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 TV series."
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
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 Republic.
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 and traditional.
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 Malin Head.
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