By Sean Smith
Boston Irish Correspondent
Boston-area fiddler Maura Shawn Scanlin and guitarist Conor Hearn readily agree that the name they perform under, Rakish, was an improbable – and manifestly ironic – choice.
After all, one definition of “rakish” is a “dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance”; the root word, “rake,” is defined as “a dissolute or immoral person.”
“I think that was kind of surprising to people who know us well,” says Hearn with a laugh.
The inspiration came from the title of a popular traditional Irish reel, “Rakish Paddy.” Part of the reason they chose it, explain Hearn and Scanlin, was as a tongue-in-cheek contrast to their other band, Pumpkin Bread, a quintet with a “wholesome” vibe to its sound and style.
“So, Rakish is supposed to be the edgy counterpart,” says Hearn, “which isn’t really true.”
Replies Scanlin with a smile: “I certainly never thought about it that way,”
But to Scanlin and Hearn, “rakish” carries the connotation of “unconventional,” and that is the more relevant reason for its selection as their nom de band.
“It has to do with the lens through which we view Celtic music, and the other music we play,” says Scanlin. “We pull them all together in a way that’s perhaps unconventional, but makes perfect sense to us.”
This model of rakishness is in evidence on their new album, “Counting Down the Hours,” which Hearn and Scanlin will formally launch on Feb. 2 with a concert at Club Passim in Harvard Square (tickets and details available at passim.org). Produced by the renowned Irish musician, composer, and arranger Seamus Egan, “Counting Down the Hours” – the duo’s first full-length CD – features original tunes and songs as well as traditional ones, among them a ballad associated with a legendary English folk performer. Through this Rakish lens come Irish, Scottish, Americana, folk-rock, and even classical elements (including a Bach composition).
Not exactly the basis for a concise classification, it would seem, but Hearn feels otherwise.
“I always feel like we’re playing Celtic music, even if what we’re playing is from a different tradition or from the classical domain,” he says. “I don’t think to myself, ‘OK, now I’m going to switch mindsets and put on my classical guitar hat,’ because I don’t really have that hat; or, if we’re doing something with an Americana feel, I don’t say to myself, ‘OK, guess I’ll get out my bluegrass guitar pick.’ I’m thinking about this particular melody and accompanying the way I’d accompany anything else.
“I feel like we’re always in a similar sonic sphere and the repertoire is from different places.”
The experience of conceiving and making “Counting Down the Hours” represents the latest growth stage in a rewarding partnership that began in Boston. Scanlin came from Boone, NC, to study at New England Conservatory; Hearn, a native of Silver Springs, Md., enrolled in the Tufts/NEC dual-degree program, through which he met Scanlin. They formed Pumpkin Bread with three other friends, but in 2018 began to play on their own as a duo, and in the months that followed they appeared at BCMFest, Front Row Boston, the Rockport Celtic Music Festival, and “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
Hearn and Scanlin released their EP in the fall of 2018, but by the following year found their body of work had grown so rapidly, Scanlin says, “that every time we played a gig, less and less of the stuff we’d recorded was on our set list.” This got them thinking about doing a more extensive recording, one more reflective of where they were as a duo. There were a couple of “false starts,” according to Hearn, and by the time they confirmed a time frame for making the album, it was the lockdown of 2020.
“Our feeling was ‘Well, we’re not doing anything else’ – we certainly weren’t touring – and logistically we could still work together,” recalls Hearn, “so we settled in.”
On “Counting Down the Hours,” Rakish’s Celtic influence rises to the fore in tracks like “New Shoe Maneuver,” Scanlin exhibiting her form as two-time National Scottish Fiddle Champion with bright, crisp bow strokes, Hearn’s guitar accompaniment precisely following the tune’s idiosyncratic contours – particularly on its third part, which is explored to a considerable length (“controlled chaos,” as Hearn describes it) near the end of the track. Also deserving notice here is double bass player Dan Klingberg, who appears on six other tracks.
“Waiting Game” is a twofer – a major-key jig followed by a minor-key reel – that has a decidedly Irish tint to it, especially with Egan’s robust tenor banjo doubling up on the melody. And then there’s the medley that completes the album: It’s just Scanlin and Hearn alone, fiddle and guitar, and the track is a masterpiece of arrangement, with a slow but steady build from a slow march, a Rakish original called “The Tooth of Time” – starting out with Hearn flatpicking the melody – and transitioning to a traditional Irish reel, The Corrie Man,” before finishing up in grand style with another Scanlin/Hearn piece, “The Bay Leaf.”
“No Such Thing as Luck,” on the other hand, has more of a sweet-sunny-South feel, as Scanlin switches to longer bowing strokes and double tracks clawhammer-style five-string banjo (more about that later), while Hearn’s flatpicking run is bluegrassier; he also adds a bouzouki for texture.
That brings us to the Bach piece, “Gigue from Sonata No. 2 in D Minor,” a companion to “Courante,” by Robert de Visée (lutenist, guitarist, and composer for Louis XIV and XV), which appears earlier on the album. Where Rakish is concerned, Scanlin’s background and training in classical music offers both a pathway and a point of departure, as evidenced by her description of how a baroque tune differs from a reel, jig , hornpipe, or other traditional folk tune yet also has some key similarities.
“Baroque pieces may not have nice, compact eight-bar phrases, but they will have an A part and a B part – and maybe more parts – that repeats. So, with that very simple idea, it opens an access point for us as a duo to bring this music into our body of work. But it was still a labor of love, because the Gigue was intended for solo violin – no counterpoint or bass line. That meant Conor and I had to put our heads together and walk through it, figure out the harmonies and such.
“So by adding accompaniment, we were definitely doing something unconventional, maybe even scandalous, in the context of classical music.”
But there’s not always a clear, definitive delineation of Rakish’s styles or genres. “The Lucky One,” the tune that opens the album, is simply a creation unto itself, pushing against the familiar structure of traditional instrumental music as it soars and skitters. “In the Middle,” opening with Hearn’s pensive nylon-string guitar lead, also seems to exist simultaneously in several musical domains.
The big revelation on the album, and representing perhaps the most significant evolutionary step for Rakish, are the three original songs by Scanlin, who accompanies her lead vocals (Hearn lending excellent harmonies) with the aforementioned five-string banjo. All three – the title track (with Egan adding a sparkling mandolin backing), “Our Quiet Love” and “Last Time I Saw You” – revolve around what might be termed a pastoral reverie, introspection expanding toward an awareness of the world outside one’s door – or one’s mind: As the chorus of “Our Quiet Love” puts it, “What did they hear before me? What did they hear before you? Before our quiet love?”
Learning banjo was a pandemic-sparked activity for Scanlin (“I’m certainly not an expert,” she laughs, “maybe not even an intermediate”), and brought an unforeseen additional benefit. “I really enjoyed getting the hang of an instrument that’s prominent in the region where I grew up, and it was also a vehicle in which to explore songwriting; I could never get the hang of songwriting on fiddle, but the banjo – as a completely different instrument than what I was used to – allowed me to think about music in another way and opened up some new insights.”
Scanlin regards herself as a novice songwriter, still getting used to even just talking about the craft itself. But she does see a commonality among the three songs on the album, including the fact that they came about during that first year of the pandemic, and perhaps reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
“‘Counting Down the Hours’ wasn’t necessarily intended as one of the focal points of the album, but it emerged as one in part because the lyrics resonated with that time of feeling compressed and waiting for an end to something. I’d say all three of the songs draw on some natural imagery, and I think perhaps it stems from the fact that I find a lot of peace when I get out of the city and I can experience the cycles of nature. So the songs talk about how humans can be affected by natural things, like a sunrise or sunset. In ‘Last Time I Saw You’ I talk a little bit about how every new day is like a clean slate; so no matter what kind of craziness is going on in the world, or in your own life, those natural elements can remain unchanged.”
The album’s other song is “Canadee-I-O,” a ballad from the 18th century that’s in the disguised-female-sea-adventurer category. Arguably its most famous rendition is by Nic Jones, an iconic figure in the 1960s/’70s UK folk revival. Where Jones’s trademark syncopated fingerpicked guitar style on his version has the feel of rowing through an undulating tide, the upbeat Rakish arrangement – driven by Hearn’s folk-rockesque strumming and chording – conjures up more of an outboard-motor boat gliding across calm waters, Scanlin’s whirligig fiddle riff enlivening the song’s denouement.
Although Hearn’s initial source for “Canadee-I-O” was Midwestern singer-dancer Nic Gareiss (a stalwart Nic Jones fan himself), he knew all about its pedigree, but didn’t let that influence his own approach to the song.
“When we arrange traditional songs, or songs that people are familiar with, the easiest way to start is not to listen so much to other versions, if there are any – not get so concerned with ‘How will I do this differently?’” he asks. “With ‘Canadee-I-O,’ I had some melodic and rhythmic ideas I’d been playing around with on guitar, and which were waiting for the right vessel. So they all joined up together at the time I was first really learning the melody of the song, and then working with Maura, we came up with something that felt right for us.”
Reflecting on the experience of making “Counting Down the Hours,” Hearn and Scanlin are grateful for the steady hand and encouragement from Egan (as well as his contributions to four of the tracks). “A producer, for us, is someone who makes you as an artist feel comfortable and confident in the recording process – which is a pretty long tunnel to go through,” says Scanlin. “Seamus definitely did that; he was very supportive of us.”
The two also see “Hours” as the end product of their time in Boston’s Celtic and folk music scene.
“It always comes back to the community that we’re in: the various relationships we’ve formed, and being around people who play traditional music with such care and attention,” says Hearn. “Maura and I met and began playing together in this community, and the community has supported us to be more active as a duo. So, for us, being a band and playing gigs is not ‘work’ we do; there’s a very strong personal dimension to it.”
For more about Rakish and “Counting Down the Hours,” see rakishmusic.com.