This is the first of a series of semi-regular posts in the coming weeks to acquaint you with the people, events and happenings at BCMFest 2017 (January 13 and 14). For more information, and to purchase tickets, see the BCMFest website.
BCMFest 2017 represents a homecoming of sorts for Heather Cole-Mullen. For one thing, she performed at the very first festival back in 2004 as part of a showcase of young musicians; for another, after several years living and working in places like Chicago, Louisiana and Ireland, she’s returned (more or less) to the Greater Boston area where she grew up.
So, with BCMFest 2017 celebrating the ongoing renewal in music and community that takes place in Boston’s Celtic music scene, it’s quite fitting that Heather will perform at the BCMFest Roots & Branches Concert, which opens the festival at 7 p.m. in Club Passim. The concert also will feature Yann Falquet and the Jordan Tirell-Wysocki Trio.
Even back in her early teens, Heather was a highly regarded Irish fiddle player, and since then she’s become equally adept at accordion and, more recently, has found her singing voice — and she’ll be displaying all these skills at Roots & Branches. It also bears mentioning that Heather is quite the scholar on styles and facets of Irish music, and runs her own podcast, “From the Shamrock Shore.”
We recently caught up with Heather to talk about her growth and development as a musician.
Q: You were involved in a number of folk music and dance activities as a kid – how and when did this result in your interest in playing Irish music?
Heather: I grew up doing contra dancing and playing New England contra dance music. As a young kid, my favorite music tapes were recordings of De Danann and Seamus Connolly, although I didn’t know it was Irish music at the time. My family found Irish music through Seamus Connolly’s Gaelic Roots music camp which was advertised in the Boston Globe. Once I went to my first session I was hooked and started going to more sessions and classes to learn more.
Q: What were some of the important experiences you had while living in the Boston area that shaped your development as an Irish musician? And who were your mentors during that time?
Heather: One of the most important things in my life was attending Pinewoods music and dance camp. It made me love music and want to be a fiddle player from a very young age when I used to fall asleep listening to the music. Once I started playing Irish music, I met George Keith, who became my teacher and mentor, encouraging me to attend sessions and introducing me to a lot of the intricacies of the Irish tradition and history. I was also very fortunate to be learning when Tommy Peoples and John and Sean Gannon were active in the Boston scene. Both of them were huge influences on my music and the way I approach Irish music.
Q: You’ve now established yourself as a performer in three distinct areas, i.e., fiddle, accordion and singing. Who are some of the musicians and singers (contemporary or past) you’ve been influenced and/or inspired by?
Heather: Over the past five or six years, I’ve been particularly inspired by a number of musicians from the border of County Mayo and County Sligo. I first met a group of them in Chicago: the great flute player Kevin Henry, Albert Neary, Frank Burke, and Malachy Towey. After moving to that region, I was very fortunate to get to know a few wonderful traditional players from that area, including Jimmy Murphy (fiddle), Michael Loftus (flute), and Gregory Daly (flute). Jimmy Murphy especially was a huge influence to me. He carries on the tradition of Fred Finn and plays with a great energy and honesty.
I’ve loved traditional singing for a long time, although I didn’t really start singing myself until a few years ago. Dolores Keane was the first singer I fell in love with. She was the singer on the De Danann recording I had as a child. Because I grew up in the contra dance scene, I was also exposed to the traditions of English singing and shanty singing, as well as shape-note singing. I really like singing that is full bodied and powerful, so when I heard Rosie Stewart from Fermanagh, I was immediately drawn to her style and the depth of her repertoire. After meeting Rosie and attending classes with her, I met more great singers such as Rita Gallagher, Roisín White, and too many more to mention. The singing scene in Ireland is really wonderful, and I was fortunate to travel to a number of singing festivals and learn a bunch of new songs during my time there.
Q: You’ve spent time in Chicago as well as Ireland, so you’ve had the opportunity to experience different Irish music communities. What do you think distinguishes Boston’s Irish music scene?
Heather: Boston has a strong, close-knit scene. There are a lot of very nice people playing at a very high level. Sessions get packed! I like the variety of repertoire that results from a large number of players with diverse backgrounds. Because of its history and reputation, Boston also regularly hosts visiting musicians from all over the U.S. and Ireland, which means that there is frequently something happening within the music world. We’re also lucky to have a number of venues that are extremely supportive of music and visiting musicians, such as The Burren and The Druid for sessions, and Club Passim for concerts.