October 31, 2019
Corner House is (L-R) Casey Murray, Ethan Hawkins, Ethan Setiawan and Louise Bichan.
By definition, a corner house sits at the edge of a crossroads, in close proximity to all manner of passersby happening through the intersection. In the same vein, Boston quartet Corner House lies at a musical crossroads, its doors and windows open to the musical styles, genres, and philosophies at the metaphorical intersection: Irish/Celtic, bluegrass, old-timey, New England contra dance, plus contemporary and singer-songwriter folk.
For the band’s members, Boston itself has been a corner house of inspiration and creativity, and a welcoming destination at the end of their journeys from disparate locations. Fiddler Louise Bichan is a native of Scotland’s Orkney Islands; mandolin, mandola and bouzouki player Ethan Setiawan comes from Indiana, guitarist and lead vocalist Ethan Hawkins from Virginia; Casey Murray, who plays cello and banjo and joined the band last year, grew up in western New York.
With two EP/CDs to its credit, including the recently released “Smart Folks,” and an impressive resumé of past and future gigs, Corner House is the latest in a series of ensembles of current or former college students to find that Boston’s folk/acoustic music scene offers mighty good accommodations – whether your pleasure is jigs and reels from across the Atlantic, a high lonesome sound from the Appalachians, tunes from New England dance halls, or angsty, ironic, laid-back original songs. And even as they sort out all these influences and interests, Corner House’s members feel fortunate to be in this time and place of their lives.
“Everything’s developed pretty naturally for us,” says Bichan. “We haven’t even finished defining our sound – we certainly don’t kid on that we’re a trad Irish or Scots band, or an old-timey/bluegrass band, or whatever. We just play music that feels good to us. And Boston is ideal for doing that sort of thing.”
“I think this is largely our deep love for roots music as a band,” says Murray of the ensemble’s multifaceted musical personality. “But there is also a common drive among us for arrangement – a form of storytelling through music. Over the past year, we have worked on our Corner House sound and the different tunes and songs we each bring to the band are vehicles to take us and the listener on a journey through stories of experiences, moments lived and to come, songs of longing and growth.”
A listening excursion through Corner House’s two recordings readily attests to its ability to convincingly mesh the different genres. Bichan anchors “Lucy Farr’s,” the winsome barn dance tune associated with the East Galway fiddler who became an esteemed figure in London’s Irish music community from the 1950s on. The band’s Celtic influence also is prominent on a pair of contemporary slip jigs, “Farewell to Whalley Range” by Michael McGoldrick and Seán Óg Graham’s “Soggy’s,” with its famously quirky B part.
Setiawan, a former National Mandolin Champion, shows off his prowess on such tracks as his instrumental composition “Friends with the Weather” and “Work,” a song he co-penned with Hawkins that seeks to reconcile stable home life with the challenges – and allure – of life on the road, as summed up in the refrain “Weary life is one worth living.” He also sets up an ear-catching counterpoint early on in the slip jig set to Bichan, who swaps off the melody with Murray; in the second part of the set, he and Hawkins take up the rhythm as Bichan and Murray duet, with sublime results.
A sequence of tracks on the first recording show off the Appalachian side to Corner House, beginning with “Red Rocking Chair,” a classic lament of frustrated romance (“It’s all I can do/It’s all I can say/Take me to your mama next pay day/I can’t get along this-a-way”), that opens with some nifty flat-picking by Hawkins – the son of a bluegrass musician – and features lovely vocal harmonies; they then segue into “Speed the Plow,” an old-timey reel that shares a name, though not the melody, with an Irish reel.
Besides “Friends with the Weather,” Corner House’s repertoire of original tunes includes “Gabe’s 24-Hour Tash” by Bichan, which has hues of both Celtic and American fiddle traditions, and Murray’s arboreal “Through the Snow-Covered Pines,” her clawhammer banjo underscoring the jovial Appalachian string band ambiance.
“One of the most unifying threads for this band is fiddle traditions,” says Setiawan. “We all love different fiddle-specific music including old-timey, Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, bluegrass, etc., for different reasons. Obviously, we have fiddle/cello players, and us plucked-string players take a lot of inspiration from various fiddle players, as often the traditions we love have the fiddle at the very center.”
Another common thread for the Corner House members was the Berklee College of Music; Bichan and Setiawan are graduates, Murray is currently enrolled, while Hawkins attended a summer session there and wound up staying in town. In the Berklee community, it’s not especially difficult to find musicians who share your interests, or will help you discover new ones, or both. And that’s where yet another common thread came in: a house just off Market Street in Brighton near the St. Columbkille Partnership School which has been living quarters, guest accommodations, crash space and a venue for rehearsals and jam sessions for a significantly high number of Boston-area folk/acoustic musicians; if you say “The Brighton House” to a fiddle or banjo player around here, especially those 30 and under, chances are they know exactly what place you mean.
It was in the crowded yet genial confines of The Brighton House that Bichan, Setiawan, and Hawkins began to fashion the Corner House sound. Although she grew up playing Scottish fiddle, Bichan greatly admires Irish players like Martin Hayes and Liz Carroll, and had accumulated a store of Irish tunes from sessions in Glasgow that seemed to work well with Setiawan and Hawkins. They in turn provided an opportunity for her to explore American-style fiddling in greater depth.
“At first, I had been nervous about the improvisational part of bluegrass or other American styles, and getting too far away from the melody,” she says. “But through Berklee I met a lot of people with whom I felt comfortable enough about messing up, so it felt great to try things out with the two Ethans.”
“I thought of Boston as a center for genre-bending music to emerge, and that’s what drew me as that’s what I really wanted to be a part of,” says Setiawan. “During my time at Berklee, I feel like I got into playing music in a somewhat traditional way – trying to really understand what made traditions traditions. Now I feel that I’m sort of back to making music that doesn’t fit into a genre, but hopefully with a deepened understanding of some of these traditions I draw on.”
In the fall of 2017, Corner House formally debuted at the FreshGrass Festival in western Massachusetts, then appeared at Berklee’s Red Room at Café 939. After recording the first EP, the trio embarked on a summer 2018 tour of Scotland organized by Bichan.
This period produced an important revelation. Setiawan, in addition to playing fretted-string instruments, would switch to cello (his first instrument) in some instances. But ultimately, Bichan says, “we thought it would be awesome to have cello and mandolin at the same time.”
The three had become acquainted with Murray by then, so following the return from Scotland, they invited her to join. Murray, whose formative experiences included playing in the contra dance scene – which in recent decades has seen considerable innovation alongside the mix of musical traditions – was happy to accept the invitation.
“They had this unapologetic original and organic, but clearly well thought-out sound,” she says. “Their approach to arranging original and traditional material was the sound I had been searching to be a part of.”
“The cello can do so many things: bass lines, chopping rhythms, melody, chords,” says Bichan. “We were really struck by Casey’s playing, and thought she would fit with the band vibe. I like how one minute, you have two bowed instruments, fiddle and cello, duet with one another, and then the mandolin will take the lead and Casey will chop underneath alongside the guitar – there’s a completely different feel.
“Besides,” she adds, “a cello fits into a car much easier than a double bass.”
Corner House greatly needed that efficiency of space last summer, what with making the rounds of major folk/acoustic festivals like Grey Fox, Falcon Ridge, Red Wing, and Ossipee Valley. They also did tours of the Pacific Northwest, California and Virginia, among other places; in September, they formally marked the release of “Smart Folks” with a concert at Club Passim in Cambridge. This fall has seen them hit the road throughout New England, including the Sunapee Coffee House in New Hampshire and Stone Church Center in Vermont later this month, and a house concert in Watertown in early December.
There’s been plenty of band-bonding along the way, some of it lovingly (and humorously) chronicled via social media. Long car rides, meals al fresco, side trips to swimming holes or curiosity spots, the hospitality of far-flung friends and acquaintances: For this quartet of people in their 20s, that is the residue of countless practices at The Brighton House or in other kitchens and living rooms, and the kind of adventure to savor, in all its small moments as well as grand achievements.
“We have food to eat and the means to live for a little while,” Hawkins wrote in one Facebook post during their summer travels. “Life has been achieved and in tow our happiness and optimism for the future.”
For more about Corner House, including links to their recordings, go to cornerhouseband.com.