Rachel Davis:
developing her Cape Breton style

And there she was again.

Rachel Davis blew me off my feet when, at age 18, she took the stage at the Festival Club, the nightly showcase of the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton. To my eternal distress, however, I hadn't made it back to the island since 2007, so my connection with Rachel was limited to a CD released in 2010.

But here, now, in October 2012, I was fortunate enough once again to be at the Festival Club when Rachel took the stage, accompanied this time by Jason Roach on keyboard, Tony Byrne on guitar and Darren McMullen (her Halifax boyfriend, she tells me later) on mandolin.

I'd like to say it was the same old Rachel, but now, at age 23, she is infinitely more confident with her playing ... although there's still the same explosion of cheekbones every time she laughs or smiles, which on this evening was often. ("It's those guys," she says later, relaxing in the Green Room backstage. "They're crazy.")

Already steeped in Cape Breton fiddle traditions when I saw her five years before, Rachel has since added a distinctive flair, accents and flourishes that are all her own. Her sets on that stage Tuesday evening were phenomenal, crescendos upon crescendos, and her performance ramped the "wow" factor up to 11.

"It's not too hard to sound good when you've got a crew like this with you on stage," she announced to the crowd. But it was obvious, talented accompanists aside, the crowd had a full-on crush going for Rachel's exuberant playing.

Chatting later, Rachel said she's been out of school now for two years, having attained her bachelor of arts degree in Celtic studies at Cape Breton University. What's she going to do with that degree? "Do what I'm doing now," she says.

Rachel, who supplemented her Celtic studies coursework with lessons in fiddle and Gaelic, says she was thinking of teaching when she came out of school. "I'm not sure I want to do that any more," she says. "But it's there if I want it."

For now, though, music is her full-time job. "It's thrilling at the high points. Not so much at the low parts," she says. She had a busy summer and fall leading up to Celtic Colours, she notes, but the preceding winter was pretty quiet.

Besides touring, Rachel gives lessons, including instruction at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's. Her travels have taken her from venues in Maine to Milwaukee and across the sea to France.

In addition to her fiddling, she's singing, too -- Rachel says she's recording four songs for her next album, a traditional one in Gaelic, plus three in English by various songwriters.

Meanwhile, she's continuing to expand her fiddle repertoire as she develops a style that sets her apart from the crowd of fine Cape Breton fiddlers.

Her style, she says, has grown because she listens as often as possible to performers from other traditions -- Scottish, Irish and Acadian, primarily -- as well as continuing to study the work of her fellow Capers.

"I'm a big fan of playing with as many people as I can," she says. "And I love playing with people with different styles. You get a different groove, a different vibe. ... And you really feed off the people you're on stage with."

She's not motivated, though, to follow the path of pop music, that some feel is diluting the tradition.

"I like keeping things traditional," she says. "Maybe stretching things a bit -- playing with a mandolin or banjo, you know -- but I've never been one for drums and bass. And I prefer to keep it acoustic.

"Kudos to those who go that route. Some people are drawn to that kind of sound," she quickly adds. "But I like to keep things traditional."

Looking down the road, Rachel says, "I'd love to still be doing this. I don't know if I will be. But I'd love to keep playing music as long as I can." Even if circumstances force her into something approaching a regular job, she promises, "I'll still be doing this part-time."

But those are thoughts for another day. "I don't look too far into the future," Rachel says. "I like taking things day by day."

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

20 October 2012

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