Ship in the Clouds (L-R Nathan Gourley, Laura Feddersen, Natasha Sheehy and Anna Colliton) performing at the 2019 Boston Celtic Music Fest.
CREDIT: Dylan Ladds
The band’s name comes from the title of a fiddle tune found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and all but one of its members are natives of the American Midwest. Still, the musical pedigree of the Boston-based quartet Ship in the Clouds is unmistakably Irish.
Formed in 2018, Ship in the Clouds is fueled by the melodic chemistry between Indiana-born fiddler Laura Feddersen and accordionist Natasha Sheehy, who was born and raised in West Limerick, and the outstanding rhythmic habitat provided by guitarist Nathan Gourley (from Wisconsin by way of Minnesota) and Illinois native Anna Colliton on bodhran.
These qualities, as well as a diverse, appealing selection of instrumentals – from the familiar to the obscure – are in great abundance on Ship in the Clouds’ debut album, released around the turn of the year and available for download at shipintheclouds.bandcamp.com.
There was a stroke of good luck in the album’s creation. The band’s Boston members, Gourley, Feddersen, and Sheehy, have full-time jobs and other commitments, while Colliton lives and works in New York City. As a result, they weren’t able to take on a lot of gigs – although they did perform at both the winter and summer versions of BCMFest in 2019 – and had to make the most of their opportunities to play together. In the fall of 2019, they decided it was time to make a recording, so the four gathered in the Copley Street house in Roxbury where Gourley and Feddersen live – and in which Gourley has set up a recording studio.
As it turned out, that was the last time all four were in one place together, thanks to the pandemic.
But the Copley Street sessions yielded plenty of usable material, so in the months that followed, the band listened to and critiqued the recordings, and finally sent them off to be mixed and mastered at Dimension Sound Studios prior to releasing the album.
As far as Gourley and Feddersen are concerned, late is far better than never.
“I’m rather glad we’re slow workers,” says Gourley. “We had the album in the can for a long time, but I think that actually brought us closer to Anna and Natasha. It gave us something to work on together over quarantine, when all of us were trying to stay sane. When you get down to it, doing a project with people you like and respect is a joy.”
In the Irish session scene, it’s not just who you know, but under what circumstances you play music with them. While Fedderson and Gourley had been acquainted for some time with both Sheehy and Colliton, it was a matter of right time-right place to help spur the idea of forming a band.
“Nathan and I were at the Brendan Behan Pub session in Jamaica Plain one day in the summer of 2018, and Nathan wound up sitting next to Anna for the first time – and something just clicked,” recalls Feddersen. “Then some time later, Natasha and the two of us played at this pub in Cambridge, and again, we just felt some good energy between us. So, you put those two experiences together and you think, ‘Hey, what would the four of us sound like?’”
Well, as the album demonstrates, pretty darn good. There any number of candidates for a signature track, and certainly one is a trio of jigs, beginning with Charlie Lennon’s “The Dawn Chorus”: Feddersen and Sheehy breeze through the first tune in their characteristic unison – Feddersen plays the B part an octave lower the second time, making for a lovely contrast – and ease into “The One That Was Lost,” a minor-key composition by Paddy O’Brien, before finishing up with the splendid old “Castlebar Races” (not a sporting event but a reference to the British army’s retreat during the 1798 rebellion), Feddersen again playing the octave to add some depth.
There are instances where the musicians’ respective instruments simply achieve a symbiosis – they just sound perfect together – and such is the case with Sheehy’s four-voice Paolo Soprani and Feddersen’s Roth violin.
Gourley’s guitar enhances the Feddersen-Sheehy dynamic with a relaxed but substantive presence, and a very pleasing pallet of chord voicings, patterns, and harmonies, such as on the second time through “The Dawn Chorus” A part or during the final run of “Castlebar Races.” Colliton, instead of settling into a repetitive, metronome-like pulse, seeks to align her drumming with each tune’s individual character, adding variations along the way that complement Gourley’s accompaniment.
Another track comprises a set of archetypal, lovable pub-session reels, "The Holly Bush" (by Cork accordionist Finbarr Dwyer)/New-Mown Meadows/Free and Easy." Sheehy and Gourley are featured on the first tune, which makes for a grand entrance on the part of Feddersen and Colliton for "Meadows," what with its bracing A part. And, happily, the four endorse the idea that you can't play "Free and Easy" too many times.
The band also gives a nod to Sliabh Luachra, with a set of slides (Peadar Ó Riada’s “Slide Do Caoimhin” followed by “The Whistling Thief” and “Con Cassidy’s”) that is paradise in 12/8, and a trio of polkas concluding with “O’Callaghan’s” and its ear-catching opening bars – the version here is taken from that by former Boston-area Eric Merrill fiddler, who gave it a Scandinavian feel on his album “The Western Star,” which Feddersen and Sheehy enhance to great effect.
“The polkas and slides are very dear to me,” says Sheehy. “I think they're a very solid representation of the music I like to play and listen to. Polkas are simple and lyrical and not in the slightest bit pretentious, however much you might try and dress them up. My favorite music is like that- simple, uncomplicated and accessible.”
For a real change of pace, the quartet bundles together a pair of old-time waltzes based on popular traditional songs, “Brosna” and “Báidín Fheidhlimidh (Feilim’s Little Boat).” The latter, well-known to most Irish schoolchildren and a retelling of a heroic but tragic Ulster legend, has an especially poignant air to it (and Colliton also demonstrates the right way to accompany a waltz on bodhran).
Another appealing aspect of the album is that its middle portion spotlights the band’s melodic leads, as Feddersen and Sheehy each get a solo track (albeit with Gourley and Colliton along for the ride), allowing for a better appreciation of the elements Feddersen and Sheehy bring to the band's sound. Sheehy has a go at a pair of jigs, "Apples in Winter/Dancing Eyes," which not only exhibit her prowess on the melody end but also highlight her rhythmic abilities and use of bass notes, reflecting the influence of Danny O’Mahony, one of the more highly regarded accordionists in Ireland today.
Feddersen plays a pair of hop jigs, "The Surround" and "The Silver Slipper," the latter from legendary Donegal fiddler Johnny Doherty – and if you haven't experienced the wonderful idiosyncrasies of hop jigs, this is a treat – before transitioning nimbly into a serious-business reel, "Dogs Among the Bushes."
“I enjoyed all the tracks, but I love hop jigs in particular, and ‘The Silver Slipper’ is a little unusual in some really fun rhythmical ways,” says Colliton.
The album’s sleeve notes are appropriately enlightening, but not overtly academic. In fact, the entry for a trio of reels ending with “The Ivy Leaf” has a rather unusual, and delightfully irrelevant, reference to the tune – namely, that an ivy leaf has musical properties similar to a blade of grass, if properly utilized (there’s a longer anecdote related to this, which involves an episode of the British TV talent show “Opportunity Knocks” – and yes, you can Google it).
Like most everyone else, musicians and non-musicians alike, the members of Ship in the Clouds have been dealing with the sense of dislocation wrought by the pandemic. Although Feddersen and Gourley have been able to spend time with Sheehy, the quartet as a whole has not been together for what seems an eternity. Immensely grateful to have finished the album, they also describe some complicated emotions about the experience in the context of COVID.
“It was like a letter from the past to hear that album when we released it – a little like a musical time capsule,” says Sheehy. “Even though it had only been a few months prior, it felt like things had shifted so much since the recording. It was a little surreal to think we'd sat in such close proximity and breathed the same air during that weekend of recording and suddenly we couldn't see each other and didn't know when we would. I felt very lucky that we'd recorded when we did. I don't know that it ever would have happened if we'd not done it before the pandemic. Projects like that need momentum, and the pandemic stole a lot of momentum from life.”
“Spending three days recording in a stuffy little room with three other people is kind of unthinkable now,” says Colliton. “What a luxury that was, and we took it totally for granted!”
To follow or to contact Ship in the Clouds, see their Facebook page at facebook.com/shipinthecloudsband.