In the beginning… there was Light

AlisaRosePathSparklyI’ve spent so much time thinking about all the ways I could tell this story of my journey into Irish and Celtic music. Everything is so interconnected that sometimes looking at in reverse seems to make more sense. But I love the beauty and power of how things unfolded over time.  So, as with so many stories in this world, I start with the beginning.

And in the beginning, I had no idea what Irish or Celtic music was. I barely knew who the Irish or Scots or Celts were, or that in a minuscule way, it was part of my cultural past (though not my identity, which I plan to dedicate an installment to). I was entirely ignorant to the work that was taking over the world in the 1995 explosion of Irish arts, finally becoming internationally visible.


What I did know was Christian music… almost inside and out, from classic hymns to contemporary praise pop, and I watched my mother on stage almost every Sunday lead the church in song. Christianity and Christian music was the primary cultural influence in our nuclear world. I also knew a bit about Latin and Hispanic music from my Grandmother and I was weirdly knowledgable for a young child in the 1990’s of big band type jazz via old movies and my great-grandfather who was a wonderful jazz pianist… I still listen to his tape recordings of him swinging along those keys. Pop music and rock weren’t part of our household when I was young but I knew “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” (or as I called it, “The Cat that Chewed Your New Shoes”) and “Besa me Mucho”. 

That’s all to say that there was no subconscious memory in my life of Irish music or Irishness in my world, nothing that gave me context or reason to feel a draw to it, once exposed. Though, I find many people want to justify my interest beyond simply being compelled. The depth of my familiarity was “Riverdance”, as with so many young kids who saw Michael Flatley and Jean Butler pound out on the stage on PBS every March. But I had no association in my mind with that being Irish. I knew it simply as something beautiful and associated it more with the large song and dance sequences in old black and white movies than with any ethno-national identity. For the first couple years I became in Irish music and dance, I was frustrated that I wasn’t familiar with Irish music and dance before or raised in it like so many of my fellow musicians. But now I see it as something that gives me a unique voice, both literally and artistically, and has forced me to push farther and harder.

In that ignorance came a light… almost literally. At an artists conference in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my mother met a violinist name Mary Kay. They made a brief connection that would ultimately change my life forever. Mary Kay was in a small, local band called “Isle of Light” with her husband, Jeff Wilkinson, on guitar and a young virtuosic piper and musician, David Brewer. My mother brought home their album and we listened together and without explanation or understanding I simply fell in love with the melodies and pace of the music. I still wasn’t aware quite where this music came from or its history, it just turned my brain on and I found myself listening to it often.

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Isle of Light on the coast of the Monterey Bay

One day, while driving from one of my many after-school activities, my mother and I were listening to the album, again… How many times had we heard it at this point? How many times had I turned the now weak pages of the album booklet, looking at pictures and reading lyrics and notes? This time as we listened, driving along the road, we noticed something we hadn’t before… This young kid, David Brewer, powering away on a penny whistle at the speed of a hummingbird… was playing two whistles at one time. It wasn’t a layover on the recording. It wasn’t two separate parts. He was playing them at the same time…

We kept listening as the songs changed, so involved and astounded by the skill of this young player. As I listened to Mary Kay lilt through the first folk song I would ever learn, “The Water is Wide”, I had a sort of vision or thought pass through me. I wanted to sing with these people. I wanted to play music with them. Singing wasn’t new to me but a thought like this was. As a kid, I had always seen myself as a contemporary Christian artist but in the more child-like, dreamy way we imagine ourselves as rock-stars, when what were really doing is clunking away on an accordion or out of tune guitar. This time I saw myself in the setting of this world that was new to me: the folk world. It was warm and close and intimate. And I can recognize now that how I related to music and expression changed to something more personal in this moment. I felt that music wasn’t just a technique or mechanical function… it was meant to be an experience and a bearing of emotions and stories.

Out loud without any self-doubt I said, “I want to sing with this band someday.” My mom looked at me, smiled and said with firm encouragement, “Okay!” And as Christian families do, we said a prayer. But where I was used to long floral prayers, this was simple and short. Its the kind of prayer or set intention, or whatever you want to call it, that I believe leaves a door for wide and unimaginable opportunity to flow in. And, I genuinely could not have planned or dreamed of the path ahead of me that would make that very thing happen one day … and then push me beyond that into dedicating my life to this little world I had known absolutely nothing about. I could write a whole thesis on my ideas around deity, but I think if I had to make an argument for a greater power, the series of events that have flowed out from that small moment and changed my life, would be among the things that persuade me of the possibility.

Not knowing where to start or how to make a study of this music and being still so young, I forgot all about the vision for a time. I studied opera and became a stellar Mezzo-Soprano, courted by various conservatories and music schools. I focused on classical performing arts, convincing myself that was my purpose because I was good at it. But I still hung onto that album. I eventually lost it on a church mission to Mexico and remember the very last time I listened to that particular CD that had been gifted to my mother.

Years later, after finding discontent in my work in classical music and almost forgetting the small momentary vision in my life, I would meet David Brewer at a concert and eventually become good friends. Mary Kay later became one of my fiddle teachers when I moved to Santa Cruz to study at the University. And, while the band doesn’t play together anymore, I have had the incredible honor of working with both these people and performing with David on more than one occasion. I not only found that vision or idea manifested in my life, I received something even bigger through it in both friendships made and a life adventure still unfolding. This is where I can say something like “to be continued” because David became a radically integral individual in my pursuing Irish and Folk music as more than just a passing interest and the story only grows from here.

You can find the whole album on the Isle of Light website here under “Melodies”, including track samples, such as my favorite “Palo Verde Turkey“. As a record, it has always meant so much to me and invokes such strong feelings of hope and desire, I could never imagine trying to critique and hope you will enjoy the genuine spirit of their presentation.

~Alisa Rose


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