fiddle. Eleanor Neary was another great piano player. I saw her early on, then again as a late teenager. If a mentor is someone who just really encourages you, then I had a pack of them. They were all great, especially Johnny McGreevy.

Liz Carroll, Kevin Carroll, Tom Cahill
Liz with her father, Kevin Carroll, and her grandfather, Tom Cahill.
Who were some of your favorite musicians to listen to growing up?
Besides the people I already mentioned, I listened to the music in my Irish dance class. They played a lot of Sean Maguire albums, so I got some of my own and loved the classy, unbelievable tone and verve in his playing. Sean Ryan came to Chicago on tour and I loved his playing. Beautiful. I played at the tip of my bow for a long time after that because I was influenced by his beautiful playing at the top of his bow. I think I only stopped it when I went to New York for one of the Oireachtas (annual dance championship competition) with my dance school and met Brendan Mulvihill for the first time. I played and he said, “Oh, you like Sean Ryan,” noticing the tip of my bow. I heard a recording one time of Seamus Connelly and loved it, very sweet playing. Then everybody. Liz likes everybody. Dennis Murphy and that whole Kerry vibe is nice too. So I found something I liked about everybody.
Did you play in a lot of sessions growing up?
We didn’t have sessions very often, only one Sunday a month. Once I was a teenager, I was playing and doing more traveling, especially with Irish dancing. I hopped on my bike or on the bus as soon as Jimmy Keane started playing, and would go over to his house. We would slow albums down (to learn tunes) and play together. Later on there was Marty Fahey’s sessions. Michael Flatley was early on too. We were all about the same age. There was Tommy Masterson, the son of Tom Masterson the Leitrim flute player. They understood why you were playing the music because they were dancing to it.

When and why did you start competing?
I first competed a couple of times at a Feis. There was nobody else competing, so I won and I liked it. I competed in my first Fleadh in 1966 and won. I still have the trophy. I went back to the Fleadh in the 1970‘s. My folks are from Ireland and we were going there to visit family as the Comhaltas tours were going out. There was a really great guy named Paddy Gavin who played the accordion and went to the All Ireland Fleadh. He was telling me I should go as well while I’m already over there. He told me I was very good, but I was very nervous about it. I went as a 16 year old. There was no such thing as qualifying back then. Besides, I wasn’t into competition. Once, I competed in Chicago and got second. The girl who won played Danny Boy with her sheet music on a music stand and I thought “This is not fair. I’m playing Christmas Eve Reel by memory.” (laughing). 

What age were you when you won your first All Ireland title?
When I competed at 16, I got second to Frankie Gavin. I didn’t know who Frankie Gavin was at the time, but we were right around the same age. I didn’t know what I was doing so I played really slow. People were telling me, “You are going to be nervous and you’re going to go too fast.” So I just didn’t go too fast. Sean Keane from the Chieftains gave me second. I got first the next year, then I went the year after that when I was 18 and got first in the senior division. It was pretty cool. I got kinda swaggery and full of myself--until I got back to Chicago.

What made you decide to become a professional musician?
I taught one year of school--seventh and eighth grade homeroom. The last day I closed my door thinking, “Uh, no.” Mick Moloney had gotten in touch with me and said “There’s a tour in West Africa. Can you do it? It’s in September.” I had been having the year from hell. They should have had me start in second grade. So I had a choice: “do this again” or “go to Africa for six weeks.” I chose “go to Africa.” I went there, came back, got an apartment with friends, and started teaching fiddle. 

Who made your violin and bow?
They are both new-ish in that they were made in the last 10 years. The fiddle is made by Raymond Schryer (Canadian fiddle maker). The bow is made by Ole Kanestrom. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have told you I was still playing with the bow I started with. But, a couple years ago I finally bought a new bow.

Where have you played your most memorable gigs?
Endless and probably about half of them I am going to forget right now. Speaking of Africa there was one really great, wacky night in 1982. It was really a dance thing. Native American Pueblo Indians, tap dancers, Donny and Eileen Golden doing Irish dancing, flat footers, cloggers--so a mix of things. One night in Liberia, the electricity went out. They had candles along the front of the stage. The sound is now acoustic (without any power) and the Native Americans had costumes on. The candles threw their light on the back of the curtains (shadow play with the costumes) and it was magic. This was one of the very early “this is magic” moments; “this is great to be part of a concert kind of magic” moment. It usually happens when things go wrong. John Doyle and I got to play for the President. That was nice. I liked that. It stood out. There are many great moments of being on stage with great musicians when you really lock in to the flow of playing. That is great. I have gotten to play so many times when things went right. Hopping on stage with Seamus Tansey in Sligo and playing with him was a really good moment. I could keep pointing to moments and people . . . lots of these things (Swannanoa) moments have been nice. Playing with Jerry Holland, sipping his plum brandy, whatever he was bringing. These nights of hilarity.

What’s your favorite thing about Swannanoa Gathering?
Oh, it’s perfect isn’t it? I think they really know not to overwork the staff. (laughing) Let me just say that is important. This is a happy staff. It’s a really happy staff. No one is sitting down at night and griping about anything. There is no target like, this is going wrong. We all agree and have a fun week. It’s just completely happy. For instance, if your class is at 9:00am and you are teaching that class with a free afternoon, then you stay out until 3:00am, or 4:00am, or 5:00am, then you are still happy. You know there is time for a nap in the afternoon and you can do whatever you need to do. I really appreciate that. I don’t know if the students would have wanted more time with us or not, but we are happy as a result of the way things are organized. At least for the afternoon gang you can go out in the evening and you are happy to do so. There are some camps where you teach for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon then it’s hard to go out at night. You do anyway but you are not happy.
Playing tunes with Dylan Richardson, Alan Murray, and Liz.
Photo credit: Arlin Geyer -
Photo credit: Arlin Geyer

Selfie of Liz and me after class.

If you could play with one musician already passed or still alive who would it be and why?I think if I could have sat down with Michael Coleman, I would do it. I would like to watch him. I also really liked James Morrison’s playing. 

Do either of your children (Pat and Alison) play music?
Alison still likes to play the piano. She gravitated to playing classical music. She learned a few tunes on the whistle and took some lessons from Johnny Harvey in Chicago, who was my buddy growing up as well. 

If you could pick any instrument to learn (besides fiddle, accordion, or tin whistle) what would it be?
I think it would be really good to play the piano.

To be continued . . . stay tuned for parts two and three of this interview, where we will learn about Liz Carroll's recording and tune writing process. Visit her website at

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Trip to Texas

Warm weather. Great food. Invitation to play music. Who could turn down an opportunity to go to Texas? Certainly not Dylan and me.

Earlier this year, Dylan, mom, and I flew to Laredo, Texas for a gig. We played at the Rising Stars program at a school for children who had never heard Irish music before.

Every year, a woman named Toni, puts together a program with a few young musicians. Some come from Texas but others travel from different states. This year Dylan and I were chosen to perform. Usually the musicians chosen are ones who play classical music. However, we were asked to change up the program a bit by playing Irish music--something new to the audience.

When we arrived in Laredo, Toni greeted us at the airport and took us to our hotel. She is the type of person you only know for a few minutes, but feel like you've known your whole life. She gave us the warmest possible welcome to Laredo.

After settling into our hotel room, she drove us to a cute store in the area where she thoughtfully purchased each of us a gift of our choice. I chose a package of beaded friendship bracelets and a Southwestern design bag. We drove to rehearsal and met the Irish dancers, Sarah and Jocelyn, with whom we would be performing. They were a few years younger than me, but we became fast friends.

When we finished with rehearsal, Sarah, her mom, Eimer and Katrina (the dance teacher and her daughter), my mom, Dylan, and I went out for some great Mexican food. We ended the night watching movies back at the hotel.

The next day was show day! We were led backstage where we met another one of the Rising Stars. Her name was Skye and she was to play a few classical pieces on the violin.

The middle school orchestra from Laredo began the concert. Afterwards, Skye's performance of a piece by Paganini was breathtaking in her technical execution of the difficult notes Paganini incorporates into each piece. When she finished, we were welcomed onto the stage by a very enthusiastic audience of children from the school, and asked a few questions by the conductor of the orchestra. We told the kids a bit about Irish music, then began with a set of jigs. Dylan and I have never really played for an audience not familiar with Irish music. That was the best part about performing at this venue. We got to introduce something completely new and exciting to hundreds of people.

After the concert, we went in the auditorium for a Meet and Greet with most of the kids in the audience. We signed autographs for everyone, and took some pictures.

This performance was such an amazing experience that I hope to take part in again.

On Saturday, Toni drove us to San Antonio for a visit. When we arrived at our hotel, we said our goodbyes to her, then toured around for a bit. First we went to see the Alamo then took a long, rainy walk to a Mexican restaurant that was farther away than we thought. After eating, we went to the Riverwalk, which was so beautiful. Dylan has recently been getting into photography, so he took a few pictures.

The next day, we found a few activities to do in an amusement area. We went on some haunted rides, then saw the Guinness Book of World Records Museum. We toured more for the rest of the day at the Buckhorn Museum and Saloon where we saw the Bonnie and Clyde car and a really creepy taxidermist exhibit and sideshow. 

Texas was such a fun place to be and I hope to visit The Rising Stars concert and the state itself again sometime.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Irish Music Review: Altan Encounters

Altan is a fantastic group with an incredible selection of tunes and songs, ranging from traditional Irish tunes and Gaelic songs to their more recently added bluegrass tunes. In my travels I have had many "Altan Encounters". It is always a joy to play tunes with such legendary musicians.

I first met Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the fiddler and vocalist for the group, when I was ten at the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival. She let me try her Hardanger fiddle, a violin with five strings on the top and four on the bottom.

Image of hardanger fiddle, Haley Richardson, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh,

When you play the strings on the top, they set in motion vibrations that cause the strings on the bottom to ring - so it almost sounds like more than one violin playing. I played a reel on it. At the time, I had been used to a 3/4 size fiddle with four strings, so playing a full size fiddle with five strings on the top and four strings on the bottom was a very different experience. I think for accompanying vocalists, the Hardanger fiddle sounds nice because of its echoing tone. Mairéad was super friendly and it was a memorable moment to meet and interact with this legend in Irish music.

In the summer of 2014, two years after first meeting her, I went to an Altan concert while attending Studio2Stage and met up with Mairéad and the band afterwards. She told mom and me to let her know when they were playing in our area again so we could get together and play some tunes. She also invited me to play with Altan alongside Dervish at the Sligo Live event on TG4, during the Fleadh Cheoil 2014 in Sligo.

Here's a little video of the Sligo Live performance:

Altan, Dervish, Haley Richardson
This past spring, we let Mairéad know there was a local show coming up and she invited me to perform a few tunes with the band. We joined them for dinner before the show, and I met Mairéad's daughter, Nia, who is twelve. After dinner, we went to the venue and I had a good time trading a few tunes with Nia before showtime. I loved the whole concert, but especially enjoyed the songs in Gaelic.

Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Haley Richardson

For the finale, I joined them in playing a bluegrass-Irish mix tune, which was different from what I'm used to, but I enjoyed experimenting with a new style of music. The energy from everyone interacting on-stage made everything especially enjoyable.

My recent trip to Ireland for the Fiddler of Dooney competition brought me to Donegal and another encounter with Altan friends. I spent a few days of the trip with Mairéad, sharing tunes and laughs by the fire.

I have loads of fun whenever I have "Altan Encounters". I hope to play a few tunes with them again, sometime soon!


Monday, November 23, 2015

Adventures in Ireland

For my mom and me, competitions are always just an excuse to travel to Ireland. We always make the most of the trip by visiting friends and seeing sights. This year’s excuse was the Fiddler of Dooney in Sligo. 

The first day consisted mainly of travel, and lots of it. Mom and I arrived in Dublin early on Thursday morning and visited Taste Food Company & Cafe, our favorite place to eat, what I think are, the best raspberry scones. Afterwards, we went to the airport to catch a flight to Donegal, where we stayed with our friends Mairead and Nia. Mairead contributes fiddle and vocals to a very well renowned group of Irish musicians called Altan

Pre-Flight Selfie
We met her back in 2008 at the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival where she performed with Tea with The Maggies. We saw her again this past winter with her daughter Nia, when Altan performed at a local theater in the Penn State area. When Mairead heard we would be visiting Ireland, she invited us to spend some time in Donegal with herself and Nia, plus their dog and cat, of course. 

Mairead surprised us when we met her at the Dublin Airport before our flight. We didn’t expect to see her until we arrived in Donegal. She had just been interviewed at a radio station with fellow band member, Ciaran Curran, in Dublin. We all flew back together in a tiny puddle-jumper plane to Donegal. When we arrived at Mairead’s house, we were greeted by Seog, the cat, and Blonde, the dog. We drank some tea and talked for a while before collecting Nia from school. For the remainder of the afternoon, we enjoyed vegetable soup, visited Granny, Mairead’s mom, and caught up on sleep. 

The view from Mairead's kitchen.
Despite Google Maps not being very helpful and mom having to quickly teach me how to read a map the old-fashioned way, we made it to Sligo the next day. We stayed with Catherine and Charlie, two wonderful hosts found through one of the organizers of the Sligo Live event, being held along with the Fiddler of Dooney. We hadn’t met our hosts until the day we were staying with them. Two of their sons are members of a great trad-fusion band named Moxie. We met them years ago in County Cavan where we enjoyed playing a few tunes together. 

Saturday was the day of the competition. I began the day by warming up my fingers with my competition tunes, The Cuckoo hornpipe, Elizabeth Cullin which is a jig composed by Billy McComiskey, a fantastic accordion player, and a reel named Lord Gordons, learned from a recording of one of my favorite fiddlers, Michael Coleman. 

When we arrived at the church where the competition was held, I played through my tunes again. Once the competition started, I listened as the other competitors played their tunes. Each competitor was absolutely great and had a unique style. I loved listening to tunes I hadn’t yet heard, and some I already knew, but played in a different style with contrasting variations. In total, there were sixteen competitors including myself--the only American on a roster filled with Irish fiddlers. 

The competition was stiff, indeed. It lasted for two to three hours and I played towards the end. Once I left the stage, I knew I played my personal best. But, in competitions, you never know what the judges are looking for. Your opinion of your personal best could be someone else’s opinion thinking you could add more variations, slurs, phrasing, etc. to the tune. I never go into a competition expecting or not expecting to win, because it’s not up to me, even when I play my best. It’s all up to the judges. 

So, when my name was called to take the first place trophy in the Junior category, I was thrilled! The second and third placers, Blaithine Kennedy and Ademar O’Connor, each played stunning versions of lovely tunes. I had a chance to play a couple of those tunes later that day at a pub in town called Foley’s with Blaithine. Senan Moran, last year’s winner of the Junior age group, and a friend of mine whom I’ve met with several times at past All-Ireland Fleadhs, joined us.

Fiddler of Dooney Trophy

On Sunday night, Mairead was in Sligo after her travels in London with the band. We ate dinner together, then went to the Hawk’s Well Theater to watch Altan perform. The show was brilliant, filled with fabulous songs and tunes from their new CD, The Widening Gyre. At the end of the second half, Sarah O’Gorman, the winner of the Fiddler of Dooney’s senior division, and myself, joined the group on stage to play two sets of reels. It was so much fun to perform with the band again. There is always great energy on stage with them. 

Hawks Well Theatre Altan Concert

After the show, Mairead, Ciaran, mom, and I traveled two hours back to Donegal where we spent a few more days with Mairead, Nia, and their friend Jillian. Over the next few days, we enjoyed attending sessions, walking on the local beaches, visiting the local radio, and having a s’mores party.

Irish music pub session

RTE Radio, Donegal Ireland

In the boot!
Haley Richardson RTE Radio, Donegal Ireland

Mom and I said a very sad goodbye to our friends in Donegal. We traveled to Westport for a session at Matt Molloy’s Pub, where I was able to meet new musicians and play loads of tunes until the early hours of the morning. Then, we spent a few days in Clare with our friend Manus McGuire and his wife Jenni. They are lovely friends and fantastic hosts. I enjoyed sessioning at a local pub with Manus, Ged Foley, and several young musicians from the area. We toured the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy where I met Niall Keegan, a wonderful man who informed me of the program UL offers for Irish music studies. 

Matt Molloy's Pub, Westport Ireland
What a lovely trash can!
Coral Beach, Galway Ireland
The Coral Beach

Manus McGuire, Haley Richardson

Our last stop of the trip was Dublin. I was very fortunate to have been able to meet up with a few friends from a camp I attended this past summer, Studio2Stage. Mom and I met Shannon, Michelle, and Siobhan at Butler’s Chocolate Café on Wicklow Street, where we conversed over some delicious hot chocolate and chocolate truffles. 

Unfortunately, we had to make our way back home the next day. It was sad to leave, but we had a truly amazing time in Ireland, sharing memories and adventures with some of our greatest friends. I hope to do it again in the near future.