Friday, September 9, 2011

Interview: Michael Connolly Opens Up The "The Mandolin Casefiles"

Literally while Hurricane Irene was hitting the east coast and touching ground in Brooklyn, I was digging through an incredible set of promotional releases from Devon Leger and the good people at Hearth Music that got me so excited, I was compelled to fire off an email pleading to interview one of the artists. This ignited a spirited and mutually enthusiastic set of emails back and forth (maybe more spirited for me since the rain and wind of the hurricane was sweeping down my street), in which we not only made arrangements for an interview, but we also struck a common bond: the mandolin.

I've been studying the mandolin now for about a year and a half, and Devon informed me that it was one of his first instruments. And with that, he was kind enough to let me listen to a copy of The Mandolin Casefiles, which is the latest collaboration between two of hottest mandolin players anywhere: Michael Connolly and Miller McNay. (For more info, and to order the CD, readers can visit The Mandolin Casefiles website).

The Mandolin Casefiles is a casual, intimate, and masterful display by two artists, and friends, who have played together for over five years. The duo nimbly jump between genres while maintaining an impressively heightened sense of responsiveness in their playing that is staggering. Recorded without any overdubs, The Mandolin Casefiles is very much an "in-the-moment" kind of record.

The collection captures the responsiveness between the players, as well as how each compliments, inspires, and excites one another. They switch roles back and forth, each contributing to a commanding interplay of lead, accompaniment, and percussive momentum. It's an enjoyable album by two mandolin masters, that is accessible, impressive, and lasting to players, as well as fans of the instrument.

Well, about halfway through my first listen of The Mandolin Casefiles, I found myself typing an email asking to learn more about Mr. Connolly's work, when I decided to request an interview with the man himself. It's always exciting to me as a music writer, fan, and player, to listen to something new, and/ or an artist who is new to me, and then to have the opportunity to learn more. In this interview, Michael Connolly shares his own musical trajectory, his biggest influences, and the story behind his latest collaboration with Miller McNay.

I'd like to start with your beginning and work our way up to your recent work. Can you talk a little bit about your musical history. When and how did you decide to play music?

Michael Connolly: I don't really remember a conscious decision to play music - rather, music and instruments were always fascinating to me!

My first instrument was piano. I was an unwilling piano student starting around age 5 or 6, and since both of my parents and one of my older brothers played, the piano was in use fairly often. I despised the lessons for their formality and structure, but enjoyed playing the instrument itself. I was interested in guitar, but my hands were too small, and I had already been playing around with a ukelele that we had around the house, but was frustrated by the low-tension nylon strings (and plastic fingerboard!).

A few years later, around age 9, I came across a mandolin in an antique shop and persuaded my parents to buy it for me. I started playing fiddle much later, when I was 15 or so, and many years into the mandolin already, so my left hand knew what to do, it was just the bow hand that I had to figure out!

In late high school, I became very interested in Irish traditional music and started playing accordion, tinwhistle, uilleann pipes, and Irish flute. My pace of instrument acquisition has slowed considerably since then but I've recently started playing upright bass, and my accordion playing has become more serious, generally used in contexts where I would prefer to, but cannot travel with, a Hammond organ.

What was it about the mandolin that attracted you to playing it? What was your first mandolin?

MC: The mandolin intrigued me from the beginning because its steel strings made it seem much more like a 'real' instrument than my ukelele was, while still being small enough for my hands.  My first instrument was a "Sammo" oval-holed flatback mandolin. It was a real piece of work: square fretwire, a high action, and nearly useless tuners, which my father replaced for me eventually. The instrument served me through the middle of high school until it was squashed into near two-dimensionality by a dropped Fender Princeton amp.

The uniform fifths of the mandolin and fiddle greatly appealed to my left brain. The system makes more sense to me than the irregular intervals of guitar, or the black-versus-white-key ergonomics of the piano. In retrospect, I think I internalized a lot of music theory knowledge with the help of that tuning system.

Who were the first mandolin players that inspired you/ and influenced your playing?

MC: The mandolin player that I've listened to the most is probably the English player Simon Mayor, whose delicate, precise touch on the instrument was very inspirational to me. The first "challenging tunes" I learned on the instrument were his tunes "The Wasp" and "Dance of the Water Boatmen." I had the chance to meet and briefly play with Simon after a concert of his I attended while in college, and it was a total thrill for me!

What sets the mandolin apart from the other instruments you play? How is it connected/ how does it influence your playing of other instruments?

MC: I see mandolin as a great, often underutilized "all-rounder" instrument - capable of melody, accompaniment, and percussive roles. I also find that it's much more genre-neutral than fiddle, accordion, organ, piano, or the other instruments I play. Having played it much longer than I have any other stringed instrument, it tends to "disappear" in my hands and allow me to focus on the musical idea of the moment rather the mechanics of playing the instrument. Hence, it's my favorite way to work out instrumental parts or arrangements.

When I'm producing other artists in the recording studio, I'll often use the mandolin to demonstrate a musical idea intended to be played on the fiddle, bass, guitar, or even the voice. You can fake all those instruments well enough on mando to at least get an idea across to someone in the studio.

Let's open it up a bit. Who were some of your other early musical influences (both mandolin players as well as other artists, albums, etc)?

MC: I played saxophone and clarinet in middle school and high school (in fact, I narrowly missed going to college to study clarinet performance!) So I listened to, at various times, a good deal of symphonic,  early jazz, swing, and big band music - Herbie Hancock's Takin' Off, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Horace Silver, old big band recordings, Bela Fleck, Rimsky-Korsokov's Scheherazade, and Bobby McFerrin were all in very heavy rotation when I was in high school. When you look back at the list, it's less about specific instrumentation and more about people who were using their instruments as voices (or in the case of Bobby McFerrin, the voice as an instrument!)

In addition to playing a wide variety of instruments, you are quite a genre jumper. Can you discuss some of the styles you enjoy playing and what each offers you creatively?

MC: There are definitely different appeals to the different genres I've played in. For bluegrass, old-time and Irish traditional music, all of which I discovered in high school, there's a large social component to the music and the contexts one plays it in. Before I lived in Seattle, I lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota for a few years and was going to several Irish seisiuns and a few bluegrass/old-time jams every week, playing at ceilidh dances, and generally being immersed in that scene, where you play music with your friends much more often than on stage. The other aspect that makes those forms of folk music so appealing is the raw sound of the instruments used (uilleann pipes, fiddle, accordion - yes, please!) and the idea of infinite variation within a strict form. Plus, there's something amazing about being able to visit a new city or country and make music with strangers!

These days, however, I do more work accompanying singer-songwriters than I do playing traditional music. This is a different game altogether - the appeal lies in trying to understand the singer's intent with the song (the feel, emotion, etc) and help them expand beyond their solo performance into a fuller sound which remains true to their vision. I'll admit taking some pleasure in helping break down "instrument stereotypes". If I had a nickel for the number of times I've heard, "I've always though the accordion was cheesy, but that was really beautiful!"

My most time-intensive project right now is as a fulltime member of the sultry roots trio Coyote Grace ( We're on the road about two weeks a month most of the time. It's a drummer-less band, so I get a lot of opportunities to explore the percussive side of mandolin and fiddle, and although it started as an occasional sideman gig, the transition to being a fulltime member (which happened at the beginning of 2011) has allowed me to get more deeply involved in the band's creative process, which has been rewarding. I recently produced the group's fifth album, which will be out later this fall.

When did you begin playing/ recording/ touring with other artists?

I started playing in clubs around Memphis when I was in high school, around 14 or 15 years old. My first shows were as part of a funk band called "Gray Area" - I was played saxophone, and we covered things like "Pick Up The Pieces" and Scofield tunes. I would unpack my saxophone the next day in our school bandroom and realize the horn just reeked of cigarette smoke! 

I haven't ever really stopped gigging since - I've played in Irish traditional groups, bluegrass bands, jazz combos, symphony orchestras, and alongside a lot of great singer-songwriters (Michelle Shocked, Korby Lenker, Indigo Girls, Kate Graves, and others). 

I started recording my own bands in high school and that has snowballed into running a recording studio fulltime (Empty Sea Studios, here in Seattle. 

When did you writing your own music? Can you take us through some of the most memorable projects you have worked on?

MC: I don't really consider myself as much a writer as an arranger and producer. I tend to be good for a few instrumental tunes every few years.  What comes far more naturally for me is elaborating on the seed ideas of other people -- hence, working as a sideman with singer-songwriters and as a producer for bands and solo artists. In 2010, I produced and engineered a record for singer-songwriter Jeremy Serwer that involved arranging solo guitar+voice tunes for full band. The record, Roads, won a CDBaby Editor's Pick award and I'm still quite proud of it.

I do, however, have an original tune on the Mandolin Casefiles disc ("Mr. Pick's Blues") – to the extent that you could call an altered 12-bar blues "original" – and my instrumental "Now Take Flight" is the title track of the upcoming Coyote Grace album due out later this fall. 

When did you start teaching?

MC: Aside from teaching a few young clarinetists when I was in high school, I started teaching mandolin and fiddle in earnest around 2004 when I was living in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

How does teaching feed your own work?

MC: Well, I should first say this: I am completely self-taught on mandolin, and had about 5-6 lessons from a classical violin teacher after having played fiddle for several years already. So there are actually a lot of concepts of playing – from theory, to pragmatics of tuning and restringing, to how to put a solo together – that I never really articulated out loud until I had to teach them to someone. I had figured them out by myself but never thought about them much. It's been very enlightening to simply say out loud the things i learned unconsciously!

The other major reward of teaching is that seeing someone master a skill that they didn't previously have is tremendously exciting for me, and renews my enthusiasm about my own playing. I teach only adult students, and it's great fun to watch them go from not being able to play a note to being quite respectable players!


Let's talk about your new record with Miller McNay, The Mandolin Casefiles. How/ when did you and Miller McNay connect? How long have you know each other?

MC: Miller and I met as members of the bluegrass band Captain Gravel when I first moved to Seattle seven years ago. He played mandolin and I played fiddle in the band, and we wore bad suits and played around a single microphone. It was a lot of fun, although the single-microphone setup was an awful source of feedback in the majority of the bars and clubs we played!

I read that you and Miller have collaborated in the past for more than five years. Can you discuss some of the other projects you have worked on together?

MC: For several years, our primary connection was playing together in Captain Gravel. We recorded an album together in that band and did a fair amount of playing in the Northwest. Captain Gravel slowly morphed from 5 folks in suits around a single microphone to an electric jam band (think Phish with Miller on an electric 5-string mandolin.) I've guested on organ in that version of Captain Gravel for concerts and a recording project, and played in various other pickup ensembles with Miller.

How did that lead to The Mandolin Casefiles?

MC: For years, Miller and I have opened up the cases and done the "two mandolin thing," switching fluidly between lead and backing parts with each other, always casually at the end of a "real gig" or when we happened to run into each other. The idea of simply recording that process occurred to both of us several times, but in the end, the timing of the process came down to a pretty pragmatic reason: I was getting ready to spend the summer with Coyote Grace as we toured with and opened for the Indigo Girls, and wanted to have another album to put on the merch table!

Can you discuss how you and Miller decided on your song selection?
Can you take us through the recording process for the record?

MC: For each of the four recording sessions at Empty Sea, Miller and I sat down together with two mandolins, two chairs, two microphones and two glasses of whiskey. We had a list of 16 or 17 tunes that we thought might work - a combination of traditional tunes from the bluegrass, old-time and Irish world, a couple of covers, and some originals that we'd written. We left the recorder running the entire time, playing the various tunes and revisiting several of them on later recording dates. Since our approach is highly improvised, some of our takes on traditional tunes varied wildly from night to night. A few of the tunes simply didn't translate to the recording and were nixed from the project. The best takes of the rest of them is what made it into the disc.

In some ways, the disc was the most "natural" recording project I've ever worked on. It has no overdubs, very minimal editing, and not even a pair of headphones in sigh while we recorded! With no click track or backing tracks to listen to, we were able to simply face each other in a single room and play mandolins, which is, after all, what we had been doing for years.

What would you say is it that keeps you and Miller connected as players and artists? What are your strongest similarities/ biggest differences?

MC: We both have similar tastes in what we think sounds good, so usually tune selection or arrangements are not contentious issues. Miller has ridiculously good rhythm, which is a necessity when you're trying to hold so much space open in the tunes! There is not a lot of safety net with two mandolins!

Some differences are that Miller's solo style is definitely more "bluegrassy" than mine. I am not the world's fastest player by any means, and I play to that limitation by focusing on more lyrical, horn-like solo lines, while Miller can do a much more credible Monroe solo than I can. We also have different learning styles - Miller prefers to take material home and woodshed on it, while I'd rather work parts out together - I don't seem to get as much out of listening to recordings as by playing with him live.

As a teacher and artist, what would be your biggest piece of advice for mandolin players?

Well, for mandolin players, you've got to cover your basics: Monroe, Compton, Grisman, Thile, Reischman and of course my personal fave Simon Mayor - those would just be a starting point! But I think I owe a lot personally to listening to players of other instruments and genres, so I would say that it's all fair game! There's so little that can't be done with the mandolin that you owe it to yourself to listen to Billie Holiday, Väsen, Bach, Queen, Django, and Björk too - they all made (or are making) incredible, inspiring music. 

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