Another in a series of features about BCMFest 2018 that will be appearing in this blog right up until the festival (January 18-21), so as to better acquaint you with the events, activities and personalities that make up BCMFest, which is marking its 15th anniversary.
One of the new features of this edition of BCMFest will be our Emerging Artist Showcase concert, which will kick off the festival on January 18 at 7 p.m. in Club Passim. The phrase “emerging artist” has a couple of meanings here: Perhaps it’s a brand new act — even though some or all of its members may be familiar to BCMFest — or someone who’s recently started performing, or is a newcomer to the Boston music scene.
The Emerging Artists roster will include vocalist/fiddler Maggie MacPhail, who many of you may know as a member of everyone’s favorite youth fiddle ensemble, Scottish Fish (yes, they’re performing at the festival, too); Sailbow, the duo of Berklee College of Music students Emilie Rose (fiddle) and Casey Murray (cello), who compose and arrange fiddle tunes with an unmistakable Celtic flavor; and Natasha Sheehy, an Irish native whose accordion playing has enlivened the area’s session scene since she moved here about a year-and-a-half ago.
We caught up with Natasha recently to talk with her about her music, and what she thinks of Boston so far.
Q: Talk a little about your musical upbringing: Did your family have roots in the Irish tradition? When did you take up the music yourself? What were some of the important experiences, and who were some of the major influences, in your development?
NATASHA: I️ grew up in Abbeyfeale, West Limerick. My family didn’t have any distinct links to Traditional music but it was a very natural part of life in Abbeyfeale. We learned traditional music in primary school from the age of seven and it was a big part of school life up until we went to university. My parents started to pay more attention to traditional music when they took me to fleadhanna [music competitions], festivals and concerts, and I️ have three younger siblings that play a lot now too. It’s turned into a very musical household over the years and there’s always someone playing in the background when I️ call home now.
I️ was lucky to be part of a huge thriving Comhaltas branch in Limerick in Templeglantine. Tadgh Mulcahy is director of the branch there. He worked tirelessly, and still does, to make sure the branch always had excellent teachers and that we had as many opportunities as possible to hear great music and showcase our own.
In my teens I️ learned my accordion music from Willie Larkin and Danny O Mahony. Danny in particular helped to refine my style. One thing he told me is that a person’s music should reflect their personality. I’m not a loud person by nature and at the time I️ was going through a very showy, cheesy phase in my playing, so he knocked that out of me gently but firmly
My playing continues to change, and in the last year in Boston I’ve been playing with a higher standard of musicians than ever before in the likes of Joey Abarta, Nathan Gourley, Sean Clohessy and many others, so technically I’ve had to pull up my socks. I️ hope it continues!
Q: Do you think regional styles of Irish music — Limerick, Clare, Donegal, Sligo, etc. — are as sharply defined and prominent as they were in past generations, or does it seem as if there’s a kind of “homogenization” taking place?
NATASHA: I️ think there still is a distinction but it’s definitely more nuanced and subtle than it would have been before the era of recorded music. I️ think I️ myself have a very distinctive West Limerick sound. I️ was very fortunate to be surrounded by so much music that I️ could learn through hearing local musicians rather than solely relying on recordings. I️ love to play slides and polkas, but I think regional style goes beyond the obvious repertoire markers and extends to things like tone, swing and how you interpret tunes. It’s almost like it gives you a default approach to a piece of music.
I️ have found it easy to get stuck in a rut because of this, though. I’ve really enjoyed playing music with people of varying styles of Irish and Scottish music since I️ got to Boston. I’ve been soaking in as much as I️ can and playing more music than I️ ever have.
Q: When did you come to Boston, and what brought you here?
NATASHA: I️ came to Boston in May of 2016. I️ met my wife Kiley in 2013 at University College Cork where she was doing a semester abroad. After a few years over and back we decided it was time to make up our minds and pick a country so. We’re enjoying more than we thought we would so we’re here for the time being .
Q: You’re part of the Boston Comhaltas School faculty — what other musical activities have you gotten involved in since you’ve been in Boston?
NATASHA: The musicians of Boston welcomed me with open arms and I️ haven’t been short of musical excursions. I️ play regularly in the Burren and the Druid with all the regulars and I’ve done a few projects with Joey Abarta, Nathan Gourley and Eamon Sefton, all of whom will be at BCMFest this year. In fact, I’ll be accompanied by Nathan on guitar — he’ll provide both emotional and musical support as this is my first solo set.
There’s no shortage of sessions and concerts in Boston. I️ think we’re dead lucky to be living in a city that can makes it possible to make a living as a traditional musician. That’s rare and wonderful.
Q: What do you think are the most distinctive characteristics of Boston’s Irish music scene?
NATASHA: The Boston scene took a while to navigate. It’s quite stratified and at first I️ didn’t really know where I️ belonged. Once I️ found my place, though, I️ found a really lovely close-knit community, and have had somewhere to go for 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc., always surrounded by musicians and pie.
Ticket information and other details about BCMFest are available here.