The creation of the band the Fretless was to expand the musical boundaries of what a string quartet can be. Putting fiddle tunes and folk melodies into a classical music construct was quite appealing to the original group members and to today’s lineup.
“What brought us all together originally was the concept of using a string quartet and taking Irish, Scottish, Celtic music, American and Canadian old-time, a bit of bluegrass and re-imagining those fiddle style genres in a jazzy and Celtic-y kind of way,” said cellist Eric Wright. “It was always meant to be instrumental. We liked the limitations of the instruments in order to give us some inspiration. Sometimes the limitations of, ‘How am I going to make this cello sound like a guitar?’ ends up pushing you outside of your comfort zone and coming up with cool techniques or interesting harmony lines. We really wanted to limit ourselves so our creativity could expand.”
Through their first four acclaimed albums, the Fretless occasionally collaborated with singers on selected cuts, most notably Ruth Moody. Their new album, Open House, is a 10-song collection featuring vocal appearances from Celeigh Cardinal, The Bros. Landreth, Phyl and yes, Ruth Moody.
“It had been sort of a dream of ours for a while,” said Eric. “We always knew we wanted to stay instrumental but we always collaborated with singers just because it’s such a nice project to bring in singers and have the unique chamber sound along with the Celtic and pop combined. It initially started as an idea that we wanted to be able to bring singers in at festivals and collaborate with people no matter where we were. Let’s pick some songs that other people, who might not know who we are, would want to sing with us.”
The Fretless decided on having the festival experience on an album, with the assistance of producer Joby Baker. The attraction of recording with some of their favourite singers came with a hoped-for benefit, reaching a new audience.
“You don’t get on the radio and things like that unless you have vocals. We thought we’d show people what singers sound like with the Fretless.”
The fun part of creating Open House was deciding on which songs to re-interpret and which artists to work with.
“One of the things we really like to do is re-imagine or re-envision songs or tunes,” said Eric. “So for us it was all about. ‘How can we change this song so it’s like you’ve never heard it before but you’d recognize it?’ An example is the first track, 'Alaska' (originally done by Maggie Rogers, sung here by Taylor Ashton). Using a male singer instead of a female singer automatically switches it up, the groove and different tonal qualities. Honestly, we just imagined who would sound awesome, and we reached out to them. Thankfully so many people wanted to be a part of this project. Much like in the way we make our musical ideas when we’re arranging our instrumental pieces, we envisioned whose voices would sound good: a powerful singer or airy singer, female or male. It was a nice big puzzle that we got to put together and brainstorm.”
An interesting aspect of the song re-interpretations on Open House was having The Bros. Landreth and Red Tail Ring sing new versions of their songs.
“We’ve known Joey [Landreth] and played concerts with him, so we’d collaborated already, and obviously, ‘Let It Lie’ is one of our favourite songs,” Eric said. “[It’s] so heartbreaking, touching and beautiful! I can’t speak for Joey when he first really heard [the new version] but I do know he was really pumped and excited. It’s fun to hear a remix of your song, let alone an entire band re-interpreting it. With 'Red Tail Ring', we had actually collaborated before, and they had asked us to play ‘Fall Away Blues’ with them at the Indiana Fiddlers Gathering. We were already huge fans of their band so when they asked us to play with them, we already knew [the song]. So after playing that, it was always in our head to record that song with them. We knew their vocals would sound great, and we’re so excited at how that turned out.”
The plans for launching Open House ideally would entail a big concert featuring as many of the vocalists as possible. An extensive touring schedule would probably include a female and male singer to handle all of the songs.
“Obviously we want Ruth Moody to come with us; she’s our favourite singer of all time,” Eric said hopefully. “The other idea is to fly to California and have one of our California friends sing with us.”
To get a broader perspective on who the members of the Fretless are, it’s important to know they aren’t just classical musicians with a folkie bent, or the other way around. And it’s these additional skills that have sustained them throughout the pandemic.
“My background is in electronic music and production,” explained Eric. “I went to the Berklee College of Music for composing and music synthesis, and at the same time, Irish cello. I’ve been working for a company making hard core electronic dance music for commercials and movies. Trent Freeman has used this time to make a lot of videos. He’s very sought after making live music videos, concept music videos and many documentaries. Karnnel Sawitsky has been working closely with Folk Music Canada, and he’s on the board of that now. Ben Plotnick is down in Nashville, and he’s been gigging like a madman, playing shows, the recording studio and things like that. During the heart of pandemic times, we were all just figuring out ways to keep ourselves busy so we wouldn’t go crazy.”
At the moment the Fretless are scheduled to tour from Dec. 15 to 19, taking them from Club Passim in Cambridge, MA to Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY.
For more on the Fretless and Open House, go to thefretless.com.