The Gothard Sisters Put New Fire into Old Embers
by Arthur Joyce at Chameleon Fire
Starting in the 1970s, Celtic traditional music began a resurgence that fully hit its stride on the world stage in the 1980s and ’90s. Though it has since faded somewhat from prominence, some bands—The Chieftains, Planxty, Clannad, Altan and many others—have remained a fixture in world music for decades. Today its echoes continue to be heard globally with superstar acts like Celtic Woman and Riverdance. But the glitz and glamour of such a massive production isn’t for everyone. Just as with the blues, often Celtic music is best appreciated with a ragged group of musicians belting it out in a pub or small concert hall. Promoters tend to want to ‘go big or go home’ but this often leads to over-production that obscures the heart and soul of the music.
Not so with the Gothard Sisters, a trio based in Seattle, Washington, who manage to keep the production values modest while injecting new life into both traditional and original songs. Rather than sequined ball gowns and strobe lights, Greta, Willow and Solana Gothard opt for a more naturalistic image. Many of their music videos are filmed outdoors in the forests and beaches of their Pacific Northwest home, and you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful backdrop.
Combined with their effortless physical grace and fluent musicality, the effect is absolutely luminous. It’s a refreshing change from much of the entertainment on offer these days, which seems fixated on the cynical and violent or the crassly commercial.
The Gothard Sisters first began performing in 2006 as a violin trio busking for tips at the local farmer’s market in their hometown of Edmonds, Washington. From there they worked their way onto stages at fairs and festivals, and all the way to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They have completed several national concert tours of the United States, regularly perform as guest entertainers on Disney Cruise Line in Europe and South America and are well-known musicians on the national Celtic festival circuit.
The three sisters are all multi-instrumentalists as well as being accomplished Irish stepdancers. Willow plays violin, mandolin, octave mandolin, and bodhran. Greta plays guitar, violin and octave mandolin. Solana, the youngest, plays violin, bodhran, djembe, whistle, and percussion. It’s often been noted that some of the best harmonies come from family bands, with their closely attuned voices, and the Gothard Sisters are no exception. I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with Greta Gothard about their career and their new album—just released—titled Midnight Sun.
I see from your music video for The Little Things That Make a Difference that you seem to have been involved in music from the time you were all toddlers. Are your parents musicians? Do you come from a long line of musicians or a family tradition of teaching music?
The three of us have been playing music from a very young age, starting violin at the age of 5. Our parents themselves are not musicians, but they were very supportive when I asked for violin lessons as a five-year-old. They each had musical parents and grandparents, so it does run in the family a bit. Our family has a history of being very artistic though, and both of them went to school for art.
Did you train classically in addition to learning Celtic traditional music? Is classical training at the root of your ability to create such interesting arrangements of traditional songs or is that a natural ability? Who mostly does your arrangements?
Yes, we were all trained in classical violin by the late Larry Fisher, and spent years learning solo concertos, playing in youth symphonies and in various chamber music ensembles. So my approach to music and arrangement initially was very much from a classical perspective. A lot of the arrangement now is intuitive. All along the three of us have had eccentric musical tastes—listening to lots of Celtic folk music, traditional music from the British Isles, along with many genres of world music, soundtrack, new age, pop, rock, indie folk and other genres that probably have also played a role in forming the type of music we like to write and create.
Where does your interest in Celtic music come from—is there a family connection? What first got you interested in it? And where did the Irish step dancing come in?
We became interested in Celtic music through listening to it. We do have Celtic heritage—pretty far back—family that immigrated from Ireland, Scotland and England, as well as the Scandinavian countries, and gradually made their way to the West Coast of America, where we are now. However, my first experiences with the Celtic music that I love to listen to and play were through recordings that we listened to obsessively on road trips through the mountains—a Thistle and Shamrock sampler CD, Dougie MacLean albums, lots of Silly Wizard, Kate Rusby, Natalie MacMaster, and several Celtic rock bands that we loved—Seven Nations, Wolfstone, etc.
We were also constantly listening to traditional tunes by participating in the culture of competitive Irish step dancing—we danced to the recordings, and there were always live musicians playing the tunes from dawn ’til dusk at every competition locally, regionally, nationally, and eventually at the World Championships where we traveled to the UK to compete and to visit Ireland, Scotland and England for the first time. So the tunes sunk in and became very familiar.
When we started playing Celtic music after switching over from classical, it was easier to switch because the tunes felt like they’d always been there, in the back of my head. Still, I think that a lot of classical musicians think that Celtic music and Irish tunes are ‘easy’ and that it’s a fairly easy thing to do—switch to Celtic music. And it is not. Irish and Scottish traditional musicians are seriously underrated and it takes a completely different set of skills to play dance music than it does to play classical pieces, in my opinion.
I notice the repeating theme of nature in your music videos, with some gorgeous videography of Pacific Northwest shores and forests. Are you hoping to create a bit of an environmental message?
We grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and it was also a formative experience to be able to spend my early years in an absolutely beautiful place. Family weekend trips would be to the mountains, or to the beach. Camping or hiking was what we did for ‘field trips.’ I think in a lot of ways our music is influenced by the beauty of the natural world, and that’s why we wanted to set the videos in those places. Because the purpose of the videos was to expand the song for our listeners—give them a little bit of what we’re seeing in our heads when we write the piece.
Is it challenging working with your siblings so closely, given the amount of hours it must take to practice, compose, record and tour together?
I think it is difficult in some ways, but for the most part it makes things easier. We know each other really well after years of playing together (this is our tenth year as a band), plus the years and years of playing together as kids. We were homeschooled, so that allowed for many hours to create stories and performances together. For us, it’s the best-case scenario because we love working together, know when to take breaks and give each other space, and we also share a lot of the same influences and love the same kind of music. Our creative visions really line up with each other. So I would say that while it can be challenging at times, the good definitely outweighs the bad in this case and makes us all stronger together.
Plus, how cool is it to get to share all these stories, experiences and travel memories with your sisters?
Is there a theme to the new album that links the songs together? What inspired this theme?
I suppose the theme could be interpreted as going on an adventure and then coming back home. A lot of these songs were written while on the road, so there’s a mixture of songs about traveling, wandering, sailing, adventuring, but then there are also songs about being homesick, missing home, and returning home safely.
In what ways is this a departure from your previous albums and in what ways is it part of a continuity with them?
This is our first all-original album. So that would be a departure from our previous albums, however I think that in some ways this is our most authentic record because of that. Now, not only the arrangements and the musical themes are written by us, but so are the words, the lyrics, the feelings behind the songs. This is a collection of songs that we love and I hope that comes through. It’s a postcard of where we are now, musically.
Are you recording in the same studio or did you have a new team for this record?
Yes, this was recorded by Kent Harrison of Sammamish Sounds recording studio in the Seattle area, who has recorded all of our previous albums. The recording quality is really, really good and we have a finely-tuned system of working together by now. Plus, we all love experimenting with new sounds and new recording techniques in striving to produce the best new album possible.
Are you three sisters still the only musicians, or are you starting to add featured studio musicians?
The three of us played all of the instruments on the album, wrote all the parts, arranged all the songs and put it all together. Phew! It’s a lot of work. But it’s also one of our favorite things to do together. There weren’t any studio musicians on this album besides the three of us. However, we did have a special guest on one of the tracks—Michele McLaughlin, a well-known New Age pianist, who co-wrote one of the songs called When the Rain Falls. It’s a beautiful song, and we were so pleased to get to collaborate with her because we love her music.
Read the full article on Chameleon Fire here.