Left to right: Erin Ellison, Jeff Olsen, Katie Dionne and Peter Tissot storm the Irish music scene.
Not many relationships survive the transition from high school to college, especially the relationships among four band members. Local band Rising Gael has beaten the odds - and managed to push the boundaries of traditional Irish music at the same time.
The group got together in early 2004, when its members - Erin Ellison (vocals, flutes, whistles), Katie Dionne (fiddle), Jeff Olson (bodhrán, harmonica, percussion) and Peter Tissot (guitar, bass pedals, percussion) - were in high school, or, in Tissot's case, middle school.
Currently, Ellison and Olson are seniors at UW-Madison, Dionne studies at UW-Milwaukee, and Tissot is a freshman at the University of Texas-Austin. While this arrangement is great for each musician's academic life, it can be a logistical nightmare for music making.
"With half of the band in other cities, it can be tricky to organize things, but we all really believe in what we're doing, so somehow it works," says Ellison.
The four musicians - all natives of the Madison area - met through their families and a shared passion for Irish dancing and Celtic culture in general. Olson, Dionne and Ellison were all members of Madison's Trinity Academy of Irish Dance throughout their teens, and Dionne has toured the world with the group several times.
The dancing is also a vital component of the group's live shows, which often evolve into an out-and-out jig fest. Since much Irish folk music - from jigs and reels to sea shanties - is designed for dancing, the band's fancy footwork aids their musicianship as well.
One of the group's favorite venues - an Irish pub in Iowa - even encourages the group to dance on top of the bar. "No one's fallen off yet, thank goodness," says Ellison. "Plus, it really gets the crowd going. Everybody likes to see the jig: the kids, the grandmas, the rowdier folks, pretty much everybody."
Ellison and Olson often take breaks from their instruments to rev up the audience with some stepping. However, it's when Dionne puts down her bow and laces up her shoes that the crowd goes from fans to fanatics.
"When she dances, it just brings down the house," says Ellison. "It's incredible."
Ireland and beyond
Rising Gael has made its name blending traditional Irish folk music with centuries-old Scottish sounds and the driving beats that fuel much modern rock 'n' roll.
Olson, whose parents are accomplished Scottish dancers, grew up listening to the Scottish folk group Silly Wizard, as well as the Tannahill Weavers and the Chieftains. Dionne is a classically trained violinist who's taught herself Irish fiddle technique, while Ellison brings an avant-garde edge to the music by building upon the flutework of Flook, a U.K.-based acoustic-folk group, and the vocals of British folk singer Kate Rusby. Meanwhile, Tissot's guitarwork adds a thoroughly American roots-rock flavor that recalls both Wilco and the Dave Matthews Band.
"We all play acoustic instruments, so the music definitely has a folk aspect to it, but a lot of what we do is twist it and transform it into something more modern," says Ellison.
For instance, the band's song "Nova Scotia Farewell," a track on their new CD, ,One More Day, released in November, is a traditional sea shanty that's received a postmodern treatment. Rising Gael begins the song with a quick-and-folksy version of the traditional tune, fades into the crackle of a record player, then launches into a slick, anthemic track suited for a movie soundtrack or the CW's prime-time lineup.
To create its version of "Nova Scotia Farewell," Rising Gael deconstructed the original song, added some fiddle riffs, and built a soundscape of harmonies and countermelodies through a series of jam sessions. The musicians also wove in their own set of lyrics, which retain the longing of the original yet sound text-message modern.
This deconstruct-reconstruct approach is a fairly new one for the band, which used to spend more of its time performing traditional versions of traditional Celtic songs.
The band's first two CDs, Rising Gael and These City Walls, were mainly made up of traditional folk music from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as a few covers of songs by contemporary Irish groups such as U2. In contrast, One More Day sprang from the group's own creative core.
"On These City Walls, we wrote a couple of the songs, but on [One More Day], it's all original material in terms of the music, and lyrics-wise, we wrote five of the songs," says Olson. "It was a big leap for us, and we're really proud of it."
The new album even teased out influences the group wasn't aware they had, such as Detroit booty bass.
"Peter [Tissot] was really into hip-hop when we recorded it, so a lot of it has this heavy, bumping bass and kind of a club feel at times," says Olson. "I think we're one of the only Irish music groups that can claim to sound like that, at least for now."
While no one in Rising Gael is planning on morphing into House of Pain anytime soon, they're excited to see how far they can push the envelope in creating a modern-traditional hybrid. In the process, they're gaining loads of fans.
The band began playing the Irish-music festival circuit back in 2004 and recorded their self-titled demo shortly afterwards. Much to their surprise, it sold more than 2,000 copies. Since then, the band's been touring - and selling their albums - at a whirlwind pace.
Says Olson, "Our first performance was actually this really small show for a St. Patrick's Day celebration. We had so much fun onstage that we decided to do it again, and after the recordings got some attention, we started getting booked all over the place, from Irish Fest in Milwaukee to bars and festivals in Indiana, Illinois, Colorado and even Texas."
The attention has expanded beyond bars and pubs. The band picked up a 2007 Madison Area Music Award for the best world music album, and its new CD was featured a few weeks ago on Suffolk 'n' Cool, England's most popular folk-music broadcast.
However, what the band's members are most proud of - other than the new CD, of course - is their perseverance.
"Since we're in different places and have different schedules, we don't get to practice a ton, especially during the school year," Ellison explains. "That's okay, because we could play most of these songs in our sleep, so a lot of our rehearsal time is spent practicing how we interact with each other. Sometimes, though, it does mean giving up a friend's birthday party or a day of just chilling out in order to make a concert happen."
While the band does most of their touring during their breaks from school, it pools its resources to fly Tissot to the Midwest from Texas for a handful of performances every semester.
"The CD sales especially help us to do things like bring Peter back to Wisconsin and get all the supplies we need to tour, so we're thrilled that we've done so well in that department," says Olson.
The band's next Madison performance will be at the 2009 Madison Area Music Awards ceremony, May 9 at the Barrymore Theatre. In the meantime, they're planning where to take their music after they receive their degrees. "Only one of us is studying music in school, but we're all planning to keep up the band after we graduate," says Ellison.
Whether the band will stay in Madison is another matter. Ellison, who'd like to become an Irish literature professor, is considering graduate school in Texas, as is Olson. Meanwhile, between a new CD, a busy schedule and opening slots with the likes of Gaelic Storm (the mother of modern Celtic groups), Rising Gael are jigging as fast as they can.