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.