September 28, 2018
Gloucester native Emerald Rae has been singing for about as long as she has been fiddling, which is since childhood. But it’s only just now, she feels, that she has found her voice.
A mainstay of the Greater Boston area’s Celtic/folk music scene for nearly two decades, Rae recently released her third album, “Emerald Rae,” consisting of 10 original songs and accompanied entirely by her own fiddle, along with foot and hand percussion (plus a cameo appearance on electric bass by Garrett Sawyer on one track).
She will formally mark the album’s release with a concert on Oct. 11 at Club Passim in Harvard Square.
Although Rae’s songwriting goes back pretty far, she didn’t share it widely until five years ago, when she made her second album, “If Only I Could Fly,” which also included traditional material and her own instrumental compositions; in addition, she expanded her instrumentation to guitar and crwith (an ancient Welsh fiddle).
But “Emerald Rae” is a different album for a different time in Rae’s life. These past five years have seen her uproot and move to New York City for a brief period, then return home; launch the website TradLife, a portal for folk/traditional music teachers and prospective students to connect; and, not so incidentally, turn 30 – that familiar milestone for reflection and stock-taking.
Rae certainly has had a lot to look back on: a music career that started in her teens and included a US Scottish Fiddle Championship at 18; studies at the University of Glasgow and Berklee College of Music; expanding her interests from the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions to Irish and Appalachian/old-timey; stints with the Cathie Ryan Band and Celtic-Americana group Annalivia (now Low Lily).
Two revelations arose out of her contemplation, Rae says. One, she felt she was onto something with her songwriting. “I’ve been writing songs for a long time, but when I started out as a performer, I leaned on my fiddling and my tune composition, and the songs I sung were from tradition or other writers. I felt like I didn’t have anything to say. It’s a personal journey to get to songwriting, because saying or singing words is a very open, vulnerable act. You can put a lot of pure, non-descriptive emotion into music, but with songs, you’re a lot more specific.
“For ‘If Only I Could Fly,’ I went through this night-owl stage where I was practicing the art of saying things; when you’re in the trad world, you get used to relying on the words of others. And I felt like I had found my voice, at least for that time and headspace. But for this album, I really wanted to be as minimalist as I could get: put the spotlight on songwriting, get away from guitar and crwth and pare things down to fiddle and vocals.”
Which led to the second revelation. “My idea was to push the boundaries of the fiddle, develop some new kinds of accompaniment, and also to push my voice in different directions. I wanted to create a sound where my voice is just as versatile as the fiddle.”
It’s fair to say that Rae accomplished both objectives. “Emerald Rae” may be spare in terms of instrumentation, but Rae fills the space admirably. Her fiddle surges and swirls in edgy, sometimes jagged rhythmic patterns on “Deep Salt Sea,” “Worlds Away” and “When the Silvery Moon Comes Out to Play”; on “Sadie Dear,” the fiddle breaks into a waltz that seems like it’s almost about to go off kilter (much like the song’s titular subject), and lays down a haunting, almost mournful harmonic theme – suggestive of a passage from medieval music – in “Who Will Lie Beside You Now?” Rae also plucks and strums the strings, even slaps at them with bow or fingers, such as on “Magic Mirror,” producing a muted, terse undercurrent.
“I’ve always explored fiddle effects – you hear what other fiddlers are doing, and you try to see what works for you,” she says. “But I’ve picked up lots of ideas from listening to different kinds of music, even flamenco guitar. For ‘Magic Mirror,’ I use ‘Latin slapping,’ where I slap the fingerboard with one finger then pull back on the other strings one at a time, which gives you a triplet. It took me about a year to get that where I wanted it to be. “
Rae’s voice is similarly transformative on the album. She invests “Deep Salt Sea,” a kind of gothic sea shanty, with subtle ornamentations and inflections that hint at Canadian maritime or British Isles settings. “Worlds Away” and “Sadie Dear” suggest modern incarnations of old-timey or other pastoral roots music, and “Given Half the Time” – which features her multi-tracked vocals, accompanied only by hand claps, foot stomps and a kick drum – has a spiritual feel to it. On “Who Will Lie Beside You Now?” she eschews her “comfortable alto” to sing in a higher register, punctuating the solemnity of the verses with an exotic vocal affectation, inspired by the Portuguese music Rae listened to while growing up.
There’s a kind of epistolary quality to “Emerald Rae,” the songs all taking on the form and content of messages awaiting delivery somewhere, with lessons to impart or requests to be honored. The various narrators, in first person, recount or ruminate with bitterness and disillusionment (“Moving On”) a sense of triumph (“Given Half the Time”) or from close to the grave, in the case of “Deep Salt Sea.” But in other instances, the songs admonish, sometimes with fondness (“Sadie Dear”) or scorn (“Worlds Away”); or offer encouragement (“Lonely Road”), confession (“Inkwell”) or a didactic sympathy (“Who Will Lie Beside You Now?”).
“These songs came out of a very introspective period in my life, and I think that shows,” says Rae. “I felt very focused on my inner thoughts, my inner worlds, and it felt good to be able to have time and space to do that. I collect lots of little pieces, and I don’t write a huge quantity of songs all at once. It’s more like a slow drip. I pack in all of my ideas into a small space.”
As Rae has looked back on the different projects and interests she’s pursued, she’s both matter-of-fact and upbeat about those things that didn’t work out, like the now-defunct TradLife. “It was a good learning experience. I’ve definitely tried a lot of different things, and in some cases failed, but I’m just a risk-taker; it’s a way of being creative. TradLife was useful in that I learned how interested I am in technology and business, and so I’m now channeling that into my music. Being an artist is like being an entrepreneur: You have to find out what works for you and then push to make it happen. I just feel like, with songwriting and this fiddle-and-voice groove, I’ve hit my stride and that’s the train I’m on.”
But Rae hasn’t forgotten where she came from. “I love traditional music still, and I always try to get out and play tunes with people. It’s always my hometown, my home base, and I keep coming back to it.”
For tickets and details about Emerald Rae’s Oct. 11 show at Club Passim, go to passim.org.
Emerald Rae’s website is emeraldrae.com.