INTERVIEW: April Verch
She’s a dazzling fiddle player, singer, and stepdancer, and on occasion she does all three simultaneously.
April Verch harks from Canada’s Ottawa Valley, and from birth has been immersed in traditional, folk, roots music.
She started step dancing at 3 years old, took up the fiddle at 6 years, recorded her first album at 13 and has just released her 10th album The Newpart – a collection of songs so ‘old time’ that they pre-date mid-century bluegrass and folk, resonating from beyond vaudeville.
“The Ottawa Valley is a beautiful spot with rolling hills, farm land, lakes and forests. The people have strong core values. Tradition and local culture are celebrated, loved and passed along. People also have a strong work ethic, and music and dancing is part of what they do when they finally relax and kick back.”
With this abiding seam of music and tradition to mine from, what does Verch do to engage her listeners? “Making it appealing to contemporary listeners, and engaging them, for us does not mean adding electronic instruments or “pop” beats. Instead, it means finding the strengths of our trio, the instrumentation we have and excel at, and presenting these tunes and songs in a way that speaks to us. When we accomplish that, we find that it engages our listeners as well. It comes from a deep and honest place. We get out of the way and let the music speak for itself, in a manner of speaking.”
Her repertoire covers many fiddle styles, but she is best known for that of the Ottawa Valley. It’s “a melting pot of influences; Irish, Scottish, French, German, Polish and more,” she explains. “It’s an energetic, hard driving style that is also clean. These days in our concerts we play a mix of Ottawa Valley, other Canadian tunes, Appalachian, Old Time American, Bluegrass, etc.”
“There is of course a strong Irish influence in the Ottawa Valley fiddle and stepdance style, and also in some of the Appalachian music that we like to play. It feels extra special, for that reason, to be able to “give back” to audiences in Ireland. I think they also appreciate and connect with the music in their own personal way, because of all of those connections, which is really very special.”
She plays three shows in Northern Ireland in May with her two band members, world class musicians Hayes Griffin on guitar and Cody Walters on upright-electric bass and banjo. Says Verch “They play skillfully but equally importantly and notably, they play tastefully. They are also adept at many styles of traditional music, so they can swing easily into a lot of grooves and are able to lend and blend their skill set to bring out the best in a lot of different styles that we hear and want to try. Personally, it’s a joy for me to play music with them, both in terms of developing effective arrangements with them and then sharing music live on stage or in the recording studio. They are sincere, honest players and that makes all the difference.”
Some of those styles that they want to try, come from old recordings that have been said to touch the three of them profoundly. “We listen to a lot of field recordings, these are recordings that were never released or intended for the public. Often, they are the results of passionate collectors who record local musicians in their area to preserve the playing of these artists and their repertoires. Some of these recordings are eventually released, some are archived online by various educational institutions, and others are just floating around between friends.”
“I think there’s a certain excitement in sharing new material that we’ve recently learned and arranged. It’s fresh and challenging for us to learn the best way to share a new tune or song and to grow it in that way night after night. That being said, when an audience has a strong reaction to anything that we play, even if it’s something we’ve had in our repertoire for a long time, that is inspiring and brings out our best, and that makes it a favorite as well.”
When you go to an April Verch show, step dancing is part of the entertainment. “Ottawa Valley step dancing is a strong tradition, and is something that would most likely be done to a tune like “Belle Election.” (From her new album The Newpart)
“Square dancing, with a caller is also very common to jigs & reels, and couple dancing to waltzes, two-steps, and polkas and such.” But Verch has also been looking at how to use her feet for more than dancing. “On my new release, my producer Casey Driessen suggested that I start using my feet as percussion behind some of the vocal selections. We wanted it to sound kind of like a brush on a snare drum. So I use leather soles instead of taps, sprinkle a little sand on the plywood, and then swipe my feet to create that sound. It’s been a challenge to learn to do that while playing & singing, but I love it. It adds another dimension to our sound and our live performances, and audiences have really embraced it as well.”
Is her singing touched by the Ottawa Valley dialect, with its French, Canadian and other settler influences? “Overall, I don’t think the Ottawa Valley dialect has affected my singing style, because to me it’s very much about the phrasing, and I think good phrasing, while it’s personal is not determined by dialect. However, I do notice sometimes that the way I pronounce words, like “sorry” for example, is different than other dialects (especially from my band mates in the USA) and I tend to sing those words in my own dialect and with my honest accent rather than changing them to be what people would expect.”
“My local community as a child was full of musicians, because my Mom and Dad were fans of our local music tradition and culture and made sure that I was around it because I loved it too. Many of the local musicians had day jobs and music was something they did on the weekends. They all encouraged and inspired me. They also made sure I had a realistic view of what the music business was, which was really valuable. But mostly I remember and fondly think of their passion for the music, in sharing and preserving it.”
“I would recommend looking up the music and stories of the late Mac Beattie to get a good sense of the area, its people and traditions, and also of the music. Mac Beattie and his Ottawa Valley Melodiers played many a dance hall all across the valley and their music still stands as a perfect example of our traditions.” Words by Cara Gibney. Photos by Parker J Pfister.