String on String

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7 Stunning

"This is an album well worth a listen."

String on String

Amy McAllister, harp and vocals. Self-released, 2017

It is easy to love the harp if you play it; the sound is so beautiful.”

Irish harpist and singer/songwriter Amy McAllister said that, and she plays her harp beautifully, in a manner that garners love in return. Her debut album of 2017 String on String combines the past with the present reconfiguring a new sound-world conveyed through her fragile and heartbreaking vocal stylings. This is an album well worth a listen.

Beginning with burning insistence from a strummed guitar played by guest musician Eoghan Scott, we’re introduced to Ms. McAllister’s gentle soprano in the traditional tune “Over the Mountain.” There’s an innocence in her voice combined with, perhaps not worldliness, but rather an “old-soul” understanding, her naturally quick vibrato punctuating each phrase. Ms. McAllister says she learned by ear and in the unintimidating atmosphere of local pubs where everyone, of every age, collected to make music.

It’s obvious that music is a part of her very being. Raised on it, expressing herself in sound is as normal to her as breathing. The first solo track is simply called “Jigs.” It skips along joyfully, with guitar popping in as though reaching for a gently extended invitation to come along. Equally effective is Ms. McAllister’s delightfully buoyant interpretation of “The Swan LK 243” by Scottish harpist Catriona McKay. A reference to a boat built in 1900, McKay wrote this piece—and played it—while on board during the Tall Ships Race.

“Lament for Limerick” is stunning in its simplicity and one of my favorites on the album, as is the original “Mi Amor” with Camille Chamarnaud adding sparkling backup vocals and fiddle. Ms. McAllister ventures into new territory writing music that fuses her roots and a personal vision. I could do with a little less vocal fry in “Holy, Holy,” but I have to hand it to this risk-taking musician for putting it all out there without reservation.

Ms. McAllister began making music at the age of seven, captivated by the sound of the Donegal fiddle. It wasn’t until she was in her teens that a harp was placed in her eager hands along with a band of harpists to play with and learn from. There’s a quality of those long afternoons making music in “O’Carolan’s Concerto,” a work by the famous 17th century blind Celtic musician who defined an entire era. Here, Ms. McAllister seems working a bit against her nature, too held back and constrained.

But she’s quickly released again to the brilliance that’s in her in “Bonnie Blue Eyed Nancy,” taught to her by singer Aoife Kelly. With Jos Kelly at the piano, this song takes on a crossover-hybrid feel—contemplative, misty-eyed and looking back yearningly, and yet, it’s music of the now and almost jazzy. It’s the most seductive piece on the disc.

I can’t wait to hear where Amy McAllister takes us next.

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About Author

Alison Young is a classical music host and producer at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. She left a successful career as a flutist a decade ago after she developed a neurological disorder, but before then enjoyed many years traveling the world giving recitals, performing concertos, playing with some of the finest orchestras, and recording her own discs. Nowadays, Young spins discs and is always on the lookout for the next best thing. You can contact her at ayoung@mpr.org.

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