The spectacularly gifted Brittany Haas is one of my favourite musicians. I’ve been a fan for nearly 10 years since first hearing her phenomenal fiddle playing with Crooked Still, one of my all-time favourite bands. Brittany is a force of nature, a multi-talented musician who’s collaborated with many great roots music artists including Bruce Molsky, Gillian Welch, Chris Thile and Tony Trischka, and has been a frequent guest on recent editions of A Prairie Home Companion. As well as being a gargantuan talent, Britt is a great teacher, and I was lucky enough to be in her old-time fiddle class at Sore Fingers bluegrass and old-time camp in the UK at Easter 2016. If you don’t know about Sore Fingers you should! Every year they bring some of the most talented musicians from the USA (and UK) to teach classes including fiddle, banjo, mandolin, double bass, guitar, dobro and singing. Here’s the interview I did with Britt last Easter…
Fiddle sensation Brittany Haas has been wowing Sore Fingers camp with her spectacular playing, upbeat teaching style and infectious enthusiasm for the music. Currently she’s touring with Dave Rawlings & Gillian Welch, as well as playing in her own trio Haas Kowert Tice.
What did you make of Sore Fingers Summer School? How does it compare to other music camps you’ve taught at?
I probably first heard about Sore Fingers from you, but a lot of people have told me about it since, mostly people who’ve taught here and had just the best time, like Joe Walsh, Bruce [Molsky] and Rayna [Gellert]. Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon is the Scottish fiddle camp that I grew up going to, in California. It’s called a fiddle camp but it has all sorts of other stuff going on – dancing, cello, guitar. I’ve done a bunch of others that are more string camps, with violas and cellos as well as fiddles. Sore Fingers is similar to those in some ways, but it’s also very special I think.
How did you enjoy the overall experience? I notice you often came down to the bar and jammed with the students, which is always appreciated.
The teaching part is great; I love my class and have great students, which makes it easy. The hang at night is SO awesome. There’s so much going on, you wanna be everywhere and it’s cool to have both bluegrass and old time going on. Night by night you have to pick this session or that session, it’s great to have that option. I think that’s pretty unique, that there are so many different types of jams happening.
How about the tutor concerts? You all seem to really enjoy the collaborations with the other tutors.
I think because the faculty is so large, there are so many options and everybody is friends immediately, even though I didn’t really know most of those guys before coming here. I’d met some of them once, or heard about them, or been a big fan of theirs, like Ron Block and Rob Ickes, I’d listened to their music a lot. And Joe Newberry….I hadn’t actually met him but I totally LOVE him and he’s buddies with all my buddies, so it’s cool to suddenly be here all together, and it just inspires everybody to play together.
Yes, you seem to have formed a special bond with Joe Newberry [but then didn’t we all?] Your band performance on Tuesday night with him and the other tutors just blew the roof off. You also did a couple of your own original tunes with that once in a lifetime line-up…
Normally at fiddle camp concerts I get a little stressed out when there’s a teacher concert, about which songs I should do and how long I should I rehearse, but it’s kind of built into the schedule here. Everybody is available and they’re all hanging out in the staff room and say “sure I’ll play on this tune!” and they’re so up for it. Yesterday was pretty non-stop but it was so worthwhile. I was really inspired by hearing Matt Flinner play that tune of his in a duo with Tim May the night before. It was so pretty. It’s cool seeing so much of Matt here, because he’s somebody I’ve heard at festivals and played with a little bit, but he’s so good that I just love everything he does.
Like many of our favourite musicians, you seem to have this classic “portfolio career” with lots of different projects on the go. Tell us a bit about what you’re up to these days.
I have a duo with [Swedish fiddler] Lena Jonsson, we write together too and hopefully we’ll be doing some more stuff together next fall. We’re very similar in our writing style whereas in my trio [Haas Kowert Tice] with Paul and Jordan, they are more studied in their style of writing music. I learn so much every time I write with those guys, because they just have such a different approach to it. It’s more about writing specifically for a band instead of just writing a fiddle tune that’s going to be played on a fiddle in any setting….writing for those particular people and what sounds we can make that will work best for that tune.
Tell us a bit about your latest adventure touring with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch!
That’s pretty cool, I joined the band [Dave Rawlings Machine] in October 2015 and then we went on a six-week tour. I was introduced by Paul Kowert from my trio – he’d been playing bass with them for about a year before that. It was so flattering to be asked to join the band. I was so excited and it’s not got any less exciting after playing 50 shows! I really like the material. It’s not bluegrass but it’s their own style, kinda Americana or whatever. It’s a little bit bluegrass in terms of the instrumentation.
How about recording? I know you were featured on the latest Cahalen Morrison & Eli West record that came out last year.
Yeah, I love playing with those guys. I played on two tracks of the Dave Rawlings Machine album [Nashville Obsolete]. Joe Walsh just made a new solo record that will be out in the fall, I played on that and also on the upcoming Tony Trischka album. Haas Kowert Tice just made a new record, which will hopefully be out in the summertime.
Tell us a bit about how you came to play the fiddle, and how you got into old time and bluegrass music
I started with Suzuki violin when I was four years old. I did that for a while and then my violin teacher gave me some fiddle tunes, just for fun, and I loved them!
So we found a bluegrass fiddle teacher Jack Tuttle (Molly Tuttle’s dad) at the local guitar store in Palo Alto, CA. He’s a great teacher and taught me so many tunes, got me improvising on bluegrass stuff. My violin teacher at the time said “if you’re going to play fiddle music, you should go learn Scottish music!” She really respected Alasdair Fraser’s playing and he happened to have this fiddle camp [Valley of the Moon] 45 minutes from where I grew up, so we started going there when I was ten, I think. That’s where I met Bruce Molsky. He stopped in and played some tunes and I was totally mesmerised. I mean, I loved the Scottish stuff and I loved the bluegrass stuff, but when I heard old time, I kind of connected with it and it really spoke to me.
So when did you start thinking that you might go into music as a career? I know you were a science major at Princeton.
Yeah, I studied Biology. I was never exactly sure what was gonna happen, but music was more and more a large part of my life. Through Bruce I met Darol [Anger] and he gave me some lessons and let me join his band when I was about 13. So I was playing with Darol and Republic of Strings all through high school. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to music school, I guess I was a little bit worried that if I studied music I might get burned out on it, and I also liked academics. So I went to college, and I was in New Jersey which is where Tony Trischka lives, so I started playing with him. Then I joined Crooked Still, which was the beginning of the end of my biology career! That was four years of being on the road with them, and it was awesome and such a fun way to learn what it means to be a professional musician.
What are you up to over the next few months? When might we see you back in the UK?
I have to leave on Friday after class, because I have a Dave Rawlings Machine gig in Nashville on Saturday afternoon. It’ll be straight from the airport to the gig, and then touring until we finish up at Merlefest at the end of April . After that I’m doing some stuff with Nic Gareiss the amazing dancer, at a festival in Montreal. I don’t know when I’ll be back to the UK. No plans yet, but I’ll make some!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Brittany. It was fantastic to have you at Sore Fingers this year.