Well. OK, then. In the midst of all this South By Southwest stuff – as well as an open mic we are holding at 200 East on Friday – the Americana Fest is set to go down this weekend at the Weinberg Center. And we, believe it or not, have actually talked to pretty much all the artists set to perform (yet not Keller Williams; he’s simply too good). This week, then, we’ll be running Q’s & A’s with the ones we were lucky enough to speak with. First up is Edna Scahill of Irish folksters We Banjo 3. Among the things we discussed were what broke the band in America, what it’s like to play with the Chieftans, and, of course, what makes a great We Banjo 3 show come together. Oh, and there’s also this that he said:
Our tour is supported by Culture Ireland, a government scheme designed to support the dissemination of Irish culture and heritage across the globe. Our March tour is part of a special Culture Ireland International Program for 2016: I am Ireland.
So, there’s that. They’ll be taking the stage Saturday night. You won’t want to miss it.
Can you take us back to how the band came together? You guys are awfully esteemed, and very accomplished – what drew you to bluegrass/Americana music in the first place
We play a mix of Irish, folk, bluegrass, and Americana music with a modern twist. It’s fun music and accessible to everyone. There is something for everyone in a We Banjo 3 show. The band started five years ago. I really wanted to explore the heritage and sounds of the banjo, particularly as its journey into folk music and Irish music is so fascinating and so different to other folk instruments. I also wanted a band that was completely different to all other Irish bands on the go at the time. 3 banjos was a mad enough idea, but the response to it was immense, selling out our first ever gig in the Roisin Dubh in Galway. People love the banjo! It is impossible to play banjo without having a mindful ear to its roots in American folk music. The music of Americana, Old Time and Bluegrass is very closely linked to Irish music, and this coupled with the opportunity to tour and perform in the southern states piqued my interest in all things Americana.
Your website says you recorded with Ricky Skaggs and you were a guest with the Chieftains – what are some of your favorite collaborations to date? Playing with the Chieftains sounds like it would be a dream come true.
The opportunity to record with Ricky Skaggs was a truly unbelievable experience. The recording also featured Bluegrass legends Bryan Sutton and Aubrey Haynie. My musical mind was truly blown! The Chieftains are singularly the most successful, long-lived band in Irish folk music. Performing with them was an honor. As We Banjo 3, we’ve had the joy of collaborating with some incredible musicians – we’ve performed live with Mumford & Sons in Ireland, with Ross Holmes and Matt Menafee, and last summer we played a killer set with Eileen Ivers (former Riverdance fiddler) at Milwaukee Irish Fest – a gig that many have attested was the highlight of 35 years of the festival!
At what point did you guys start coming to America to perform? And how did you break through initially?
Our first concert in the U.S. was at Milwaukee Irish Festival in 2012. We had been a three-piece up until that time and had sold out two Irish tours back to back. We knew that we had reached the maximum sound of the band quite quickly and that we needed another musician to really make an impact at a festival like Milwaukee. Thankfully, we absolutely blew up at that festival and we quickly became festival favorites across the U.S. We’re now the biggest Irish touring band in America.
What are some differences between the audiences in Ireland, the audiences in the States, and, of course, audiences in the UK? Do you prefer one to any of the others and why?
We require one thing from our audiences: Let go and enjoy yourselves. To that end, all audiences are largely the same – they have come to be entertained. Our shows are energetic and uplifting, yet there are quieter, more sensitive aspects. We try to offer something for everyone there, to see people smile, laugh and even cry with us. Dancing, foot-stomping and clapping is highly encouraged. Our music is fun. When we started the band we made a pact that we would enjoy what we do and do it for that reason. We love to experiment with different styles, ideas and influences to create something that people haven’t heard before but will be hooked from the first note. There’s a lot of energy and passion in Irish music, we harness that while exploring the subtleties and earthiness of folk music.
Who are some of your major influences and why?
The answer to this question changes all the time. I’m constantly listening to different music and my inspiration is is a journey that hopefully will never change. As a teenager, I could have said Pink Floyd but you might never guess that now. These days, it’s artists like Sarah Jarosz, Punch Brothers and Steel Drivers. We’ve just finished recording a new album and I spent a lot of time trying to inhabit an Abigail Washburn style of banjo sound.
Are there artists out there right now, who you can’t get enough of? Who should we know about who might not already be on our radar?
I absolutely love Sarah Jarosz’s sound. There’s a brilliant new Irish vocal group called The Evertides who I really like listening to. I’m a big fan of Iron & Wine and Sam Amidon. Also, the Barr Brothers
Have you guys, by chance, ever been to Frederick, Maryland, or the surrounding area (Baltimore, D.C.)? If not, are there things you’re looking forward to checking out?
Yes, we played The Weinberg Center this time last year and absolutely loved it. Touring and being on the road doesn’t leave much time for sight-seeing. For some reason in America they decided to put everything very far apart, so we spend lots of time in the van!
You’ve written a share of books, I see – which do you prefer more when it comes to the banjo: Performing it or writing about it?
Performing! I’ve yet to meet a writer of any description who hasn’t almost died from finishing a book. My two nearly killed me; you’d think I’d have learned the first time! I’m very very passionate about the banjo. It is quite a difficult instrument to master and years of teaching demonstrate to me that poor technique is a massive barrier to effective playing. I spent a long time developing the first-ever pedagogical method for Irish banjo. It’s simple, effective and, when applied with care, really works. I’ve had so much wonderful positive feedback from all over the world from people using my books that it was worth the labor.
Is there anyone out there who you haven’t collaborated with, who you’d like to work with someday? Why?
Dream scenario? Bruce Springsteen. What a showman. His ongoing love for his craft is such an inspiration. I’m pretty sure we could do an amazing version of “Old Dan Tucker!”
And, of course, what can we expect from your set at the Americana Festival here in Frederick?
A good gig is what happens when the audience meets you half way and runs off into the wilderness with you. We ask people to come in, relax and enjoy themselves. How relaxing can stamping your feet, clapping your hands and dancing be? Its like yoga – you let go of whatever is outside that room and become present in the right now. When people do that, we feel it too. A show is the most intimate connection between artist and observer.