One of the rising stars of the traditional Irish music scene is concertina player Edel Fox, now resident in Waterford but originally from Miltown Malbay in County Clare, the home of the Willie Clancy Summer School and the town regarded by many as the Mecca of traditional Irish music. In this article, Edel tells her musical story to The Living Tradition's Simon Haines.
In addition to solo performances, Edel plays in a duo with long-term partner, fiddle player Neil Byrne, as a member of the Irish Concertina Ensemble (ICE) alongside Padraig Rynne, Michéal Ó Raghaillaigh, Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Tim Collins, as well as in various other occasional combinations.
She also spends a significant proportion of her time teaching in Ireland and elsewhere – most recently in Japan – as well as online via Skype or FaceTime. And aspiring players anywhere can access the concertina lessons Edel has recorded for the Online Academy of Irish Music (OAIM). As if this wasn’t enough, she is also a freelance TV researcher and producer who has worked on some of the most popular music productions on Irish television such as Bosca Ceoil, Fleadh TV and most recently Port.
I was interested to know how Edel’s love affair with the concertina and Irish music had started. As with many other traditional players, she caught the bug at a very early age: “I was five years old, it was a sunny July day and the Willie Clancy Summer School was on in Miltown Malbay. My dad Michael brought me into the great local pub, Cleary’s, where I saw a young girl, around seven or eight, playing a little ‘squeezy box’ with the most wonderful sound. That’s when I fell in love! I begged my dad to ask her if I could hold it. He knew the little girl’s father and explained my fascination to him, so I was seated beside her and held it for the first time. I was hooked and spoke about playing it every day for a year until my parents saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for classes with Noel Hill.”
Incredibly, Edel started lessons with Noel Hill when she was six, always accompanied by her mother who paid close attention to what her daughter was being taught so that she could help her later at home. Edel recognises how lucky she is to have had such dedicated parents. “The massive interest in traditional music comes from my dad, Michael. He never really played or sang, except for some tin whistle lessons with the great Micho Russell when he was young. I’m sure he regrets not keeping it up as he loves the music and would travel anywhere for a good session.”
Many other members of her family have been involved in music in different ways. “My grandfather, Eddie Healy, was a well-known singer all around Co. Clare and he and his brothers, known simply as The Healy Brothers, were popular performers at weddings and local events. My grandmother, Jo McCarthy, was a great piano player in her time and has a massive bank of knowledge about music in general. My great-grandaunt was a well-known woman called Katherine Mullally who, incidentally, played the concertina and was a founding member of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann in the 1950s. My mum, Marie, is herself a fantastic singer but would humbly deny the fact. It is well known at home in Miltown that she is a great woman to ‘bring down the house’ with a rendition of Innisfree or After The Ball when she is coerced to sing at a session or party.”
The inspiration of her family and her Miltown Malbay upbringing are very evident, but I was interested to find out who Edel’s musical influences and heroes were. “My two biggest heroes would be Noel Hill and Jackie Daly, each for very different reasons. As I have said, Noel was my first teacher and to this day, I completely look up to the man. As a traditional musician, I can only ever aspire to be a complete performer like him; his level of skill, musicality and confidence never fails to baffle me. I got to know Jackie as a young teenager in Miltown, where he has lived for many years. In my teens, I did a weekly Friday night gig with him for eight or nine years in Lynch’s Bar, known as Friel’s. My repertoire has expanded so much since I first met Jackie and he introduced me to a world of amazing tunes from all around the world. We have a very close friendship and we still love to meet and play together occasionally. He will regularly ask the pub to ‘hush’ and insist that he and I do a duet of something special and intricate such as The Joyous Waltz, a Quebecois tune by Willy Ringuette. We play in total unison together and it keeps me on my toes! If I play any note ‘out of place’, he is sure to tell me!”
Edel gives Jackie Daly credit for teaching her how to play with other musicians, something she values highly today. He taught her about musical dynamics and the need for mutual respect between musicians. Edel also acknowledges the influence of accordion player the late Finbarr Dwyer and his surviving brother, fiddle player John Dwyer. Last year she performed with John, Neil Byrne and others at a memorial concert for Finbarr which took place in London.
A visitor to any of Co Clare’s many sessions will see an abundance of concertina players. In common with most of them, Edel uses the Anglo concertina but does not generally play in this instrument’s home keys. Why is this? Edel explains: “Traditionally, the concertina was built for playing tunes in the key of C and G. The German concertina was the first type of concertina played in Ireland at the turn of the century. They were cheap and bulky instruments and they became very popular especially in the homes of County Clare because of its proximity to the River Shannon where the instruments arrived on boats from the continent. The German concertina was chunky and loud and became an ideal instrument to play for the noisy, rhythmical style of Clare set dancing with its distinctive ‘battering’. It was never built with the intention of performance of Irish jigs, reels or hornpipes but more for chordal accompaniment of German and English Folk songs, hence the rows of C and G. The Anglo-German concertina was eventually popularised in Irish music, but was far more ornate and expensive with a clearer single-reed tone. It still had the rows of C and G so that fingering systems did not have to change, but also had an extra third row of accidentals, which made playing in other keys such as D and A more accessible. Irish traditional concertina players had to adapt to a pre-designed instrument but the diatonic multi-directional nature of the scales works well with the phrasing of Irish dance tunes.”
Edel loves playing solo concertina but admits to being a duet or trio musician at heart. “I love the interaction with other musicians and the nuances that can occur if the match is right. I have been so fortunate to perform with some of the most amazing musicians over the years. When I was 18, I recorded a CD with Galway fiddler Ronan O’Flaherty. This was a key moment in my musical life – my first recording and the creation of what some people consider my style or distinctive sound.”
Nowadays, she enjoys playing with Waterford fiddler Neill Byrne, whom she met in the Crosses of Annagh pub in 2010. From their first tune together, she could feel a natural chemistry. “Sometimes, no matter how amazingly talented another musician is, your music might not gel together. That is the beauty of Irish traditional music I guess – those subtle nuances and dynamics that are not planned, but can happen almost telepathically. Neill and I started to develop a new repertoire of tunes - some traditional ones and some newer tunes by John and Finbarr Dwyer.”
After some time, they made a new CD together, The Sunny Banks, which received a rapturous reception from their musical peers and traditional music lovers all over the world and was named 2013 Tradconnect CD of the Year – a huge honour! This success is down to the personal and musical relationship between Edel and Neill: “Every gig I do with Neill is enjoyable and exciting. We never tire of the tunes and we are always on a mission to update our repertoire. We both love ‘tuney’ tunes. If I learn a new tune, I often ring him and hum it down the phone or he might call me during work and turn his van CD player up really loud to play something from a new album! Of course, it helps that we are in a relationship together – we can appreciate each other’s nerdy ways!”
People say that Edel has a ‘Clare style’ of playing and I was interested to know what she understands by this herself. “I’m not so sure what style I have to be honest! I guess my rhythm is distinctively bouncy and influenced by playing for set dancing when I was growing up. When I teach, I try to instill the idea of being lively without playing ridiculously fast, which is what I was taught when I was younger in Clare. Technically, I suppose the influences from my teachers Noel Hill, Dymphna O’Sullivan and Tim Collins can be heard in my variations and ornamentation, but I have never really thought too much about these things. That’s the thing about musical style; it’s authentic when it happens naturally, rather than being forced.”
From the way she describes her immersion in the Irish music scene and learning to play the concertina, it is self-evident that Edel Fox belongs firmly to the oral tradition. Yet, when she left school, she went to do a BA in Irish Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. This led on to an MA in Music Therapy and eventually a Higher Diploma in Television Production. I was interested to find out what effect her academic study had on her approach to music. Edel admits that studying traditional music in an academic context felt rather strange. “I loved the course and had some great years playing tunes and meeting new musical friends. While academic research is integral to the preservation and promotion of Irish music, I sometimes feel that stylistically you are encouraged to expand on your music, sometimes to the detriment of where you come from musically. Performance-wise, traditional music is so incredibly subjective. The music that you or I love might not be someone else’s cup of tea and vice versa. Sometimes I worried that the subtle nuances of an unusual version of a particular tune would be outshone by a need for flashier or more modern performances, but this is not always the case.”
As a 17 or 18 year old university student, Edel remembers sometimes feeling intimidated because she had not grown up with modern approaches to Irish music and suddenly it had become fashionable. She mentions Beoga as being a band whose approach particularly impressed her. She concedes, however, that the university experience was good for her because it taught her to appreciate all styles and without losing pride in her own music and style of playing. In fact, the course opened her eyes and mind to other styles of music and fusions with other genres, and she came to love other music and traditions such as those from Scotland and Cape Breton. As part of her Limerick course she also spent a semester at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – in Glasgow, where she learned from musicians like Simon Thoumire, Ian Muir and Alasdair MacCullough.
It was during her time at university that Edel began part-time teaching and developed a love for passing on the music to a steadily growing base of students. Now living in Waterford, she teaches children, teenagers and adults from all over the South East of Ireland. Some of her students travel from as far away as West Cork, Dublin and Wicklow. More recently, technology has allowed students to access her classes from overseas via Skype and FaceTime – she has students logging on regularly from the US, Australia and Russia!
I asked her about her recent tour of Japan which involved a lot of teaching. How had that come about? Edel explains: “Late in 2013 I received an email from the Irish Embassy in Tokyo asking if I would be interested in travelling to Japan to perform and teach for two weeks in October-November 2014. Japan is a country I had always wanted to visit, so I didn’t hesitate! My tour consisted of workshops, school visits and concerts in Tokyo, Chiba, Shikoku, Osaka, Ogasaki, Nagoya and Kyoto. It was a wonderful way to see the country. I was travelling and performing mostly on my own, with the exception of three concerts with old friends I’d met at a summer school in Limerick, Mareka Naito and Junji Shirota – two extremely talented Japanese musicians who are accomplished Irish traditional performers. Initially I was a little nervous about touring on my own, but as it turned out, it was fantastic for me as a musician to be back performing solo again. It meant that I really had to up my game!”
What was it like teaching Japanese students? Were they very different from her Irish students? Edel Fox found the experience enlightening: “I was blown away by the sheer number of Japanese Irish musicians, as well as by their level of musicianship. In some of my workshops I had up to 15 students. Their standard was fantastic and their level of musical understanding when it comes to traditional tunes was brilliant. There was no need for simple polkas and slow melodies; they wanted the ‘real stuff’. I was asked for complex and unusual reels and jigs in many of my workshops. There is a very vibrant traditional session scene in many of the cities. I could not believe that there were four or five Irish sessions in Tokyo on some nights of the week.”
It is clear that Edel now finds teaching one of the most rewarding parts of her work. “Teaching is very important to me – I absolutely love it. It is a job in a sense, as I have been so fortunate to make a living from it, but I also enjoy it. Obviously some classes are easier to teach than others, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing the results of your classes with a student. When you see them enjoying the music, improving and performing with confidence, there is no better feeling. Teaching children and teenagers nowadays is so enjoyable because you rarely see a child who is being forced to play anymore. Generally they want to play because their school friends play. Some of my teenage students are actually intimidating because they are so good! I think the media, including social networking sites, have done wonders for the popularisation of our national music. It is seen as something fresh, social and fun.”
So how does she see her future as a musician? “Right now I am enjoying teaching, both regularly and at various workshops and festivals nationally and internationally. I have many gigs lined up over the next year with Neill Byrne on fiddle, Caoimhín Ó Fearghail on uilleann pipes, flute and guitar and Tommy Fitzharris on flute - which I am really looking forward to.” She is also very excited about the work she is doing with the Irish Concertina Ensemble, a band which has a new recording coming out later this year.
So, is it really possible to make a living out of traditional Irish music these days? “There is certainly a reasonable living to be made as a professional traditional musician if you are willing to be away from home and on the road for large parts of the year. For me, I have always taught music classes and this has allowed me to be based in the same place most of the time. I love to go away to do gigs, but I also love the routine of home life. Sometimes full-time touring musicians have to compromise musically and as a result, gigging can become mundane and predictable. They have to agree to do gigs even if they don’t really want to do them – I don’t ever want that to happen. In an ideal world, every gig would be fun and challenging. We all have our off days, but generally any gigs or tours I do, I am having a ball. I would worry that it would not be like that if I were gone most of the year.”
With more and more people eager to learn to play Irish music, I asked Edel how she would rate the health of traditional music in Ireland today, especially among young people? Her answer should give everyone hope for the future. “In my eyes, traditional music has never been so healthy in Ireland. The number of young people playing Irish music today is staggering. Not only this, but the standard has never been so high. It is considered ‘cool’ to play Irish music and this makes me so proud. I know from my own experience that some of the best times of my life with friends have been connected to Irish music.” However, somewhat paradoxically, this surge in interest in playing music is not mirrored by increased attendance at traditional music concerts in Ireland. Maybe the session scene is so buoyant and readily available that potential audiences feel they don’t need to pay to hear brilliant music.
So what else is important in Edel Fox’s life? With so many gigs, tours, teaching commitments and TV production work, does she have time for other interests? Yes, of course, busy people like Edel always have time. “Travel and food are two things that I adore. I have a huge passion for cooking and I always say that it’s the third love of my life, music being one and I think you know who the other is! If I am ever away gigging for a few weeks or working up the country on a TV programme, I crave my kitchen and love nothing better than cooking up a storm when I get home, much to the delight of Neill who is lucky to get fed like a king when I am around!”
What struck me most in talking to Edel was her enthusiasm for the music she plays and for the opportunities that keep coming her way. She does not want to be a huge global star and admits to still feeling nervous before a big gig, and she knows how lucky she is to be spending her time doing what she loves most: playing and teaching Irish music. Long may this continue.
by Simon Haines - published in Issue 107 of The Living Tradition