Interview with Danny Diamond on his new solo album called Fiddle Music

Danny Diamond has just released a new album of fiddle music.  The album is simply called Fiddle Music and he launches it on 21st August at The Cobblestone Bar in Dublin.  You may be more familiar with his work with both the group Mórga and his duet work with Aki covering music from the Irish, Nordic and American traditions.  We have covered both on Tradconnect over the last few years.  This album is quite different.  Its fiddle music inspired by some great musicians from the past and he has taken a very deliberate route when recording it.  We met up recently and asked was this the real Danny Diamond, free at last from his group and duet work?

“This is definitely the real me” he said, “but at the same time the recording project did aim to give the finished album a specific sound and feel. I think the process of applying for Deis funding from the Arts Council, which enabled the making of this album, is a great exercise for tightening up concepts and being clear about the aims of a recording project”.

“I aimed to make something innovative but with the innovation coming from within the tradition. I hear a lot of Irish music being made with reference to external influences, sounds and ideas, and conversely a lot of more traditional players of my generation taking a respectful, often almost academic approach. I had an idea that not many people were exploring the space between these two approaches, taking a very personalised stylised approach but very much rooted in the tradition at the same time. So that would have been the thinking with regard to the fiddle style I wanted to showcase on the album”.

“That all may sound very thought-out, but it wasn't an intellectual exercise at all, the idea of innovation from within is something I've been drawn to for years, simply because I find it great fun! Trying to revive a tired, overplayed tune, maybe changing key, borrowing variations from a few different (usually older) players and finding a few new variations of my own to throw into the mix”.

Danny remembers buying Tommie Potts' The Liffey Banks on CD when he was 17 and being completely transfixed by the beauty of his music.  He references “his amazing singing tone, which is so much richer than the typical traditional fiddle sound of his era, and his imaginative approach to melody, variation, harmony and even the structure of the tunes”.

“The excitement I felt on first listening hasn't waned in the intervening years and I find if I'm not feeling inspired to practice the fiddle at home, sticking on one of the Potts recordings, even for 5 or 10 minutes, soon has me wanting to open the case!”

While Danny has definitely taken a lot of inspiration from Potts' fiddle playing he states that he hasn’t really been interested in attempting to replicate his versions nor has he tried to go anywhere near as far as he did in stretching the melodies and structures of tunes.  This he states is probably due to the other influences on his playing which keeps the improvisation in check.

“I'm a bit of a magpie, picking up ideas from lots of different players over the years, trying to extend the range of colour and personality I can put into my music. Sometimes, like when listening to Potts, you get ideas of how to put more into the tune, but other players show you the opposite, how effective it can be to leave space and flavour the tune via phrasing and rhythm.”

“I've learned a lot on that front from my Dad, Dermy, who is a great maker of versions of tunes but in a very different way to Potts.  He uses subtle changes to melody, phrasing and rhythm, some of which is influenced by the old-time American fiddle music which he also plays avidly. I'd also be a big fan of the Sligo fiddler Johnny Henry who again was a subtle player but his music was full of personality and quirks."

"After using lots of open tunings in the duo with Aki I really enjoyed the big, resonant sound they gave the fiddle, but at the same time they were limiting as they constricted you to play in sympathy with the tuning."

The one standout feature of the album, for any budding fiddlers is the variation in the tunes themselves. While some of what Tommie Potts plays may pass you by, such is its speed and passion, on this album you get a much slower and introspective assembly of the tunes.  They are in many ways more inspiring, for me at least. I ask how these versions evolved - was it an organic or structured approach?

“I think again, it's a bit of both” he says. “I practice a lot at home, which has been key to developing the versions. Usually I aim for an average of about two hours a day and have been steady around that level for about the last three years. I had practiced a lot in my childhood and teens but for a long period in my twenties the only playing I did was socially in sessions. The few times I'd be asked to play solo I wouldn't really be able to play something satisfying to my own ear; I had a hunch that deep down I might have something worth saying on the fiddle but I couldn't ever get out more than a few half-formed ideas. This was grand for playing socially or even in the band (Mórga) where I had three great players to lean on but it felt really unsatisfying in a solo setting.”

“Eventually the penny dropped that to play more expressive/complex/interesting music I'd just have to work like mad on it.  I'd been hanging around waiting for it to happen automatically! So I got stuck into practicing with renewed enthusiasm and gradually it started to come together. At first I just worked on rebuilding or improving my technique, left and right hand, posture etc- the whole bit- trying to get better tone and a wider range of techniques and options to bring to bear on the music. Once that solidified I started on the repertoire and versions started to come together”.

During the last three years Danny has also been playing with the previously mentioned Mórga and in the duo Danny & Aki, with his good mate Aki, a Finnish multi-instrumentalist and experimental musician who lives in Dublin. Playing with Mórga demanded a lot of speed and precision he said, while the duo material involved lots of open tuning, unfamiliar time signatures and generally was fairly mind-expanding and technically demanding. One part of the fiddle sound he has been trying to develop is the use of a lot more chords and double-stops than is normal in Irish music.

“After using lots of open tunings in the duo with Aki I really enjoyed the big, resonant sound they gave the fiddle, but at the same time they were limiting as they constricted you to play in sympathy with the tuning. Key changes, use of accidentals (out-of-key notes), unusual chord or double-stop voicings would often clash with the tuning.  So, I moved away from playing open-tuned but tried to incorporate or fake a bit of the open sound while playing in the more flexible standard tuning. This led to the use of much more than the conventional amount of chords, double-stops and drones while playing melody.”

“The combination of the influences from older players,  plus attempting to emulate the open-tuned sound are some of the ingredients behind the versions you hear on the album”.

“From there most of it was fairly unconscious or evolutionary. I'd start playing a rough approximation of a version of a tune from Tommie Potts or my Dad or whoever and find a few interesting chords or phrasings from which melodic variations would evolve. I ended up with fairly solid personal starting-point versions of the tunes, onto which I could add previously worked out variations which could be inserted at particular points in the tune, but I'd also be sure to keep a little room for spontaneous extras as well.”

Danny’s day job with ITMA involves a lot of field recording work which exposes him to a lot of music that is not often heard.  We ask how this has influenced his work.  

He says that the “ITMA, family and friends have all hugely influenced my playing.  The great benefit of working collecting field recordings while also being a musician is that you're constantly being exposed to really good music in a wide variety of styles- it keeps your ear fresh and definitely doesn't allow you get bored with music.  You're surrounded by inspirational stuff all the time. Obviously ITMA also has a huge wealth of older sound recordings which is a brilliant resource, although, because I work there, I don't always get as much time as I'd like to listen through our collections.”

“My folks have a great influence through their great repertoire of mostly Northern tunes and versions which they have learned, and in some cases invented, over a lifetime of music. I feel they are traditional musicians in the true sense, they play socially and don't worry too much about making recordings, doing gigs etc.   Playing music comes very naturally to them and they enjoy it enormously. They're a great influence and seeing them in action is a lesson not to take it all too seriously, not to forget the point of playing.”

“Most of the musicians I hang around with seem to share an engaged, deep involvement with the music, working on projects ranging from academic studies to experimental recordings to simply learning a lot of new tunes. It's a good environment to be in, as, similarly to working in ITMA, it keeps your musical mind fresh and helps you learn and evolve musically.”

Fiddle Music is a wonderful exploration of tunes, arrangement and styles.  It is very different to his group work with high energy band Mórga.  We ask if there is a conflict between these two very different expressions of traditional music.

“I wouldn't go so far as to say that there's a conflict between Mórga and the solo project but changing from one to the other does require a bit of recalibration” he says.  “When playing with Mórga I do consciously change my playing style a little to blend better with the group sound. I enjoy doing different and contrasting projects though, the variety keeps things interesting, stops you getting too complacent or set in your ways musically.”

Danny is joined on nyckelharpa by Aki, uilleann pipes by Ian Lynch and on accordion and concertina by Eoin Ó Beaglaoich . There is a duet with Dermy Diamond and sean-nós dancer Anna Lethert adds some dancing.  Unusually, some tracks play out solely to drone effects provided by his fellow musicians.  

Danny’s main instrument is an unusual fiddle by Dublin-based luthier Youenn Bothorel, based on a “Gio Paulo Maginni model which predates the more famous violins by Stradavari and Del Gesu” for those interested in such facts. He goes on to explain that “The instrument's body is slightly larger than standard which helps give it a deep, powerful sound and it's particularly suited to open tuning and tuning lower than concert pitch. I feel the sound of the fiddle itself contributes hugely to the Fiddle Music CD and I'm very grateful to Youenn for building and maintaining the instrument to such high standards.”

Fiddle Music can be purchased from iTunes

Danny launches Fiddle Music on Thursday 21st August 2014 in The Cobblestone Bar, Dublin. Doors 9.00pm with special guests.

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