Eileen Ivers called me from the west of Ireland, an hour from the summer home where she and her family spend their holidays. Both her parents were born here, she told me, in County Mayo, a jagged plateau bordered by the Atlantic Ocean.
Her parents maintained those Celtic roots when they immigrated to America, introducing their daughters to step dancing and the Irish fiddle. Ivers latched onto the latter, eventually becoming one of the most well-known fiddlers in America. She’s performed with Sting, Hall & Oates and Patti Smith. She won a Grammy and played on the soundtrack for “Gangs of New York.” She was one of the original fiddlers for Riverdance when the troupe launched in the mid-1990s. She’s also dug deep into the roots of Irish music and its connection to other American genres.
Before her Saturday appearance at the Weinberg Center for the Arts, Ivers chatted with us about the history of her instrument and her evolution from mathematician to full-time musician.
You mentioned you were in Ireland, so I was wondering if those Gaelic roots were the reason you got involved with fiddling at such a young age?
Ivers: You’re right about that. As you mentioned, my parents are both from the west of Ireland. They came to America in the 1950s. And like so many immigrants of their generation, they wanted to instill in their children — my sister and I — a sense of our Irish heritage. So, I tried Irish step dancing for about two weeks and was absolutely horrible. Then, thankfully, I switched over to fiddle, which I always really wanted to play. An aunt of mine actually remembers that when I was about 3 years old, I had a pink plastic guitar and a wooden spoon and I would go around the house playing air fiddle. So, I think I had it in my DNA from a young age. It was actually very fortunate. We had a great teacher in the Bronx, where I grew up, and he taught a lot of the kids to play Irish fiddle back then. It was just a great, great upbringing.
As an aside, my father used to work for an airline. So every summer, we’d come back to right where we are as I’m speaking to you, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean here in the west of Ireland. It was a beautiful childhood, and we were lucky to be on both sides of the pond, as they say.
I think a lot of people are familiar with the sound of Celtic music, but what distinguishes the Irish fiddle from the regular violin?
Ivers: Great question. A few differences, for sure. I love using the terms ‘violin’ and ‘fiddle’ interchangeably because I remember — I saw an interview one time with Itzhak Perlman [an Israeli-American violinist who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015] and he referred to his incredible instrument as a fiddle. I thought that was interesting. But the music is certainly different, even though we’ve been really fortunate to perform with symphony orchestras at times, as well.
Irish music and the Irish fiddle is grounded, obviously, in deep tradition. There’s a lot of emotion intertwined in there, and a large portion of the music is dance music. Rhythmically based. There’s a lot of joy in the inherent quality of the music. But then, you tap into deep emotions and cathartic airs that might reflect a certain time in Irish history, like the Great Famine. When we perform, I love to show that side of the culture, as well, because it’s a huge part of it. So, in short, I think it’s very emotional. It’s very interactive. People, I think, tend to gravitate towards it because it is such an honest, raw form of music. And yet, at the same time, it’s very highly virtuosic and takes skill to perform at a high level. It’s something that really touches people’s hearts.
When, for you, did it reach the point where you thought, ‘Well, this could be a profession for me’?
Ivers: It took a while. My parents certainly didn’t advocate for me to have a career in the music industry. I think that they — not having the opportunity to have higher education — they really wanted my sister and I to gravitate towards that. So, I never really dreamt of it, to be quite honest. I always thought it would be a passion on the side. I went to college and I studied math, did post-grad work in mathematics, but I always played the music and traveled with a lot of different bands. I never really had that day gig, ever. I just always played music.
I was really enjoying it, and it truly became a passion as I realized that I was touching people’s lives as I toured. It became something where I thought, ‘Well, I should really have a look at this. And it was really after performing with Riverdance for three years when I realized, you know, that I was in the thick of it, at that point. That’s when I really embraced the career.
How did you get your job with Riverdance?
Ivers: Well, the composer of the show was a gentleman named Bill Whelan. He knew of me, and I met him in New York. I was working with Bill on the music for a Broadway play at the time, which was based on Leon Uris’ ‘Trinity.’ An incredible book. So, I was in the studio with Bill, and — long story short — I think that when the opportunity came up for this violin role in Riverdance, Bill really advocated for me. I kind of jumped into the role around the beginning of the show. There was actually a different fiddle player for the first one in Dublin, but when it came to London, she could no longer do the role. So, that’s when I joined — when it debuted in London, back in June of 1995.
I would imagine that in the U.S., at least, the circle of pro Irish fiddlers is rather small. So, I was wondering if any other unexpected professional opportunities have popped up for you throughout your career, just because someone was looking for this specialty instrument.
Ivers: Absolutely, they did. And the thing was, I never looked at myself as just an Irish fiddler. Even our show now — it’s based in Irish music, but it’s so much more. It crosses over to other forms that extend from Celtic music. Americana, bluegrass, Appalachian. Cajun music. That music is so related to Celtic roots, African roots. I started to see that as a young person in my 20s. I would often listen to a lot of live performers playing jazz and blues and rock in New York City, and I really quickly understood that this instrument could be played in a lot of different forms and styles of music.
So, I started to play with some pop groups like Hall & Oates. I worked with Patti Smith — the great punk icon — on her recording. Sting called me at one point and I did something with him. It was great to cross over from being a fiddler raised in the Irish tradition to, really, just being a musician.
You mentioned looking into the roots of Irish music and how it impacted so many other forms, from bluegrass to Appalachian. And I was wondering if you were surprised by anything you learned about how Irish music — and the Irish fiddle – has influenced other genres?
Ivers: You know, I was probably more surprised by some of the historical reasons for it. I always knew how they were connected, musically. But the last record we did was called ‘Beyond the Bog Road,’ and I had 16 pages full of liner notes and really dug deep into the history. And one quick fact, for example, would be that when the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1849 was occurring, the Choctaw Nation were going through their own Trail of Tears in America at the time. But they heard of the Irish people’s plight and they actually sent $170 to the people here. It just shocked me. I didn’t know that at the time, how really connected our countries were, even back then. I found that very touching. And of course, the Choctaw were going through their own horrible trials with the Trail of Tears. So, it was interesting, that fact that came up to the surface.
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