When she first came to the Boston area 16 years ago, Michigan native Rachel Reeds probably couldn’t have found Cape Breton Island on a map, and she certainly didn’t know anything about its distinctive Celtic music tradition.
But that was then.
Nowadays, Reeds is for all intents and purposes an honorary member of Boston’s illustrious Cape Breton community, a fixture at Watertown’s Canadian American Club of New England – a hub of Cape Breton cultural and social activity – and a well-established performer and teacher of Cape Breton fiddle.
During the past year, Reeds reached another milestone, releasing her debut album “Sparkjoy,” which includes a guest appearance on piano and fiddle by Andrea Beaton, one of Cape Breton’s most accomplished musicians.
[On May 1, Reeds will mark the release of “Sparkjoy” with a concert at Club Passim in Harvard Square. For details and tickets, go to passim.org]
For Reeds, her development as a Cape Breton fiddler has been more than just acquiring musical skills, but discovering and nurturing hitherto unknown aspects of herself. As she has studied the Cape Breton music tradition, she has learned something of its people, culture and history – and made quite a few friends along the way.
“I’ve had so many people who’ve supported me in learning Cape Breton music,” says Reeds, who works full-time in an investment consulting firm. “Whether it was friends who taught me, gave me advice, encouraged me to play, or simply listened to me, they all helped me in some way or another. And now I want to do the same. If I’m at a session and a kid starts playing his favorite tune, I want to play it with him, because that’s what people did for me when I was starting out.
“I certainly don’t consider myself an authority on Cape Breton music, but I want to help keep it alive.”
Reeds is doing her part on that score with “Sparkjoy,” which is full of traditional and contemporary Cape Breton tunes, including some penned by Reeds. In addition to Beaton, Reeds is joined by Boston-area musicians Kate McNally (fiddle), Yann Falquet (guitar), Natalie Haas (cello), and Hanneke Cassel (fiddle, piano), who also produced the album.
Those new to Cape Breton music – like Reeds was all those years ago – will get an especially thorough grounding on the duets between Reeds and Beaton: “Stepdancers’ Set,” “Allie and the Alices,” “F Jigs,” “Lord Seaforth” and “For the Can-Am” (a collection of jigs dedicated to the Canadian American Club). Beaton’s playing displays all the hallmarks of Cape Breton piano accompaniment, with syncopated rhythms, walking bass lines, and complex harmonies, all of which simultaneously propel and center Reed’s agile fiddling – indeed, the distinctions between lead and accompaniment frequently seem blurred. The interplay, and intensity, between Reeds and Beaton that builds during these medleys is compelling to say the least.
Even as it revels in the classic rugged Cape Breton sound, “Sparkjoy” has its quieter, sublime moments, and also takes note of the influences that have found their way into the Cape Breton and Scottish traditions over the past few decades. The title track, for instance – a Reeds original – pairs her with Cassel on fiddle, and the harmonies between the two, with Falquet’s gentle backing, give the tune an American-style flavor.
Cassel switches to piano for “Da Greenhouse Wedding Set,” which also features Haas’s mellifluous accompaniment, and another appearance by Falquet; the first two tunes in the set belong to Reeds, followed by two from the Shetland fiddle tradition – the first of these, “Up Da Stroods Da Sailor Goes,” evinces the tradition’s Scandinavian strain, and Haas and Reeds capture it majestically. Haas, along with Cassel back on fiddle, also are on hand for the sorrowful yet resilient Scottish lament “Return to Kintail.”
Appropriately, the album ends with Reeds, McNally, and Beaton playing an epic, seven-minutes-plus march/strathspey/reel medley called “Party Set” that conveys the robust, sinewy expressiveness of Cape Breton music that has resounded in the Boston area for decades – and has a legacy as strongly held as that of the Irish population.
While Reeds had no exposure to traditional music growing up, she did have a musical upbringing, and came to Wellesley College in 2002 intending to major in music and study piano. But one of her friends was involved in Fiddleheads, Wellesley’s Celtic music ensemble, and when Reeds attended its end-of-the-year concert, it was the fiddles that caught her attention.
“This was around the time the Dixie Chicks got big, and I liked them – they also had a fiddle player,” she recalls. “But I didn’t really have a sense of fiddle styles. I didn’t know what the Fiddleheads played. Celtic? What was that?”
Reeds was intrigued enough to take lessons from the Fiddleheads director, Laura Cortese, and then from Emerald Rae, both with extensive backgrounds in Scottish and Cape Breton traditions. Reeds took part in Fiddleheads before graduating from Wellesley, and after attending graduate school in Minnesota returned to the Boston area, where she began studying under Cassel through the Passim music program. As she continued, she found herself gravitating more to the Cape Breton style, which has similarities to that of Scotland but is nonetheless distinct.
“I didn’t feel like I had the classical chops to play Scottish music,” says Reeds, who did not altogether abandon Scottish fiddle – in 2013, she won the New England Regional Scottish Fiddle Championship. “Cape Breton music felt rougher in a good sort of way, and I liked the percussive, syncopated nature of the tunes. It feels happy and upbeat – even the minor-key tunes make you want to get up and dance.”
Before long, Reeds discovered the Canadian American Club, with its frequent sessions and dances, plus a friendly crowd of regulars who welcomed her into their midst, like fellow fiddler Gordon Aucoin or pianist Lloyd Carr (“‘Hey, Rachel! Let’s do a set!’” says Reeds, mimicking an oft-delivered invitation).
In 2009, Reeds made her first trip to Cape Breton, going along its famous Ceilidh Trail and stopping in, among other places, the Celtic Music Interpretive Center and taking part in the social dances. She also had the opportunity to meet the legendary Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland, shortly before he died. The experience solidified her interest in the music, and also provided some important context.
“Going to the Canadian American Club, I’d met plenty of people originally from, or with ties to, Cape Breton,” she says. “So through them, I learned about Cape Breton history, landmarks, and so on. Being able to travel to those places and see them for myself made me feel more connected to the music.”
The next step in her development, says Reeds, was to start putting together medleys of tunes to perform at the Canadian American Club’s Sunday afternoon “Gaelic Club” gathering, and – the greatest challenge of them all – to play for dances.
“It can be nerve-wracking at first,” she laughs. “You just can’t stop, you keep playing as long as the dancers go. You wonder ‘Do I have enough tunes?’ It takes probably about seven to eight of them to play for one set. But it’s really a lot of fun – you get caught up in the spirit of the whole thing.”
Reeds also ventured beyond the Can-Am Club to perform or accompany dances at other gatherings, events or venues, such as BCMFest and the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School, and began teaching – she was among the faculty for the inaugural Cape Breton Weekend at Pinewoods Camp, a mecca for traditional music and dance.
Then, a couple of years ago, Reeds had what she calls “a moment of confluence”: “I had learned lots of tunes from CDs and friends, and while some were very familiar to many musicians, they weren’t all necessarily ‘session’ tunes. I had also started composing my own tunes. I felt like I wanted to share all this music in some way, so I started to think about what kind of project I might do.
“I love it when people come out with CDs – it’s not just the music but the design, the graphics, the liner notes, the whole package. So I thought, ‘Maybe I can try doing that,’” said Reeds, who launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund the recording.
Lining up the musicians – all of whom are full-time touring professionals – she wanted to help her make the album required some coordination, says Reeds. “Hanneke blocks out a year in advance, but that was fine, because it gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to record and how to do it. I was thrilled when Andrea, Katie, Natalie, and Yaan also agreed.”
Cassel’s role as producer was, if anything, even more important than as guest musician. “It’s not always easy to get honest feedback about your music, but Hanneke is really good at it,” says Reeds. “She’s a perfectionist, and she’ll tell you what to work on, what things to think about – yet she’s also positive, so you feel inspired and motivated.”
Most of what appears on “Sparkjoy” essentially came together in the studio, rather than through prior rehearsal, but without too much difficulty. “We had everything planned out, so we knew what we were going to do and when – ‘OK, this day, I’m going to have Katie for the morning, Yann in the afternoon.’ When you ask experienced people like these to come up with ideas, you have a lot of confidence in what the result is going to be.”
In a different world where Reeds is a full-time musician, she would have gone on a “Sparkjoy” tour across the US, and probably Canada, too. But in this world, she’s already got a job to occupy her days, and she’s fine with it.
“I can’t say I don’t have daydreams about what it would be like to do this for a living,” she says. “I’ve lived and spent lots of time with full-time musicians, and I envy their ability to travel to exciting places and make friends all over the world, or that they’ll say, ‘Hey, I got a tune that popped into my head this afternoon, so I worked on it for a few hours and this is it.’
“But I’ve had plenty of opportunities to perform and play, and I’m very happy about that. And I can’t say enough how generous people have been to me in all my musical activities. So however I can help pass the music along – even if it’s just on evenings and weekends – I’m grateful for the chance to do it.”
For more, go to rachelreeds.com.