By David Currie
Imagine a group of people who still spend their lives exploring the world like cartographers of old. Setting sail away from home and seeking out, mapping out, and learning all things new. That’s the feeling you get when talking to fiddleplayers. These modern day Magellans have devoted their lives to the act of discovery in music and on July 8 2017, you have the opportunity to see what they’ve learned. I sat down with Karrnnell Sawitsky and April Verch to learn about fiddling and instead discovered something new about what it means to Canadian and ultimately what it means to be human.
“It’s a beautiful instrument that means so much to Canadians. It’s cool to be representing so many regions, we have a pretty good cross-section represented, That’s pretty cool of Canada Scene to do. I get this strange emotional feeling thinking about what it would have meant to those who came before us. There are so many legends and we are still playing their tunes and carrying their legacies forward.” –April Verch
Off the bat, both these people seem like the best of friends, with slightly different interests. April seems to want to transport the audience, connecting them with the beauty of fiddle music throughout centuries and geographies. Karrnnell wants to make audiences feel something entirely new.
Canadian fiddle players seem to be in a constant state of flux. Geographically they are always in motion, always learning, meeting up with each other and sharing stories of their latest discoveries – the newest styles that excite them.
“Everybody knows each other in the fiddle world and there’s a lot of jamming together, there are a lot of kitchen parties and a lot of time drinking beer and having conversations about fiddling. That’s where the band came from,” Karrnnel told me. This came from a conversation we had without any beer, and in the day. “We wanted to try blending traditional and modern fiddle music together.”
He went on to explain “Well, the idea was to put together a string quartet. Two violins, a viola, and a cello. That makeup for classical music. Since we all play folk we can blend that with Celtic music, with traditional music, and we can just keep trying new things.”
And The Fretless, as a band, is kind of the perfect metaphor about what you should expect on Saturday. Some of the most talented stringed instrument players in the country, getting together with each other, and sharing tunes and experiences with each other in front of an audience.
It turns out fiddle playing is all about learning. For April Verch, she needs to learn about as many styles as she can and when talking to her she seems to have an infinite capacity for wonder and an unlimited capacity for the love of new styles. “It’s always been important to me to not sound like I’m trying to be something I’m not,” she told me. “When I learn a Swedish tune or play in the Appalachian style I need to be able to put enough of myself to show that I love it and show the people who grew up with those styles that I am honouring their tradition.”
April grew up in the Ottawa Valley going to fiddle jams. By a very young age she was already a celebrated ambassador of that style – eager to learn about everywhere and every style she could. Karrnnel grew up in Saskatoon and, very similarly, by a young age was already dominating the competition circuit and making friends throughout Canada. The Fretless just won a JUNO Award and I of course asked the obvious question.
“Yeah it’s an obvious question but every time I’m asked it I just go back there. It was completely surreal. I’m overly elated. It was incredible. We didn’t expect to win. Like I’m sure all touring bands, it was a dream. Something we’d dream about together as we were driving between cities. ‘Oh. I want to win a JUNO’ and then it happened.”
I like when people I like win prizes.
But the band has new things to try out and new discoveries to make. “Well the bigger picture is, we’re going to be recording a traditional album in front of a live studio audience. We want to record 12 tracks with different singers and really explore that feeling. Playing with a voice is just such a different experience. I mean with the idea for the band being how experimental can we get with a traditional quartet – this just seems like a natural thing.”
“Even though it’s a big country, the fiddle community is small and we all feel like old friends.”
It seems all fiddle players love the community, the constant reconstitution of members and experiences. “Even though it’s a big country, the fiddle community is small and we all feel like old friends. That’s really special. I can’t wait to perform with them again,” said April.
Both April and Karrnnel ended by talking about why they play fiddle music. “We really brought a new feeling to the music when we worked with Rooth Moody and we’re going to build on that. We really want to play music for people, and share music with artists and other people.” And for April? “It’s really important for the audience to feel something. When I play I want them to walk away thinking ‘That’s exactly what I needed today.’”
April Verch and Karnnell Sawitsky will perform at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) on Saturday July 8 at 7:30pm as part of the Canada Scene Festival. The night is being hosted by Natalie MacMaster and also includes performances by John Arcand, Wesley Hardisty, and Cynthia MacLeod. Tickets cost $45–75 online and at NAC Box Office locations.