How it’s New York: Seán Heely performs in the Tri-State area and the East Coast
How it’s Irish: He plays Irish and Scottish styles, and plays with irish musicians.
A version of this article was first published in Irish Music Magazine, August 2018.
A young Seán Heely, just 10, fell in love with Scottish music when his aunt took him to the Highland Games (She was in a pipe band). He took a few private lessons, mainly classical. He learned some Irish technique from his teacher.
But meeting Liz Carroll at the Acadia Trad School in Bar Harbor, Maine, a summer music camp, changed his life. He hadn’t really heard of Liz, he admitted, just picked her out of the catalogue. So he decided to look up a video of hers before he went. “It kind of blew my mind!” he said. He transcribed some of her tunes. When he went to the camp, Liz and he became friends, and a mentor to him.
That was five years ago: now, at 24, Heely has released his first CD, “Edge of the Bow.” He’s performed with Liz, with Scottish fiddler Pete Clark, virtuoso cellist Natalie Haas, and uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, according to his website, seanheely.com. He’s the 2016 Scottish Fiddle National Champion, and will compete in the All-Ireland this summer.
The image of Heely’s album shows a ship in the background: the title is wordplay on a fiddle bow, and a ship’s bow. The ship represents some of his background, growing up sailing in Virginia, and his interest in Maritime music. The edge and the double-sided bow represents his dual interest in Scottish and Irish music.
“And I feel like the album takes the listener on a journey. You’re going through Scotland, and you’re going through the 18th century, and then you come out near Cape Breton, and then you’re in Ireland, moving around the country,” said Heely.
The fiddler is often literally on a journey: though based in Washington, D.C., he runs a monthly session in Virginia. He is Artist in Residence at Strathmore Music Center in Maryland, and will present concerts and educational workshops there in Spring 2019.
Camps have been a big part of his life. He’s also been to the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina, and a camp on the Isle of Skye. Camps can be intimidating at first, he said, but “there are really legendary players there. They come out and you get to jam with them, play sessions with them, and that’s really special.” And learning tunes in a different environment, from the best, and seeing performances, is special. And the students are interesting too. “It builds community internationally, because a lot of the camp people come from all over the world.” Today, he is faculty at Acadia Trad School, as well as Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat, in West Virginia in January.
Six tunes on the 13 tracks (some tracks have multiple tunes) on the new CD are composed by Seán, who is the winner of the 2016 Scottish Fiddling Revival’s Tune writing competition. Liz Carroll inspired him to write, he said. “So many of her tunes are out in the world. She really encourages people to find their own compositional voice. For me it was really cool to write a tune in the Donegal vein, which is what ‘The Monarch of the Glencoe’ reminds me of. And ‘Not All There’ is more like a Scottish kind of reel.” Those two tunes are both on the first track, following the traditional tune “Òran an Ròin” (“The Seal’s Song”), from a Scottish Gaelic song from North Uist.
Close listeners might hear some of Carroll’s influence in his chord and key changes. Musicians playing with Seán on the album are Zan McLeod, formerly of Touchstone, on guitar and bouzouki; Kevin Elam on tenor banjo, whistles and keyboard; Ellen Gira on cello; Tracy Jenkins on Scottish border pipes; Abigail Selby on harp; Jim Stickley on bodhrán, and Ben Elkins on snare drum.
Seán plays bluegrass, gypsy swing and classical (he has a degree from University of South Carolina in Classical Violin Performance)—but he is in a kilt on his website. “I really like how there are so many different styles in Scotland, for the fiddle, from the 18th century, old music that’s all written down, easy to access. They have tunes written down from the 1600s. For anybody who’s classical, going forward, that’s very European-associated music.” And then the West Coast style is more rugged.
“You know, it’s like the pipes, and a lot of pipe ornaments, in a lot of tunes, and it’s super driving, and it’s fun to make your instrument make that sound,” he said. “I love the tunes that mimic the Gaelic language as well.”
“The Edge of the Bow” does take a musical journey: Robert Burns’ melodic “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” followed by Seán’s original reel “Journey to Glencoe Inn;” a set of reels called “The Donegal Connection;” and an Ed Reavy tune followed by Irish reels, including “Lucy Campbell’s.”
Seán does not sing any shanties on “Edge of the Bow,” but he does sing when he performs with Skylark. The three-person Celtic band that includes Zan McLeod on guitar and Elise Kress on flute and vocals.
And, he said with a laugh, “On the next one I’m going to do some songs.”