Childsplay’s Artistic Director Bob Childs talks new album, ‘The Bloom of Youth’ and how one violin changed his life

It all started with a fiddle.  Childsplay’s Artistic Director Bob Childs didn’t realize over 40 years ago when he entered a shop in Maine to have his violin fixed, it would be the start of something that would change his entire life.  Featuring a long list of award-winning musicians from across the country and beyond, internationally-touring Childsplay recently released their latest album The Bloom of Youth.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Artistic Director and violin maker Bob Childs talks about creating Childsplay’s unique sound, making 160 violins, their latest album, and the lasting friendships he has made through music.  He has a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sleepless Critic:  What is it about the fiddle that appeal so much to you?

Bob Childs:  I worked my way through college as a carpenter and my first job out of college was in Maine selling furniture.  In 1976, I took my violin for repair to an old violin maker, Ivy Mann, because I thought about playing Irish fiddle music.

When he repaired my instrument, he asked me when I was coming back.  I had no concept of what he was saying so I said I wasn’t sure.  He pointed at this wood he put on his bench and said that he would love to teach me violin making because he was in his 70s and was ready to pass on information before he stopped working.  I was 22 and I decided why not.

Training as a violin maker involved six years of apprenticeships and some journeymen work since it is a European instrument.  I worked with two violin makers who were training in Germany and then ended my journeyman work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I worked for a shop that mainly worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

SC:  With the band and everything, Maine seems to be a center point in your life.

BC:  Maine is an incredible place not just for the land’s beauty, but for the great music.  I really cut my teeth on music and got to know a lot of the old musicians there.  We always sell out the shows in Maine and the audiences are incredibly enthusiastic.  Even though I am down in the Boston area, some family members still live there and I think at least three or four of the musicians also have Maine roots.

When I left Philadelphia, I came here in 1986 and the band has been together since 1988.  When Childsplay first started playing together, a woman in Washington D.C. wanted me to play in a fiddle concert when I was working in a shop in Philadelphia.  I said yes and she said that the name of the band is Childsplay because everyone in the band is going to be playing one of your instruments.  We had an amazing time and it’s been over thirty years of playing music together.

SC:  Childsplay also features many performers.

BC:  Yes and I have made over 160 violins.  Most of my instruments have gone to classical musicians and I’ve always built an instrument for somebody with them in mind.  So, I’ve gotten to know so many incredible musicians and they are great friends.

A-BloomOfYouth-Cover

Childsplay’s latest album Photo courtesy of Childsplay

SC:  The Bloom of Youth is your latest album and features some beautiful music.  Big acts like U2 and Bruce Springsteen have snuck right through to perform there.  One of your DVD sets features a live performance at the Somerville Theatre.

BC:  Yes, the first DVD set was filmed at the Somerville Theatre in the late ‘90s.  The second one was made at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 2013.  That film in particular had great success and was picked up by NPR, PBS, and has been shown on pretty much every station in the country.

I think if people attend a Childsplay concert, they really get into the spirit!  The musicianship is unsurpassed featuring All-Ireland Fleadh champions, two national Scottish fiddle champions, and Boston Symphony players, but the best part is the band’s energy.  You can feel it live, on the DVDs, and Bloom of Youth because it is dynamite.

SC:  I understand your latest album, The Bloom of Youth is also your final album.

BC:  It’s our seventh album and our last album because after next year, we are going to stop touring as a band for a number of reasons.  One is because tour costs are incredibly high.  There’s 21 musicians, five on the production team plus all the other expenses.  Next year will probably be our last year of touring and I hope people will come out and honor the incredible musicians that have been part of the band and the music we have created together.

SC:  I’ve listened to the album and I really like the joyous rhythms of Buddy Strathspey and Noodle Vendor’s plucking rhythm.

BC:  Shannon Heaton, an amazing composer and flute player who we get to perform with, put together The Noodle Vendor.  She lived in Thailand for awhile and the music she created was a unique cross between Irish and Thai music.  Hanneke Cassell put together Buddy Strathspey.   We both play two other tunes together on the album.  When you hear Childsplay, you hear interesting rhythmic elements and these great harmony layers create a unique sound.

SC:  What is the inspiration behind this new material and what do you think sets this album apart from previous albums?

BC:  We share the stage and the CD with Karan Casey, the most amazing singer from Ireland.  When we first started making our CDs and playing music, we didn’t have a vocalist with the band and it became clear to me when someone made the comment, ‘Out of all the instruments, the violin is the one that sounds most like the human voice.’  I realized that we should add vocals.

In Bloom of Youth, Karan came over from Ireland and she’s touring with us.  We cover some of her songs, what she’s written, and others that she’s brought to the band.  All the arrangements were done by Childsplay members Hanneke Cassel, Keith Murphy, and Bonnie Bewick so we had a lot of fun in making this last album.

SC:  One of the tracks with Karan’s vocals, Where are You Tonight I Wonder is lovely.  It’s like a little lost love song.

BC:  Andy Stewart from Silly Wizard wrote it in Scotland shortly before he passed away.  It’s a beautiful song and Karan’s voice is absolutely stunning.  The song is meant for a lost lover and her singing in the band really conveys that blue feeling you get when a relationship ends.

Award-winning Mastering Engineer Bob Ludwig has mastered so many great albums such as U2 and Springsteen.  He mastered our album as well and he played Karan’s voice right in the center of the sound.  It is absolutely magical to hear that and understand how he really had the ear to make that happen.

We also offer free fiddle lessons.  Different members of the band give fiddle lessons and people can go to the website and download them.  We’ve had a half million people do that over the years.

SC:  You guarantee we’ll be experts at it in the end.

BC:  I’ll do my best to help you.

SC:  The band has evolved so much over the years.  How do you feel about how the band has come along?

BC:  It’s an inter-generational band with the youngest member 17 and the oldest person in their 70s.  More than that, there is a maturity that comes from years of playing together.  The band members have been together over 20 years and there is a sound that emerges over time.  I started making violins in ‘83 and I first started in ‘76.  Not until ‘83 did the violins start sounding like how I made them.  It takes several years of playing together to develop an ear for each other and a real sense of creating our sound and that has happened.  I’m so proud of the band!  It’s remarkable to be onstage and see the audience receiving and reacting to the music.

SC:  What do you hope people will take away from your music or when they attend a live show?

BC:  The one thing I hope to convey to people through our music that it’s possible to create things yourself.  As Karan Casey wrote in her liner notes, ‘Childsplay is an exercise in democracy.  There’s no one leader in the band and everyone takes turns leading and it’s a real creative process.’

I’m hoping when people are moved by our music and its creativity, they’ll be inspired to make their own music or do something creative to add to the world. The world is in very difficult times right now and I’d rather have a legacy making beautiful things and connecting people.

Click here to learn more about Childsplay, their tour schedule and how to get The Bloom of Youth which is also available on ITunes and CDBaby. Follow Childsplay on Facebook or all their latest updates.

REVIEW: WGBH’s annual ‘A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn’ offered humor, inspiration, and vibrant performances

Lighthearted tales of green porridge, an inspirational insect, a hilarious song about classical Greek to more serious fare such as historical anti-war songs, punctuated with the stirring song, Siúil a Rún, sung a capella, highlighted this year’s WGBH’s A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn.  This captivating show concluded its run at Harvard University’s famous Sanders Theatre on Saturday, March 18.  The majestic stage has been affectionately likened to a “roll up desk.”  The beautiful, dark wooden stage was softly-lit with two stately, marble Greek statues sitting on each end as a grand, dimly-lit bronze chandelier floats overhead.

A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn always strikes a delicate balance between the rollicking and a sweet lullaby.  Wearing coordinated black dresses, Scottish musicians Jenna and Mairi Chaimbeul struck the first chords for an afternoon of celebration, comedy, rebellion, and joy wrapped up in the roots and branches of Irish music.  A high energy number greeted the enthusiastic crowd as the rest of this dynamic ensemble took the stage including returning Music Director and multi-instrumentalist Keith Murphy, The Karan Casey Band, fiddle champion Liz Carroll, and the Miller Family with the Goulding School of Irish Music.  Joined by host WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan, A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn was brought to a thrilling start as it traditionally does each year.

Dressed in a black and red dress, Karan Casey’s vocals soar with a tone a bit reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt.  She embraced Buile Mo Chroí’s passionate lyrics such as “the palm of my hand” and “the beat of my heart” accompanied by a concertina, blues guitar, and piano.   She also gave an enthralling performance later as Brian O’Donovan shared how the Irish spontaneously sings in public places.  Karan Casey then offered an impromptu a cappella version of Siúil a Rún as the audience fell into hushed tones before bursting into applause.

All Ireland fiddle champion Liz Carroll, dressed in a red shirt and black pants, offered some welcome comedic storytelling before each of her performances.  Hailing from Chicago, she humorously named a song she’s written on her slide-style fiddle after her brother’s leading film role in The Relic.  She also talked about composing songs for seven rooms in a Chicago art museum containing ceramics, musical instruments, and metal.  Her dry sense of humor combined with her uplifting, toe-tapping songs were wonderful to witness.

Liz was joined by Keith Murphy, who spoke of green porridge on St. Patrick’s Day, for two songs, one amusingly called Barbara Streisand Trip that had the mounting energy and pulsing rhythms of a moving train.  From Newfoundland, Keith Murphy’s performances are always stellar, with a song named after a Tennyson poem about seafaring and the great beyond. He was accompanied by harpist Jenna Moynihan.  His rich, resonant, smooth sound, which possesses a hint of James Taylor and John Denver, is always remarkable.

As for the inspirational insect, Scottish fiddler Jenna Moynihan and harp player and composer Mairi Chaimbeul, competing in a harp festival in April, judged that a particular song was good by an insect that made its presence known after the song, Dancing in Absence was completed.  With the chime of the harp distinct over the fiddler’s subtle rhythm, the energetic tune built into a quick step.

Sam Miller, athletic and blindingly swift, kept the energy high as he performed solo with high leaps, kicks, and complicated stepping.  The Miller dancers and the Goulding School of Irish Music, in coordinated black traditional garb, offered their own moments of comedy, one involving a hat.  They also skillfully navigated though a slip jig and hornpipe reel, showing just why they ranked 5th place at the Glasgow competition traditional set dance.

 

A St. Patrick's Day Celtic Sojourn

Past photo of ‘A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn’ Courtesy of A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn/WGBH

Keeping up with tradition, Brian O’Donovan, with his wife and the ensemble took the stage to pay tribute to The Clancy Brothers with the catchy tune, The Leaving of Liverpool.

The second half tackled anti-war songs, immigration, and its fair share of comedy mixed in.  Not only did Brian O’Donovan proudly share a comedic song on classical Greek and education at Harvard University accompanied by fiddler Kevin Burke, but on a solemn note, also paid a compelling tribute to the late Leonard Cohen with a song about rebellion called The Partisan.  Brian and Keith Murphy created beautiful harmony, enhanced exquisitely by Mairi Chaibeul’s harp.

The afternoon also boasted collaborative jam sessions that brought the audiences to a stomping rhythm and ending with Karan Casey leading a sing-along on immigration with the entire ensemble, showing how music always makes a difference in the world.

A Celtic Sojourn presents their summer Roots and Branches concert in July, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, and other events during the year.  For a taste of Irish and Celtic traditions each Saturday afternoon, click here to tune in to A Celtic Sojourn hosted by Brian O’Donovan on 89.7 FM WGBH from 3 – 6 p.m.  Follow A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn on Facebook for updates and much more.