Heatons offer music ‘as a conversation’

Local launch of ‘Tell You in Earnest,’ at The Burren May 14
When you’ve been a musical duo, and a couple, for as long as Matt and Shannon Heaton – and we’re talking well into the second decade – you tend to know when you’re onto something good.
So a couple of years ago, the Heatons – one of Boston’s most popular and high-profile Irish music acts – saw a common thread in the newest batch of songs they’d been putting together in anticipation of recording their next album. “They really had a strong quality of dialogue between characters,” says Shannon. “It’s not that we haven’t had those kind of songs in our repertoire before, but as we looked at the material we’d been working on, we got excited about bringing a focus to this new album: the idea of music as a conversation.”

That idea has now been realized, after an odyssey that included the Heatons’ first foray into home-based recording, a crowd-sourcing campaign, and a special trip to Thailand that served as the project’s official public launch. The Boston-area release concert for the 10-track CD, “Tell You in Earnest,” will take place May 14 at The Burren in Somerville’s Davis Square.
Creating a so-called concept album is nothing new for the Heatons: “Fine Winter’s Night” (2007) was a collection of Christmas/winter season music, while love and romance was the governing theme of “Lover’s Well” (2009). But the experience of planning and recording “Tell You in Earnest” represented a unique set of challenges, opportunities, and milestones for the couple, who drew on unlikely past influences to continue what has become a fascinating trajectory across the Irish/traditional music universe.
The result is a blend of some recognizable elements of the Heaton oeuvre with others that show their continued interest in going beyond their earlier body of work. In addition to ballads steeped in the Irish/British Isles folk tradition, “Tell You in Earnest” contains a traditional Thai song, a Matt Heaton original, and a cover of folk-rocker Richard Thompson’s motorcycle-and-leather tragedy “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Meanwhile, electric guitars and gimmickry occasionally peek out amidst Shannon’s flute, whistle, and accordion, and Matt’s acoustic guitar, bouzouki and bodhran, along with cameos by Mike Block (cello), Jared Seabrook (snare drum), and Liz Simmons (harmony vocals).
“I think there was a time when we probably wouldn’t have done some of the things we did on this CD,” says Shannon. “We felt particularly conscious about honoring our listeners, honoring the tradition, and not wanting to appear too flip or casual about the music we were playing. So, back then we might’ve second-guessed doing a Thai song, or adding electronics.
“We love the ‘pure drop’ in traditional music – always will. But we’re comfortable enough now, in our musical and personal lives, where we can push out a little. Actually, even as we are going forward, we are returning to our roots: Matt was a rocker in his teens, I was playing Thai music in my teens. It’s nice to be able to incorporate those aspects of ourselves into what we do.”
“You get to a point where you can’t please everyone, anyway,” says Matt. “Irish music is rife with endless discussions about what is, and isn’t, appropriate – and, honestly, I want nothing to do with those discussions. I’m not a preservationist; I feel the pure traditional music is strong and well-established enough so that it won’t crumble if we push the boundaries a little.”
But for all the envelope-nudging, “Tell You in Earnest” has plenty of solid trad credentials and storylines: “The Cruel Salt Sea,” with nasty boyfriend, quick-thinking girlfriend, and a loquacious parrot; the against-all-odds romance of “Gallant Hussar”; the chilling family dynamics in “Edwin of the Lowlands Low” (accentuated by various manipulations of Matt’s electric guitar); and love and steadfastness rewarded in “Her Mantle So Green.”
Rather than focus strictly on the narrative, however, the Heatons invite you to consider the words that pass between the main characters in each song. As Shannon puts it, “Who’s talking to whom, what they seem to be saying – what they might actually be saying – and how it all fits into the human experience.”
“Mrs. McGrath” stands out as one of the more intriguing tracks on the album – intriguing as much for how it wound up there as for the treatment it’s given. The song (also known in some versions as “My Son John” or “My Son Ted”), which revolves around a young soldier’s return home as a double amputee after fighting against Napoleon in the Peninsular War, came to public attention largely through the likes of the Clancy Brothers. In most settings, it comes across as a rabble-rousing, angry diatribe against war, and, by extension, the British for recruiting Irishmen into their battles.
Matt, however, was largely unfamiliar with the song, and when he found it in a text and looked at the lyrics he saw other, equally compelling sentiments displayed. And he devised a slowed-down, more quiescent arrangement that tamps down the fervor of other versions, but doesn’t diminish the song’s emotional power; capping it off is a march composed by Matt that he plays on guitar to the accompaniment of a snare drum, evoking the song’s martial character but not in a heavy-handed way.
“When I first came upon it, I thought ‘How sad this is,’ ” says Matt. “Even with that ‘too-rye-ah’ chorus, I just felt there was an incredible sadness in the words, and I wanted the arrangement to convey that. Doing a good cover of a song, I think, means doing something different that defies expectations, and a really good song can withstand a number of interpretations.”
Says Shannon, who had heard more strident versions of the song, “When Matt first brought ‘Mrs. McGrath’ up, I was not convinced – there were all these associations with it, like the war theme, I found hard to shake. Matt rarely fights for a song, but he fought for this one, and ultimately I understood what he was getting at. When you look at the words closely, you’ll see a lot of things going on. There’s the issue of parents needing to have pride in their kids going off to fight, for example; and there is the totality of loss, where death is not the only possible outcome – so is mutilation and disfigurement, which is devastating in its own way. So the dialogue in this song, really, is between mother and son over what they have lost.”
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was another of Matt’s suggestions that survived Shannon’s initial reluctance to make the cut. Richard Thompson’s songs are renowned for dark humor and characters who are on the wrong side of something – life, love, society, sometimes all three – but also are often marked by surprising bursts of introspection and vulnerability, and above all, clever writing. So it is with “1952 Vincent,” a four-verse love story of a bad-boy biker and the girl of his dreams (“I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems/Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme”). Their love is doomed, of course, and the finale is festooned with typical Thompsonian flair: “I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/Swooping down from heaven to carry me home.”
“I’ve been singing ‘1952 Vincent’ for a long time, and really love it – I realized how well it fit the criteria we had for a conversation,” says Matt. “Once we decided to include it, the question was how to do it differently, not only from Richard’s original but the cover versions – bluegrass, Celtic, and so on.”
“It’s a tender, and tragic, love story, and there’s a certain drama to it that we wanted to play up,” says Shannon.
The Heatons’ solution was to introduce some pacing alongside their accordion and bouzouki accompaniment: The first two verses are at a slow, jig-like jaunt, then the tempo and time signature take on the driving velocity of the original (Shannon underscores this by playing the original’s distinctive riff), Matt and Shannon’s vocal harmony on the final verse evoking all the exhilaration of a high-speed tear on the open road, before reverting to the ambling 6/8 pace as the curtain comes down.
“Easy Come, Easy Go” is yet another Matt contribution, although the impetus for it actually came from Shannon: “We were actively trying to strike a balance in the subject matter, moods, tempo, etc., of the song selections,” she explains. “So, I said, ‘Hey, we need something that’s more modal, driving, American-sounding and light. Go to it, Matt.’”
Recalls Matt (no stranger to songwriting, by the way, having penned a few for previous Heaton albums), “Yeah, I made the mistake of saying, ‘How about a funny kind of song?’ And Shannon says, ‘OK, you come up with one.’ And after I put on a blank stare for a while, I tried to think of something.”
The song he wound up writing plays farcically on the cross-dressing/gender-disguise folk ballad genre a la “The Female Drummer” or “William Taylor,” only with a twist – and then another at the very end. “To be honest, the whole cross-dressing device in folk songs seemed pretty silly to me: I mean, can you really not tell when a girl dresses up as a sailor? So I thought, well, what if more than one person in the song did it?”
“Mon Rak Dawk Kam Tai” represents Shannon’s longstanding love for the music and culture of Thailand, where she spent a significant amount of time in her youth. Recent years have seen her integrating more of it into the Heatons’ music – she also sang a Thai song on the “Lover’s Well” album, and contributed a Thai tune to the aforementioned “Easy Come, Easy Go.” She describes “Mon Rak Dawk Kam Tai” as “a very romantic dialogue between two young people about how they love each other. I knew it would really fit the bill – the tonality of it is so Irish.” The arrangement is marked by Matt’s playing “a northeast Thai pop guitar style,” and a sweetly affecting cello accompaniment from Block.
“When we ask a special guest to record with us, we have a particular vibe in mind,” says Shannon of Block, who has worked in classical (with Yo-Yo Ma, among others) and folk idioms. “We wanted an Asian string sound, and Mike has a great ability to mix East and West. He brings a powerful, bassy sound to ‘Her Mantle So Green,’ and really helps drive it along.”
The Heatons also laud the touches by Seabrook (on “Mon Rak Dawk Kam Tai” as well as “Mrs. McGrath”) and Simmons on “Gallant Hussar.” “We wanted a beautiful harmony on ‘Hussar,’ one that could stand on its own, and Liz has this distinct, adventurous style; we knew she would get it, and she did.”
What also distinguished the experience of making this album was that the Heatons were able to record it on their home, which took away the necessity having to put aside time and money to book a studio – not to mention arrange care for their young son, Nigel, born the year after “Lover’s Well.” As Shannon notes, “Instead of blocking off, say, a whole day to travel to a studio and do some recording, we could fit in an hour here and there. Sometimes that meant having to go from zero to 60 – ‘OK, Nigel’s asleep, let’s get in a few takes’ – but overall there was a lot less pressure.”
Moreover, having an in-house studio afforded both of them the opportunity to broaden their skill set, Matt says. “There were a couple of times when Shannon had to do some engineering and production work, and she did a fantastic job. It was interesting to see her express her great musical ideas in a different way.”
Even as the Heatons were working on the CD, they were organizing a crowd-sourcing campaign via Indiegogo to fund a trip in February to Thailand, where they presented concerts and helped raise money to support music and dance programs at a Bangkok home for impoverished children. It wasn’t the first time the Heatons had been to Thailand, but this visit allowed Shannon to reconnect with some of her teachers and mentors in a special way.
“What I loved about learning to play Thai music was that we would play for funerals, or weddings, or other occasions, and then we would hang out, talk, jam – just like we do here, in the Irish music community,” she says. “So, being able to go back to Thailand, and tell my friends ‘Matt and I are making this music, and I am who I am today, because I was here and you helped me to see what playing traditional music is all about’ – that was one of my top five life moments.”
In fact, Shannon says, during her own career she has sought to teach, mentor and encourage others – especially young musicians – to find the joy and satisfaction of playing traditional music. Appropriately enough, at the Burren concert this month and a few other upcoming dates, the Heatons plan to invite one or two budding musicians up for a guest appearance. [The concert also will feature a performance by the trio of Laurel Martin, Mark Roberts and Kieran Jordan.]
“Being able to bring the CD to Thailand was a wonderful experience,” says Shannon, “but obviously, our life is in Boston, and we look forward to sharing this music with our community here.”
For more on the May 14 Heatons’ concert, go to The Burren website at burren.com.