Maura Shawn Scanlin's self-titled debut solo album displays her wide-ranging musical interests, from Celtic to classical.
Boston-area fiddler, banjo player and vocalist Maura Shawn Scanlin says there is a very basic unifying theme to her recently released debut solo album: gratitude.
“My biggest inspiration for the recording,” she explains, “was that I have a whole bunch of friends I love making music with, but not as much opportunity to do so as I would like. I stitched the album together to make as much space as possible for all these collaborations.”
The self-titled, nine-track CD is a gathering of Scanlin and friends, but also an expression of her wide-ranging musical interests: rollicking ensemble renditions of Scottish and Cape Breton tunes; intimate, relaxed Irish jig and reel sets; and her own song and instrumental compositions, which derive from a number of wellsprings, including Americana, Celtic, and classical.
Scanlin will formally launch the album with a concert on Jan. 18 at Club Passim; tickets and other details available via passim.org.
It has been a decade since the Boone, NC, native – a two-time US National Scottish Fiddling Champion – came to the Boston area as an undergraduate at New England Conservatory, and it’s fair to say she has made herself quite at home the local folk/acoustic music scene. Among her most high-profile activities has been as one-half of the duo Rakish, with guitarist Conor Hearn, which has appeared at BCMFest, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” and the Rockport Celtic Music Festival. She has also played with notable performers like Karan Casey, Hanneke Cassel, and Seamus Egan, taught at the Boston States Fiddle Camp and Pure Dead Brilliant (PDB) Fiddle Weekend in Groton, and has been known to turn up at a local session here and there.
In the bigger picture, Scanlin is part of a generation of versatile musicians that, in the past 10-15 years, has become a fixture in Boston’s Celtic and folk community – and which is well represented on “Maura Shawn Scanlin.” Some are native to the area, such as guitarists Eamon Sefton and Steven Manwaring (with whom Scanlin and Hearn co-founded the quintet Pumpkin Bread) and fiddler Sarah Collins, while others like Neil Pearlman (accordion, piano), Elias Alexander (pipes), and Owen Marshall (bouzouki) have been Boston-area residents at one time or another and forged longstanding local connections.
Somewhat more recent arrivals are Hearn and Kat Wallace, a fiddler, vocalist, and songwriter who, like Scanlin, readily crosses over into different musical landscapes. There is also the Rasa String Quartet, which Scanlin founded in 2019 with violinist Kiyoshi Hayashi, violist Emma Powell, and cellist Mina Kim to explore “the space where classical and folk traditions intersect and influence one another,” as the group’s website explains.
“Maura Shawn Scanlin” shows the spectrum of possibilities in which she and her cohorts operate. Two tracks pay tribute to the Irish tradition, a pairing of jigs by Paddy O’Brien (“The Stormy Night”) and John Dwyer (“The Woods of Caol Rua”) and a medley of reels, “Black Pat’s” by Tommy Peoples – a one-time Boston area resident – and session favorite “Maud Millar.” Scanlin is joined here on both sets by Collins and Sefton, creating a leisurely and cordial vibe – Collins’s harmony on the reels lends a comely dollop of sweetness.
Two other tracks are in the contemporary Scottish ceilidh vein, one comprising Donald MacLeod’s “The Seagull” and “Jerry’s Pipe Jig” by Cape Breton fiddle legend Jerry Holland, along with the traditional “Bill Collins’ Jig,” Hearn and Sefton providing powerful rhythm while Pearlman and Alexander team with Scanlin to drive the melody. The quintet’s other appearance is on “The Squall,” a pair of Scanlin-composed reels (“The Squall/Wildflower”) that begins with her blazing-fast solo on the titular tune over a pulsating, somewhat muted guitar; once again, her chemistry with Alexander and Pearlman is impressive to say the least.
The medley is noteworthy because the origin of both tunes relates to Scanlin’s ties to her community of musical friends and acquaintances. She composed “Wildflower” with Alexander in mind, writing it to specifically accommodate the bagpipe scale, while “The Squall” was hatched in the unique hothouse of a fiddle camp – in this case PDB – where whims and brainstorms can easily take on a life of their own: “The weather report was warning of major snow squalls, and a bunch of us were talking about what exactly a squall is,” she recalls.
These two tracks also reflect Scanlin’s interest in double-guitar accompaniment, something that works best when the two guitarists are able to complement, rather than copy, one another – as Hearn and Sefton do.
“I’ve heard other albums that have used the concept,” she says. “I really love the fullness and depth of the two guitars, and wanted to have that fuller band sound, as opposed to a more-sparse configuration. I think having Eamon and Conor alongside fiddle, pipes, and accordion just gives the music an extra resonance.” (Sefton and Hearn also appear, along with Pearlman on accordion and piano, on a quieter, gentler pair of Scottish-flavored Scanlin originals, “Leaving Harvey Street/The Anglerfish.”)
Other examples of Scanlin’s diversity in tune composition include the winsome, Americanaesque “Nuala’s Tune,” in which Marshall’s bouzouki stakes out an exquisite middle ground between Scanlin’s melody and Hearn’s rhythm, and the mellow but adventurous “Bilateral Craziness,” with a shifting time signature and outstanding melodic and harmonic turns by Hearn and Marshall.
“That was a fun experiment,” says Scanlin of “Bilateral Craziness.” “I think a lot about what makes a good melody, and as a Celtic musician I want to uphold the tradition by playing the traditional repertoire but also to find my own voice in writing tunes. I wanted to see what would happen if you wrote a melody freed from meter, able to flit in and out of time signatures but still have some cohesiveness. Conor and I play it a lot, and we really enjoyed having Owen join us.”
The pandemic saw Scanlin broaden her skillset, learning to play five-string banjo and trying her hand at songwriting, and she unveiled both these new pursuits on Rakish’s 2021 album “Counting Down the Hours.” The two songs on this recording, “We’ve Got Our Friends” and “I Can Find My Way Home,” are of a piece with her previous work: low-key and introspective but with a keen awareness of – and appreciation for – the world beyond and the people in it, rendered with a light touch on the banjo that lends a homespun feel to the modern-day musings.
“I’m drawn to the softer clawhammer banjo style, and I use nylon strings to get that subtle sound,” says Scanlin. “It really seems to fit the mood I’m going for in these songs, and the banjo helps me to explore the harmonic possibilities.”
The two songs also include Manwaring and Hearn in the double-guitar roles, and Wallace’s gossamer-like harmony vocals, which affirm the sense of solidarity alluded to in the lyrics (“We've got our friends/We've got our music/and the promise of a sunrise to get us through the night”). The crowning touch is the accompaniment by the Rasa String Quartet – classical refinement and rustic banjo making for a fascinating, winning contrast.
“I love the string quartet as a genre, and all the textual elements it has,” says Scanlin. “Rasa has spent lots of time seeing how these elements can dovetail with other genres, say, Celtic or classic rock. So, it was fun to put string parts over an acoustic, contemporary folk song, and see what would happen. And I was very glad to involve them along with so many other people in the community I’m part of.
“I just have so much gratitude for all my musical buddies, and what they’ve brought to my life.”
Scanlin will be joined at her Club Passim concert by Conor Hearn, Adam Hendey (bouzouki) and Julian Pinelli (fiddle). For more about Scanlin, see her website at maurashawnscanlin.com.