By David Templeton | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
In the early days of the pandemic, when the Boston-based folk duo Rakish was forced off the road for months of unscheduled vacation, the good news—if that’s even the right term—is that it gave fiddler Maura Shawn Scanlin and guitarist Conor Hearn plenty of time to cull through music they’d been considering for a long-planned first full album. To be titled Counting Down the Hours, the project would be the much-anticipated follow-up to the twosome’s self-titled 2018 EP. The bad news—if that’s the right term—is that despite the ever-expanding downtime, Scanlin and Hearn had so much good material to comb through, it turned out that selecting 13 songs for the collection was anything but easy.
Counting Down the Hours
“Having a lot of material can be a blessing and a curse—though it’s definitely more of a blessing,” says Scanlin, speaking over Zoom in mid-February, side by side with Hearn, just days after the release of Counting Down the Hours. Produced by Seamus Egan, the album was met with boisterous and instantaneous acclaim. David Kidman of Folk Radio UK called it “an invigorating blend of beauty and emotion,” which fairly sums up the musical collaboration that is Rakish.
“By the time the initial Covid-anxiety had settled and we were able to get into the studio, we’d been sifting and sifting through our music,” adds Hearn, “and had it pared down to these pieces, which we both felt very strongly about. We’re excited to finally get it out into the world.”
Scanlin and Hearn met while in college at different schools in the Boston area, where they initially got to know each other as members of a local folk band called Pumpkin Bread. They soon discovered a mutual love of Celtic music, and after playing together as a duo on the side, eventually forged an ensemble of their own.
Naturally nimble and stylistically well-matched, with a genuinely infectious sense of delight, heart, and jubilation, the duo—who named themselves after the traditional Irish melody “Rakish Paddy”—rapidly built a reputation within the New England folk scene. Generally defined as “dashingly or carelessly unconventional,” the name Rakish is both on point and slightly not, as there is nothing careless about the music of Scanlin and Hearn. As a fitting descriptor, however, “unconventional” definitely checks out. Explorative and versatile, the duo draws evident inspiration from not just the deep and wide history of Scottish and Irish Celtic composition, but also the precision-focused structures of classical chamber music and a whole array of improvisational styles.
Your sound has been described as “effortless” and “natural,” which usually means a lot of work has gone into it. How did you evolve the style and sound on Counting Down the Hours?
SCANLIN: Well, honestly, our “sound” has had a pretty natural progression. Our musical repertoire has definitely developed from early on—when we were doing traditional Celtic tunes—into us doing more of our own original music. But it’s all been on the same trajectory.
HEARN: There has been a shift from playing in the more informal setting of an Irish or Scottish session, where, in terms of arrangement, you’re always winging it to a certain extent. Over the years, we’ve moved to more of a concert approach, where there is more of a deliberate choice to put our own slant on things.
Here’s a nuts-and-bolts question. You’re a fiddle-and-guitar duo. When working out the arrangement of a new tune, how do you decide if the tune will start with the fiddle, or the guitar, or both at once?
MSS: It totally depends on the piece of music, of course. For a lot of the music on the new album, there were initially melodies that I came up with on the fiddle, a handful of which just came out originally as full-fledged tunes, which clearly called for some traditional Celtic-style guitar backing. But then there is another handful of songs on the album where my tunes were total “sketches,” just totally unfinished with the thought in mind that I would bring them to Conor and he would fill in the spaces to create a fully formed piece of music.
CH: In the traditional model of guitar and fiddle playing together, guitar is often conceptualized as more of an accompaniment to the fiddle. That’s true virtually all of the time, where the violin is conceptualized as the melody instrument. We tend to stretch those boundaries a little bit. When working on a new piece, the first question we consider is whether we want to follow the more traditional model or come up with a different approach that makes sense for that piece.
MSS: We have moments in a piece where we’ll be playing one way, with me playing the melody and Conor playing harmony, and suddenly we’ll flip and I’ll play harmony while Conor plays melody. Having a duo is a nice way of flip-flopping those roles a lot. It’s fun, and it keeps people guessing.
You developed this project with Seamus Egan, who also joins you on a few tunes. Working with him, was there a concept or a theme for the album?
MSS: This album shows who we are. It shows the sonic influences that we have in our musical life. That’s the thread that holds it all together, which I guess might sound like a kind of generic thread, but it’s a way to demonstrate the voice we’ve developed as a duo. This album is a demonstration of how we can approach any genre of music with the same method, whether we’re playing Bach or some traditional tune we just wrote yesterday, because our approach is similar in all cases. A friend recently said it always feels like we’re playing Celtic music, even when we’re not. That’s a good description of what we do.
How long did it take to record the album?
CH: Altogether, it took about six months to record, but we were in the studio for five days. The studio chunk of making an album is a lot of hard work in a very condensed amount of time, but then there are the aftereffects of that, which means a lot more hard work in a more spread-out chunk of time as you go through the post-recording process and everything.
Were there pieces that came together easily, while some proved more challenging?
MSS: “The Waiting Game,” “The Lucky One,” “The Tooth of Time,” and the slow tune called “In the Middle” are all pieces that fell together the easiest, because they were pretty much just Conor and me, just fiddle and guitar. That’s a model we understand very well. The trickier pieces were those that brought in other performers. That’s a fun thing for me, to think of additional string parts for some of the songs. That always means extra steps, to take the track that we laid down with just fiddle and guitar, and lay down additional parts.
The short instrumental piece “Interlude” is one of the more mysterious and somber pieces on the album. How did that one come together?
CH: In that piece, we kind of extracted the melody from the subsequent song, “Before Our Quiet Love,” and presented it as an air, a traditional, unaccompanied kind of not-in-time solo melody, often done as a fiddle or pipes piece. Since a lot of the other pieces on the album are very active, I wrote that to play on the nylon-string guitar, for a warmer sound, and then Maura and Seamus added some additional ambience with strings and a bit of subtle harmonium in there, too.
MSS: The nylon strings on Conor’s guitar are one of those insertions we do, insertions of the classical into our body of work, because that’s just a more classical sound and it seems to fit the piece. The songs on the album hang together in an interesting way because even though there are different styles, they are all folk songs. Even when we play around with the arrangements a bit, none of the songs go really crazy. They still feel somewhat traditional.
What do you hope people will take away from Counting Down the Hours, whether it’s new folks just discovering your music or diehard fans?
CH: Well, Maura and I have been playing together for a long time now, and it’s one of the longest musical collaborations I’ve ever had, but at the same time, this is our first record. To a lot of people, we’re brand new. So this feels like a good way to put out a more definitive stamp of what our band does.
MSS: We hope it helps us reach new people, maybe a wider audience of people who like folk music. Hopefully classical music lovers will find something they like on this album, and people who like songwriting will find something they enjoy, too. And people who like traditional folk will find something that is meaningful to them also. We want to make everyone happy. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?