Q: How did you get hooked on the fiddle?
A: I really did gravitate to the sound of the fiddle. I associated it mostly with being happy because a lot of the Irish tunes were upbeat. But, later on, of course, I really enjoyed that you could be so emotional and cathartic at times on the instrument.
Q: Did your parents direct you towards the fiddle?
A: My mom thought Irish dancing might be for me, so she enrolled me in Irish dance lessons at first. Honestly, I just didn't really like it. And it was taking me away from playing stickball in the streets with my friends.
Q: How did that turn out?
A: I kept after her. So my parents rented a little ¾ fiddle, and that's where the story begins. I had a wonderful teacher and was blessed by having this Irish-born gentleman, Martin Mulvihill, an immigrant from County Limerick. He taught fiddle, accordion and whistles and all sorts of traditional instruments in this little Shamrock Club down in a little neighborhood in the Bronx.
Q: You play with such daring and consummate mastery of the instrument. You must have had classical training.
A: No. I always joke by saying, 'I have no bad habits. I never studied classically.' I think going to fiddle competitions in Ireland made me get very much into the technical part of playing, hopefully bettering myself as I went up the ladder of those years.
It's such an amazing instrument. I think 'til the day you're gone, you constantly learn and hopefully get better. Obviously, in life you have to have that attitude of always learning.
Q: What about the role of tradition in your music, which embraces so many diverse elements?
A: Tradition has to be respected and not really diluted. At the same time, you want to make the music more accessible and bring in other sonic elements that maybe Irish music didn't have traditionally, like electric bass guitar. The Irish drum, the framed goat-skin bodhran, and the feet were the big elements in percussion. But if you use bigger sounding drums, or African drums or congas as we do in the group, it gives, in a complementary way, different aural sensibilities that can enhance the sound.
Q: You also deal with the Irish diaspora, right?
A: Our current project "Beyond the Bog Road," speaks to the immigrant's journey of leaving and all that has entailed over the last four centuries. With the Irish being uprooted from the island for many reasons, their music has travelled with them all over the place, and interacted and integrated with other roots music along the way. And I find that absolutely fascinating.
Q: How would that be illustrated?
A: I talk about how Irish music integrated with French Canadian music and elsewhere though the journeys of the immigrant, especially in the Great Hunger and famine times. And how Irish music and African roots music impacted and basically was the groundwork for American Appalachian music and bluegrass music and even country music. We'll play a French Canadian set of tunes; a Breton selection from Brittany, which is one of the seven Celtic nations; and some bluegrass. I like to play the audience an Irish hornpipe that's a very old tune, and show how it became known in the Appalachians as a different tune, then show the similarities and the subtle differences.
Q: Do you get criticism from purists for your innovative approach?
A: You do, of course, from certain traditionalists. Everybody has their opinion, right?
Q: What about your own reflections?
A: I had a little internal struggle in my own heart wondering, 'Is this okay to do with the music?' And at the end of the day, I came down to this litmus test. 'Is it still being true to Irish music? Is it diluting it?'
I think it's really complementing it, and taking it in this wonderful timeline that is a very natural, healthy progression. It's a living tradition, after all. I come back to that all the time. Yes, I decided this is a good thing, especially if it's in your heart to do it. Maybe God gave you a certain gift to be able to pull these elements together and that's important. If you're feeling it, and you're striving to do it and it's in your nature to do it, you can't really fight it
EILEEN IVERS AND IMMIGRANT SOUL perform at 8 p.m. Friday, June 27, at The Kate, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook. Tickets: $45. Box office: 877-503-1286. Information: www.katharinehepburntheater.org.