Liz Carroll - where tunes come from


Liz Carroll needs to make a New Year’s resolution this Hogmanay. And she needs to keep it. The Chicago-born Irish fiddler has developed a habit she needs to break. Every time she gets booked to play somewhere outside the US, she flies in, does the gig, or gigs, and flies out the next day, more often than not on the first plane.


Last year she Carroll was in Ireland three times. It’s a country she loves. It’s where her parents came from and it’s where, as she says, she’ll find the people who live close to the music she plays. And yet, she was back on her way to Chicago the morning after the gig every time.


“I know I must be missing out and it probably comes from the time when I was out on the road when my children were young and I didn’t want to be the absentee mother for too long,” she says via Skype as she sits waiting for a hairdresser’s appointment. Various people will drop by and say hello during the conversation but this is a woman who loves to talk about music and musicians, so there’s no danger of her being overly distracted.


Next week she flies to Australia for a week of gigs and workshops before she returns to Scotland to play and teach at the Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh.


“There’s about a week in between and what do I arrange to do? Fly home!” she says with a note of exasperation. “Someone said, You could have gone to Thailand for a massage before flying to Edinburgh, and that kind of appeals. Then I think of Liz Knowles [fellow North American fiddler and fellow member of the Shetland-Scandi-American fiddle troupe String Sisters] after the last UK tour we did together. She went walking in the Lake District. How cool is that! And there I am leaving on the 7am flight the day after Edinburgh. Again. So, yeah, I need to start seeing these places I visit more thoroughly, although I did manage to drop in on a Cathal McConnell [Edinburgh-based Irish music legend] gig in Edinburgh when I somehow arrived a day early for Celtic Connections last year.”


Seeing McConnell, a whistle and flute virtuoso and lovely, very natural singer of traditional songs, is exactly the sort of experience Carroll would want to have as a tourist. She grew up surrounded by Irish music in Chicago, where a good number of the police force were once said to be recruited A, for their Irish blood and B, for their musical prowess.


Having taken up the fiddle around the age of seven, she sat down one day aged nine and composed a reel. She remembers this very clearly and was aware at the time that writing a tune felt very different from learning a tune, playing variations on a tune or hearing a tune for the first time. Being the first person to hear, learn and ultimately perform this reel was an exciting experience, and it’s one that the prolific tunesmith – she says she hasn’t written hundreds of tunes but it’s certainly well into three figures – still gets some fifty years on when she completes a tune.


For all that she plays down her output, Liz Carroll tunes crop up everywhere. Fiddlers love playing them and not a few have achieved the ultimate compliment, although the royalties might be more valuable, of passing into the tradition and being passed off as traditional.


“I suppose there’s always that fear at the back of your mind that you’re going to lose the ability to compose,” she says. “I’ve been on a bit of a roll recently because I was asked to write a series of tunes in the style of what was being written between 1689 and the mid-1800s for Chicago Art Institute. Then I was asked to write ten tunes in two months for a project at Notre Dame University and what do you know, I wrote two more after that. People ask me where the ideas come from and I tell them, everywhere and anywhere.”


Driving is a good source of inspiration. She’ll often pull over and sing a phrase into her phone. Or she might just respond to the sound of particular chord.


“Sometimes, if I’ve needed to write something for a project, I’ve looked at an object – it could be any object – and played what comes to mind,” she says. “Writing something to go with a particular colour or listening to a great tune and thinking, what can I put after that? Or listening to great playing – that can spark something. Whatever gets you started is great because everyone has their own way of phrasing things and that first phrase you come up with doesn’t have to be the first part of the tune; you can keep it and move it somewhere else. There’s a kind of logic to the whole process and I always liked maths, working out equations, that sort of thing, so in a way I’m still doing my maths homework, except on a fiddle.”


One rule she does insist on is that she always uses a pen when writing down phrases, because if you use a pencil, it’s too easy to erase what you’ve written and she never wastes anything, even if it appears in a different place.


When she appears at the Scots Fiddle Festival Carroll says she’ll be in her element. She loves teaching and even when the class has all different levels of players she makes sure that everyone gets what they wanted out of the session. “Teaching one-to-one would be optimal but sometimes at these gatherings, that’s just not possible,” she says. “Groups are fun and although I’m a bit of a dictator in that set-up, I encourage people to pipe up if they have any questions.”


In a packed programme that includes Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid’s brilliantly attuned partnership with pianist Harris Playfair, the concertina-cello duo of Simon Thoumire and Su-a Lee, solo recitals by Scots fiddler Marie Fielding and US resident Alasdair White, and former BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, fiddler Charlie Stewart in a duo with pianist Fergus McCreadie, Carroll will be performing in her favourite format, a fiddle and guitar duo with Jenn Butterworth of the much heralded Kinnaris Quintet.


“I loved playing in Trian with Billy Comiskey and Daithí Sproule but down the years I’ve been drawn to duos because there’s a certain rawness about them,” she says, having partnered the great Dublin-born guitarist John Doyle and more recently Canadian pianist-guitarist Jake Charron, with whom she recorded her most recent album, Half Day Road.


“With two people you’re not going to get the last spot at a folk festival, because they always prefer bigger bands, but I always liked what Martin Hayes said about working with Denis Cahill – you really get to explore a tune. Martin and Denis were – and are – a great example of the duo and so are their colleagues from the Gloaming, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett. You hear everything very clearly in that situation and it’s exciting. I mean, I go back to Sean McGuire and Joe Burke. I’m not sure how many festivals had them on top of the bill but, boy, they were something.”


From The Herald, October 2019 

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