May 30, 2019
BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
From a purely transportational standpoint, the Friel Sisters’ recent stay in the Boston area had its difficulties: They arrived late for their sound check at one gig, and a few days before going back home to the UK, they learned that the airline on which their return flight was booked had gone under.
But pretty much everything else went swimmingly for the young Glasgow-based trio, which has drawn acclaim for its robust, wholehearted interpretation of traditional Irish music. The sisters – twins Sheila (uilleann pipes, flute, whistle) and Anna (flute, whistle) and younger sister Clare (fiddle) – performed at Boston College’s Gaelic Roots series and The Burren, and appeared at a couple of WGBH-sponsored events leading up to their stint in this year’s “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” production at the Cabot in Beverly and Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre.
The Friels felt right at home during their time in Boston, with plenty of friends, fans, and other well-wishers accumulated from past visits in attendance at each event – as well as their parents, who were both along for part of the tour. Their connection to the area is further strengthened through their uncle (a former member of the band Simple Minds), who lives in Duxbury.
“Boston is such a welcoming, vibrant city, and is definitely special to us,” said Clare, noting that Anna had gotten engaged during a previous stay in town. “There’s great music here, and plenty of very familiar accents. It’s a place where we can feel at home.”
The sense of place is no small thing for the Friels. While they’ve always called Glasgow home, they also feel strongly rooted in their parents’ native Donegal, the source of much of their musical development and activity, as is reflected by their unison style of singing. So while they have taken inspiration from the Irish folk revival of recent decades, the Friels maintain a deep awareness of, and respect for, the tradition of their ancestral home.
“For us, there’s a feeling of having grown up in two places,” Clare said. “We’ve lived in Glasgow all our lives – we absolutely love it – but we’re also conscious of being part of the Irish diaspora, especially since we’re so close to our family’s original home. So we would go to Donegal, soak up all the music we could, and bring it back with us. I think that’s made us hungrier: If we’d had the music around us all the time, things might have been different.”
Still, the sisters’ own family ties to the music – especially on their mother’s side – helped enormously at the outset. As kids, they learned traditional songs like “P Stands for Paddy” from their mother and “Free and Easy” through their great-aunt – both of which remain in their repertoire – and Clare fondly recalls car rides or times at home spent listening to recordings of Planxty, The Bothy Band, De Dannan, and other performers who promoted modern innovation and creativity in their approach to traditional music.
It was musicians of that generation, contemporary-minded but keyed into the tradition, who helped guide and mentor the Friels in more direct ways after the sisters began playing the music themselves, crossing paths with the likes of Tommy Peoples, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Gabriel McKeon, Harry Bradley, and Catherine McEvoy, among others. Clare, Sheila, and Anna’s education went beyond learning notes and techniques; they discovered that music wasn’t simply about lessons and rehearsals, but also making friends and finding inspiration.
The musicians they met, meanwhile, saw three youngsters who brought considerable talent and enthusiasm to their playing and nudged them toward further opportunities for growth. When Clare was not quite 13 and the twins were 15, they attended the Frankie Kennedy Winter Music School in Donegal – named for the late co-founder of renowned Donegal band Altan and wound up at the after-party Altan co-founder Ní Mhaonaigh. A short time later, they got a call from Altan’s agent inviting them to appear with the group at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow; also joining the band for the occasion were Mary Black and Paul Brady.
It was all very exciting – “We actually got a day off from school, too,” recalled Clare – and the three practiced assiduously. But the prospect of performing in front of such a big audience “didn’t faze us at all; we weren’t nervous,” she said. “I was just playing around with some kids backstage when the call came for us to go on.”
The Friels returned the following year, this time sharing the stage with The Chieftains.
“From there on, we were meeting all these wonderful people, who gave us all kinds of encouragement and help, along with the others who had done so in the past,” said Clare. “If you don’t catch the bug from that, there’s something wrong with you.”
Needless to say, the sisters caught it, continuing their musical progress and burnishing their resumé as a performing group, appearing at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the Willie Clancy Summer School, Celtic Fusion, and festivals across Europe, Asia and America – including the Catskill Irish Arts Week in New York. “It honestly didn’t take much out of us,” said Clare. “Playing concerts was never intense, didn’t make us nervous – not like taking exams.”
In 2014, eight years after their Celtic Connections debut, the Friels formally launched their first album, appropriately enough, at the last Frankie Kennedy School gathering. By then, the sisters had established themselves as a potent, up-and-coming force in Irish music, displaying a talent for ensemble arrangements to complement their instrumental prowess – a quality they showcased again on their second album, “Before the Sun,” released in 2018.
“We’d long had the idea of recording an album, but we wanted to think it through and be really ready,” said Clare of the 2014 release. “Being able to do the recording at our grandmother’s house in Donegal was so much fun and just worked out so well. We didn’t think it would be any big deal, but we ended getting loads of gigs after that.
“A few years later, we felt it was time to go into the studio again. We had tons more sets, and our gigs were getting bigger and had so much energy, the CD didn’t match what we were doing on stage.”
Even with all the praise and appreciation for their instrumental ability, what captured the fancy of many listening ears was their unison singing, evoking the older, traditional style in an era where harmony has become the gold standard for Irish singers.
“We were always used to singing together, as well as playing together, as kids,” said Clare. “Not that we didn’t sing solo, like at fleadhs, but we always felt quite detached not being to able sing as three. We’d listen to harmonies, and we could certainly do them, but it just felt natural to us to sing in unison. When I hear unison singing, it’s quite haunting, very powerful.”
Unison singing suits the sisters for another reason, Clare added: “I tend to be sharper, Anna a little flat, and Sheila is in between. So if we’re off, we know it.”
As they cultivated their musical lives, the Friels devoted themselves to other vocations: dentistry for the twins, pharmacology and biochemistry for Clare. “We were always encouraged to focus on what interested us, whether it was music, or the arts, or science,” she said. “If you follow what you enjoy, it comes together.”
Not that this dual existence has been without challenges, Clare added, especially when it comes to the job of managing the trio’s musical enterprises. For a while, Sheila took time off from dentistry to handle things while Anna completed her training and Clare finished up her honors degree. Then about three years ago, the twins went into practice full-time and Clare took up the mantle. Just when she was beginning to think about going back into the sciences, Clare was selected as the 2018 TG4 Young Musician of the Year. And then there were more gigs, and the second album to put together. Her “other” professional plans remain on hold.
“I absolutely love what I’m doing, though,” she said.
With all the people who have made a difference in their lives, Clare said it is, not surprisingly, the familial bond -which has had the strongest influence. Sheila and Anna have that unique closeness often observed in twins, but Clare has never felt at a disadvantage because of it.
“I’m always respectful of them being twins. They have their own world – dentistry and flutes – and that’s just understood. Being sisters, of course, we’ll bicker, but then it’s gone; there’s no lingering hard feelings. Mom always made it clear right from the start: ‘You’re all sisters, and you have to treat one another that way.’ I’ve never felt left out, and they’ve been so kind to me. They even call me ‘the boss’ because of me managing the band.”
“The boss” and her sisters have been able to relax a little, even get in a trip to Donegal, since returning from the US. But summer, and its various festivals and other events, beckons and this month they’ll be on the road again. Not that any of the Friels are complaining: Music’s done quite a lot for them, after all – and many would say the opposite is also true.
For more about The Friel Sisters, see frielmusic.com.