Get ready for the upcoming performances in the library’s Summer Concert Series! Concerts are at 7 p.m. every Thursday night in July and August at East End Veterans Memorial Park. Every Monday, Free for All will offer an article about, or interview with, the band of the week. The following is an interview with Colleen White and Sean Smith.
What made you decide to become a musician?
SEAN: I think pretty early on as a kid, I liked the idea that music wasn’t just something you listened to, passively – you could put yourself into it, express it, even just for your own enjoyment. There’s a photo somewhere of me at 5, maybe 6 years old, pretending to be a symphony conductor (I’m even wearing a suit and tie) and leading an orchestra of my various toys and stuffed animals. I also was fortunate to have parents with eclectic tastes who exposed me to all sorts of music: classical, jazz, pop, rock as well as lots of folk.
Funny enough, though, seeing the documentary on the 1969 Woodstock festival when I was 12 was what really made me want to pick up an instrument – specifically the guitar. Watching Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Alvin Lee and Carlos Santana up there on the screen, I just thought playing guitar must be the most fun thing ever. And so I got myself a cheap electric guitar and prepared to become a rock-n-roll legend.
Well, didn’t turn out quite that way. The folk music channel in my ear just didn’t turn off. When I was 13, my mother took me to a folk festival in upstate New York, and I kept coming back to it every year, because I liked the sense of community there, and the accessibility of the music. I began spending more time with my acoustic guitar than my electric one, singing songs by the various performers I’d heard at that festival. And as I listened to more of that music, and I worked more at playing guitar, I felt more confident and comfortable about sharing the music with other people.
COLLEEN: For me, it was just always something I grew up with. My dad played classical guitar and my sisters and I were put into music lessons for a little of everything (voice, piano, saxophone, violin – very poorly). But the focus on Irish music happened when I was around 11. We attended the wedding of a family friend, and they had a trad band play for the reception. I must have stared at the flute player for hours before working up the nerve to talk to her and ask her about her instrument and where she’d learned to play. She offered to give me lessons on the spot, and from there she connected me with the Irish music scene in Minnesota. Fifteen years later and here we are!
How would you describe your sound?
SEAN: Colleen and I play mostly traditional songs and instrumental music from Ireland, so a lot of our material is more than a century old, even older. But we like to include modern influences in our arrangements, and we also do a few contemporary songs by people like Kate Rusby, Karine Polwart and Steve Tilston, who incorporate elements from traditional folk music in their work – there’s definitely an old/new dynamic at work. Still, even if we might experiment a little, we both have a lot of respect for the folk tradition and so we want the songs and tunes to stand on their own. There are some great stories in there, after all, and we want to make sure they get a good telling.
COLLEEN: Sean hit the nail on the head! I would also say that I always think of us as storytellers as much as musicians, cheesy as that sounds. Irish music is known for terrific (if often tragic) stories within the melodies, and I think we really try to bring that out and help that connect with the audience.
What is your songwriting process like?
SEAN: Well, in our case it’s more like “song adaptation” or “song arrangement,” since our repertoire comes primarily from folk tradition. But the great thing about folk music is that it belongs to everybody and nobody, so when you sing a song that goes back years and years, you’re indulging in a shared form of songwriting, one that takes place across many generations. You have the opportunity to put your own stamp on the music, whether it’s the way you sing it, or maybe something you do with the accompaniment (if you have one), or some other aspect of the arrangement.
Colleen and I have known each other and played together for several years, but it was only a little over a year ago that we really sat down and worked on a repertoire. Obviously, no two people have exactly the same musical tastes and experiences, and I’ve enjoyed seeing how ours intersect. I think that a collaboration offers the chance to learn and grow, and that’s definitely the case for me: I’ve shared stuff in my repertoire with Colleen, but she also knows songs that I might not have thought about performing; then when we try them out it’s like, “Oh, OK, I could do that. Let me try this…”
COLLEEN: And from the tunes side, it’s always great going back through old recordings or tunes you used to play, dusting them off, and seeing if you can make it work! We’ve also had some fun lately finding tunes that work with the songs we’re singing, especially when the names and melodies work to make a nice little theme (again, we really love word jokes).
Which artists have been your biggest musical influences, and what is it that draws you to their music?
SEAN: Oh boy, there have been so many, at different stages of my musical path. I could go all the way back to Pete Seeger, the Clancy Brothers and Joan Baez, for example, since they were among the first folk singers I listened to; or the people I heard at the folk festival I mentioned earlier, like John Roberts & Tony Barrand, a wonderful English duo; David Bromberg, an amazing blues-style guitarist; the Boys of the Lough, who play Irish and Scottish traditional music – they all helped expand my awareness of folk music.
Once I really decided that I wanted to play this music, I was tremendously inspired by the 1970s folk revival in Ireland and the British Isles. There were all these performers or bands that took the folk tradition in new, innovative directions while retaining its spirit and character: Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Andy Irvine, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Bothy Band, Planxty, De Danaan, the Young Tradition, the Watersons, Dick Gaughan, the Battlefield Band, Five Hand Reel, Horslips. I could go on and on. Listening to them, I understood there were many ways you could personalize folk music and make it feel relevant for you, even though it’s based in traditions that are centuries old.
I believe it’s important to keep your ears and mind open for other influences and sources of inspiration. What’s great about the Boston area is we have so many excellent musicians and singers, so all you have to do is go out to concerts or jam sessions and you have the opportunity to further enrich yourself. I’m particularly impressed with the young musicians I meet – some even elementary school-age – who have embraced traditional music and make a point to learn about it. How can you not be inspired by that?
COLLEEN: Sean has a much better background than me! I tend to pick a favorite and listen to them obsessively for six months before moving on to the next “discovery”. Current Irish favorites right now seem to be Colm O’Donnell for his flute playing and Olivia Chaney for her incredible voice.
Please tell us about any albums you have available or in production.
SEAN: That’s something we haven’t quite got around to doing yet. We both have full-time jobs, and Colleen’s going for her MBA, so sometimes it’s all we can do just to get together for rehearsals and gigs. However, we have a SoundCloud site that has samples of our music; while these are not studio recordings, we think they convey the essence of our music quite well.
We also maintain a website, so you can keep up to date on our activities, which perhaps someday might include recording an album.
What should people expect when they come to your concert on Thursday night?
SEAN: Sadly, our 30-piece Irish dance troupe and our 100-voice chorus will not be available for the gig, so you’ll have to put up with just the two of us. OK, there’s your rim shot. Seriously, we try to represent a cross-section of experience and emotion: a love story here, a bit of humor there, an historical ballad, and so on. And there’ll almost certainly be a few instances where people can join in on the singing – we definitely like that.
COLLEEN: I will almost certainly forget the name of a tune that I have been playing for a decade, Sean will wow you with his multi-instrumental talent, and one of us make at least one really awful punning joke. Oh, and a song about a terrible first date.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
SEAN: It’s marvelous to have a library that supports and promotes live music. Sure, you could just spend the evening at home and have all kinds of entertainment options. But going out to a performance – whatever kind of music it might be – that’s organized and presented locally, and in an intimate setting, is really good for you. Doing this reminds us that music isn’t just something that comes out of an electronic device. We all make it – sometimes imperfectly, but that’s what art is about, anyway.
So if you don’t come to see us – though we certainly hope you do – do try to make it out to a local concert somewhere, sometime.
More about the Summer Concert Series:
Concerts will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday evenings in July and August at East End Veterans’ Memorial Park. Bring a blanket or folding chair, and maybe even a picnic dinner, and enjoy live acoustic music from a new performer each week. East End Veterans’ Memorial Park is located at 45 Walnut Street. The concert schedule is as follows:
July 9th: Damn Tall Buildings
July 16th: Hoot and Holler
July 23rd: Colleen White and Sean Smith
July 30th: Semi-Aquatic Rodent
August 6th: Molly Pinto Madigan
August 13th: Eva Walsh
August 20th: Ian Fitzgerald
August 27th: The Whiskey Boys
Please note: In the event of rain, Summer Concerts will be held in the Sutton Room at the Peabody Institute Library and food will not be allowed.
For more information, please call 978-531-0100 ext. 10, or visit the library’s website at www.peabodylibrary.org.