Claudia Schwab is an originally Austrian fiddle player who lives in Ireland these days. Besides her solo work, Claudia has collaborated with a range of internationally renowned artists and groups such as Austrian Netnakisum and Irish The Craic Addicts.
Please tell me a little bit about your musical background, Claudia! Or a little bit more, if you like :-)
I was very lucky to be born into a family of musicians. Music has been an omni-present part of my life for as long as I can remember. Both my parents are violin players. They met in a youth orchestra, and are actually still playing in the local orchestra together until the present day. My mother is a violin teacher at the music school in my hometown of Frohnleiten, where I spent the larger part of my youth. I took violin, piano, recorder and singing lessons (and had a fleeting affair with the trumpet), was part of a couple of different choirs, vocal ensembles and orchestras. So I’ve been classically trained, but I’ve always had an interest in a lot of different types of music. Happy childhood scenarios of singing along to Beatles songs with my brother Wolli are still very vivid in my memory. We would turn down the vocals and make up our own lyrics to their songs…
Through the close contact with our family friends, the Härtel Family, who formed, and still are, a significant force behind the research and revival of Styrian folk music, I got in touch with Austrian folk music and yodelling. It particularly grew on me in my teenage years when I would spend a lot of time at folk music dances and gatherings. There was a lot of Balkan music to be heard around Graz then too, which I loved, but didn’t really get into playing until later on when I was a student at University College Cork. My violin teacher Bernadette Schmutz had a band, the “Joey’s Ba-Rock Ensemble”, with whom we branched out into many different genres. Berni would invite guest musicians for intense workshops that would guide us into the world of tango, jazz improvisation, brazilian music… One of my piano teachers, Martina Stadler, was also a hip hop dancer and I loved joining her dance classes every now and then.
It was when I moved to Ireland that I started to play around with singing along to my violin playing, since I had left behind all my musician friends in Austria! (But then thankfully found wonderful new friends on the West Coast of Ireland who would dedicate a lot of time to teaching me traditional tunes!) I was experimenting with playing Jodler melodies that I would sing along too, since they only make sense when played or sung in harmony…. I think that’s what laid the foundation to writing my own music. When I moved to Sligo, I dropped everything else and focused on learning Irish traditional music for a number of years…
When did you start composing your own music?
I think it was on my first trip to India in 2008/2009, when I started writing my first compositions for violin and voice. What came out was a mix of all sorts of musics I had been exposed to. The trip, the experience of travelling in far away lands by myself, and also the introduction to Northern Indian Classical music, seems to have sparked something new, an opening up to my musical past, that I had kind of left behind during my first few of years in Ireland…. which was necessary at the time I think, so I could really dive into the world of Irish traditional music. I love really getting into a particular musical style or tradition, trying to learn from people and imitate what they are doing, and even more importantly trying to dive deeper into the feeling of where their music is coming from. But I also discovered a deep sense of integrity when I would let all the music that’s in me come out at the same time, without neglecting any part of my experiences, letting a new thing form which remains true to all that I have become and to how I live as a musician. I also love to play in traditional bands and other people’s projects and I have been very lucky to strike a happy balance between different extremely interesting projects and bands!
Was there any particular role model though?
There are lots of inspirations and influences that spring to mind… I mean, I think you can’t but be influenced in some way or other by everything you hear! The earliest influences were probably the records, tapes and CDs we used to listen to at home. The Beatles, Hubert Van Goisern, Broadlahn… Thinking about it now, the latter two must have for sure planted the seed of my experiments of bringing the Austrian “Jodel” into different musical landscapes so many years later! A CD by the Graz-based balkan band “Sandy Lopicic Orchestar” still stands out as one of my favourites as well. All the members of our childhood family friends, the Härtels, continue to be influential and inspirational to the present day. I’m lucky enough to work with the sisters Linde and Marie-Theres, and their brother Hermann, every now and then. I remember being a big fan of one of their first bands, the “Zitoller Echo”, who played everything from tango to polkas over to the Italian canzone napoletana. Their parents band, the “Zitoller Tanzgeiger”, a Styrian folk music band, I was also a big fan of - they have got such drive! There were a good few great bands around Austria when I was a teenager: there was Triology, with incredible violinists Aleksey Igudesman and Daisy Jopling, who most definitely were role models for me. Their music had so much groove, they were using percussive techniques, they were improvising, they were singing and playing and just were incredibly tight. Fascinating to see what you could do with string instruments outside of the classical music world!
Then there was Beefolk and Volksmilch, two bands founded by violinist Klemens Bittmann, who’s playing I was a huge fan of. He studied Jazz violin and also taught me my first Irish tunes! I also remember being really taken with brazilian musicians Alegre Corrêa, and Ana Paula Da Silva, whom we worked with in a project with my violin teacher’s ‘Joey’s Ba-Rock Ensemble’. Then of course there was Tic Tac Toe, Nirvana, The Spice Girls and later on Flogging Molly, whom I skipped school for once so I could go to see them play in Vienna- I’ll never forget! I remember listening to Riverdance up and down for a number of years, which was my first exposure to Irish music… Moving over into the Irish sound world, my biggest influences and inspirations would be Rodney Lancashire (who taught me the major part of all the tunes I know), Sheila and Seamie O’Dowd, Cathy Jordan and Dervish, The Kane Sisters… I’m also a big fan of Máirtín O'Connor, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Kíla… to name but a few! Other solo artists that I found really inspiring are Regina Spektor and Joanna Newsom.
Then there’s of course all the musicians I met more recently through the “Ethno” movement: accordionist/puppeteer Matija Solce, violinists & singers Kate Young and Maarja Nuut, violinist Sofia Högstadius, accordionist Raphael Decoster…I’m very lucky to get to work with a good few of them and it’s always an eye opener. My Indian violin teacher Pt. Sukhdev Prasad Mishra has without a doubt left a huge impression on my violin playing and I am hoping to be able to study with him a lot more in the future. I also love old time music, in particular Dirk Powell’s playing and singing, Le Monte Young and John Cage, who’s work I got introduced to during my college years at UCC.
We've already talked about you moving to Ireland. How come?
Well, a happy accident one might say! I came over to the East Coast of Ireland as an au-pair when I was 19 years of age, straight out of school. I had learnt a couple of Irish tunes and was so fascinated by this music, and in particular how it made me feel when I played it, that I just wanted to go over there and learn some more. I got very lucky and landed in a really nice family in Greystones. At the same time, I started to take trips over to the West Coast, to Sligo, on recommendation of one of my sister’s friends who had been there before and had experienced its vivid live music scene. I got extremely lucky and met a bunch of musicians at a traditional session in a pub, who took me in straight away and told me to come visit whenever I liked.
When it was time to go home, when my year of au-pairing was coming to an end, instead of moving back to Austria I moved over to Sligo… I still remember a friend of mine saying: “Moving home? Sure why would you do that? Why don’t you just come over here and play with us!” … I just seemed to have found everything I had wished for in Sligo: there were really good sessions going on several times a week. I had a couple of people that took a lot of time to teach me tunes, I had moved into a great house full of musicians. There was the sea, the mountains, the lakes - like you would picture it in a book! So I actually just stayed!
Besides your two solo albums 'Amber Sands' and 'Attic Mornings' - by the way, how would you describe your music yourself - ...
It’s always a little tricky to try and describe your own music… I would say, if it would have to be categorised, the repertoire so far (and who knows what comes out next!) would probably fall into something like world-fusion: a mix of Austro-Irish, Indian and Balkan-inspired tunes, funk-beat Yodels and songs, that weave around the common thread of the close interplay between the violin and the voice...
... you have been involved in lots of different projects. Last but not least, there is Celtic music group The Craic Addicts!?
I joined the Craic Addicts when I moved back to Sligo after my studies at UCC around five years ago. But they have been going for a couple of years longer than that actually! The original line-up was Sarah Jane Barry on flute, mandolin, stylophone and vocals, Peter Crann on percussion and vocals, and Fiachra Cunningham on guitar, vocals and fiddle. Shortly after that, Fionnuala Kennedy joined on mandolin, fiddle, 5-string banjo and vocals. When Sarah moved away from Sligo and Fiachra got too busy, myself and Ray Coen stepped in.
We have a weekly residency in the Swagman Bar in Sligo every Tuesday night, where we play “funked-up trad and folked-up pop”. I think that pretty much describes it. Everybody brings in some of their favourite pieces of music (could be anything from 80s to a German Schlager, an old Irish ballad or one of our own songs) and we just give it a go and see what happens! Over the years, a substantial repertoire has come out of these weekly gigs and we decided to capture some of our favourites on a record, which was released last year. We’ve started to venture out a bit more recently, playing some festival gigs here and there and - our favourite - going over to Spain a couple a times a year to play and hang out in the sunshine :-)
Peter Crann would be the driving force behind all of this. Between his time spent on the road driving for Music Network, giving drumming workshops in schools across Ireland, Spain, Mexico or Argentina, Peter somehow manages to instigate an infinite number of events involving the community of Sligo-based musicians. He’s the one for Irish songs, all sorts of tunes from the 80s, and general entertainment for the audience as well as us. He’s also an amazing visual artist and has painted a whole church in Spain a number of years ago!
Jaimie, ‘el fundamento’, is a clown and actor in real life. He joined the band around the same time as Ray and myself, adding his unique reggae-funk inspired groove to the band. Fionnuala is our encyclopedia of songs and tunes from the 80s and specialist in matters of American Old Time Music, as well as geology! What I love the most about Ray’s playing is that it is so incredibly innovative and funky. He’s steeped into the world of Irish traditional music and takes our Tuesday night’s as an opportunity to experiment with new, interesting chords (and they are always class!), jamming out trad tunes on the electric guitar.
On the other hand, you are also a guest musician with Austrian string band Netnakisum for some years ...
I’ve known the Netnakisum sisters, Marie-Theres and Linde, since my early childhood. There are various different links between our families: My parents know Inge and Hermann Härtel since their teenage years. Infact, they met in the same youth orchestra where they found each other, and they too both are still playing in the local orchestra together - how romantic! Their children Marie-Theres, Matthias and Hermann (the latter of which is also a former Netnakisum member), all were violin students of my mothers. Inge is my eldest sister Christiane’s godparent, whom Marie-Theres (or Resi as we call her) and Linde also played in a string quartet with when they were students at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz.
A bunch of us went to school at the Musikgymnasium in Graz, where myself and Linde were classmates for a bit, while sister Christiane was in the same class as Hermann, and Resi was a few classes above us. We played in different orchestras and ensembles together and had a few incredible experiences, such as a trip to Cairo when we were all teenagers… A story of our wee escape to the pyramids on the backs of some wild horses in the middle of the night, accompanied by complete strangers, still makes the rounds today… (It makes a good story, but my god, we are so so lucky nothing went wrong there!) A couple of years ago we got to go back there together, this time to play at the Cairo Jazz Festival, a mad flashback!
Resi was instructing me in Austrian folk music for many years at their parents’ yearly folk music week in the beautiful Johnsbach valley… and the list goes on and on! When they asked me to join them as a guest musician, I was incredibly honoured and also terrified! I was just starting my masters at UCC when we went on our first tour together with trumpeter Matthias Schriefl in 2012. I didn’t have a lot of experience on stage then and had never been on tour, but I loved their band and wanted to be brave and give it my best shot. I feel like I learnt, and am still learning, so much from them. On a musical and performative level, as well as what regards all the works behind the scenes. I think what I admire most about them is their approach to playing music, which is so grounded in their bodies, rather than the mind…
Then of course, to play with people that you have known for such a long time is just an incredible thing. The extent to which you can dive into what philosopher and social phenomenologist Alfred Schutz refers to as the “mutual tuned-in relationship of musicians”, which lies far beyond verbal communication, is incredible. Really interesting that link between human relationships that are mirrored in your playing together, as well as the musicking together that influences your relationship and can bring you closer. Being on stage with Netnakisum always feels very close, exciting, intimate and in the moment. I also have to say that this job just came at the very right time, steering me into the direction of becoming a professionally performing musician. Nice one, girls!
Well, I see that you're a quite busy lady! So is there any chance to see you over here at all?
There’s lots of amazing things going on this year actually! I’ll be over to Germany a couple a times in spring, touring with trumpeter Matthias Schriefl and his band “Shreefpunk + Strings” between Mannheim, Dresden, Cologne and Berlin (for more info and tour dates please check out www.schriefl.eu). I’ll also be playing a solo concert at the Amadeus Bühne in Bad Endorf on June 16th, and there’s going to be a little Irish fiddle-workshop beforehand if anyone is interested!
I’m absolutely delighted that the Claudia Schwab Quartet will perform at this year’s Klangstatt Festival in Hall/Tirol in July. There’s a joined UK tour with accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik in the planning for September, The Craic Addicts will be returning to Spain in May and October… Another project I’m really looking forward to is an intercultural music collaboration commissioned by the fabulous Cairde Sligo Arts Festival (kindly funded by The Arts Council) that is happening this July in Sligo - that’s gonna be a cracker! In November, the Claudia Schwab Quartet will be over on the mainlands again to play in Switzerland and Austria. I'm particularly excited about that tour, can’t wait to bring our sounds back home!!!
There’s a few more projects in the works (keep an eye on www.claudiaschwab.com for upcoming tour dates) and I am also writing on new material on my days off in Sligo… All is good!
Photo Credits: (1),(4) Claudia Schwab (by Julia Wesely); (2) Craic Addicts, (3) Netnakisum (unknown/website).