American Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval is world renowned for his unique approach to traditional Scottish music by adding virtuosity and a contemporary ear to ancient reels or jigs. Laval will be performing in Western Massachusetts on Sunday, May 13 at the Parlor Room in Northampton. Laval spoke with Valley Advocate staff writer Chris Goudreau about his passion for Celtic music, performing on a Dave Matthews record, and getting to play fiddle for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.
Chris Goudreau: What led you to get involved with Celtic fiddle music?
Jamie Laval: I’ve always done both Celtic folk music and Classical from the get go, but it was just that the Celtic folk music was something I did on the side because I liked it a lot. I really didn’t see it as a career path and so I continued in the Classical studies because there is a known way of making a living playing in orchestras and so forth. Typically, I would play my symphony gig and then charge out of the concert hall and throw off the white tie and tails and dress down to jeans and T-shirt and charge off to the dance sessions where I’d stay into the wee hours of the morning. That was my passion.
About 15 years ago, I started developing my own style of fiddle music. It’s definitely Scottish and Irish, but I have my own sound and therefore I started getting more and more engagements doing that … Little by little, as I started getting more recognition for the Celtic music, it just made sense to drop the Classical all together. Life is short, so you need to follow your passion.
Chris: Why are you really passionate about Celtic music?
Jamie: Really, the mood and the atmosphere. The sounds of the ancient Celtic world kind [evokes] misty shores and mountains and sort of rainy skies. The other part of it is that it’s very rhythm oriented. Classical music has rhythm, but it’s more about the actual lyrical quality. Celtic music is based in village dance because that’s what people had for entertainment for hundreds of years – just dancing really … Their whole culture evolved out of village dancing and folk dance. Even today, the Celtic concept is very rhythmic and that appeals to me because I’ve always liked this very strong body movement and strong ostinato rhythm. It can be tender. It can be poignant and express lots of emotions, both exuberant and melancholy, but it still has this perpetual rhythm like a heartbeat.
Chris: Who are some fiddlers who’ve influenced the way you play?
Jamie: To tell you the truth, I’ve been influenced more by famous bagpipe players. There are a few really good fiddlers out there and I’ve been told that I’m like Scottish [music] version of [Irish fiddler] Martin Hayes. He plays very expressively; just tons of passion and emotion and delicacy. For that reason, people tend to notice that I do a similar approach using Scottish tunes.
Bagpipes were kind of like the electric guitar. For centuries, it was the principle instrument. A great bagpiper got all the chicks [laughs]. Bagpipers were it.
Chris: Could you tell me about your most recent record, “Murmurs and Drones”? I’m curious to hear about what the process was like recording that.
Jamie: The inspiration as you might guess from the name — it comes from the drones of the bagpipes. The droning bagpipes is kind of like the acoustic floor that is the bedrock for the melody to sit upon. To me, that kind of has an analog with nature. You hear this drone and murmuring of the bees and fluttering leaves and the sea pounding against the shore and the wind across the heather. There’s this kind of bass sound in nature that’s just sort of always there when your out in the highlands or in wild spaces.
So then, you think of a melody and that sits kind of as a counterpoint to that drone … I have some original selections that are inspired by the bagpipes and then other selections are actually drawn straight from very ancient bagpipe material. The authors of the melodies are lost in the mists of time.
Chris: I saw that you performed on Dave Matthews’ record “Some Devil”. What was that experience like for you?
Jamie: That was really great because I have a background in a lot of different styles of music and can fairly easily morph from one to another. I’m spending most of my time in Celtic music by choice rather than just having that as the only thing I do. Once in a while, when I do get called to do something else I really enjoy it because it explores different skills.
I happened to be living in Seattle at the time and that’s where Dave Matthews has based his career. I’m among the top session musicians in Seattle and that’s how I got the call from Dave. I hadn’t known him previously, but he needed some string backing tracks for the album. I was on the call list and the working experience was great. He’s just such a normal, down-to-earth, intelligent, sweet person. It was really easy to work with him. He was there listening to each take and making observations.
Chris: I saw that you performed for Queen Elizabeth II. That must of been a surreal experience, just to be playing for the Queen of England?
Jamie: It did make for a break in the normal routine, that’s for sure [laughs]. There was so much pomp and circumstance and security and media hype that the actual music felt a little inconsequential. It was actually more like a normal job or a gig rather than this special honor. It’s not like I got to hang out with the Queen and chum it up. I shook her hand and she acknowledge my performance.
I was the after dinner performance at a big schwanky [event]. The Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia was welcoming her to Canada and I was in Canada at the time. So, they provided this big dinner with speeches and all that and I was the after dinner floor show. So, I just did a short set, about 30 minutes. It was definitely fun and interesting. People ask me about it all the time, but I can’t really say it changed my life [laughs].