One day in the springtime of the current year I was on my evening walk with Dowally’s 2nd album, Somewhere, in my headphones. I had liked it and its predecessor even before, but now it sounded particularly nice in the beautiful light of May in the Nordic region. So I thought what the heck, this music is bringing up some questions in my mind so why don’t I ask them if they’d do a chat with me. And they did: Rachel Walker and Dan Abrahams took some of their precious time to skype with me on June 11. It’s taken me almost three months to release the conversation – sorry it took so long Rachel & Dan! – but here it is, with my warmest and sincere thanks.
The main trio of Dowally come from quite different musical backgrounds. How did it all merge together?
Rachel: Dan and I knew each other from outside the music scene and at some point, in a pub, we realized we both play music and we started playing together in the sessions on a semi-regular basis. And he gave me some compositions with the fiddle parts for me to play.
When we were doing our first album, the idea of adding an accordion came to Dan. It was summer and most of the good accordion players were unavailable,but he sent a message to this guy, Phil Alexander, who plays in Moishe’s Bagel, a klezmer band in Edinburgh. It was one of our favorite bands and I told Dan ”there’s no way he’s going to even reply”. But he did reply, came to play on the album and we asked him if he’d play with us later too and he said said sure and that’s how we became a trio.
Dan: The first time we met him was literally the first day of the recording of the album. I gave him some earlier recordings, some sheet music and he played all that, and some more too. Mostly on first take, and that’s what you hear on the album (Dowally, 2016). Afterwards, the more we’ve played together, the more we’ve come to arrange our music and play it as a trio.
How did Dowally as a performing band begin and what’s the gigs scene for the band now?
Rachel: I guess even when Dan and I first started playing I thought this was becoming a band, we were composing tunes and everything. And it was really big for me when this folk club in Leith that had both bigger names and newcomers performing gave us our first gig. It was a lovely gig, very well attended, and for me, that was the moment I felt ”ok, this is gonna work, we have the right kind of energy here”. After that it was just a natural process of trying to find gigs, as bands do.
Dan: Gigs are nowadays very hard to get. It used to be easier before but it’s changed a lot and there’s so many bands looking for gigs and at the same time, many venues are closing down.
Rachel: To be a musician nowadays, you don’t just need to play your instrument well, you need to be very organised. Dan and I have a weekly Jam an’ Plan session where we play music and manage our social media accounts and look for gigs and such.
Dan: Gone are the days when you could get a record label deal and they would arrange your gigs and do all that stuff you now have to do yourself. If you can’t spend hours sending emails and talking on the phone and organizing your travelling, you just won’t go anywhere. I do have ambitions for bigger gigs and having our music better known but I’ve come to accept the realities and it’s ok. Some time ago we had four people in the audience and five people in the band but it was fun, we had a laugh and the music was good. It’s too easy to forget the value of that when you’re lost in the maze of trying to organize things.
COMPOSING / SONGS
Much of Dowally’s material sounds very thoughtfully composed and arranged. What’s your method?
Dan: Me and Rachel write the music and arrange it with Phil. Typically, either one of us has an idea, melody or set of chords, even a whole piece. Sometimes an ide gets thrown out but those that don’t are then developed together.
Also, sometimes a piece of music can come fully formed to me, almost like it was all there, just waiting to come out, hanging the air for me to unwrap.
Castellation, and some other Dowally songs, is in an odd time, 5/4 in this case. How intentional is that?
D: We have a few pieces in five, seven and one even in eleven. The point is not to intentionally write a song in an odd time, if you try that it’ll just come out forced. But if it just comes out naturally like that and the rhythm is not too dominating, it’s going to sound good. If a non-musician will not notice anything odd about it, then you’ve succeeded. Someone in France has actually done a drum cover of Castellation, it’s on youtube!
EUROPEAN MUSIC AND JAZZ
Dowally comes with musical spices from different parts of Europe, notably the Balkans and the Mediterranean. And there’s jazz as well. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Dan: I guess I can see the French element, the accordion… But we all love the music of the Balkans, I’ve been to Croatia a few times where I also heard Macedonian folk music and really got into those tunes. And the way Phil often dances around the melody and adds to them… He brings in a lot of the Klezmer thing with him, and he knows so much about all kinds of music, really, he’s a musician’s musician.
Rachel: And we do love jazz; Django and Grappelli and all that… I’m more the novice in that field but the guys are deep into it.
Dan: As a musician, I love the way you can take fairly simple, folky and rootsy ideas and melodies and put unexpected harmonies behind them. Doing the opposite, having some complicated melodies with simpler harmonics behind them, usually won’t work that well.
For example, Snarky Puppy’s chords and structures can be very complex but the melodies are often more simple and catchy. Some people hate Snarky Puppy for being too complex but for me they are great because they know so musch stuff but don’t refrain from using simple, catchy melodies with a hook.
Rachel: I like the folk music thing with unexpected harmonies. I play a lot of Scottish and Irish music in pubs – that’s how I make part of my living – and it’s nice not to have that standard accompaniment you’d usually expect.
I’m definitely a melody person and it’s cool when I take a melody to Dan and he goes ”oh, I hear this and this in it” and it’s great, that’s how the different influences come in and make our folk music the kind it is.
Rachel: When I was young, I played the classical flute but I was never super into it. I’m definitely a folk musician and inspired by that scene. But I didn’t grow with folk music, it was the flute and the piano lessons; I only picked up the fiddle when I was 21. So I was never a part of the Scottish Trad scene, and maybe that’s not in my heart. I was always more interested in folk music in a wider sense and of working things out by myself.
With the fiddle, I love improvising and when working with singers, I like to complement what they’re doing, making little solos and dancing aroudn what they’re doing. I always feel a little bit different when I’m around people who have grown up in Scottish musical traditions.
Dan: We decided to call the new album Somewhere because the music on it is not from a particular place; it’s from several places, or some imaginary country, but still very Earth-y.
VISUAL QUALITY IN DOWALLY’S MUSIC
I hear a strong visual quality, even stories, in many Dowally’s instrumental tunes. Any interest in working in that direction?
Rachel: It’s not necessarily any stories you could tell behind the music, it’s more like emotions and they’re not always easy to articulate to someone else.
Dan: But we have recently been thinking about working with film, either doing a soundtrack or finding some archive film we could do music to. I think our music lends itself to that and it would be a lot of fun to do.
Rachel: If that moves forward, we’ll tell about it on our web site!
Rachel: We’ll do a small tour of Scotland and the north of England later this year, the dates are on our web page. Because of our winning the Danny Kyle Open Stage in this year’s Celtic Connections, we get to play at the Stonehaven Festival this summer, and that’s really huge for us. It’s a big, well-known festival and we get to play on main stage supporting Malinky, Duncan Chisholm and others, so it can be a big step ahead for us.
Dan: And we should be playing Celtic Connections next year 🙂