The Freels

One of the first things you hear about The Freels is that they’re a young traditional band, but that’s a little bit misleading. Between the five of them, they’ve got somewhere around 75 years experience playing traditional music — at least according to our math, from a corner of the pub on a busy Sunday afternoon.

And, like all those before them who have devoted three quarters of a century to their art, they have the nuances mastered.

“The difference between a jig and a reel: for a jig, always think of ‘pineapple apricot.’ So it’s gonna be 6/8 time, so you’re thinking ‘pineapple apricot, 1 2 3 4 5 6,’” guitarist Anthony Chafe explains with a grin. “Then for a reel, you’re gonna think, ‘watermelon, watermelon, watermelon,’ because it’s 4/4 time.”

“For the singles, you go, ‘apple, apple, apple, 1 2, 1 2, 1 2.’ ‘Mussels in the Corner’ is a single,” adds Danny Mills, the band’s flute player.

“You can have a bunch of different ones in different time signatures — like, a hornpipe is in the same timing as a reel, but the hornpipe is played a bit slower,” explains Fergus Brown O’Byrne, the most recent addition to the Freels on accordion and concertina.

Together with Andrew Fitzgerald on fiddle and bodhran and Maria Peddle on fiddle (although the band is quick to point out that the instrument designations are rough at best — everyone sings and switches instruments frequently), the Freels have been making music individually since they were children, but have only been playing together now for two and half years.

Coming to the traditional music of Newfoundland was different for everyone. Although everyone grew up with the music to a certain extent, they each found their own moment of recognition and appreciation. Brown-O’Byrne remembers being a teenager at an O’Rielly’s session and seeing a flute player from Ireland who made him stop and take notice.

“I figure it’s the same thing as if an athlete sees something done really well—it’s like, this makes sense now,” he recalls. He now leads the weekly sessions with Mills.

“The Goulds Accordion Singles” by The Freels

The other four members cite the youth ensemble Celtic Fiddlers as being hugely influential in their developing sense of music and performance. Though they came from different backgrounds in the St. John’s area, it was under the tutelage of Korona Brophy that they met at a young age — Peddle was only five years old when she started, and there was general agreement that it was seeing other like-minded youth, taking the music seriously (the Neil Murray Stage at the Folk Festival played a similarly pivotal role), that influenced The Freels to take the next logical step and branch out into their own independent interpretations.

With all the traditional Newfoundland players performing across the island, what is it that makes the Freels who they are?

“We’ve talked about it, don’t get me wrong,” Mills laughs. “Who are we, what do we want to play—cause there’s a million different influences. But honestly, every time we have the conversation, it’s so organic and natural that to think about it too much is like thinking about breathing.”

“An exciting challenge is that there’s so many different ways of playing the tunes, all over the island—I don’t play many tunes from Labrador, but I’m sure it’s the same up there. That is one difficulty, it’s marrying those styles into a style that we can give to our music. That’s part of the fun.”

Maybe that’s the best way to describe The Freels — fun. And honest.

Stage to Studio

“Once you’ve been playing long enough with a band, it kind of naturally comes up,” says Mills, speaking of the decision to record and release a full-length studio album, which the band began the week before we sat down to talk. “We were playing a lot of gigs, and people were asking us about an album.”

As of now, the Freels are hoping to have the album (as of yet untitled), a roughly 60/40 division between instrumental tunes and lyrical songs, in people’s hands before the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival in August, giving themselves a month of recording time.

Funding for the album presented an interesting challenge. The band decided to solicit crowd funding donations via, offering certain incentives for any financial help that fans were able to give.

“Trying to get a venue and put off shows is costly, and there’s a lot of shows on the go, so it can be tough,” says Brown O’Byrne. “Whereas with this, people can donate, and then we can thank them with CDs or other different perks [including “request” recordings and in-house performances by the band]—basically the same thing as any PBS pledge drive. The nice part about it too is that a very large percentage of what’s contributed, we actually get to make use of, so it’s not all getting eaten up in expenses for venues and the like.”

The band set a $3500 goal on their online campaign, and fans responded by helping them exceed that. With that challenge met, the next thing is producing a record that replicates the band’s live sound. After all, with their blend of instruments and upbeat tempos, the Freels play tunes that are meant to be danced to. Condensing that energy into a record is one of the things that are on their mind throughout the recording process.

“So far, it’s working pretty good. The studio space we’re in is just the right size that we can actually have two or three people going at once, so you can have the core of the parts really still going, so the energy can be maintained throughout,” Brown-O’Bryne explains.

Add to the mix producer and engineer Billy Sutton, himself a notable name in the Newfoundland folk scene, and you have the makings of an album done exactly the way the band wants it.

“Where he plays traditional music, we can say, ‘OK well, the B part of  this tune, we want to work on that,’ and he’ll know what we’re talking about,” Mills says.  “If we’re doing it with a guy who’s used to playing rock, then he might be a great producer or engineer […] but you want somebody who knows what a fiddle sounds like.”

“I’d like to think that this will be an album that people will enjoy for years to come, but ultimately we’re making this for ourselves. And that’s a very freeing thing. It frees us artistically—we’re not necessarily depending on this for an income, which is nice. And so we can approach it however we see fit, and people seem to have been responding well to the way we’ve approached it in the past.”

“A big goal with this album is to capture this moment in time for where the band’s at,” says Brown-O’Byrne.

“It’s all for the enjoyment of it. Simple as that,” Chafe says. “People enjoy it and want to come see us, even better.”

The Freels and the Summer

The Freels are taking a break from the studio to play at the Rocket Room on June 7. While the band didn’t want to spill the beans on what songs made the cut for the upcoming album, they hinted that fans would get a good flavour of what to expect at this show. “The winter’s always slow. We’re looking forward to having this as a way to kick off the summer, get people hearing our music, get ourselves in gear and all that kind of stuff,” Mills says.

The group acknowledges that they are young (75 years notwithstanding) and not settled into careers, which gives them a large degree of flexibility to enjoy what they’re doing, unrestrained by any other pressures. That’s been their attitude thus far, and now that they’re in control and can experiment in the studio (rather than be told what to do when playing on someone else’s album), it’s the start of a liberating summer of music.

That summer of music includes the Celtic Roots Folk Festival in Carbonear, a gig at the English Harbour Arts Centre, a trip to New York with the Celtic Fiddlers for some members, and the Folk Festival in St. John’s.  After that, it’s less clear—Peddle leaves for Austria in August, and Mills is off to begin his Masters in Ireland. As far as they’re concerned, however, whatever ends up happening to the band will be the same way things have been thus far, which is to say the natural way of things—unplanned, unexpected, but with music that continues to resonate.

The Freels will be performing songs from their upcoming album at the Rocket Room on June 7, beginning at 8:00. Tickets are $15 advance, $18 at the door, and are available at Fred’s Records and O’Brien’s Music.