Raise the Roof and the Soul
Raise the Roof and the Soul
A Q&A with Winifred Horan of Solas
By Geoff Gehman
For nearly 20 years Winifred Horan and Seamus Egan have run Solas as a global experience with an Irish tilt and a Gaelic lilt. The American-born children of Irish parents have used traditional idioms–reels, waltzes, keening ballads–to tell personal yet universal stories about joy and sorrow, home and homelessness. While their band mates have changed over the decades, they’ve remained dedicated to tour-de-force playing, Horan on fiddle and Egan on sundry instruments for fingers and lips.
Solas’ latest record, “Shamrock City,” is another kind of tour de force. The group’s first totally self-made conceptual album is named after the nickname of Butte, Mont., once a magnet for Irish emigres who flocked to mines, brothels and other Wild Western attractions. The CD was inspired by Egan’s great-great uncle, Michael Conway, a County Mayo native, copper miner and bare-fisted boxer killed by Butte police men for allegedly refusing to intentionally lose a bout. His tale anchors an engaging, enlightening portrait of work, sex, booze, freedom, oppression, unionism, fatalism, optimism and the crucible of immigration. Two tracks feature zesty-voiced guests: Dick Gaughan, the renowned Scottish protest troubadour, stars in “Labour Song” while “Lay Your Money Down” showcases Rhiannon Giddens, the African-American lead vocalist/violinist of the bluesy, old-timey Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Horan, Egan and their three Solas comrades will present “Shamrock City” as a multi-media experience on Sept. 11 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, which is in the heart of Jim Thorpe, once a magnet for Irish miners and railway workers. In the conversation below Horan discusses her debts to a piano-teaching father from County Wicklow, a violin mentor from Japan, and Egan, a fellow American-born child of Irish natives.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears and soul?
A: Oh my goodness, there have been so many of them I couldn’t pick just one. Pegging one song I couldn’t forget—that’s like pegging the first time you remember laughing, the first time you remember crying. I can remember loads of magical musical moments from my childhood and teenage years and early adulthood. Sometimes you confuse memorable songs with the monumental, life-altering times of your life. It’s like keeping a soundtrack, a little musical treasure chest, to keep track of your first boyfriend.
As a musician, you’re always hoping to have those moments that excite you and intrigue you and mesmerize you and catch you off guard. It’s just ongoing. If you want to call what we do a calling, it never stops—it keeps calling.
Q: Your first piano teacher was your dad, a carpenter. Did he try to inspire you by making comparisons between making good music and making good furniture?
A: Again, I’m going to be vague. Well, not vague, actually; I’ll just give you a different kind of comparison. My father was accomplished as a pianist and a jazz trumpeter. He was a master carpenter, whether he was building furniture or boats. I remember watching him in love with his craft, being a perfectionist. As I grew up, as I matured, I could associate that love with mastering and perfecting your craft as a musician–not that you could ever perfect your craft.
When we were kids my dad made us toys we thought were awful [laughs]. Everyone in the neighborhood [in Rockaway Beach, N.Y.] could see us coming in these wooden baby strollers that were painted outrageous colors like canary yellow, which he used because he could probably only afford cheap paint.
My dad is still a total artist. Even at the age of 80 he still reads about carpentry. He’s still up on the newest techniques. He still looks at boat plans, even though he’s too old to build boats. He still dreams.
Q: I’m a sucker for stories about mentors. What were the best lessons you learned from Masuko Ushioda, your violin mentor at the New England Conservatory? She certainly was a panoramic person: the silver medalist at the 1996 Tchaikovsky Competition; the wife of a cellist who became the Conservatory’s president; the mother of two children, including a furniture maker; a gourmet cook; a citizen of the world.
A: I could tell Masuko was different when I first auditioned for her class. I remember what she wrote on the comment card after the audition. One of the reasons she accepted me was that she was curious about me. She considered me as someone different. As a young girl I took Irish fiddle lessons; then, with my father’s direction and encouragement, I went classical. Masuko sensed that I was not the most authentic classical player, that there was still a hint of traditional in my playing.
Her class was so cool. It was pretty small, maybe 10 students. We were all girls: there’s no real reason for that; that’s just the way it happened. I was curious about her because she was so different; she was not cut from the same cloth as a lot of classical musicians. At that time the classical world had not spilled out into the crossover thing. It was very important to me to realize that she was a woman standing out so strongly in a field full of strong male personalities. For me, that was a really happy thing.
Masuko made you very aware of how to present yourself as a female artist in a male-dominated world, how to keep your femininity–although I’m not sure I ever really learned that lesson [laughs]. Remaining connected to your female side, she said, didn’t mean you couldn’t play as well or as strongly as a male counterpart—and I mean not only emotionally strong but physically strong as well. What’s great about playing an instrument is that when you close your eyes you can’t tell if the person playing is male or female.
I was completely and utterly fascinated by her. I was awed and a little intimidated and blown away. I was enthralled by her playing and her rebellious technique. It made me think she had been rebellious when she was my age. She was such an influence on me, I can’t even scratch the surface.
Q: “Shamrock City” is the most adventurous and ambitious of Solas’ 11 albums. What new musical paths did you guys pursue while making the band’s first conceptual project?
A: Over the years everyone in the band has composed songs or instrumentals. This is the first album where band members wrote everything, with the exception of an old shape-note hymn, “Am I Born to Die?” It’s a huge departure for us to go down a new road, to tell the story of Butte and Michael Conway’s family and the back-and-forth of Irish-American immigration, to let the record be what it needed to be, to be more personal, to look back at our years and feel a little more comfortable with our place.
On the more business side of things, it’s the first album we made completely by ourselves, from top to bottom. We were in charge of everything: producing, providing the liner notes, hiring the graphic artist, manufacturing. We couldn’t fall back on people at the record company, so it was a huge learning curve.
Of course we opened up a whole new can of worms. In some ways this kind of project can scare the hell out of you. And in some ways it can give you the confidence to keep going, and growing. It was a really challenging album to make, but at the end of the day I feel we presented the story in a lucid, passionate way. It’s sort of the band’s baby; nobody else can claim parenthood over it.
Q: Is there a Michael Conway-esque story dangling from a branch of your family tree, an indelible tale of an Irish emigre’s adventures and misadventures?
A: I think every single person in American has a story like Michael Conway’s. We’re all products of immigration; we all have epics with tragedies and successes, travels and travails.
New York was my family’s sort of landing. There are so many characters in my family, great-great-great uncles who worked on the docks of Lower Manhattan. Some of the stories we heard as kids involved relatives who didn’t come through Ellis Island, who came through Canada illegally. There are stories that some may have been gun runners in the Civil War because they built tall wooden ships. They were very wealthy, although they lost their wealth at sea or drank it up [laughs]. All in all, it’s a pretty colorful story filled with pretty mental characters. Sailors—you know what goes along that. Hopefully, the female side of the family kept things together at home.
That’s something we need to celebrate more, where we come from. Performing “Shamrock City” around the country and the world, we’ve been reminded that immigration is still such a powerful, relevant story, and issue. Look at the Immigration Bill, how some people want to tell certain groups of people that they have to go back to their homelands, that they’re not welcome here, that America is not their home.
Q: It’s been nearly 20 years since you and Seamus helped launch Solas. How has he influenced and changed you?
A: There are loads of ways that I’m blown away by Seamus, as a musician and a person. I guess I’ll start by saying that his work ethic is like none other. He lives the life of a true artist, trying to be a musician and musical leader in a world where it’s not laid out for you as a concrete plan. Playing with him, recording with him, traveling around the world with him, I’ve been privileged to see behind the scenes, to know how someone has to work at his craft while dedicating just as much time to keeping the band going, dealing with the agents and the record companies, basically being the band’s manager for nearly 20 years.
I can’t say enough about the influence he’s had on me and loads of other musicians. I’ve learned so much from him about patience and humility. Humility is probably his strongest trait; that’s something that really resonates with me. Because he’s one of the best out there. I don’t know how many instruments the guy can play. And he plays every single one of them like it’s his first [i.e., best] instrument. He’s a phenomenal flute player but then he picks up the banjo and he’s so good, you almost forget he’s a phenomenal flute player.
Seamus could probably be brilliant on the fiddle, but he won’t let me see his brilliance. I think he doesn’t want to threaten me. It’s kind of handy that I’m the fiddle player because violin may be the one instrument that has him flummoxed. It’s kind of a running joke between us.
Q: On the flip side of the coin, how have you influenced and changed Seamus?
A: I’m not comfortable answering that question. Honestly, you’ll have to ask Seamus. I can tell you that we’re best friends, really the tightest buddies. We’ve watched each other’s back for nearly 20 years. We made a commitment to Solas and we’re sticking to it.
Q: Do you know any one besides yourself who was a champion in fiddling and stepdancing?
A: Oh, there are loads of accomplished musicians who are accomplished dancers. I love to dance but my dancing days are so long ago. I need to take that out of my bio.
Q: So there’s no chance of you forming a super group of stepdancing fiddlers?
A: That’s right. Although I wouldn’t have minded that calling, say, 20 years ago.
Winifred Horan: The Scoop
She’s performed with string quartets, the Boston Pops Orchestra and a band led by Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon.
She’s an alumna of Cherish the Ladies.
She and Solas accordionist Mick McAuley covered Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” on their 2006 album “Serenade.”
Her song “A Daisy in December” played during the third season of the TV competition “So You Think You Can Dance.”
On her new solo record “Lost Girl Found” the former champion stepdancer performs “Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife,” written by the titular 18th-century Scottish fiddler, bard and dance teacher, or dancie.
She and Seamus Egan, Solas’ other co-founder, plan to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary in 2016 by making a record of mostly original numbers with members of the original lineup.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His American-German father courted his English-Irish mother by singing “Danny Boy.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.