The great Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham once said that "the fiddle is a passport to the world." Few young fiddlers today prove that point better than Laura Cortese. An alumni of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston (responsible for many of the best young fiddlers on the scene today), Cortese's proven to be a deft, powerful fiddler and an artist with a large-ranging vision of traditional music. You can hear this power even in her earliest albums, and her last album of original songs, Into the Dark, remains one of my favorite examples of how an artist can take traditional precepts and meld them with a powerful original vision. In recent years, Laura's been touring the world with her band The Dance Cards as part of the US State Department's American Music Abroad initiative, which brings American roots music to other countries as a way to foster better understandings.
Laura's new album, All In Always, is a reflection of this sense of adventure, featuring a triptych of collaborations with friends in Sweden, Spanish Galicia, and Québec. For the Swedish sessions, she enlisted cellist Jonas Bleckman of Skaran with guitarist Adam Johansson and percussionist Jens Linell of the crazy-innovative band Sver. For the Québécois sessions she brought on guitarist Yann Falquet of Genticorum, accordionist and harmonica player Pierre-Luc Dupuis of De Temps Antan and formerly La Bottine Souriante, and gigueur Dominic Desrochers. For the Galician sessions, she joined up with flute and bouzouki player Xose Liz, zanfona (hurdy-gurdy) player Anxo Pintos, and singer/paneira player Chisco Feijoo. Plenty of arguments could be made for historical connections that tie these three regions, but really what brings it all together is Laura's fiery fiddling and original and co-written tunes. It's a lovely combination and works wonderfully as a fiddle album. I wanted to find out more and to hear more about her travels, so I reached out to her online recently for an interview!
What gave you the idea to create and album of sessions with three different traditions (Québec, Sweden, Galicia)? What do you think ties these three traditions together?
Laura Cortese: If you mark time by the first release of my first album (it was rereleased), I have been a touring musician for 15 years. I started as a fiddler. My principal instrument at Berklee College of Music was fiddle, and yet I have never released an album of instrumental fiddle music. A strange choice when you realize that many fiddlers mark the beginning of their careers with such an album. When I graduated Berklee, I was very inspired by song and songwriting and how the fiddle could accompany the voice. In the back of my head I imagined that someday i would make an album that really featured the fiddle and tunes.
Two years ago, after a series of camps and festivals where I met some incredible Swedish musicians, I had reconnected with the fiddle and a desire to write instrumental tunes. I felt the obsessive energy of instrumental musicians to compose and devour other people’s compositions. Nights where we record each other playing favorite new or old tunes and then trade those recordings like secret notes. Everyone wants to be the one who has the source recording. Because we want the jam to go on and on. We want to be able to add to the energy when we come together. To share the joy of streams of notes played in unison or harmony.
As I felt this familiar obsession return I thought about the times in my career when I had felt this before. Who was there? What nights brought that joy back to me? I had distinct memories of the deep groove and crooked tunes in Quebec, swimming in the river and learning flamenco rhythms with Galicians, and staying up all night to play old-time and swedish tunes with Swedes in Norway and California.
I decided that I would make an instrumental music album as an homage to that voracious energy to connect. The desire to add something to fuel the all night tune playing fire. I wanted to honor the musicians who reminded me what I love about the fiddle. I wrote tunes thinking about them and inspired by them, asked them for their tune compositions and even co-wrote a tune. To complete the project I planned a three week trip to record all these tunes in the three countries with the musicians who inspired me.
Tell me a little bit about what the experience of traveling for the State Department has meant to you?
LC: Traveling as part of American Music Abroad has been the single most profound professional and personal experience I have had. To perform at a college in Pune, India and receive a Facebook message the following day from an award winning percussionist and student at the school thanking us for our visit. Thanking us for showing his female classmates that women can play instruments. Hoping that they would feel inspired by us to fight for the opportunity to learn an instrument. India is a complicated place. But to know that our performance inspired this response from one of the young male students gives me hope for his generation, that they will fight to include women more equally in their society.
To perform in Ukraine and meet the head of medical services in the EuroMaidan revolution, Nadiya Savchenko’s mother and many other women directly involved in Ukraine's fight for a corruption free democracy. Then to be asked the following day by a young man “What do Americans know about Ukraine?”, and to have to admit that before we planed on coming here we knew very little. And promise to share all we now know. That Ukrainians take their rich culture and their democracy seriously. It is a privilege they are honored to have and willing to fight for.
To take the long drive up into the mountains near the border of Bulgaria in Greece to meet young Muslim students. To find them to be just like American high school students. Arms folded, apprehensive in their leather jackets. Boys teasing each other and the girls. And then the few eager ones who smile shyly while looking us in the eye. To watch their guards come down over the course of an hour. To sing together in their language, a dialect of Bulgarian, and ours. And then to return to the big city in Greece and have people ask us if those kids in that village were “different’, “you know”…And to share what we experienced. They reminded us of students back home. They are like teenagers everywhere. Awkward, insecure and yet eager to experience the world.
Overall i have been so impressed by both the locally engaged staff (people born and raised in the countries we have visited) as well as our foreign service officers. These programs tread lightly. They are about exchanges of ideas and being human together. They are about inspiring individuals to find value in equality among genders, races and other perceived differences. As I write this one of the Ambassadors just liked a Washington Post article I shared on Facebook about the responsibility of white people to educated themselves about the Black Lives Matter movement. That is the type of person I want representing the US.
Do you think the overall perspective on Americans is improving in the world now that the "bad old" days of Bush are behind us? Though I guess Trump is looming on the horizon…
LC: It’s hard to say. The world likes Obama. That was considered a move in the right direction. Overall depending on the person and the country I am in I have found people who still hold the US up in a glowing light of opportunity and the American dream. Students wanting to go to American universities for music programs despite the fact that there are incredible music programs all through out Europe. I’ve also met people who say “Yeah Obama moved things in the right direction" but the distance between that and a society that actually nurtures its populations is night and day.
As for Trump mostly people laughed it off in disbelief. Like, “What is going on over there? You people are crazy.” My only answers to that were to explain the primary process and how few people were actually voting for Trump despite him winning the primary and then to say that we can’t think of it as a joke. We have to take this seriously. We have to ensure that these ideas don’t take hold.
The Pine Leaf Boys (also with American Music Abroad) just had a scary experience in Istanbul with a terrorist attack at the airport. Did you ever feel unsafe on your travels?
LC: I have always felt incredibly safe on our tours. Maybe a bit uneasy to find out in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that we were being monitored by the security services of their governments. Then again, I would rather be monitored and safe. It has been heart breaking and unsettling to return home from places only to have major terrorist events occur on streets you have walked down. And yet when we were in these countries our cars and our venues were inspected for explosives. I don’t know what to think really. I do know that the only path forward through this tumultuous time is for people to connect and find that we all have the same basic needs for a thriving life.
Are you starting to feel more at home in Europe or overseas than back in Boston?
LC: Home is something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately. There are many joys I experience when traveling overseas that I try to bring to my life back in Boston. Driving less, seeing friends more…I’ve definitely threatened to move to Europe in the past few years. You never know.
NOTE: Travel images courtesy of Laura Cortese's Instagram. Thanks Laura for the photos and the great interview!