Atlantic Canada has made a strong and wide-ranging contribution to Celtic music, especially in recent decades, what with performers like Natalie MacMaster of Cape Breton, Matthew Byrne of Newfoundland and, from Prince Edward Island, Vishten and now the young trio Ten Strings and a Goat Skin: brothers Rowen and Caleb Gallant on fiddle and percussion, respectively, and guitarist Jesse Périard, all in their early 20s. (The Gallants are nephews of Lennie Gallant, an award-winning singer-songwriter and musician.)
Formed during its members’ high school years, “TSAAGS” showcases PEI’s fascinating amalgam of traditions (among them Irish, Scottish, and French) in its own inimitable fashion, blending contemporary material that includes tunes and songs by the Gallants and Périard with centuries-old ballads and instrumentals – all delivered with a robust joie d’vivre and precision. The trio has taken its music well beyond PEI’s shores to Boston and elsewhere in the US, and overseas to events such as France’s Festival Interceltique de L’orient and England’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival, while releasing two albums, including last year’s “Auprès du Poêle.”
Last month saw Ten Strings and a Goat Skin embark on a brief tour of New England that included performances at Boston College’s Gaelic Roots series and The Burren Backroom (their second visit there). During a pause in their travels, Rowen Gallant reflected on the band’s growth and its ties to PEI culture and tradition.
Boston, and other areas of New England, have longstanding ties to Atlantic Canada – places where many natives from, say, Nova Scotia as well as PEI have settled. When it comes to Celtic music, how does Boston and New England fit in?
Gallant: I, like lots of other musicians from our part of the world, have always seen Boston as a big traditional music hub, with an incredibly deep-rooted history. To know you’re playing in a community that is studded with such a distinctive historical influence is very exciting.
We certainly recognize that traditional Irish music forms a big part of the Celtic music scene in Boston. But the last time we played at The Burren, although there were a lot of trad fans there, they were mainly interested in Acadian and Cape Breton music. We also found a group of people interested in Quebecois music. So there’s quite a diversity of tastes and interests in and around Boston.
During your performances, you often talk about historical and cultural aspects of PEI. Do you feel it’s incumbent upon you to serve as sort of “cultural ambassadors” as well as musicians?
Gallant: I don’t think we feel obligated, really. It’s a couple of things. In some ways, we’re trying to find our place in the tradition, so talking about PEI helps us to connect with the history, with our roots. At the same time, there may be a lot of people in the audience who aren’t familiar with PEI, so hopefully, through our words as well as our music, they can envision themselves in that history. Most of all, we just want everyone to know the qualities that make PEI such a special place.
Growing up, was traditional music a big presence in your household?
Gallant: Where Caleb and I are concerned, you wouldn’t consider our family to be super-trad. On our mom’s side, they liked singing, but as something personal, and festive. On the other side, you can find more of an involvement in traditional music, like playing fiddle and pipes – but again, more for personal enjoyment. Our only professional influence was our uncle, of course, and he obviously followed a somewhat different musical path. So we’re not first-generation traditional musicians, but the first to really take the music onto ourselves and make it the focus of our lives.
How did it all start?
Gallant: Our parents had no agenda; they just thought music would be something we could enjoy. I started fiddling at age 6, just like my grandpa did, and took lessons from Kim Vincent – who taught a lot of people in PEI – and just kept going on. Caleb started with the bodhran, but his musical development was less planned – they just put it into his hands, and he went with it, never took a lesson. He did eventually get involved with a local bagpipe and drum corps, so that was an important part of his musical activity. And we’d go with our mom to some Scottish and Irish sessions.
For Jesse, it was something similar: His parents offered him guitar lessons, and he really took to it. When Caleb and I met him in school, playing traditional music just seemed a natural thing to do for where we were at the time. But at the same time, we didn’t see ourselves as tied to any one tradition in particular.
And PEI has so many traditions and influences anyway.
Gallant: Yes, there’s Irish, Scottish, English, but also Acadian and French. Everyone gets along, so there is a lot of tune and song-sharing among those different communities. You do get groups that are dedicated to preserving a certain tradition, but it’s not all that common. Diversity is the real beauty of PEI.
And there are other kinds of music as well, which is part of our sound. The rock/indie stuff comes more from Jesse: He was in a performing arts program in college, and he picked up a lot of ideas and influences. Everyone agrees that he’s not the same musician he was a few years ago, because he’s been incorporating elements of that other music into his backing, like using effects pedals with the guitar. So that’s taken our music in a different direction – different than what Caleb and I might have envisioned, but with lots of possibilities.
Your newest album, “Auprès du Poêle,” reflects that direction. What went into making it?
Gallant: Well, it’s natural to want to record – you’re interested in flexing your musical muscles. I think with our first album we were playing it somewhat safe, but this last one is where the outcome was the closest to where we are as a band. I’d say it’s more “adult.” We try to be fun, not take ourselves too seriously, but you know there’s a self-respect that comes with age – did I really just say that?
Fortunately, we were able to work with Leonard Podolak, a member of The Duhks, which is one of Canada’s best roots bands. As producer, he had some really great advice and ideas, and they fit in very well with our mindset. And in fact, we got The Duhks to join us on the last track (“Duhk Duhk Goat”).
We weren’t looking to go 60 mph on this album, but to experiment with texture, pacing and motifs, explore our different capacities. Energy is definitely central to us, but you need to find balance – you need to push the creative side.
What’s an example of that on the album?
Gallant: I think the title track is the most important one. The song is based on a little poem that Caleb wrote. It talks about home, about community, surviving the long winter, relying on neighbors – a lot of things close to the heart, mixed with some entertaining musical decisions. So even as we were recording in Quebec, we were able to tap into this connection to PEI. It’s just a neat little package of what we’re about.
Here you are, all in your early 20s, and you’re already veterans as touring performers. What kind of perspective has this given you?
Gallant: There’s definitely been a transition over time for us, musically and personally, and it’s incremental. There are these pivotal moments that come along, and so what follows afterwards becomes the new average. We had one concert in Shrewsbury where Jesse broke a string in the middle of a set, and where, right before we were about to start a song, my bow just came right apart. Maybe a few years ago, that sort of thing really throws you for a loop. It wasn’t the best performance we’ve ever done, but we just did everything we could to keep the energy going – Jesse put on another string while I kept playing along with Caleb; I picked up my other bow and we continued on. And later that same festival, we did another concert that was one of our best. So somewhere along the way we must’ve learned something.
It’s been an interesting, interesting experience. We’re kind of in a weird position, because we started very young, so this vocation has really colored who and what we are. And I think it’s for the better. There are trade-offs – we lost out on some parts of our youth. But the experiences, and I’m not even just talking about the successes, have been world-forming. I think we’re very pleased with the direction we’re going.
Find out more about Ten Strings and a Goat Skin at tenstringsandagoatskin.com.