Echoes of Enlightenment, Whispers of the Ancients

The Four Shillings Short Interview by Michael LohrFour Shillings Short  edited

The wondrously blended combination of traditional Celtic music with various styles of music from India is what Four Shillings Short does best. From Vedic harmonies and spiritual Ragas to Gregorian Chants and Gaelic hymns they skillfully perform all with elegance and grace.

Originally founded in the San Francisco Bay area in 1985, and surviving many line-up variations over the years, the husband/wife duo of Aodh Og O’Tuama and Christy Martin puts on a captivating performance. They are just the exact amalgam of exotic and familiar to enchant the senses. They have toured around the world doing 150 concerts a year and have released 12 albums. Aodh and Christy are indeed troubadours in the truest sense of the word.

Q: How did Four Shillings Short first come together? And how did Christy become involved?

Aodh: In 1983, I got a fellowship to study Medieval & Renaissance Music at Stanford University in California.
At the auditions for the Stanford Early Music Singers, I noticed this interesting looking man called Ernest Kinsolving. Subsequently, in 1985 we started Four Shillings Short as a duo. Within a couple of years, a third member, Karl Franzen joined. Over the next decade, the group had a revolving cast of members. In 1995, I met Christy.

Christy: In 1993 I started a trio called “Your Mother Should Know” along with J-B St. Leger and Greg Hines. We played in coffeehouses around the SF Bay Area including a famous coffeehouse in Palo Alto called “St. Michael’s Alley”. I had heard that Four Shillings Short was a great band so I went to St. Michael’s Alley one night in 1995 to see them. Two of the members in the band were familiar to me from local Celtic music jam sessions, so at the intermission I went up to say hello. That was when I met Aodh Og. We talked a bit and he asked me to put my name & phone number on his mailing list. A week later he asked me out for a date and the rest is history. I joined the band within the year and by 1997 we were touring all over the country.

Q. What is your musical background? What paths have you traveled to arrive at this juncture?

Aodh. My background is in Traditional Irish Music, the Irish language or Gaelic being my first language, so I grew up steeped in the Irish culture and listening to Classical and Baroque and Operatic music. My father was a playwright in the Irish language and started a theatre company in Cork, Ireland called “The Everyman Theatre”.
So I grew up working in theatre and music. I have a degree in Music from University College Cork and I worked in professional theatre for 25 years and when Christy and I met I eventually gave up working in theatre and concentrated solely on music. In theatre, I was primary a sound designer.

Christy. I grew up in a musical family. My dad played trombone and sousaphone in Swing bands, Big Bands and did concerts with the community college band where I grew up in San Diego, California. My mother was a trained classical ballerina and also sang in the opera chorus and choirs. We always had lots of classical, jazz and world music playing in the house. On my 10th birthday, I was given a Ravi Shankar album and that started my love affair with Indian Classical Music. By 15 I had my first Sitar and was studying with Tony Karasek, a student of Ravi Shankar’s. I studied also with Rahul Sariputra from Mumbai who was a student of Allaudin Khan (Ravi Shankar’s teacher). In college, I studied classical music as well. I first heard Celtic music in the 80’s and got my first Hammered Dulcimer in the early 90’s and studied with Glen Morgan, Maggie Sansone and Dan Duggan. I took up mandolin and studied with a bluegrass player, Jack Tuttle. My fascination with instruments continued to grow over the years and now I play bodhran, banjo, guitar, charango, bowed psaltery, bouzouki, mandola, mountain dulcimer and most recently the ukulele. I also have a fiddle and am taking lessons whenever I can.

Q. Speaking of backgrounds, Aodh, you once played in a band called the Drivelling Druids? Are there any tales to tell about that musical experience?

Aodh. I went working for the US Army recreation department in Stuttgart, Germany in 1978 doing both theatre and music. I started a group called “The Stuttgart Early Music Consort” performing Medieval and Renaissance music. My youngest brother in Ireland was a “new wave” singer and this influenced my decision to rename the group “The Drivelling Druids” and we put on two fully staged shows in the theatre, wearing outlandish costumes and mixing in Monty Python-esque skits intermingled with the music. There exists a video of the second of these shows and it’s quite fun.

Q. Your combination of Celtic and Indian sitar music makes for a fascinating, almost spiritual movement to your compositions. What is your primary muse?

Aodh. The modes or scales of the Irish Airs express deep emotions that touch the soul. The emphasis on Nature in both traditions give them a spiritual depth.

Christy. The Indian Ragas and Irish Slow Airs have a wonderful meeting place that we continue to explore in our fusion of the two. The spiritual quality of the music comes through because many of the Ragas have a meditative feeling to them. I have also studied the Vedas of India and Sanskrit for over 10 years and have practiced yoga and meditation since I was a young girl. The spiritual quality comes through in the music because they are at the core of who I am and is a primary motivation or muse for all the music.

Q. I’ve heard Four Shillings Short described as a combination of the Clancy Brothers, Jean Richie and Ravi Shankar. Is that a fair assessment or are you embarrassed by such lofty comparisons?

Aodh. No, I’m not embarrassed by such lofty comparisons though all three mentioned are masters. But the variety of traditions that we include in our music is what gives rise to such comparisons.

Christy. This comparison is lovely and a true compliment. Our music is a great fusion of styles and thats what makes it so fun for us and our audiences. There is a great Celtic side to what we do and then the Indian influence is a part of our concerts that everyone looks forward to. The folk side of the music digs deep into the worlds musical traditions and has a simple and direct way of connecting with the themes that are at the core of all folk music.

Q. What are some of your musical influences? And what was it about these people that influenced you so?

Aodh. In the Classical World, Baroque, Medieval and Renaissance music were my primary influences for instance Bach and the amazing performances of David Monroe and the Early Music Consort of London. In Irish Music, Sean O’Riada and the work he did bringing the ancient Irish music to light and the folk music of the 50’s and 60’s have all influenced me because of their activism, scholarship and adventurousness exploration of the music.

Christy. My musical influences range from Classical, Jazz, World and Folk. Indian music of course is a huge influence and it is the area I have studied the deepest. Ravi Shankar is one of my greatest musical influences because of his mastery of the Sitar and how he stretched the music into other realms by collaborating with so many artists of other music genres. I also was influenced by Joan Baez & Pete Seeger and their work for Social Justice through music.

Q. What was the inspiration behind “The Secret of the Water Sound” album?

Aodh. The words of the song “Irish Ways and Irish Laws” inspired the title of the album, and I had taken the photographs of the pictures on the album in Watkins Glen, NY after a huge Summer storm. What also inspired the album was that we wanted to work with some of the musicians who we had worked with on previous albums and we also wanted to work with Prof. John Barsotti, who had mixed and mastered our 5th & 7th albums “From Ragas to Riches” and “Attitude and Gratitude”. We had also over the years, performed with Christy’s sister, Susannah Martin, and loved our harmonies.
Christy.

Q. What was the muse behind your album, Of Love and Liberty?

Christy. This album is a compilation of two earlier recordings “Dodging Lodging” and “ From Ragas to Riches”. We decided to combine the best of these two albums and create a compilation of what we sounded like in the early days (1997 – 2003) of Four Shillings Short. The title “Of Love and Liberty” came from the content of the love songs and political songs that are on the album.

Q. Do you have any venue or festival that is your favorite to play? Any outstanding recent gigs come to mind?

Aodh. The Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, TN in 2012 was one of the largest festivals we’ve played to date.

Christy. The Falling Rock Café in Munising, MI in the Upper Peninsula and the San Gregorio General Store in San Gregorio, CA is two of our favorite places to play in the US. Our favorite place to play on St. Patrick’s day is “Angelica’s” in Redwood City, CA.

Q. What song do you enjoy the most to play live?

Aodh. Taimse im Chodhladh, Welcome in another year, One more banjo

Christy. Pass it on

Q. Out of all the instruments that you two play, what has been the most difficult one to master?

Aodh. The Crumhorn and Recorder

Christy. The Sitar

Q. With such an amalgam of musical styles interspersing within your overall sound, is there one song that you either written or performed that you feel is your quintessential song? That song that best represents who you are and what you do as artists?

Aodh. I cannot choose between “Harvest Gypsies”, “A Drop in the Bucket” or “Common Thread”.

Christy. No one song can encompass it all but “Pass It On” is the closest.

Q. What has been the oddest thing either onstage or off that you’ve seen/experienced while on tour? You know, your ‘Spinal Tap’ moment.

Aodh. We were playing a lovely slow Air called “the Wounded Hussar” at the Oak Center General Store in Oak Center, MN, when a basset hound squatted to pee on the carpet in front of the stage and I stopped and said “Everyone’s a critic”. The crowd roared in laughter.

To learn more about Aodh Og O’Tuama, Christy Martin, Four Shillings Short and their music please go to their official website www.fourshillingsshort.com. They also are on Facebook and YouTube.