Cara Ellen Modisett
Her parents were Irish immigrants, and she finds that the music of teh Appalachian mountains echoes that heritage.
She learned to play from an Irish fiddler in the back of a New York City bar. Since then, her career has led her to gigs with everyone from the London Symphony to the Chieftains. She has homes in Ireland and the states and her current band is called Immigrant Soul, appropriately. Their performances pay tribute to the Irish roots of mountain music and to the bluegrass and old-time music that grew in the Appalachians, an ocean away from its earliest beginnings.
You started pretty young and I was wondering if it was violin or fiddle when you started?
That’s a good question – actually, they’re pretty much the same instrument…
I realize it’s just a matter of terminology…
Exactly, exactly! So it wasn’t a violin in terms of – I didn’t go for classical lessons, but I went to a good old fiddle teacher, an Irish-born gentleman named Martin Mulvihill who is actually from Kerry, in Ireland, and was just a wonderful, wonderful teacher.
He actually taught in the back of a little bar in the Bronx, and he taught fiddles and accordions and whistles and everything, mostly by ear.
Was it your family ties that pulled you into Irish music originally, or how did it happen?
Yeah, exactly. Both my parents are from the west of Ireland, County Mayo, and they definitely always played Irish music in the house, and even good old American bluegrass and country tunes were always kind of going, and it was something that was always a part of our family for as long as I can remember.
My sister did a little step dancing and for some reason the fiddle kinda caught me – and I begged my mom, “could I please have a fiddle?” and she gave in and she said sure, and eventually I started to get something that sounded like music out of it! [laughs]
That can take some time, especially with string instruments...
Yes! It definitely did. And we were also in an apartment building in the Bronx so it was a little tough on the neighbors, I’m sure! [laughs]
I can imagine, I can imagine! What about your parents – what did they play?
It’s funny, I think both my parents actually are very musical, but they were really – they didn’t have the opportunity unfortunately, when they were little, or in their busy lives, to ever take anything musical up, but I know in the family there’s definitely stories of uncles playing melodeons and singing and aunts dancing and telling stories, and you know – I think probably in most Irish families you’re gonna find that there’s some musical talent, you know, going back generations, so I’m sure it’s definitely there.
You perform with a lot of different types of groups, from the London Symphony to the Chieftains to the current – I guess it’s a five-person band – what kind of mental and musical shifts do you have to make, going from one to another?
Yeah, that’s a good question ’cause there, there definitely is always a – which I thrive on, actually – new challenges when you play in a setting of an amazing symphonic orchestra where you really have to very, be very aware of arrangements, especially, ’cause obviously you have like 80 people behind you so you can’t just say wing it and say, “one more time!” [laughs] you know! That kinda doesn’t work for people reading the music...
Even like last week now we – the band I have there, Immigrant Soul, we actually collaborated with this wonderful Turkish musician – he’s a brilliant hand drummer, and we did about three shows out in the West Coast last weekend, and it was wonderful but again, very different. You have a different way of communicating with a different – a musician from a very different musical culture, so… It’s always a challenge but amazing what, what – so many similarities exist within different musical cultures, and by humming or by just feeling, you can really just, kind of get on the same page, and I think audiences really like to see different kinds of styles coming together in a natural way.
Related to that, I know you’re influenced by a lot of music from other ethnic roots – African and Latin – how does that work, how do those styles merge and do it well?
Yeah – it’s funny, when you see that, or you hear, wait a minute, Irish-African, that doesn’t really make any sense, but many years ago actually I was playing a world music festival in New York and there was an amazing African percussionist and his 10-piece drum ensemble on before us, and actually just blew my mind, Cara – he and his ensemble were just incredible. The rhyhthms were very intricate but very, just very heart-warming if you really felt the groove, even though there was a lot of different parts going on there.
And the groove that they played, I didn’t realize but it was so complementary to where Irish music fits melodically, you know, and Irish music, a lot of our music is dance-oriented, I’m sure your audience and listeners would know – like Irish jigs and Irish reels, and that’s things that are like in forms of three and four musically, with a little groove there, and it’s very much a part of the lead instruments, the fiddles, the pipes, the accordions, that play in the music.
But we don’t have a rich percussive history, funny enough, and of course in African music you have a huge bed of percussion that makes up a lot of their tradition, so you’re right – we in the group combine some African drums in there as well, underpinning the Irish tunes, as well as [incorporating] a bass player who plays a little bit of South African style in some things.
And again in Irish traditional history, musically, we never had a bass guitar or any kind of bass instrument underpinning things, so I think in that way it definitely gives a bigger bed of harmonic accompaniment and rhythmic accompaniment that’s very well-suited to the Irish tunes and melodies floating on top, and it kinda just makes it very accessible for people, I think hearing it, to really really feel that groove and we’ve seen audiences just kinda jump up and some dance in the aisles and stuff [laughing] and it’s great, if that helps to really get the, the joy of the fast tunes across. That’s I think a good thing.
How do you know when you’ve connected to an audience – that’s a good sign, if they’re dancing!
[laughs] Yes, that’s definitely a good sign if they’re dancing! It’s funny, you know – Irish music, again, and that’s very much the core of what we’re about, you know, and the show – it’s very emotional music, it’s very honest music and it’s really music of the people, you know.
It came from hundreds of years old, through the generations, and each generation’s made it their own, and it’s survived so many hundreds of years that it’s first of all a great pride to I think, play it on a great world stage, you know, and beautiful performing arts centers such as Roanoke, and, and I think audiences are very smart – they know when the performers are feeling the music and, and you’re giving it your all, and I know we certainly do – it’s just a part of us, and again the emotions run so deep.
We’ll play very old traditional tunes, like 300-year-old tunes, and slow airs and, and sad songs, laments, and put ’em aside what’s other parts of the tradition, as in the joyous upbeat dance tunes. And you know, we always encourage the audience on some songs to sing along, and when you hear them singing at the top of their lungs that’s great – when you see emotions. I’ve seen people, you know, kinda teary-eyed, because they hear these experiences of the immigrants and hearing these songs that it – it really – I think it really has to touch one, because it’s so true and real.
And then the joy from the fast tunes is just you know, pretty, pretty apparent, so… people feel it, and you know, after the shows we – actually, we always go out to the lobby, and I’ve heard just amazing stories from people who – oh, I could just tell you a coupla in my mind.
Last week, for example, there was a wonderful couple who came up to us after, in the lobby, and one poor woman was, just said “thank you very much!” and “it was a wonderful evening!” And I said, “Oh really? Great! Did you have a good time?” and she said – she got a little teary-eyed and then she said “It’s my first, you know, real day out – I’ve been suffering from cancer and finished my chemo,” and she started to get emotional and said, “you just brought such joy to me” and gave me this big hug, and you know, I can’t think of anything better to try to touch somebody, you know, through music. We just high-five each other every time we can touch an audience ’cause it’s a great, great feeling.
That is wonderful. Where was that?
That actually was one of the shows, the West Coast, we did – it was, it was down in Escondito, actually, towards San Diego, and beautiful performing arts center, and a great crowd, but this particular woman really stood out, obviously, and we just hear a lot of stories like that, and um, it’s – it’s – it just gets ya, you know, and you just feel so incredibly priveleged to play music and you know, do something that hopefully can, can touch people, you know?
How often are you in Ireland?
We get there – actually about three years ago my husband Brian and I built a little house there on my father’s land, so it’s a little house in the west and it’s just a great little getaway, and a place to recharge, as we all need! We probably right now get there three, four times a year and even tour from Ireland to Europe a little bit, and as growing up as a kid, every summer we as a family got over there for about two months of the summertime and so – I just feel as close to my cousins and relatives in Ireland as I do over here.
What is it like playing for Irish audiences as opposed to others – American, and elsewhere?
Yeah – they are so open now to subtle changes that’s happened in their tradition. I mean, as you know, Cara, Irish music is changed and keeps growing in I think a wonderful way, as, you know, even Ireland has changed in the past 50 years since my parents had to leave. There was really nothing where they were, they were from large families, and like so many European immigrants, too, just had to leave and come over and try to make a life in you know, the New World, like many, many people…
And now the Celtic tiger is roaring, the economy is amazing, and people don’t have to leave. Young people can stay if they choose, and that’s wonderful. And I think it’s just an Ireland with more open mind – they are very, you know, proud of their music, and there’s… you know, there’s that pride in that – in, in some folks’ mind of keeping it very, very pure – you know, don’t have any outside influences and this and that, which is becoming – which I think is important in some ways, that you know, that it’s handed down to the next generation in a very pure way, as it was handed down to us.
And certainly when I teach, I even teach very very much in that way – but I think it’s great and I think it’s a great testament to Irish music that it also has grown and, and can be put and played on symphonic stage, and can be you know – you can’t deny the historical trace of the music, it’s gone and affected our own incredible American tunes, and formed the roots of Appalachian music of course, and old-timey music and bluegrass coming out of that.
I love to show those parallels even in our show, and play a little bluegrass mixed Irish and show a tune morphed from an Irish reel into a bluegrass tune, and you know, something – you know, when we play in Virginia it’s always great because the folks really get it there, and it’s, it’s always a sort of homecoming in a way, playing around there, for sure.
So now when we go over and play what we play in Ireland, it’s just embraced in a great, great way, that there’s such pride that the music has gone out and made these rounds, if you will, and has survived and thrived, and new players are playing it and have open minds and can sit next to a Turkish musician and find things in common [laughs] you know is something great – so, it’s – sorry for the long answer, but it’s – it’s interesting I think that the audiences now have, I think, changed through the years and um, really become wonderful, openminded audiences that just really, you know – you feel them. They just are proud that here’s this Yankee American, you know, and played the music, and maybe one of these… in their own land, but has come, bands out there doing what we’re all doing, playing the music and touring the world playing it.
To me, that’s fascinating, the roots and how music is changing, and the continuum. Will you be showing some of those parallels this Friday in Roanoke [Va.]?
Yes – absolutely we are. It’s part of the whole show as well, and I think through a lot of the tunes, they kind of tell stories behind the tunes, and you know, where a certain tune might have come from, there’s original tunes in there as well, and, um, and like the bluegrass/Irish tune, you know, just showing that, so it’s – it’s a full kind of show in that sense. And I should mention too that we, we have a wonderful Irish step dancer who’s joining us in Roanoke, from the Walsh Kelly School of Irish Dance. The folks down there might remember Riverdance, the touring dance show – I was actually a part of that for a couple of years in the late ’90s and they do very much of a Riverdance-style dancing with the incredible footwork and we’re going to have them join us for a few numbers throughout the evening as well.
What are you listening to these days, when you’re not playing?
Oh, my goodness, it’s a hodgepodge of stuff, you know? [laughs] You know, typically it fluctuates, obviously with new projects. I’ve just immersed myself into Turkish music big time, which is something that’s very interesting and something I definitely didn’t know too much about – but usually it goes back to the greats, like um, Miles Davis or Grapelli, or something, you know, in the jazz idiom I enjoy listening to…
Musicians I think are funny – a lot of times silence is sometimes a great thing [laughing]! Especially after doing shows, but if, if I’m just driving or things like that, or working around the house, usually that kind of flavoring I love to put on.
What’s the next musical fusion that hasn’t happened yet, that you think will, or should?
Yeah, I don’t know – it was very interesting, if somebody said to me last, you know, whenever, “Eileen, you know, you’re gonna try to make a – create a show with a Turkish musician,” I woulda said, “Whoah, I don’t hear that!” and then having sat down, and again, working out you know, some parallels – again, it’s very interesting and I – I didn’t really know much about this but the rhythms of Turkish drumming is very complementary to Irish.
And again, it’s not exactly fitting in the form of Irish as more African stuff does – it’s a different drumming, it’s very very precise and, uh, intricate. But funny enough, we were able to find some similarities there, and you know, I could see doing some more down the road. We were invited, actually, from that experience, to come over and play the Istanbul jazz festival, which you know, is a great, great thing – I’d love to, I mean, geez, bring Irish music there! I think it would be very very interesting, so you know, that’s a good question, that you never know where life and music can take you.
But I know certainly musically I’d love to record sort of an Irish, sort of classical-sounding record with hopefully some symphonic arrangements and string quartet arrangements – just from playing with symphonies, that, that definitely I know works so well, that that would be one of the next recording projects anyway, I’d love to see happen.
Thank you very much for the interview… is there anything else you wanted to touch on?
Geez, thank you, Cara – I think you touched a lot of areas there, and I appreciate that. Just we’re really looking forward again coming down to Roanoke – we’ve played a lot of Virginia through the years, and again, I know the audiences are just great down there, so we’re absolutely thrilled to come down again and just thank you very much for your time and your interest in the show and getting it out there to the folks – very very much appreciate that.