Interview: Fiddler Magazine

The Gothard Sisters - Kindred Spirits

by Mary Larsen at Fiddler Magazine

"Live performance is a fantastic thing.  It brings people together, it stops time, it communicates through music emotions and pictures and stories that everyone can experience together even if they are complete strangers!"  - Greta Gothard 

Playing over 1000 shows since first performing as a group in 2006, the Gothard Sisters - Greta, Solana and Willow - continue to delight audiences with their high-energy performances.  Inspired early on by NPR's "Thistle and Shamrock" show, the Gothards were able to share their own music on the show this past August. 

All classically trained on violin and competitive dancers, the Gothard sisters gradually made their way to fiddling and became proficient on a variety of other instruments as well.  They are also gifted songwriters and tunesmiths.  Their newly-released third album is called Mountain Rose, and is a lively mix of fiddle tunes and songs. 

Growing up outside Seattle, the girls were homeschooled in their academics, and had outside teachers for music and dance.  With a can-do spirit, they learned not only the instruments, but also the skills necessary for a successful recording and performing career.  When I caught up with them during their fall tour this year, they were happy to share their experiences and some helpful tips.

After many years of classical violin studies and performance, what made you play your first fiddle tune?  Or had you played a bit of fiddle all along? 

Greta:  I started playing fiddle music pretty far along in my classical studies with a few lessons from a local Scandinavian fiddle teacher, as my mom has always had a deep love for the Scandinavian folk tradition and signed us up for lessons.  Willow and I learned a few Swedish and Norwegian tunes from this teacher, and when she found out we were also very interested in Irish tunes because of our Irish dance experience, she also started teaching us more Irish tunes as well. 
A few years later we started becoming really into Irish music thanks to a CD that we listened to on road trips, called The Best of [NPR's] Thistle and Shamrock.  It was a CD that we only listened to when on road trips through the beautiful mountains of Washington state, and we became huge fans of all the artists on that album, as well as the music of Natalie MacMaster, Wolfstone, and Dougie MacLean, and I started arranging more and more music for us to play in a fiddle style together.  The music was so joyful, mysterious, timeless, brave, and really cool.  After that we were completely hooked on what we called "travel music" and the rest of the world calls "Celtic music!" 

Willow, you play violin, bodhran, and mandolin - was mandolin relatively easy for you after your violin studies? 

Willow:  Parts of playing the mandolin were relatively easy to pick up after violin studies.  Fingering for scales is exactly the same on the violin as on the mandolin, but "picking" is completely different from "bowing!"  There are plenty of techniques that I'm excited about learning on the mandolin.  I love the difference in sound between the two instruments.  I've gained a much better understanding of chords when playing mandolin than I ever did on the violin.  I also find that writing tunes on the mandolin comes very naturally to me.  That was a fun surprise. 

How did you learn your sound tech skills? 

Willow:  I learned everything I know about my sound equipment through trial and error, and by seeking advice from the professional sound technicians that I have worked with at shows over the years.  If I have a question about a piece of equipment, I can usually count on finding the answer either by researching online, or asking a sound tech about it!  Very often things will go wrong in a show - something will break or fizz out, and I have to quickly identify where the problem starts before the show gets stalled.  The more I learn about how the equipment works, the easier it gets to keep things running smoothly!

Solana, in addition to violin, you play bodhran and djembe in the group.  What inspired you to learn djembe? 

Solana:  I was listening to other recording and live performance artists I admired, and found the low sound of the djembe to be missing from our group.  I love percussion, and using various instruments to create the rhythms I hear in my head; djembe turned into another way of expressing those rhythms.  One of my favorite CDs to listen to when I was little was Mondo Beat, created by various percussion artists, focusing on world beat, African and Latin songs - perhaps that's where the djembe comes from! 

You are also the lead singer of the group.  Did you ever have voice lessons, or is that a completely natural gift? 

Solana:  Good question!  I've loved singing since I was very little.  Sometimes songs that I had listened to recently, or the occasional one that I would spontaneously make up, say about blueberry pie, repeating my favorite part for several hours to the amusement of my sisters and parents!  As far as voice lessons go, I did take some irregularly between 2011 and 2013, when we were recording our albums Story Girland Compass, and I felt like I needed some coaching. 

With over 120 performances a year, was it ever difficult to keep up with your academic studies? 

Greta:  The first couple of years we were touring we all tried to bring along textbooks and notebooks and do studies on the road and it never worked.  It was much better to just cram it all in whenever we were at home.  These days though we are still always reading piles and piles of books whenever we're on the road - it's actually pretty funny how much we all read.  People I meet on the airplane always say "you really should get a kindle," pointing to my backpack full of books, but there is something about a real book that I still love so much that I have to bring heavy bags full of books.  So even though we're not technically in school, I would say that thanks to our homeschool training we are all very much life learners and being on the road helps with that because there is a lot of time for reading. 

Read the full interview in Fiddler Magazine!

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