Audio, Audios, Music

“Scatter the Light”—An Interview with Fiddler Eileen Ivers

Premier Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers has released a stunning new album, “Scatter the Light.” We recently spoke with her about the album, the uplifting messages behind each of the tracks, and the uncanny timing of the album’s hopeful, empowering outlook.

Irish Philly: So what inspired you to compose this new album, Scattered the Light?

Eileen: Sort of various things. It came slowly, as an extension I think of even the last record I did, which was called “Beyond the Bog Road,” which really looked at Irish music and its journey, interacting with other roots elements and really forming the roots of Americana music and bluegrass and French Canadian. So it was a very in-depth record. And then after the record came out and all the research and just the touring with that, I started writing more in a certain vein and realized it was all sort of connected with this very upbeat, positive attitude. And I think also coming out of our joyful Christmas shows, I noticed that there was a wonderful sentiment that was happening when those shows would occur, which I loved. And I remember thinking to myself, why can’t this be carried through the year? This feeling of optimism and joy and really looking for those moments? And that’s when the penny dropped, so to speak.

And I felt, you know what, this is a way to connect the dots. And anytime I do a CD, I think I maybe sometimes overthink it because it does take me a little while between projects, but I think it’s such a major statement when you do release a brand-new piece of work like this because it doesn’t come lightly. And I really try to be very thoughtful about it. In short, it really was all of these tracks linking together in a very thematic way, which made sense, which made a statement. And therefore I did call it “Scatter the Light.”

Irish Philly: Well it’s funny that you should mention overthinking it. Because it didn’t come across that way. It really came across as more from the heart than from the head is if there was no conscious decision-making behind it at all, except that you’re going from your soul and your heart.

Eileen: Thank you. No, it’s funny, it really was happening in that way. But when you start to look at a collection of tunes in the body of work, then you, it’s funny, I realized, wow, there is this theme that ran through it, which is the thoughtful part I think of it. But the knee jerk reaction was interesting where I was just writing these tunes. It started with “Shine,” which is the lead track. And also feeling like I wanted those two gospely, faith-filled songs as part of this. And then these tunes just kept coming. “Road Trip.” very quickly. “Hold My Hand” came in a shot. It was literally looking at this picture—and again, heart took over and those words just came right out. And so it is interesting how music does come at different times in people’s lives and thankfully, this did all come and it’s a record I’m super proud of.Irish Philly: Well, you should be.

Eileen: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you.

Irish Philly: I wanted to know where the title came from. In some ways it sounds like physics.

Eileen: You know I’m a fan. And I’ve, like, a thousand math album titles as well. But it was a bit of physics and I loved the idea of light, and I was a math major back in my day, and physics and math always stayed with me. And yeah, it was very, I thought, poetic and yet grounded in the truth from the world of physics and math. So a bit of both.

Irish Philly: Well, what would you say that means?

Eileen: Well, it’s wonderful—just the idea that there is always light in the world physically, that’s a true statement. And even in the darkest places, there’s light that comes through the atmosphere that’s refracted and all of that. Of course, it’s scientifically proven and other than the black holes in the universe, that’s another story. But as far as our beautiful, fragile planet Earth, that is a wonderful statement, I think, to feel of which is a truth that there is always light penetrating. And I think then, on even parts of the mathematical and physical concept of that, I think the wonderful sort of internal faith that one might have in life, whether it’s an organized religion that you might be a part of or just faith in the good and the positive in that. As a practicing Catholic, that’s something I know I thankfully do rely on in my life is faith. And that is a light even in these darkest of times—what we’re in right now, we’re seeing light, we’re seeing goodness of so many people and selfless acts constantly and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. So it was a bit of that as well in there.

Irish Philly: How would you describe this music? I mean a lot of people are going to try to pin it down and I’m not sure you really can. It seems like Celtic but Celtic with a lot of other influences or something that really exists entirely on its own.

Eileen: Exactly, Jeff. And it’s funny, as you just asked that question earlier today, my husband Brian and I filling out a track-by-track listing that somebody had asked us to basically fill out, the genre and the sub-genre. And it’s doing my head in because I can’t think of music in those terms. Like is it alternative folk, is it Celtic World, what is this? And thankfully when I write or collaborate with folks, I don’t think, okay, let’s go for this, this genre or this attitude or whatever it is. It’s just music to me. It truly is.

But I mean, to your point, of course there’s always an underlying Celtic nature about it. I think what I feel, it’s in my heart and even poetically and lyrically, as I even wrote the record, there’s that wonderful Celtic Irish spirit that runs through it being life and death, and light and dark, and you go way back in Celtic and of course it’s in there very deeply throughout time. So I think no matter what, it is always going to be a touch of Celtic in there for sure. And proudly so. Yeah.

Irish Philly: The track “Wah Wah One” seems to push a lot of boundaries, for one, but on the one hand, underneath the surface, if you’re really listening, it sounds like a reel.

Eileen: Thank you. It is. Yeah.

Irish Philly: But on the other hand it’s something really different.

Eileen: Yeah. I guess I’m a bit biased, but I’m a big fan of the fiddle and what the violin can do. And I do a lot of looping live in concert and I do love breaking down the boundary of what people would think a violin can do. The fact that it can be very percussive with an octave pedal, you can make a bass line out of there. You can obviously create a guitar-like rhythm and then the melody that floats on top of it and you could add strings, you could add an improv and it just can go on and on and on. And it’s wonderful when that happens live. And that’s what made me think, you know what, I should record something like that. So it has its own life as a piece of music and it’s a fun one when you loop because you’re truly building on your own internal clock, which is kind of cool I think—of how the rhythm lies and how you respond to what’s been down there because you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Irish Philly: You’ve been pushing a lot of boundaries all along, anyway.

Eileen: Yeah, it’s funny. People do put me in that place that I do.

Irish Philly: I mean, it’s a good thing.

Eileen: I think there was actually a point in my early twenties where I faced this decision. And it’s weird when I think back on things like that now. Should I keep playing this wonderful, very pure traditional Irish music or where my heart and head and gut and everything was going was more of I’m playing this violin and I’m living in New York and want to really hear Stephane Grappelli tonight and be blown away, which I was, and hearing all that can happen on this amazing instrument that I love and pushing the boundaries of a violin. To the day you die, I think you could always learn obviously something in life, but even on the instrument, there’s always a way to learn more, to better yourself, to open up new boundaries and break down boundaries.

And I think that’s a wonderful thing about living and about playing music and an infinite amount of possibilities, for sure. So that was like a decision where, and I just had to say, look, I’m always going to respect and love where I learned, which was traditional Irish music and be an ambassador hopefully for that music, teach the music in a very pure way as it was taught lovingly to me by my wonderful teacher Martin Mulvihill a long time ago in the Bronx, New York, and pass it on that way. And I’ve done that in countless ways with private lessons when I was younger to teaching in fiddle camps to outreach programs. As I speak to you today, we should be up in Alaska touring up there doing a lot of school outreach and theater performances, but obviously certainly that’s all canceled, but it’s something that I love to do, is show this amazing music that we all love so much. I know, in Philadelphia, you guys certainly know it well.

And we all love it. We all want to put it out there and keep it lit. And that’s really important to me. So I never wanted ever to dilute that, but I do feel very proud of where I’m taking, maybe, whatever God’s gift in my mind would be—to do and reach people and really do something that feels right.

Irish Philly: Well, switching gears a little bit, I’m wondering if you can tell me who some of the musicians are on the album?

Eileen: Oh, thank you Jeff, I’d love to. Yeah. Well it’s primarily the touring group, which are amazing musicians and I feel so blessed to work with and share stages with and collaborate with. So I’ll just run through their names. Matt Mancuso is on the record. He sings, he plays guitar and trumpet on the recording. Lindsay Horner, plays upright bass in our group and electric and baritone sax, and Lindsay’s on many tracks. Buddy Connelly, a wonderful button accordion player, is on the record. And Dave Barckow plays on some percussion. And I think guitar and vocals on there as well. And then we have a couple of guest artists, Kaitlin Maloney, who sings lead on “Hold My Hand” and some background vocals. This other wonderful woman Michelle DeAngelis, who plays some piano on a few tracks. Another guest musician, Louise Barry, sang on “You Are Strong,” along the vocal part of that I did.

Irish Philly: I wondered about that.

Eileen: (It was a) rappy kind of thing. That was me doing the verses and my best Bronx rap came out, and Louise sang the chorus and another gentleman played keys, Brian Mitchell—he plays organ and piano on the record as well.

So yeah, it was wonderful. We had some guests and our band.

Irish Philly: You’ve mentioned “Hold My Hand” a couple of times and the lyrics are really inspiring. Where did they come from?

Eileen: From my heart. Absolutely. It really was a picture that inspired that track. We have a house in Ireland that we built on my father’s land in County Mayo. And around 2007, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Ireland with a typical Mass in the house and everybody from all the families and friends and villagers up at the house till the wee hours. And my dad was spinning my mom around the kitchen at around 3 in the morning with the beautiful dancing and it was just a brilliant night, Jeff. And their wedding album was open on the kitchen table all night. And again it was just one of those beautiful nights you just will never forget. And I know their picture of their hands from their wedding day was open at the time from their wedding album that people had flipped through. And I just thankfully thought, hey, guys, come over here.

So I stopped them dancing for a second and I said, just cross your hands as you would the day this happened, 50 years ago and they did. And I just quickly snapped the picture and I have it up at my house, my parents’ house. And it just said so much to me that the song came out fairly quickly and really about holding hands through life. My husband and I, we have a beautiful son, Aiden, who is going to be 11 and I remember years ago when, of course, as a parent, you’re always holding your child’s hand. And I remember the first verse kind of spoke to this where we were coming out of a basketball game he was playing at and he was wanting to run ahead with his friends and we were crossing a sort of a driveway that wasn’t terribly busy but just a quick second, when he let go, ‘Mom, I’m going to run over here with my friends.’ And I said, ‘Aiden, watch!’ One of those moments where you’re really as a parent—wow, you let go of my hand. Whoa.

And just again, through the stages of life, holding the hand through, leading a child through getting older, through hopefully finding someone that you could share your life with. To at the end, the last verse, sort of speaking to when my father passed in 2012, my sister holding his right hand, and I held my father’s left hand. My sister, in true Irish fashion, opened up the window. So the spirit would fly out and he was in home hospice and we saw him pass and share that passing with him. And I tell you, it was amazing blessing to have, it was unbelievable.

So that was the last verse—he was very much failing with kidney disease, dialysis, congestive heart failure. He fought the good fight and he was incredible. 87 years old when he passed and just about to be 88 and yeah, and it was time for him to go. So sorry for the long, lengthy explanation of this track, but it was three very profound life moments that was intertwined in that one song and that was, which spoke to the last first, of letting go when the time is there. Having to face, trusting the light.

Irish Philly: We’ve also mentioned “You Are Strong” and I’m really interested in that. How did that come about?

Eileen: It’s interesting, again, that was an afterthought. It wasn’t going to be on the record and the wonderful mother of this woman who, just sadly, it happened to, was at the house here. She was staying with us and she was visiting her daughter and the record actually was done at that time and the mom told me about this incident that happened, I think mother to mother, I just was heartbroken for her and her daughter. And the daughter, being a friend of mine, I saw the post that she put up and it was like a static picture and a voiceover of this song like prose. As soon as I heard this, of course my heart broke and I saw these little likes and sad emojis on the post. And it just hit me like a ton of bricks.

This is more than a moment of a scroll in a post, this is something that this incredible woman, these incredible words that described what she went through and her incredible courage to see this through, to put up with all that she put up with and try to get a proper justice in all of this. Again, just took unbelievable strength and the words smacked at me right away into a rhythm.

And even with syllables, it didn’t match exactly right at all. But I heard it somehow, thankfully. And I heard resounding “you are strong” as a chorus. So the song completely wrote itself immediately. And I just went up that night, I wrote down all the words on that post, I just kept rewinding our voice and wrote down all the words. And what was interesting with just acoustic instruments.

I used my own bodhran as sort of the pulse of the track, just that goat skin, me with a little beater just banging on that in a very methodical kind of way. Mantra, nearly kind of a way. And then the fiddle, just between toggling between two chords on double stops, not cleanly but more a little bit emotionally on the fiddle, but just insistent. And then placing the words again, which was interesting because that was a little challenging. You’re working with syllables and things falling into place, but this was slightly challenging but it really came together very quickly. I put it down in rough form. I knew I wanted an amazing, strong female singer on the chorus to have this resounding “you are strong” as an affirmation nearly.

And I ran it by my friend. And I said, look, I can continue with this, only if you’d like. I could stop immediately. This is for you. This is just something I just heard. I could continue it. And long story short, she wrote back immediately, wow, you made something beautiful out of something so horrible. And then we spoke about possibly when the time is right, I’d like to release that as its own track and 100 percent of that to go to a charity that she would like. And she picked a wonderful charity, Safe Horizons. So the timing is a little crazy as we know in a world right now. But we want to get this together in a proper way, maybe even a proper video that tells a story of her strength and how it’s truly, hopefully affecting people, which I know already it is.

It’s incredible Jeff. The power of music is just incredible. And then when I brought up all of this and I talked to her again about this is a way to scatter the light. You are scattering the light through this horrible incident, but you’re giving strength to other victims who need to hear this. To speak your truth no matter what it is and whether it be bullying, whether it be elder abuse, which you know is so sad you see in life. I see it in my son’s life, in his school and what’s going on. And that’s what made me even more passionate about it and talking through these things with her that this is a way to get it out there. And I’m looking forward to relaunching this when the time is right and putting a bigger focus on that track. I do feel it’s really an important track.

Irish Philly: “Children Go” is also an interesting take, I thought, on an old spiritual, and frankly it really rocks. And it tells me a lot about you, that you really have a lot of influences.

Eileen: I do. Yeah, I definitely do. That was a very, I think rootsy kind of driven track and the Wah violin was a real rounding element of that whole song and it just felt like the right thing to do for that particular arrangement. And I just love the sentiment of it. Let’s all go out and be the light. Jesus told his disciples years ago, I won’t send you out alone to be the sheep among the wolves. I’ll send you out two by two. And I think you see that today with the health care workers with incredible people who are making a difference and doing what they’re doing. We just got to go out and do the best we can and do good. Be good and do good. So that’s why, yeah, that tune had to be there.

Irish Philly: It sounds to me like a really interesting time for this album to have come out, in the midst of coronavirus, and your timing really couldn’t be better. I mean it’s something that seems like we really need to hear right now.

Eileen: Oh wow. Thank you. Thank you, my friend. It’s funny. You try, when I think an artist launches a record, I’ve always gone from my heart. Whatever is speaking to me musically is where I go to. But this, I never could have predicted this, and this (album) is landing right in the middle of all of this. The heartbreak for us is the day that the CD was officially launched was Friday, March 13th, and that was the first and the last day of this whole tour. That tour was canceled on the 12th, the night before we were on the stage of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. We were doing a sound check for two shows that had over 3,000 people coming.

And of course we got the notice that they had to shut everything down. So it was, as an artist you’re like, wow, this is unbelievable. But of course, understandable. And so now in my head I’m trying to reconcile a way to keep scattering the light, I think the record’s out there, hopefully it’ll have a life of its own. And even just today, coming up with new ideas maybe to keep this message going. Apart from the tracks that have their own life. But even through some social media outreaches, just little bits, I think is wonderful to see all these musicians doing their part. Chick Corea had a great line: We need to play.

So I think that there’ll be a nice way to hopefully keep this message going out when we’re all in the state that we’re in right now. So thank you. It is an interesting time. And that this dropped right in the middle of all of this is beyond interesting.

(Photo by Brian Mulligan)

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