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Cover Story: Brittany and Natalie Haas on Sharing Melody, Rhythm, and Space

Oct 6, 2023

Cover Story: Brittany and Natalie Haas on Sharing Melody, Rhythm, and Space

What changes about the oft championed phenomenon of “family harmonies” when the voices entwined together are not voices at all, but strings, plucked and bowed and fingered? It’s a question that immediately comes to mind as you hear the first notes of Haas, the recent duo album released by sisters, fiddler Brittany Haas and cellist Natalie Haas. It’s also a question that immediately came to mind as we chatted via Zoom last month.

“I feel like I connect more deeply with Brittany than anyone else from a rhythmic standpoint,” Natalie responds after a thoughtful pause. “That’s not so much the family harmony thing, but it does play into everything.”

The familial blend they’ve established as adults – in many ways, Haas is their first deliberate and intentional music making as a pair since their teen years – defies any and all boundaries and language, as they swap melodic hooks and call and respond and toggle between accompanying and leading, adding texture and tenderness or vigor and enthusiasm. Their interplay is as comfortable and cozy as you would expect these two sibling virtuosos to be together, their reunion the not-so-subtle underpinning that makes the entire collection of tunes and sets sparkle.

This is family harmony – and family rhythm – but unspooled, complicated, and set to a new acoustic, Celtic, chambergrass sound that defies categorization. Haas also gently and kindly stands in implied opposition to more masculine, performative, and competitive musicians and groups in similar spaces. It’s a brilliant, crave-able album that showcases how much can be accomplished musically when one’s goal isn’t just the cooperative music one creates, but the space one opens up with another in which you cultivate that cooperative music.

I wanted to start by just asking y’all how long it’s been since you put out music together, or since you’ve been in like a creative space together? How does it feel to be “reunited” in this way?

Natalie Haas: We sort of played together as kids in chamber music groups and youth symphony together. And we went to fiddle camps together – that was how we got excited about maybe doing music as a career. That would sort of continue throughout the year, because the way for us to continue all that excitement and motivation that we got at fiddle camps was for us to play together.

We did the odd gig together as teenagers, like farmers markets, school performances, and that kind of thing. Then we sort of went our separate ways and we’re both very busy doing our own thing, but we took every chance we got when other people would hire both of us to be on their gigs. We always said yes because we just wanted to hang out with each other. So this is like the first time that we’ve done anything like this and it’s pretty exciting.

The way that your musical paths have diverged, they don’t feel like they’re that separate from each other. It feels like the vocabulary that you both draw from is very similar. When you started sitting down to think about doing an album together, what changed about the way that you thought about music separately or together? 

Brittany Haas: That’s a cool question. I think, it all felt kind of new in a way, but also so familiar, you know? Because it’s us. We have made a lot of music together. I think on my side, it was really cool because Nat already had a bunch of tunes. So some of [our collaboration] was just like, schedule based, it was like, “Okay, we know we want to do this thing, because we’ve been getting odd gigs.” It was really like motivated by the fact that we had shows coming up, and that was a reason to be like, “Let’s have new material for that.”

Then we were like, “Here’s our days when we can put together material.” Nat had just done a writing session where she had all this new stuff ready to go. These are the tunes that she’s cranking out and they feel very much like they come from something or some place that is like so near and dear to me, because it’s from our shared fiddle-camp upbringing. That’s like the source, the well, where the tunes come from, even though they’re new and different. It feels like very homey, I guess? The kind of tunes. And then I think we’ve just both grown a lot over the decades as musicians and as arrangers. We like bring more stuff to the table than when we were teenagers.

NH: I should certainly hope so! [Laughs]

That is the goal. [Laughs] That leads really naturally to my next question, which was going to be about material curation, especially because you both have demanding schedules that kept you apart, I’m sure, during the album creation to some degree. What was it actually like when you were like setting aside that time, like you’re talking about, to get together to make the music? What was the curation process like? It’s all originals, but one, yes?

NH: Yes. And yeah, that’s the nice thing about us both being busy is when you set aside a block of time, that’s all you are focused on. Brittany had all these amazing musical ideas and made all of my tunes better the minute she got her hands on them. The arranging process, it was pretty easy, because we’re both, comfortable switching back and forth between roles. I was just amazed at how much we got done in such a short amount of time, both in the arranging process and in the recording process. It all felt very easy. [Laughs]

BH: We did the bulk of it together, I think we had like a week or maybe slightly under a week when we first met to gather the material. And wasn’t that before we even knew we were making a record then?

NH: Oh yeah, that was preparing for a tour. Our first adult sister tour.

BH: No, no, no – second.

NH: Oh, second. Yeah! Because we toured Ireland. Right. We were playing all of these trad tunes, our shared repertoire from our of teenage years. And then for [Haas], we decided to make it all original. For the most part.

BH: Do you remember the moment when we actually said, “Let’s record this”?

NH: Uh… well, I think we toured it first. Then Brittany brings her handheld recorder to all of those gigs and recorded everything. We listened back to it and decided that it was actually pretty good and that we should make something of it. I think we had another tour coming up, of Australia, and we decided it would be fun to have something for people to take away with them.

BH: At that point, we didn’t meet again until a few days before the studio. We had arranged the material and toured it, so we kind of had it under our hands pretty good. And then a long amount of time passed, but during that time it was good to listen back to stuff and decide what we wanted to change.

We had like a couple days of rehearsals and revisions. That was from listening and emailing and saying like, “I have this idea about this. What do you think of that?” Then we had like three days in the studio before it went back to email, because Natalie lives in Spain and we’re also both busy doing stuff. So it was emailing like, “Do you like this take?” and, “Is it okay if I edit out the second B part on this?”

Did you trip into or over any sort of feeling like, “This reminds me of when we were playing together as kids” or did it feel like you were getting back on the bicycle in a way?

BH: I’d say mostly yes. It’s just really easy. I think in other collaborations, people aren’t always so willing to just try anything. We have this basis of, “I love you no matter what, and even though you’re being really annoying and you’re asking me to do something I don’t want to do, I’m still going to do it, because might as well.” It’s an ease of communication, which I think mostly comes from family. [Laughs]

NH: We were never really a band as kids. We did the odd gig, but it was always just for fun. Our parents weren’t pushing us into performing together. So yeah, no bad memories, really, associated with playing together as kids. But we do have the ease of having this shared history of fiddle camps and learning from the same kind of mentors.

BH: Since we’re both like primarily collaborators, this project was like running our own band. As adults we’ve both come into our own and we’ve probably become more opinionated about musical things as a result of that. So it’s fun to meet again where there’s a lot of give and take.

What do you think of the term, “chambergrass?” Is this album chambergrass? Is that even a thing?

BH: I like the term, but I’m not sure it applies here. I also don’t mind it applying here. I guess maybe that wouldn’t have been what I would have gone to, because from my perspective, it just feels so much more Celtic. It’s still in that sort of “past of American music,” that’s more over there in the Celtic Isles. It doesn’t feel very grassy, but I mean, that’s a part of me as a musician. So, it’s not like it’s not in there.

NH: It does feel like chamber music to me. Yeah… I’m not familiar with all of the myriad grass terms. [Laughs]

BH: We grew up going to Valley of the Moon Fiddle Camp, where there were a lot of genres meeting. So the boundaries were very blurred, and both of us having worked with Darol [Anger] from a young age, he’s all about blurring and negating the idea of boundaries. It’s everything, it’s all of that, it’s all the influences and where they’re going. I know the current Celtic world less than Nat does, but it seems like a lot of the forward-thinking, new tunes on stringed instruments are happening in chambergrass, the new acoustic realm, so it’s definitely an influence on both of us.

NH: It does have a Celtic bent, but it is Celtic from an American perspective – because we’re American. I’ve listened to a lot of stuff in the new acoustic realm – like Brittany said, all of our influences are coming out, and it’s hard to define a genre.

BH: I think Nat, for all of her “I don’t totally play bluegrass” sense of self, she can and she does sometimes. Some of the bluesier tunes that she writes lend themselves to that area.

You make very in-the-moment music, there’s a lot of improvisation, there’s a lot of dialogue, and this kind of music can often feel very – it’s silly to say this cause you’re literally performers – but it can often feel very performative and like there’s a lot of hubris in it. I also feel like new acoustic music, newgrass, jamgrass, and that sort of “Let’s jam out together, let’s be in the moment together!” music, it can often feel really masculine and toxic. How do you go about creating this space you’ve made together, to have those moments, to be together and present and making music, but it doesn’t feel like you’re being self-absorbed or self important?

BH: That is something I think about when I’m listening to music – and sometimes when I’m playing it. Sometimes I do feel like I’m uncomfortable, like that’s not something that I want to do. Even though you think that that’s what the music calls for in this moment, it can feel a little bit too masculine.

It’s like, “No, I don’t want to take a really long solo there.” I think I’m embracing that it’s okay to say, “No, I’m not gonna do that.” It’s a tricky one, because a lot of our heroes in that realm of creating this newer music, they’re men, and that nature is informing the music that they’re making and the way that they’re arranging it. It does have that hubris thing built into it. On some level, that is important and it does work well, for stepping into the moment and taking a great solo. You kind of have to have that attitude. But, it’s not necessarily masculine or feminine. Like it doesn’t have to be either one. It could be both.

What we’re trying to do, it’s a little more tune- or melody-based than based on soloing, so it lends itself well to a tight arrangement. That may not be the right term, because it still is loose, there still is a conversation going on. But, if there is a solo it’s pretty short, it’s this little thing we’re going to do to give a breath of fresh air here. It’s not like, “And now, we will rip for 50 more bars!”

“And now everybody look at me!”

BH: Yeah! I think in a duo especially, because we’re very equal and we like sharing, that’s just kind of part of the vibe. Even when Natalie’s filling more of an accompanist role, it’s still such a powerful, interesting sound. It’s so varied that it doesn’t fade into the background. It’s super interesting all the time. It’s like both voices are very equal, even if mine is higher.

NH: It’s interesting because, like Brittany said, a lot of our heroes are men. That’s definitely a generational thing in the Celtic music world, because like, the people that we grew up sort of – I don’t want to use a phrase like “hero worshipping” – that we admired and wanted to copy were mostly men, with a couple very key exceptions. But then, my generation in the Celtic music world is almost exclusively women. There are some men doing it, but it’s very different than the bluegrass thing.

Also like Brittany said, soloing is not as much a part of it. That changes the dynamic a little bit. But it is kind of a melody>accompaniment hierarchy going on. But I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily a male thing, I don’t know.

As Brittany said before – and I hate to associate this with just feminine energy – but both of us coming from being collaborators in our other projects rather than soloists, per se, you could say that that is the more feminine approach, maybe, to music making. It does feel very equal because the melody playing is getting passed back and forth all the time. And it does feel very conversational, even though the soloing thing is not as prominent as it might be in some other genres.

I think that’s part of why you can listen through y’all’s entire album and it doesn’t feel stale, it doesn’t feel boring, while it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard. It doesn’t feel like you guys have something to prove.

NH: That’s part of the thing with having done it at this point in our lives, it doesn’t feel like we have anything to prove anymore. We’re doing it because we want to, not because we’re trying to prove anything to the world.

Photo Credit: Irene Young

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Cover Story: Brittany and Natalie Haas on Sharing Melody, Rhythm, and Space
Cover Story: Brittany and Natalie Haas on Sharing Melody, Rhythm, and Space