Image Courtesy of Mairead Hurley
Gareth Hugh Evans: I think the first time I saw you guys was actually at last year’s National Folk Festival.
Mairead Hurley: Yes, last year. We had just gotten the name last year. I had just moved to Sydney last January and I already knew Louise Phelan [fiddle] and Maeve Moynihan [fiddle] from Ireland, from going up and going to fleadhs and festivals. Then we all met Ben Stephenson [guitar, flute, bodhran] in Sydney. As a group we went to Tasmania last year to their fleadh in March. That was the first time we’d performed as Restless Legs. By the time we played at The National we weren’t billed as that because the application had gone in much earlier but it was the same line up.
This year we have a couple of new additions as well. We have Louise Phelan’s husband John Cassidy performing sean-nós dancing and we also have a new arrival in Sydney, a girl named Susan Miller, who’s a multi-instrumentalist as well – she plays fiddle, button accordian and piano as well.
GHE: I feel like you had a dancer last year as well?
MH: That was John Cassidy as well. That was Louise’s partner and they just got married earlier this year.
GHE: So yourself, Louise and Maeve played together back in Ireland?
MH: We would have all met each other and played bits here and there, not on a regular basis. More just a social basis, fleadhs and sessions and stuff. We all started playing regularly together in Sydney.
GHE: I know there’s quick a big Irish community in Sydney – within that is there a lot of musicians?
MH: Yeah, and that was the reason that both Louise and myself came to Sydney originally. There’s lots of music being co-ordinated by the Irish National Association, and they’re based in the Gaelic Club. They have a program where they regularly hire an Irish person to come and teach whatever is their chosen instrument. Louise did that for a couple of years and she still teaches with them and I came over to teach with them in 2014. The people learning are a mixture of Irish people who maybe played when they were younger and have taken it back up or Irish people who bring their kids to lessons, their kids who are Irish-Australian and then often some people who have no Irish connection at all and just pick it up because they love the music. There’s a pretty vibrant scene.
GHE: There’s obviously a difference to playing in sessions and performing on stage in front of a crowd. How do you choose which tunes and sets make it into the Restless Legs set and which are kept for the sessions?
MH: As a group of musicians we all have the same focus and priority which is kind of what makes us play well together and made us want to take the set further. That focus on very traditional tunes but also quite unusual tunes. To get away from the old classics and maybe find a few more hidden treasures within the tradition. And then mixed with newer, more contemporary stuff and occasionally finding an old standard and trying to rework it or do something different with it. It’s kind of a balance between all of those. We all kind of feed off learning new tunes from one an other and finding stuff that we want to work with. Then it’s just a matter of fine tuning it, taking arrangements and working with sounds to see what combination works best. Mostly just going with what tunes we like – it’s all about enjoying the performance and you enjoy it when you’re playing stuff that you like.
GHE: Do you have a particular type of tune that you enjoy playing?
MH: Not really. For a session and for a performance, what keeps it interesting is having a variety. Nothing in particular but we probably would focus on the faster dance tunes, reels and jigs, than anything else.
GHE: I do have to ask, but why did you learn the concertina? It’s not the most glamorous instrument in the world.
MH: What! What! I’ll change your mind about that!
GHE: I’m sorry!
MH: [laughs] It had a massive resurgence in the last 15 years which is about the time that I started playing. I think it’s because I grew up in Sligo which is predominantly fiddle and flute country. My dad’s a flute player and my uncle’s a fiddle player. From the neighbourhood that I grew up in that was what was common. I learned the flute first. And then I think it’s because the concertina was so unusual and when it started becoming a bit more widespread it was completely new to me – it was a whole new sound, it was a whole new array of things that could be done with tunes that I was just not familiar with. I just felt like I had to play that instrument and then I think once I made that decision, when I was about 14 I wouldn’t put it down any time in my waking hours. My mum can verify that!
It’s like any instrument – there are so many ways to play the same tune. So many different styles. I just think it’s great. And I think it sounds really good with fiddle in particular so I guess that’s why it works well with two girls in the band.
GHE: And it’s super portable! I think that’s why it was so popular 50 years ago with singers and players. It was something that they could just carry with them.
MH: I think that’s kind of how it ended up making its way into the Irish tradition. Because they were so portable sailors used to throw them on ships and then when the ships would come into port they’d end up in every household. It was very popular in County Clare.
GHE: One question I’ve been meaning to ask you is what it’s like to play with Ben Stephenson? He’s a bit of a hero of mine. Does having him in the band bring an audience with him?
MH: I’m not sure. Possibly. Ben’s an amazing playing and we’ve all clicked really well. Like I was saying we all share tunes and he’s very open with his music, he’s really encouraging and he’s really interested in learning from everyone else. When you get that interaction from someone it’s great. He has such amazing experience as a band member with Trouble in the Kitchen and I’ve been lucky enough to perform as a guest with them at The Woodford Folk Festival and The Port Fairy Folk Festival and the Brunswick Music Festival recently. They’ve got so much experience, they’re so well polished and Ben really does bring that experience to us a as group.
GHE: Anything else we can look forward to from you guys at The National?
MH: Just that both Maeve and Louise will be giving fiddle workshops. You’ll find them in the program. There’s an intermediate and advanced fiddle workshop with them.
We’re looking forward to The National, really excited. This will be my second year – I had a massive ball last year, it’s one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to. We’re looking forward to lots of music, lots of late nights at the session bar and lots of tunes from all our friends from Australia and beyond.