John O’Brien: Erin, you are a full-time musician, with a busy touring schedule, at least four albums your credit and that of the band Leahy. You have won Juno awards for your music, most memorably the “best new group” and “best instrumental artist” award in 1998. You toured extensively with Shania Twain, and continue to tour internationally year after year. Needless to say, music is the primary occupation of your life. What inspired you to become a full-time musician?
Erin Leahy: Becoming a full-time musician was more of a natural progression than it was a choice, though certainly a choice eventually had to be made. Every one of my siblings began performing at about the age of five, the eldest initially making guest appearances at our parents' musical engagements. We spent the majority of our summers travelling and performing, and for me this was until about the age of fifteen. After completing an undergraduate degree at Trent University, I was faced with a choice: to do post-graduate studies or to continue touring and playing music with my family. I chose the musical path with my family. This is ultimately when becoming a full-time musician became a reality, but there was never a moment in which I questioned my place in the field of music. In fact, this was the only field of work in which giving most of my time felt like the right and desirable thing to do.
J.O. With so many successes in its history so far, is there a secret ingredient to the music you make?
Erin: Just enough influence, but not too much. Receiving direction about fundamentals, but allowing what is natural to be the driving force. Secret ingredient? I'm not sure. Our sound is not something I can easily break down for analysis, since the playing, composing, and really, the lives of the people involved are so interconnected. Celtic music and dance by nature is very joyful. The airs express love and sorrow, but this music mostly communicates joy. I think people are drawn to this aspect of what it is that we do.
I remember the first time Leahy toured in Ireland, and being concerned that after a concert someone might say, "What have you done to this music?" However, the question never came and people seemed pleased with what we were doing. We are all bringing varied musical genres to the mix, which keeps it fresh for us. But I think as siblings playing music together since we were children, what comes out is not so much a blend as it is something whole. If there is a secret ingredient, perhaps it is this.
J.O. Leahy is known for the variety of its instrumentation. You, for instance, play both violin and piano. What’s your favourite instrument and could you say why?
Erin: This question has always been difficult for me to answer. My first instrument was the fiddle, beginning at the age of four. I began learning to play the piano at the age of eight, though I had already heard a lot of piano music from my mother and sisters at home. At a certain point as an early teen, my interest in both instruments was ignited, and though I enjoyed them equally, I gave more serious attention to the piano.
At present and as a player, I would say the piano is my principle instrument and the fiddle a complementary one, since I use it almost always for performing, composing, and recording projects. The piano is such a versatile instrument. I enjoy the fullness of sound it can offer, and there is so much harmony to discover and rhythm to explore with this instrument. The violin can be so emotional and sweet sounding, and I find that it communicates the soul of the player so immediately. My answer has always been that I cannot favour one over the other, and this continues to be my answer. What is my listening preference? I must admit, for years it has been the violin, but this is changing. The piano, with its wide range of tonal frequencies and harmonic resonance, draws me in more and more with time.
J.O. Playing music can be quite a spiritual experience. How do you find God in the music you make?
Erin: Making music is a mysterious process. You don't know where it comes from nor where it is going. You just follow some kind of lead to the next phrase and let your instinct (an inner ear) guide you to something new or old, or perhaps you just stay in that spot for a while until you know when to move. You keep what you like and replace what you don't, as long as it makes the whole piece more authentic. You refine. Something becomes and then it is shared. If it is good, it remains good. If it is not, it does not last.
I find that this process in many ways mirrors the spiritual journey. There is so much listening involved. You are required to be so sensitive and responsive to what it is that stirs you. I find God in the desire to keep on making music, in the will to give my time, energy, and ability to this art, in the regularity of practice and commitment of doing so. I find God also in certain phrases and melodic sequences that move me inwardly every time I play or listen back to them, and I wonder how they ever found their place. I find God in the recognition of something poorly written, only to it was a stepping stone to something better. I find God in the gratitude of beginning and ending each musical effort.
J.O. And in the music you listen to — are there any that stand out in that regard?
Erin: Anne-Sophie Mutter playing "Meditation of Thias" (Massenet); "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" (Christoph Gluck); Libera singing "Mother of God" (Lyrics by M. Lermontov, arr. by Prizeman); Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to the movie "The Mission"; Mark Knopfler's soundtrack to the movie "Cal"; Seamus Egan playing "Eamon Coyne's/Longford Collector"; Emmylou Harris's “Wrecking Ball”.
J.O. What are some of the challenges being a person of faith in the music business?
Erin: We've been an insulated crew over the years travelling around and working together. Thankfully, there have not been many obstacles in this regard. For the most part we plot our own course, and I suppose this offers a lot of freedom from possible pressures to conform, or to accept conditions we otherwise wouldn't. I would say maintaining interior peace is my greatest challenge in this business. Particularly on tour, there is a lot of coming and going, and like every other convenience that a home base offers, regular spaces and places for solitude and prayer are less accessible. Over time this can have an impact on the disposition necessary for listening and recognizing God's action in my life.
J.O. Can you share with us who might be your greatest inspirations, living or dead?
Erin: My inspirations include my parents, my siblings, Fr. Angus MacDonnell, Fr. Robert D. Pelton, Robert Maltais, Bl. Dina Belanger, Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Oscar Peterson, Deborah Berrill, J.D. Blair, Beethoven, Mozart, Philippe Bruneau and Mother Dolores Hart.
J.O. I know that you are also a rather keen reader, which is another “contemplative” activity — similar to music. Who are some of the authors that you like?
Erin: My favourite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Paul Claudel, Michael O'Brien, C.S. Lewis.
J.O. Given the religious provenance of this blog, I'm sadly forced to ask who is your favourite Jesuit?
Erin: My favourite Jesuit cannot be the pope, since he is dressed like a Dominican. So, it's definitely you.
J.O. What? Okay, I'll accept that. But I think the real reason is that Leahy is biased in favour of black. A final word, please: what advice would you give those with super-active lives for maintaining their equilibrium?
Erin: I would say make a feast out of supper, and celebrate the good things that happen in your life.
J.O. A truly eucharistic counsel. Thank-you, Erin, for taking the time to talk with us.
Erin Leahy recently released a single to radio called “Calling All People to Life” and is touring with the band Leahy.