I first encountered Brittany Haas when I was 14 years old, attending the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp outside of Nashville. Brittany was only a few years older than me, but she was miles ahead of me musically and professionally, already gigging with some of the best traditional musicians around. I bought a copy of her self-titled CD and learned every single track on it. When I would meet other fiddle players my age, we would often bond over this recording and its shared influence on our playing.
Haas went on to join Boston-based band Crooked Still, one of the most influential string bands of the last 20 years. In the small community of acoustic music makers and lovers, Crooked Still was the kind of iconic band – much like Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers – that created a hundred baby bands in its wake, each inspired by the reinvention of traditional song in modern and exciting ways. There was even a period of time when seemingly all of the young women involved in the folk and bluegrass scene (myself included) began dressing like Haas, wearing messy buns in their hair and colorful leggings under short boho dresses.
Following her time with Crooked Still, Haas went on to play with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, in the house band on Live From Here, and with her own genre-bending quartet, Hawktail – among many other projects. Unlike other powerhouse women instrumentalists like Missy Raines, Molly Tuttle, and Sierra Hull, who have carved out career paths by leading their own bands, Haas has stayed largely under the radar to the wider public, working primarily as a collaborator or band member.
As my own musical interests have grown and changed, I have found myself feeling guilty at times for not putting my focus on being an improvisational instrumentalist, fearing that I’m taking a too traditionally female path as a songwriter, and reenforcing gender expectations. But as Brittany has kicked through ceiling after ceiling as an instrumentalist, I’ve thought “Hey, it’s OK, Brittany is so good that nobody will ever doubt that a woman can do it!” For years, Haas has been a pinnacle, an example for the rest of us female instrumentalists. So, you can imagine the thrill that I felt when it was announced that Haas would be the newest member of Punch Brothers, a band that is representative of the highest caliber instrumental prowess in today’s acoustic music scene.
Haas’ first gigs with the band have been as part of The Energy Curfew Music Hour, a live radio-style show created by Claire Coffee and Chris Thile in collaboration with Audible. The show features Punch Brothers along with special guests like Jason Isbell, Gaby Moreno, and Sylvan Esso among others.
BGS had the opportunity to ask Brittany Haas a few questions about her career and her hopes for joining the band in the lead up to a handful of Energy Curfew Music Hour shows in New York City this month at Minetta Lane Theater.
You’ve had a lot of experience working with various members of Punch Brothers in different bands and formats over the years, what about the particular aesthetic and ambition of Punch Brothers made you want to accept the gig?
I’ve been a fan of the band for a long time – I guess as long as they’ve been a band. So the idea of joining was very exciting. I think any fan would tell you that there’s something about the band – the expansive nature of their approach to writing and arranging music – that is really unique. They’re making music that doesn’t sound like anything else. Getting to jump into something that’s been evolving and expanding into and beyond itself for so long is really cool. And as an instrumentalist in this “new acoustic” musical universe, it’s basically a dream gig, joining four incredibly talented and smart people and making music through which I know I will grow as an artist.
You’re known as a fiddle player that’s rooted in old-time traditions, but also improvisationally virtuosic. Do you feel like your background in old-time will bring a different flavor to the band moving forward?
Old-time is a genre in which I feel a lot of joy and comfort, so it’s always nice when that can be utilized in service of a tune or a song. Lately, in playing with my sister and with Hawktail, I also feel that my voice is strongly Celtic and Scandinavian – basically a combination of the genres I grew up around at fiddle camp and got obsessed with. I think that stuff will come out naturally no matter what new music we’re creating and perhaps some of the music will be written in that direction.
When stepping into a role that has been created and maintained by one specific fiddle player for so many years (Gabe Witcher), how much freedom do you have to remake the parts for the older material in your own voice?
I think this is true in many areas of life– the more deeply you know something, the more you can put yourself into it. Once you know intimately how it goes, you can be freer and more artful and playful with it while staying true to its nature. So that’ll be a journey for me with the back catalog material. Also, sometimes the parts he played were just the best thing that could happen in that musical moment. Some of the parts are more written than textural/improvised, so in those cases I will need to stay true to what he played. And I love his playing! Playing like Gabe is fun for me, because it stretches me in a different way than I normally go.
What made you want to wear a suit for this gig?
I’d never worn a suit before joining the band, so I saw it as an opportunity to try that. I always thought that the women I saw wearing pantsuits looked awesome. Plus it’s great having so many pockets for mic and in-ear packs. The other part of my thought process was, this is a band and I want to integrate into it, so it makes sense to wear the uniform. No one said I had to wear a suit. I’m sure it would be cool with everyone if one of them wanted to start wearing dresses, so it’d be cool for me to do that too, and maybe I will at some point.
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You’ve made incredible records in a lot of different fiddle genres at this point, is there any uncharted territory that you hope to explore in the future?
The depths of my own mind! I’m partially kidding; I do want to write more music. But there is always uncharted territory! Darol Anger is an inspiration in this – he never stops practicing and devising new ideas for getting around the fiddle. I hope to keep learning tunes from different musical traditions. Lately I’ve enjoyed learning conjunto music and I’d like to spend more time with Eastern European folk music, getting comfortable in different time signatures, etc.
What is a record that has been inspiring you lately?
James Taylor’s album Hourglass from 1997. We learned a few of those songs to play with him on the show and I fell in love with them. Also Alasdair Fraser’s album Dawn Dance, which I returned to recently after first being obsessed with it about 25 years ago. It is still as lovely as I remembered.
What is your process for preparing to play with so many different guest artists on the show – how do you approach constructing fiddle parts?
Mostly listening. Generally, when we get together with the guest artists that’s when most of the decision making about parts happens. So my job is just to show up being familiar with the music. Sometimes there are more specific string-oriented parts to play.
You’ve been a part of the Live From Here house band in the past, how does the vision and format for the Energy Curfew shows differ from that show?
The format feels similar, although there is more of an air of collaboration, because there is a bit more time for creation and also the same core band for every show. And, the premise of the show centers on the idea of it being purely acoustic music, so that’s mostly what it is with some inventive ways around that rule when needed.
Photos courtesy of Audible. Lead image by Avery Brunkus; inset image by Rebecca J Michelson.