ZOE CONWAY INTERVIEWS
A Belle and her Bow
- Zoë Conway plays a fiddle and a very
fine fiddle indeed. John Daly catches up with a virtuoso who has wowed
presidents both sides of the Atlantic and is now about to release her
first record. Full Interview
TALENT IN HER FINGER TIPS
John Brophy in conversation with Zoë Conway, on the launch of her
debut CD which was produced by Bill Whelan. Full
Conway plays a fiddle and a very fine fiddle indeed. John Daly catches
up with a virtuoso who has wowed presidents both sides of the Atlantic
and is now about to release her first record.
Sitting idly on a park bench in Stephens Green in the
middle of August, the air should normally be dense with the jostling babble
of accents from around the world. Instead, all is peace as the bells toll
midday in the heart of Dublin. With shafts of breaking sun lightening
up the flower beds complimented by a pair of drooped-neck swans cruising
by in stately file, it seems that the city's most verdant lung has been
left to the locals for a change. Into the Monet-like atmosphere strolls
Zoë Conway clutch her fiddle, a smiling vision of Celtic pulchritude
to complete the mood.
Billed by an increasingly aware international press as
'one of Ireland's most gifted young musicians', this effusive Dundalk
lady began playing the violin aged 8 and has succeeded not only in the
expected classical arena but also in the diverse tributaries of jazz,
bluegrass and her beloved traditional. Having played in the Junior and
Senior Youth Orchestras of Ireland and the Dublin Conservatory of Music
and Drama Senior Orchestra, Zoë was also the leader of the Cross-Border
Orchestra for three year's under the baton of Gearoid Grant. Add to that
performances for Presidents Robinson, MacAleese, Queen Sonja of Norway
and the state Banquet at Dublin Castle for the visit of the Chinese Premier.
Despite the cultural weight of such a loaded curriculum vitae implies,
Zoë Conway presents as relaxation personified. With dark tumbling
tresses, sparkling green eyes and an easy smile accompanying most of her
modest answers, it's clear she's the last one to be influenced by media
raves. "I've been playing since I was eight and I suppose most people
would know me through my classical career, but I always loved other kinds
of music as well, especially traditional. I don't see that as a clash,
not a situation where a decision to go one way or the other becomes necessary.
As I see it, music feeds off variety. Classical training gives you a good
grounding, certainly, and provides a springboard for other interpretations
of your musicality."
Coming from an ordinary background where family life circled
a broad musical appreciation, her route to the fiddle seemed preordained.
"I did a bit of piano and banjo in the beginning, but as soon as
I held my first fiddle I knew that was it" she said with another
broad smile of perfect teeth. "It took me over, it said everything
I wanted to say. Plus, of course, the fiddle was the coolest instrument
of them all. Fiddles have a terrific personality." While the standard
perception of orchestra life as a civilised world where manners, discipline
and etiquette rule the chords, it proved an early professional combat
zone where a Dundalk lass learned fast in the heat of competition. "It
is a competitive place, sometimes fiercely so" she recalled, "Orchestras
are structured in a way that moving upwards through the ranks is the aspiration
of most - you want to keep moving until you get to the top. Then You're
happy" she laughs. "Orchestras are healthy competition, there
is none of the animosity you get elsewhere. It's good in that it makes
you work for your auditions, work to get better all the time."
May 2000 marked a major turning point in the Conway career
graph when she played the guest soloist spot with the Irish Chamber Orchestra
at the world premiere of composer Bill Whelan's Inishlacken at
Washington's Kennedy Centre. "The evening's greatest discovery was
Zoë Conway, an 18-year old Irish fiddler with a burnished tone and
a commanding technique." Gushed The Washington Post . "Her elegant,
polished and straightforward reading captured "Inishlacken" in
all its' primitive charm." In an unfaltering professional spotlight, the
girl from Dundalk delivered the virtuoso goods where it really mattered.
"Yes, that really was the first big one, for sure. It was such an
honour for me - and one I didn't fully realise until after the performance.
The Irish Chamber Orchestra are the best of the best, right up there with
the cream of international talent. And then there's me, the guest soloist
with these masters - ridiculous. Just totally ridiculous," another
dazzled laugh at the luck of it all. Bill Whelan had written the piece
with Zoë specifically in mind having witnessed her solo slot in the
Riverdance tour some weeks before.
"Another thing that made the concert so incredible for me was the
fact that De Dannan had also played the same venue the previous night.
I'm such a huge fan of theirs, it made the whole thing even better."
Admitting that appreciation by her musical peers in Ireland has always
had a greater personal significance than any potential overseas acclaim,
events of July 2000 added a further chapter to the Zoë Conway fairytale.
Organising a best of the best line-up for his Music Show, Gay Byrne had
no doubts about whose name should be amongst the Irish luminaries gracing
the series. " I saw her playing in a jazz concert in the National
Concert Hall where She did a swinging version of Chicago which was incredible.
She brought the bloody house down. I said that's one girl I want for the
Replacing sophisticated Paganini with the mellow cool of Jelly Roll Morton,
Zoë added another stepping stone to a musical talent searing all
before it. "Gay Byrne was a face I'd grown up with - I mean, who
doesn't know the man. And when he was doing the publicity for the series,
he just kept mentioning my name. And he had them all, the best of talent
in the whole country, and he's telling everyone how great Zoë Conway
is. Of course, I was floored by all of this - but also, as he's such an
influential person within Ireland, he gave my career a huge boost."
Having capped off a dream 2001 by winning the All-Ireland Fiddle Championship,
Zoë Conway continues to divide her increasingly crowded schedule
between classical, bluegrass and traditional. With a debut album collaborating
with Irish icons like Donal Lunny and Micheal O'Domhnaill on release from
September, the Dundalk lass with the beguiling smile continues to take
it all in her stride. Looking back on the Helter-skelter of the last few
years, she pauses before choosing that one incredible moment forever etched
in her young mind. "For sheer weirdness and wonder, I'd have to say
the New York Stock Exchange. They invited me there on St. Patrick's Day
to play a few tunes on the trading floor just before the big bell sounded.
So there I am, me and my fiddle, playing away in a corner when suddenly
this voice booms out from the bridge overlooking their entire place. It's
Dick Grasso, the chairman of the whole place, the boss of bosses, asking
me if I can play a certain tune. I nod yes and immediately a trio of executives
hustle me up to the balcony in full view of the whole place. TV cameras,
CNN and NBC, all around me. So there I was in the heart of capitalist
democracy, going out live to the whole world, playing Danny Boy to millions.
Crazy, Mad, Magic," Suitable epithets for a career that's barely
Irish Independent Weekend - August 31st 2002
Back to Top
Conway Live - DVD
TALENT IN HER FINGER TIPS
John Brophy in conversation with Zoë Conway, on the launch of her
debut CD which was produced by Bill Whelan.
The CD has no less than a dozen tunes, which she wrote herself,
and this has all happened before her 21st birthday. The only correct reaction
is a sustained gasp of astonished admiration. So how did this start? With
the music, it's seldom someone that good just scrapes it off the stones.
Well, Zoë is the fourth of five children. Her parents don't play,
but they had a great interest, and for as long as she can remember she
was going to fleadhs, sessions and places like the Willie Clancy week.
Her father worked in the Claremont Arms in Dundalk, where the Mulligan
family, now gloriously reigning in the Cobblestone in Dublin, were based.
"Dad has a lot of brothers" says she, "and for a while
I thought the Tim, Neillidh and Alfie were my uncles."
There is a fiddle, a flute and a concertina available among the siblings,
and a family album could be a possibility some time. All the elders have
got 'proper jobs', though, but from the age of thirteen she knew she wanted
to be a musician and nothing else. She was very fortunate in her school.
Dun Lughuaidh in Dundalk is run by the St. Louis nuns who have always
had a strong tradition for music making. The Corrs are also products of
the same institution. The nuns were very supportive and there was a full
corridor of music practice rooms, and once her dedication was established,
she was allowed to drop some subjects and use the time for music. It wasn't
your average school orchestra either. The cross-border orchestra includes
players from Dundalk ("we supplied the strings") and Newry (who
supplied the bass players) and also Banbridge. The conductor was the well-known
Gearoid Grant, who has a huge experience with choirs, musical productions
and broadcasts. With them she toured to Britain, Finland and the Czech
When she started out she had to keep her traditional playing apart from
her classical work. Maybe the attitudes of classical players had softened,
but it was still universally believed that you couldn't and shouldn't
mix the two. Now Zoë can use the same posture and bow-hold for all
kinds of music, and it's surely a mark of the changing times that the
Irish music has as wide an audience and as sure a career path as the classical.
Probably the ultimate proof of this is the work written by Bill Whelan,
Inishlacken, which she premiered in the Kennedy Center in Washington in
May 2000. John Pitcher of the Washington Post commended her "Burnished
tone and commanding technique" which allows shifts between the classical
If any more proof were needed, think of this; Last year, she won the top
marks in the Grade B exams of the Associated Board in London, (That's
the top grade before doing the diplomas for teaching or performing). And
she also won the senior championship at the National Fleadh in Listowel.
And to think she only started violin lessons when she was nine. By now
she has played with both the junior and senior divisions of the National
Youth Orchestra. Her classical teacher in Dublin was Odhran Cassidy of
the famed family group Na Cassaigh. By now, "Anything I can hear
in my head I can play with my fingers." "Straight Off?"
"Yes. Pretty much and it's such a benefit. I can go up the fiddle
as high as I like; I can do everything classically and transfer it into
any style I want."
She still has a great love for classical music; we nearly get diverted
into talking about the Bach Sonatas. But then I remember I have to ask
her about the jazz. She explains that she was playing along with Jimmy
Faulkner in some Stefan Grapelli tunes, when in came "Professor"
Peter O'Brien, Ireland's leading Stride piano player. "I had no idea
who he was," she admits.
But he definitely liked what he heard and she was booked to play with
him at the Annual Fourth of July concert in the National Concert Hall.
(That was in 2000, already the gigs and the honours have started coming
very fast and furious). In the audience was veteran broadcaster Gay Byrne,
who was immediately sought her for his TV music show.
Earlier in that month she played at the Killaloe Music Festival with the
Irish Chamber Orchestra, where the programme included Inishlacken. That
was in the Cathedral beside the Shannon close to where Brian Boru's Royal
Palace of Kincora stood a thousand years ago
Zoë is very much aware of her own roots. In Dundalk there is still
the place-name Muirtheimhne, which is mentioned in the great saga of the
Tain, the story of Queen Maeve, Cuchullain and the Knights of the Red
Branch. She herself comes from very near Tuireann, and the sad story of
the Three Sons of Tuireann and their voyages was regarded in the tradition
as the as the equal of the story of the Children of Lir. It was Donal
O'Connor, son of Gerry the Banjo and mandola, who first sparked her interest
and identified the place mentioned in the story, and that's why on the
CD there is a tune called after the story Anachain Tuireann. She has joined
this with two other tunes, The Tilly Lamp (referring to the kerosene pressure
lamp that lit many a session before there was electricity, they were made
up the road in Dunmurry, just south of Belfast) and Millennium Eve.
There are other titles with a story: Cloch na Ron refers to Roundstone
in Co. Galway where Bill Whelan has the lovely studio and where she recorded
the album, and it's paired with the tune Moving Towards Inishnee, referring
to an island just off the coast. The Two Steves is a tribute to Steve
Cooney, our wonderful Australian import with more locks that the Grand
Canal, and Steve Berry, a sound man in the technical sense too. The Caledon
Line is a tribute to her mother's country in Co. Tyrone; you hear a wheen
of a northern accent in the playing sometimes, as in another tune, Rounding
And there's a lovely story about the last tune, which was written but
had no name. And she was sitting round the table in Roundstone when someone
mentioned that in Irish, New Year's Day is called the Cock Day, because,
'tis said, the days have lengthened a cock's step since Christmas. The
tune already had a nice skip to it, so the Cock Step it is.
There's also an additional surprise. There's a sung version of the great
slow air, Taim-se im' Choladh, Who I ask, was the guest singer with the
lovely clear voice? "Myself," comes the answer. I'll warrant
yez that even if she were never to put another bow on a fiddle, she'd
have a grand future with the singing.
The CD also has Zoë's party piece, the Pizzicato Waltz. Here comes
the trade secret: for this she uses a specially tuned fiddle: C-sharp,
A, E, A, which gives a special bell-like sound. The idea of using special
tunings is very strong in the country tradition and Zoë has already
played bluegrass and is looking forward to doing some more.
What about instruments: "The one recorded on the album is JTL, A
French/German make. They were actually made by students, with five different
grades. This one is a grade four so it's a really well made fiddle; it's
beautiful. But after I'd finished the album I fell in love with another
fiddle, a Max Muller from Amsterdam. I had never picked up a fiddle before
which I would have preferred to the one I had, but this one, I had to
have it: I couldn't sleep for two days wondering if it was for sale, or
how much it was. So now I have two beautiful fiddles that I love. The
second one is more suited to the classical: it has a broader, deeper,
mellower kind of tone. The older fiddle projects more. So I don't think
that I will ever have to buy another fiddle, once I don't lose them."
Her bow is from Noel Burke in Westport, a little heavier than average,
but that's what suits her music.
But first there's the album. She has a small tour of Ireland planned,
and after that she'll see about Europe and America. She may arrange it
herself. Her sheer professionalism is as remarkable. Nowadays, in Ireland,
students take a year out of formal studies at the age of 16. The idea
is to find out about life, develop social skills, and do some work experience
to help choose a career. Zoë had no doubts about her career, so she
set up the group Dal Riada (the name refers to an ancient kingdom straddling
both Antrim and Kintyre in Scotland). With her were Mick Broderick, Tristan
Rosenstock and Gavin Whelan. She learned a lot about the life of gigs
and sessions, and got to know most of the people on the scene, and how
to open doors. For instance, it was at one session in the Harcourt Hotel
that she first met Bill Whelan, and he has acknowledged her talent and
helped to foster it. Donal Lunny was someone she had known for a long
while, since she had often met and competed against Donal's daughter,
Cora, in classical competitions, and they are good friends.
Right now she's a member of Riverdance "Flying Squad", a group
of musicians and dancers who are on call to do one-off flying visit for
performances in nice places like Monte Carlo. But she takes it all in
her stride. After all, she has already performed at State occasions for
President Robinson and President McAleese, for Queen Sonja of Norway and
for the Chinese Premier Zhu Rongii when he visited Ireland.
You'd almost wonder if there is anything left to do? There's plenty, and
for Zoë, life is like a holiday, doing the things she likes best,
and getting paid. For us, there's not only the enjoyment from her enthusiasm
and musicianship, there's also the knowledge that the music is in very
safe and talented hands.
Irish Music Magazine - September 2002
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