I grew up in Ashland Oregon. My mother lived in Scotland in the 70s and I started playing pipes after she took me there for a reunion. It just so happened that there was an incredible teacher and pipe maker by the name of Murray Huggins in the nearby town of Medford. I was extremely lucky to live so near him because there aren't many pipers in Southern Oregon. Murray makes Colin Kyo bagpipes and is now world famous for his terrific instruments and silver engraving. (www.colinkyobagpipes.com) He was the best teacher I could have asked for: experienced, nourishing, and incredibly musical. When I was about fifteen I visited my godparents in Vancouver, Canada, and they took me to see the band Dòchas, which at the time was touring there. In that band I saw pipes being played in a folk or trad context, along with fiddle, accordion, piano, harp, whistle, and bódhran. I immediately knew that that was the kind of music I wanted to play. It took me years to find it though.
When I was about 20 I left college at Northwestern University and worked at a grocery store in Ashland, then took the money and went to Europe. I hitch-hiked from Amsterdam down through Germany, into Italy, and back through France, playing the pipes on the streets. I also travelled around Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England, and spent about four months in Scotland during that time. One of the things I did was go to Alasdair Fraser's fiddle camp at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. I had played violin in school, and I actually took it along to Scotland cause I thought, what the heck, maybe I can learn to play fiddle. At that camp I found a bunch of young people who were playing tunes, partying, and dancing wild ceilidh dances, and I was like “oh this is what I was looking for!” I would say that before that trip, traditional music was a passion but not a focus in my life. But after being in Scotland for a while and going to that camp, I decided to dedicate more focus to it. The year after that Alasdair Fraser invited me to his Sierra Fiddle Camp in California, and I've been on staff there ever since playing for dances and classes, and teaching whistle and pipes here and there when there are students.
When I went back to the states I transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont, cause I wanted to do the Environmental Studies program there. I took lessons from Tim Cummings, who introduced me to a lot of great music.
A year and a half into that I dropped out and wound up hopping on a school spring break trip to build houses in New Orleans. When the trip was over I just waved goodbye to the bus and stayed down there. I made a kilt out of a flannel bed sheet, ordered a unicycle online for $50, bedecked myself in Mardi Gras beads, and would go out on the streets at night and play pipes while riding the unicycle. I made pretty good money that way. I also would show up to other people's gigs and play blues harmonica or fiddle solos, or rap, and I started getting hired for gigs down there.
Eventually I decided to go back to college and finish what I had started. About a week back into the environmental studies program I switched all my classes to music. I was just barely able to squeeze in enough credits to complete the music program by the time I graduated.
I had some friends who were living in Boston (Hanneke Cassel, Laura Cortese, Neil Pearlman, Galen Fraser and many more) who were making a go of it playing Scottish music for a living. So I moved there to be part of that scene. It's an incredible scene in Boston. There are just tons of amazing young players going to the music colleges and then sticking around.
I started off in Boston busking in the subway with guitarist Eamon Sefton. We called ourselves Fresh Haggis. Eventually we added Kathleen Parks and then Patrick Bowling and that grew into the Bywater Band. I also started Soulsha with Neil Pearlman on keys and mandolin. The Bywater Band is a traditional-style acoustic band. Soulsha is a huge funk band with an electric rhythm section and horns. I co-front it with Lamine Touré, an incredible senegalese Sabar drummer, singer and tradition bearer. The idea behind that group is to get people from different musical traditions (Scottish, Senegalese, Funk, Jazz) onto the same stage, and to be able to relate to each other from a place of deep knowledge of our own tradition, and also mutual respect of each other's cultures. At the same time we get the audience up on their feet dancing, so it's like an insane multicultural party. I love those shows. You can see a video here: Rhythm's in the Melody We're working towards our first album, hopefully to be released next fall.
Right now I tour pretty much all the time with either Soulsha, The Bywater Band, or MAC, an outfit based mostly on the West Coast. MAC Videos: Naked In The CreekRow On Love Yourself I also tour with celtic rock band Seven Nations from time to time, write music for shows, teach at camps, and do solo gigs.
My philosophy about pipe music can basically be summarized by “pick a good tune, and play the crap out of it.” I love traditional music. I love the relationship between the melody instruments and the backing instruments. I don't think I'll ever get over that. For a long long time pipers have been learning tunes off of the page and mostly playing them note for note how they learned them. I think tunes should be embellished upon. Pipers used to do this naturally and of course Irish-style players do it all the time. I've gotten to spend some time with Allan MacDonald in Seattle and Scotland, and I believe him when he says that people used to play with plenty of variations and spontaneous creativity. I'm fascinated by how Irish players fully express the tunes they play. I’ve spent a lot of time learning from them how to create variations in a musical way. You can hear that on the Bywater album, especially on tracks like Grammy's Trip to Oregon and Murray's. It's actually there in old collections as well. There's variations built into some of the tunes as they're written down. I strive to not play a part the same way twice.
So I'm really a traditionalist in some ways, I want to play traditional music, and I believe that individual expression must be a part of how we play; that we should pick great tunes and play the crap out of them with all our creativity engaged.
I would encourage pipers to get into the beauty of creative tune playing. Choose your own gracenotes, vary the melody, and play each part differently every time.We're living in such an exciting time, when people all over the world are embracing their traditional cultures and learning to honor them. We can be part of that.
What are your musical goals? Where do you see yourself in five years time?
I played Celtic Connections once with Gillebride MacMillan and Kyle Carey, and I’d love to get back there with one of my own bands, and get to lots of other festivals around the world. I'm also beginning to explore some other musical directions. Songwriting is one of them. I'd like to find more ways to use the pipes in different contexts as well.One thing I really want to do is find a way to bring Soulsha to Scotland and Senegal. All the musicians in that band are so amazing, and it would be really fun to go on a trip like that. And maybe make a short documentary about it.
I'd like to do more teaching at camps, or workshops. I love working with pipers who are seeking more freedom in their playing, it's a really fun process.
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