Matt and Shannon Heaton will launch their new album, "Whirring Wings," at The Burren on Wed., Jan. 24
If it seems like a long time since Matt and Shannon Heaton last released an album, well, it is: not since 2014, when the local Irish music duo came out with “Tell You in Earnest.”
But on Wed., Jan. 24, the Heatons will formally launch their sixth recording, “Whirring Wings,” with a concert in The Burren Backroom as part of the Brian O’Donovan Legacy Series.
Ten of the album’s eleven tracks comprise instrumentals, some from Irish tradition, some penned by Shannon- who plays flute; Matt plays guitars, bouzouki and bodhran – and other musicians like Liz Carroll, Martin (Junior) Crehan, Paddy Fahey, Finbarr Dwyer, Tommy Coen, and Brendan Mulholland, who has a cameo appearance on one track. The Heatons also do a rendition of the Robert Burns song “Westlin Winds,” from which the album title is derived (“The moorcock springs on whirring wings/Among the blooming heather”). There is also an extensive companion book available, with notes about the project and information and sheet music for everything on the album.
A work of art, whether an album, a painting, a sculpture, or some other form of expression, isn’t conceived and created in a hermetically sealed environment. Being human, an artist can be influenced and affected not only by personal matters but also by compelling events on a far greater scale. This confluence can change, sometimes drastically, how the artist acts on the original inspiration for the work – or whether the artist does so at all.
For the Heatons, who have long made engagement with their community of musicians and listeners an imperative, “Whirring Wings” was a means of keeping those ties intact while affirming their own unique connection to the music, and with each other, after a period of pandemic-generated upheaval marked by loss, hope, and the promise of renewal.
“Being able to do this album, and in our basement studio at home, felt like we were striking a balance,” explains Shannon. “During the pandemic, we made an effort to maintain – and build on – the relationships we had with people through music, such as by holding a ‘Virtual Guided Session’ regularly on YouTube. It was wonderful to facilitate that, to help organize something participatory which people invested in and was important to them.
“But Matt and I wanted something for ourselves. We wanted to be able to focus on playing the music as we’ve always played it — sometimes really up-tempo, or with our variations or other little details and quirks that just come to us – and especially playing music, some of which we’d written, that spoke to what we’ve experienced these last few years.”
The result is the vintage Heatons that listeners in Boston, and many places elsewhere, have long admired and cherished. Sharing her thoughts for BostonIrish a while back on the flute’s presence in Irish music, Shannon said that “the deepest and most nourishing Irish flute playing features a rich straight tone, superb intonation, gorgeous rhythmic style, and clean mechanics with sensible and interesting phrasing” – all of which is readily apparent on “Whirring Wings,” whether she’s busting out a muscular reel or vivacious jig, or conveying emotional intimacy in a slower tune.
Matt’s guitar and bouzouki playing, meanwhile, is multi-faceted and “endlessly creative,” as Shannon describes it. He provides solid rhythm but avoids a uniform or heavy-handed approach, altering chord progressions and iterations, and sometimes using a more melodic approach. He might, for example, alternate between a three-tone pattern of plucked harmonics on the A part and chords on the B part, or shift between flatpicking and strumming the chords, adding contrast and texture to the melody Shannon plays.
The Heatons, who rose to prominence in the Celtic music scene during the 2000s, were a very busy couple as the 2010s wore on, what with their shared and individual musical pursuits – including “Tell You in Earnest” – and raising their then-pre-teen son. The two also maintained an active presence on social media and through other avenues, notably Shannon’s “Irish Music Stories” podcast. When and where possible, they cultivated and supported opportunities to bring the music community together, including BCMFest, which Shannon co-founded and helped organize for many years. Nonetheless, they had planned to put out an album in late 2019, but when that didn’t happen, the timetable got pushed back.
Then a few months later, the whole idea of timetables became practically irrelevant.
“Once the shutdown happened, the idea of making an album didn’t seem as important,” says Shannon. “We felt that offering ways to keep people engaged in the music – at a time when there weren’t any concerts or sessions and everyone was quarantining – was more useful than a one-way presentation.”
With music-related and other usual activity outside the home all but curtailed, the Heatons found themselves – even after the lockdown eased – far more attuned to the natural world, which produced some fascinating and inspirational scenes right outside their windows.
Inspiration also came through personal events and milestones, such as their son’s completion of fourth grade during the lockdown, or snippets of everyday life – like a friend’s struggle to cook a chicken in the midst of the Heatons’ online session.
“A lot of music grew out of this period,” sums up Shannon. “I wrote several dozen new tunes and we put together 50 new arrangements. We produced e-books of tunes with accompanying MP3 for download as well as YouTube videos. So when we were thinking about making this album, we asked ourselves, ‘What is the story we want to tell? Which tunes or songs will help us tell it?’
“We wanted to paint a picture of that weird time when we were all hunkered down in our little landscapes and had the chance to pay more attention to the elements of the natural world. It was difficult period for many of us, but we also had an opportunity to connect with the beauty of nature and appreciate the kindness around us, and to see how amazing people can be to one another.”
Many such sentiments and reminiscences are expressed in the album’s accompanying booklet, which, according to Matt, was inspired by those that came with LPs of traditional Irish music released in the 1970s by Shanachie Records. As he explains in the booklet, the shift from physical products like LPs, cassettes, and CDs to the digital/streaming format has changed the way many people experience music: “But maybe it can still be worthwhile to offer something tangible, something to hold and pore over while listening.”
Informative, hilarious, or poignant, the descriptions and anecdotes contained in the booklet make for an enjoyable read and, in many respects, underscore the virtues of looking for improbable and compelling stories that emerge around us. The reel “Big-Eared Brad,” for example, recalls how the Heatons managed to achieve détente with a wild rabbit who made himself at home in their backyard and dined on their garden, while terrorizing a fellow wild rabbit (“Chubby Andrew”) and a chipmunk (“Long-Necked Jimmy”). Another reel, “Cher Ami,” is a sort of postscript to “Big-Eared Brad,” about the mourning dove – named after a heroic World War 1 carrier pigeon – who sat vigil for Brad upon his passing. The slip jig “Little-Leaf Linden” is an ode to a big, beautiful tree the Heatons share with their neighbors.
Perhaps most memorably of all, after receiving news that the brilliant Prince Edward Island musician Pastelle LeBlanc had died, Shannon looked out into her yard to see a pair of cardinals – evoking the widespread, ages-old belief in redbirds as signs and portents of a loved one’s passing. She drew upon this moment to write the march “Two Cardinals,” for LeBlanc and her sister Emmanuelle.
The Heatons, of course, also proclaim their love and respect for Irish tradition on “Whirring Wings,” such as a set of three reels associated with P. Joe Hayes, a co-founder of the illustrious Tulla Ceili Band (and father of acclaimed fiddler Martin Hayes). Other classic, treasured tunes include “I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave” – with the ear-catching D-C natural-A phrase in the B part – “Rose in the Heather” and the dulcet D reel “Mother and Child.”
“Westlin Winds” is a capstone of sorts to “Whirring Wings,” a love song that also contains some quite severe observations about humans’ unfortunate penchant for cruelty to the natural world, and to one another. As such, it dovetails with the unresolved issues and emotions the pandemic stoked in many people, including Shannon, who laments what she sees as an all-too-ready inclination to purge this period from our collective memory.
“Yes, we all want to move on, but can we think about some of the other things that went on during the pandemic? We gave nature, and our planet, a break for a while and stopped driving. We checked in one another to make sure we were OK, we started thinking about living simpler, thinking local. Did that all have to stop?
“So, my feeling is you gotta ‘do the Burns’: Get out there and appreciate nature, what it does for us, what it means to us.”
For more about “Whirring Wings,” see the Heatons’ website at mattandshannonheaton.com