Five Questions for Dana Lyn

When Mick Moloney and friends take the stage (or altar) at the annual benefit concert for St. Malachy’s School, Dana Lyn usually is one of the guests. There’s no one sitting up there who isn’t gifted, but Lyn’s gifts are pretty interesting.

She’s classically trained, with a degree in violin performance from Oberlin. At some point, one of her numerous online bios says, she “took a left turn” and was drawn to Irish music. The reality, though, is that her career has taken, and continues to take, many turns.

Her own MySpace bio is mind-blowing: She’s played Carnegie Hall. She was cast as an onstage musician in the Public theatre’s production of “Hamlet.” She focuses on string arranging and composition. Her musical associations include The Green Fields of America, Dionne Werewolf, Bach Reformed and the Yeti String Quartet. And I could go on and on, but I invite you to read the whole thing for yourself:

Another one of those bios notes that “Dana was born in Los Angeles in 1974 to Taiwanese parents.” Lyn is one more of those non-Irish who has fallen head over heels for Irish music, enriching the tradition in ways that the old guys back in Clare and Sligo never could have predicted. (Pretty sure they’d like it, though.)

Dana Lyn is one very busy musician, but we managed to snag her for a quick five questions. Here’s what she had to say.

Q. How did you come to be in a Pogues cover band, and how did that influence your interest in Irish music?

A. I was in a Pogues cover band in college. We played once a year, at St. Patrick’s Day. We thought it was a good idea to put a few instrumentals in the set, so we learned a few sets off an Altan record and that got me started. More importantly, Miles Krassen was the Judaic Studies professor at my college; he edited a version of O’Neills and is a fiddle player. He introduced me to recordings of Michael Coleman.

Q. You’re certainly not the only non-Irish musician to play Irish music. What is there about Irish music, do you think, that speaks to people from a non-Irish background?

A. That is a difficult question to answer if you’re speaking about the music itself, as an abstract, or a group of notes played in a certain way. Generally, I am attracted to music that either challenges or comforts. I know that I was attracted to Irish music largely because the context in which it is played was so different from the musical context I had grown up with; it was informal, community-based, and relaxed. Also I was intrigued by listening to music played on my instrument in such a different way than I was used to.

Q. Once you discovered this interest, how hard was it to get into the scene?

A. I never really thought about getting into a “scene.” All I wanted to do was listen to the music and learn tunes. So I went wherever there was a session, and lurked about, really; listening most of the time, especially in the first few years.

Q. Who did you study with, and did you spend a lot of time honing your skill in sessions?

A. I didn’t study with anyone. I listened to a lot of records—everything I could get my hands on, and a lot of field recordings and tapes of sessions. I spent a lot of time at home practicing and analyzing the recordings I liked the most. I spent a lot of time at sessions, of course, but in terms of ‘honing skills’ and learning—it was more about practicing at home in a quiet space, and playing with a few people whose music I loved.

Q. You have a degree in violin performance, you have a classical background … and you play Irish music. How unusual is that kind of musical cross-pollination, really?

A. I suppose people find it unusual—or perhaps impractical—that I decided to delve so deeply into Irish music after having spent so many years playing classical music. I like playing ‘art’ music and I also like to play ‘folk’ music, both for different reasons. I don’t think I would be musically fulfilled if I did just one or the other. It makes a lot of sense to me, and life is too short to just limit yourself to one way of doing things.

Q. You’ve been involved in other projects outside of the classical. I’ve known classical musicians who have always and only played classical. How do you explain your diverse musical interests?

A. My childhood hero was Ludwig van Beethoven, because he played the piano, the violin, and the viola, and was a conductor, an improviser, and of course a composer. It makes sense to me that to experience music fully, and to be a musician (which is all I have ever wanted to be), one would have to know it from all angles. So…. I play the piano, the violin, the viola; I play classical music, I play traditional Irish music, I back singer-songwriters, I work as a string arranger, I can improvise, and I spend a lot of time writing (and erasing) music. Maybe I have ADD or something. Probably.

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