Above all, Boston-area Irish music-playing spouses Matt and Shannon Heaton are quite happy to be back performing in person.
After a handful of live events in 2021, the duo’s recent and upcoming schedule by comparison is fairly dotted with in-person gigs, including June 22 at the Burren Backroom series in Somerville’s Davis Square, where they’ll be appearing with the duo of local fiddler Hanneke Cassel and Vermont-based guitarist/vocalist Keith Murphy, along with dancer Kieran Jordan. [Details, tickets available through burren.com/music.html]
“It’s been fascinating, fun, and kind of weird,” says Matt (guitar, bouzouki, vocals) of being on stage again. “So many events are still getting cancelled, postponed or moved online, so things are not fully back to what we might consider ‘normal.’ But we’re super excited to be playing at the Burren: [Burren owners Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello] have been very creative in finding ways to keep the music flowing. Everyone knows what a wonderful place it is, so the idea of being in the Backroom again – and with Hanneke, Keith, and Kieran – makes us very happy.”
“Sharing a night with dear friends, in a place that is a home for our Irish music community, one which two musicians, Tommy and Louise, have built and sustained through challenging times, even before Covid – that to me feels like it’s really meeting the moment in the right way,” says Shannon (flute, whistle, accordion, vocals). “I think that’s a better way of looking at it than ‘The Heatons are going back out there and doing a bunch of formal concerts.’ We’re grateful to have the pleasure and privilege of sharing traditional music with our community.”
Known for stellar musicianship, an extensive knowledge of Irish traditional music, and an engaging stage presence, the Heatons have five albums to their credit and a distinguished resumé of concert and festival appearances around and well beyond the US. An emphasis on fostering and maintaining community also has been a staple of the Heatons’ modus operandi over the years, through teaching, a healthy social media presence, and projects such as Shannon’s “Irish Music Stories” podcast as well as leading regular jam sessions at the Somerville Armory aimed at encouraging less experienced musicians.
Covid has made keeping up that community connection challenging, and thus even more vital for the Heatons, who among other pandemic activities started a weekly virtual guided session on YouTube and, more recently, published “In Harmony,” a “tune cookbook” for melody and rhythm players.
A return to live performances, welcome though it may be, shouldn’t distract from reflecting on and acknowledging the full, varied impact of the pandemic, according to the Heatons.
“So many people are ready to just move on and pretend nothing happened in these past two-plus years,” explains Shannon, “but we’ve all been through something so vast, something we’re still trying to understand, and it seems crazy to ignore it. For a brief moment, we gave the planet a break: We stopped driving, and instead we were walking, saying ‘Hi’ to our neighbors, trying to keep one another safe and healthy. Public health and ecological awareness, the idea of living simpler lives, thinking local – all that was forced on us, and it was challenging, but we took it on. Do we really have to just forget all of that?
“Instead of touring all over the place and returning to big gatherings, I like the idea of keeping things small, informal and local, with the focus on sharing music, connecting with people, and encouraging them to be creative – not a one-way performance, but a night of community.”
The pandemic has brought tragedy and hardship, Matt says, but also has inspired musicians and other artists to re-think what they do, including how to stay in touch with, and build, their audiences.
“It’s been kind of like a flower growing out of a concrete sidewalk: The music somehow emerges. You’d see people trying out all kinds of ideas and collaborations, and then sharing them on video and social media. So, we thought, ‘Why not try putting together a guided session online? I think you can livestream on YouTube.’ And sure enough, it wound up becoming this big community of musicians from around the world – we weren’t sure what would happen, but we were able to make an important connection.”
“The people who’ve taken part in the livestream have been amazing,” says Shannon. “They’ve tuned in every week, they say ‘Hello’ to each other, they encourage one another – it’s wonderful to see how they’ve made such good use of these opportunities. We wound up creating a private Facebook page where people could share practice videos and offer suggestions and thoughts. They’d give tune requests during the livestream, so everyone would vote for the ‘tune of the week,’ and I’d make a practice video and break the tune down so that everyone could learn it for the next livestream.
“Yes, it’s Matt and Shannon playing on YouTube, but it’s also people playing in their houses – they’d send up pictures and videos of themselves playing along with us. And these were musicians on many different levels, like somebody starting on their second instrument or just wanting to learn more tunes, others who were brand new.”
The YouTube session was the basis for “In Harmony,” which comprises an e-book of tunes from the session repertoire with an accompanying CD of the Heatons playing each one (the project was a true family affair; their son Nigel designed the e-book cover). It draws on the metaphor of cooking, which, like playing Irish music, can be a solitary activity but also a communal and social one; by the same token, throughout history the kitchen has frequently been a place for people to gather for making music.
“This is not a complete collection of Irish tunes: It’s a quality selection of standard jigs, reels, hornpipes, and slip jigs, presented with care and consistency,” reads the introduction, “from our kitchen to yours.”
“In Harmony” includes some thoughts from the Heatons on key aspects of playing Irish music, such as the merits of learning tunes by ear versus sheet music. Those who are adept at reading music may more be inclined to go that route than learning aurally, which the Heatons acknowledge takes time and focus.
“But,” they add, “it’s such a nourishing experience. Really getting to know a tune before you even try it on your instrument is very different than just reading it.” The Heatons counsel patience in learning by ear (“There’s no rush”), perhaps just by focusing on one tune and learning to sing it along with the recording. “Digest the melody, the rhythmic life, the ornamentation, and the phrasing of the tune by listening, which will be more accurate than looking.”
The Heatons also muse on the importance – and enjoyment – of being in synch with other musicians as you play, and to collectively home in on the distinctive elements of a tune rather than trying to go for speed or ornamentation: “Listening to the tunes and the people around you is what guarantees the most savory experience.”
“In Harmony” is really a love letter to all the people who’ve joined us in the past couple of years, taking a crummy situation and making the best of it,” says Shannon. “We don’t think of it as ‘Oh, Matt and Shannon made a new CD’ – or, to use the cooking metaphor, that we’ve served everyone a 12-course dinner: Instead, we came up with ‘recipes’ that people can make in their own way.
“We’re all different, and we all learn differently. I don’t know, it’s kind of like public health: It’s important to set a tone and to have some buy-in from people. The idea of public health is that we build it together, and we do that by establishing and following some guidelines. So, our feeling is, hey, learn the tunes the way that you need to learn the tunes – but you know, this is an aural tradition, a social tradition, so at least listen to the recordings, get it in your heart, and give it a go.”
The Heatons have long supplemented their traditional music repertoire with their own compositions, and during the pandemic have come up with new material, some of which they’ve shared during their virtual guided sessions. In the past couple of years, Shannon has written “a lot” of tunes, a process she says typically begins with a non-musical prompt, in which a person, situation, or event that strikes her a certain way “and something comes.”
In one recent case, Shannon was reflecting on a dear friend, Pastelle LeBlanc of the Prince Edward Island trio Vishtèn, whose death had reverberated throughout the traditional music community. After having concluded a conversation with LeBlanc’s sister and bandmate, Shannon happened to glance out her window and saw two cardinals in the yard.
“They were there for a long time, and it felt like a real visitation, so I just thought, ‘OK, I’m not going to get up or do anything, I’m just going to sit here with the cardinals,’” she recalls. “Finally, one of them flew away. And after an hour, this tune just came to me: So I call it ‘The Two Cardinals.’
“This sort of experience is not all that unusual for me. But it’s been stronger these last few years, where we haven’t had a regular schedule of gigs to prepare for. So I was writing these tunes just for the sake of writing them, and you know what? That’s good for me. I don’t feel as if I need to get on the stage and perform them. I like the whole process of writing these tunes and then arranging them with Matt. If nobody else ever heard them, it wouldn’t be so bad.
“That said, I am more than happy to share this music, because I find it often leads to people sharing back. For instance, members of our guided-session community have written their own tunes and felt inspired to play them for everyone. And I see that and think, ‘Oh, yeah – I’ve accomplished something.’”
Learn more about the Heatons and In Harmony at mattandshannonheaton.com