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Norah Rendell spent her early years studying the recorder at Richmond Community Music School. Nowadays, she’s an Irish music specialist.
Norah Rendell always loved hearing Geoffrey Kelly blow out bang-up melodies on his flute. His pervasive mid-song solos in Spirit of the West recordings had a sort of je ne sais quoi appeal.
It wasn’t until her 20s that Rendell discovered those solos were actually traditional Irish tunes and also her calling.
The Steveston-raised musician is now lead vocalist and flute player of the Ireland/UK-based band The Outside Track and has a dynamic musical partner in guitarist Brian Miller, with whom she’s touring Wait There Pretty One, the pair’s debut CD that’s packed with folk songs and Irish dance tunes.
“One of the reasons I play traditional Irish music is because it is an authentic cultural music,” says the 29-year-old in a telephone interview from Bowen Island. “I have a lot of respect for the music and the fact that it’s a living oral tradition that’s just incredible.
“Through Irish music I hope to raise awareness about local culture, local community, human history and us being in touch with our past. So to me there’s something a little bit political about playing Irish music.”
Rendell’s come a long way from drowning out engine noise with renditions of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” during family car trips and sharing Raffi’s love with fellow commuters.
Mom put her in a music class at age three. Rendell loved it. Schooled in the traditional Carl Orff system (think “Carmina Burana”), she found the recorder an elementary school staple she pushed the limits of while learning at Richmond Community Music School under the guidance of teachers like Susan Senkow.
After graduating Richmond High, she kept playing the instrument (it’s a “weird” instrument to be into, she allows) while at McGill University, where she finished a degree in early music. She returned to Steveston, then moved closer to the traditional music scene in Vancouver.
“I just decided I’m going to be a musician. I’m going to try to make it a go, and I’m not going to do any work that isn’t related to music.”
Rendell added the whistle to her instrument repertoire and started teaching music. She was also busy performing with her powerful, and previously untapped, voice.
“I loved singing, but for some reason I just never thought about doing it professionally until I started singing in the sessions and people always talked to me about my singing. It always confounded me because I’d worked so hard, like my whole life playing wind instruments and I never ever practised singing.”
In 2005, a Canada Council grant allowed her to get an up-close taste of Ireland, where she completed a master’s degree in Irish traditional music at University of Limerick.
Rendell learned about the country’s strong connection to the U.S., thanks to the millions of Irish immigrants who landed in New York years ago.
“They actually thought I was American, which of course is totally irritating for Canadians,” she laughs. “The reason was, more than anything, was that so many young people who are playing traditional Irish music come over from the States.”
Strengthening the connection is a handful of recordings made in New York in the early 20th century that were instrumental in reviving traditional Irish music in Ireland.
“It’s classic. Often people in their own country don’t realize that they have culture,” says Rendell. “So there’s always been quite an authentic connection between those two places.”
There’s a similar connection between Scotland and Canadian traditional music on the East Coast, something Rendell whose bloodlines are Scottish is now tapping into.
Today, Rendell is based in Minneapolis with her musical partner Brian Miller. The pair’s strong connection allows for more flexibility on stage than with a larger folk group.
“It’s really fun from a musician’s point of view because it’s always different and you can always be extending the music and exploring it a little bit further because you’re not locked into an arrangement which you have to do when there’s five people in a band.”
The pair’s album includes a tribute to her French immersion schooling with “Qui me Passera Le Bois?” and a track sung in Irish gaelic, a language she’s studying. Altogether, the CD is engaging, intimate and honest.
“We’re really working hard, both of us individually and together, at it being authentic, being our own music. That’s why we spent so much time in Ireland, and it’s also why we included some Canadian material on the CD.”
And from a listen to the CD, it’s also clear she’s having fun and has no regrets of her decision seven years ago to jump into a music career head-first.
Says Rendell: “I absolutely love my life these days, and I love being a musician, it’s brought so many interesting people and interesting places to my life. I’m so glad I had the guts to do that.”