by Fiona Heywood
Described by Bruce MacGregor as sounding like “a whole festival wrapped up in one band”, Cara is a folk group that plays mainly Celtic music, with arrangements of traditional tunes and songs alongside the compositions of band members. Combining fiddle, flute, accordion, guitar, piano, uilleann pipes and bodhrán, with two female lead singers, Cara’s music is firmly rooted in the Scots and Irish tradition. But what makes this group slightly different is that it originated in Germany by four friends who shared a passion for tunes and songs. They founded Cara simply for the sake of playing the music that they loved and over 18 years later, the band is now one of the busiest and most successful on the Celtic scene in Germany.
Gudrun Walther, one of the founding members, caught up with us recently to tell us the story behind why a bunch of German musicians wanted to play traditional music from Ireland and Scotland, and how the band has developed in the years since. She is the fiddle and accordion player in the band, and one of the lead vocalists.
“Well, there’s different stories of how each of us got involved with traditional music,” she told me. “For my part, I just grew up in a musical house. My great granddad on my dad’s side was a musician – he owned the fiddle that I am playing today. My great granddad on my mum’s side played the button box. Both my parents played fiddle, and my older brother started playing Irish music when he was 17.” This was at a time when bands like The Dubliners, The Fureys and The Bothy Band were touring in Germany, so Gudrun was introduced to Irish music alongside the German folk songs that were sung by her mother at bedtime, and all the other music being played in the house. “I took to the Irish music instantly,” she said, “not knowing really (and definitely not judging) that it was music from another country. I started to scratch polkas on a wee fiddle that my dad was giving me lessons on – and never looked back. At the age of seven, I entered a ‘proper’ music school and got classical training, but by that time I had already been learning tunes by ear, so that’s always been my first love.”
Thanks to her brother, Gudrun was listening to a wide selection of Irish music. “De Dannan was an early favourite,” she said. “Altan too, right from the very first duo recording of Frankie and Mairead. The Bothy Band and Planxty, of course. Dervish and Solas a little later… But also individual players – Tommy Peoples, Martin Hayes, Liz Carroll, Sharon Shannon… There were some life-changing performances from duos as well: Séamus Begley & Steve Cooney, Ian Carr & Karen Tweed…”
Irish music travels well, and has a strong following all over the world, including in Germany. I wondered why Gudrun thinks this is the case. “I think what drew me to Irish music from the very beginning was the social aspect of it,” she said. “People were just having so much fun in sessions together, and it felt like a really strong community that I wanted to be part of. And I think that side of it is still the same today, and it’s one of the main reasons why people still get involved playing Irish music, in Germany and all around the world. Whenever we teach workshops, we do get a lot of classically trained players who can’t play music if you take their sheet music away, and who want nothing more than to be able to just play with other people! Trad music (not specifically Irish music, but all the dance tunes from the various European traditions) is ideal for that. You don’t need to memorise a symphony, it’s mostly A and B parts and once you have that, you can start having fun with it! And sometimes the simplest tunes are the most rewarding ones!”
“I think that Irish music is the most popular for many reasons… one of them being that the sessions usually are taking place in pubs, and you’ll find an Irish pub in almost every mid-sized town in Germany. Also, Irish bands have been touring worldwide since the 70s and there are many popular bands, so a lot of people have heard Irish music in some shape or form.”
Thanks to its widespread popularity, other soon-to-be members of Cara were also making their own discoveries in Celtic music. Founding member Jürgen Treyz (who plays guitar and dobro with the band, and sings backing vocals), became engaged with traditional music when he was studying guitar at the MGI in Munich. Piper with the band since 2014, Hendrik Morgenbrodt was playing French and German bagpipes when he discovered the sound of the uilleann pipes and he has been playing them ever since.
As the band evolved, it began to include musicians from Ireland and Scotland into its line-up, strengthening further the links with the music of these countries. Firstly, piper Ryan Murphy, and then fiddler/pianist/singer Jeana Leslie joined, though both have now gone on to other things. In the current line-up, the fourth member of the band with Gudrun, Jürgen and Hendrik is now lead vocalist and piano player, Kim Edgar, based in Edinburgh. She comes from a classical piano background and is a well-respected singer songwriter. Her songs, reflecting her interest in horror, fairy tales, feminism and social history, fit well alongside the more traditional material in the band.
Gudrun told me more about the development of the Cara line-up, and how it came to be a multi-national affair. “Claus and Sandra Steinort (the other two founding members) were a couple back then, and are married now with two kids. When their first daughter was born, we still toured and took her with us. But you can only do that as long as they’re really small… so we started touring with other musicians to fill in for Sandra when we were playing abroad. At that time, we’d just started touring the USA - big long tours, sometimes twice a year. It got to a stage where it was difficult for Claus to be on the road with us, knowing that Sandra, who loved playing music equally and also had been a crucial part of the band, was left behind. So they both made the decision to leave. Absolutely understandable – and we are still best friends and love playing with each other.”
Gudrun and Jürgen had already met Ryan Murphy at a festival in Ireland and had tunes with him – “it literally took one phone call and he was in,” Gudrun said. Jeana Leslie was recommended by the members of Beoga. “Both were an instant fit and great to work with.” This line-up recorded and toured together from 2010. In 2013, Jeana left to go back to Uni for a teaching degree, and Kim joined the band. “Kim played the piano on one of my favourite Karine Polwart albums (Fairest Floo’er),” explained Gudrun, “and she had co-written this amazing, dark song (Blood, Ice And Ashes) with Karine for The Burns Unit - it really gripped me. We’d never met her before, but we emailed her and asked if she would be interested in joining a band… Next thing she was on a plane to Germany to rehearse with us, and after that went really well, she joined. In 2014, Ryan sadly had to leave the band because, after his move to Glasgow and joining Mànran, it became impossible to juggle both bands’ busy touring schedules, so we needed to find a new piper. Fortunately, around this time the solution presented itself in the form of Hendrik, who was 24 and beginning to make an impression on the scene. He lives only 45 minutes from Jürgen and me, which was a welcome bonus since everyone else, from the very early Cara days, had been living very far away. We rehearsed with him and loved playing with him. He is a pipe-maker as well and builds amazing instruments – and is always adjusting the sound of his set to the needs of the band. Over the years, we have also worked with additional fifth members and guest musicians on bodhrán – Rolf Wagels, who was with us for 15 years, Aimée Farrell-Courtney and Tad Sargent – and we have a habit of working with past members; Claus was back as a sub for Ryan and for Hendrik a couple of times, Jeana toured Australia with us in 2018 when Kim couldn’t get away for a month, and Ryan would have subbed for Hendrik in the critical months around the birth of his child this year, but it never came to that. So it’s very much like family, once you’re in, you’re in. Or maybe it’s like the Mafia!”
Though Cara is based in Germany, they play a good number of their gigs abroad, and are often found in the UK and Ireland. I wondered if they felt there were differences in audience reactions when they play over here. “We love playing in the UK and Ireland,” Gudrun told me. “Yes, it feels a bit different because audiences are much more knowledgeable about the tunes. In Germany you get a lot of reactions about the songs, and of course people would clap along with a fast tune or enjoy a slow piece, but in Scotland and Ireland especially, audiences also react to key changes and would go ‘hup’ in the middle of a set, which is very lovely for a musician. Also dancing to the tunes is something people do, whereas in Germany, audiences are much more used to a concert setting and wouldn’t leave their seats unless you really, really encouraged them to.”
Obviously, touring has been in short supply over the last couple of years, so there hasn’t been too much of playing to anyone, although the band did do a tour in Germany in October and November. They have just released their eighth album, Grounded, an appropriate title in so many ways – obviously a reference to COVID lockdowns, but also an allusion to the traditions which ground them. The album was originally scheduled to be released in December 2020, but was delayed due to COVID. Experiences during the pandemic have been varied for artists… some enjoyed the downtime from touring and found inspiration in the changes, others felt completely lost, and obviously there’s the lack of income. Gudrun explains a bit about how it was for her and for Cara.
“It was a very challenging time, though not without unexpected treats and some really cool experiences. I was involved in organising an online folk festival and also launched a new series with Jürgen called Tunes From Home where we played tunes every Monday and people could play along with us on Zoom. We had virtual guests as well: Mick O’Brien and his daughter Ciara, Oisín Mac Diarmada and Samantha Harvey, Claire Mann and Aaron Jones, Naragonia, Akleja and Andy Cutting. We had between 100 and 150 people every Monday and did 25 sessions, and it was very rewarding because there was a social aspect to it as well – we’d stay online in breakout rooms and got to hang out with each other, at least virtually, and you could have a tune and a pint with your pals. It helped us stay connected – which as I mentioned before is one of the main aspects of playing this music for me.”
“However, for the band it was all really difficult. We had just started the creative process, having had a retreat in February 2020 where we collected, wrote and rehearsed stuff for the new album… but then, of course, from March onwards everything was cancelled and we were interrupted just as we started to get the ball rolling, so to speak. We managed to have three gigs and a short time in the studio together in July where we laid down some basic tracks and rehearsed some more material, but then the second lockdown all through autumn 2020 until May 2021 was very hard – we’d made lots of different plans on how to get together and had to cancel each and every one, time after time. That was immensely frustrating. We did our best to keep sending each other ideas though, and we finally managed to finish the recording in July 2021.”
One of the songs on the new album, The Spell Of Winter, was written by Gudrun (with music by Jürgen) in the spring of 2020. It talks of “the promise of a new beginning” with the spell of winter broken. It seems especially poignant now that we are beginning to emerge from the various spells of lockdown, and I asked Gudrun about it. “When everything around me felt extremely threatening and strange, and our whole life changed literally from one day to the next, I spent a lot of time outdoors,” she said. “That was spring 2020 and it was fantastic to be out every day and see all the small signs of spring, and how it got greener every day, to hear the sounds of birds that had returned – I’ve never had such an intense spring experience over such a long period of time, because normally we are on tour a lot when all this happens, so you never get to compare the same spot and how it alters day after day. For me, it really gave me a soothing sense of being part of a bigger plan, just a small part of this amazing universe. Humbling and reassuring at the same time.”
In the album, Cara has deliberately tried to respond to the global pandemic with what they call “a thoughtful, philosophical and life-affirming emotional testimony to some big questions.” The Spell Of Winter is obviously part of that, and I asked Gudrun how else they feel they have achieved this. “Well another important song in that respect is Bob Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” she explained. “In so many aspects. It connects to the theme of nature - maybe the biggest theme for me during the last 18 months. It describes how there are sounds all around us that are so beautiful, and musical, and we never take the time to listen to them. It also, in a way, reassured me that it was okay not to play for a while, because my own music kind of dried up for a month or so when all this started – but as the song’s title suggests – it’s OK to ‘lay down your weary tune’ and listen to the music of the universe.”
“These themes are in the tunes as well, although it’s never as obvious as in songs with lyrics. March For The Grounded Traveller was born out of reflecting on the dramatic change of lifestyle that we had – from not sleeping in our own beds for 150 nights a year or more to waking up in the same spot every day! And The Windhorse reflects on a theme that I find completely fascinating: the power of our minds, and thoughts. We have the power within us to influence our outlook on things, even on chaotic or catastrophic events – that’s one of the greatest gifts ever.”
Cara never shies away from tackling some of the big ballads as well. Gudrun sings True Thomas (Child 37) on the new album, and Kim sings The False Lover Won Back (Child 218) there as well. On previous albums they have done songs such as Lord Gregory, The Elfin Knight and Little Musgrave too. What draws them to these songs? “We love ballads!” Gudrun said. “It’s so rewarding to arrange and play these story-telling songs, almost like little folk-operas – and if someone succeeds with a good arrangement that really draws the listener in, it can be just the best thing to lose yourself completely in these stories. Some of them we learn from listening to other singers. (The source for Little Musgrave was Christy Moore with Planxty, of course. As a child I just loved that song and was listening to it over and over, even before I really grasped all the details of the story… and all the more for that later… it’s movie material really, it’s about love, sex, honour, betrayal - all the big themes!) Some songs were recommended to us by friends – that was the case with Lord Gregory. Kim found The False Lover in a book (in our minds it’s a bit like Kill Bill – the female lead is just not ready to give up on this guy… slightly creepy, we think!)”
The band also does a mix of traditional tunes, those by other composers, and those written by band members. Gudrun wrote many of the tunes that made the cut for this album, and Jürgen is also a composer and arranger and often writes the interludes for the ballads and songs. He’s also a widely respected producer and sound engineer and his influence can be heard strongly in the band – Cara’s albums are recorded by him, always to an exceptional standard.
“Yes, Jürgen is the man behind that. We have our own studio about half an hour’s drive from where we live, and a small studio in the house for mixing, mastering and also for laying down ideas and first arrangements. The studio in the house was a blessing during lockdowns. Recording with the whole band takes place in the bigger studio where we also have a beautiful old Steinway grand piano. Jürgen is a perfectionist when it comes to arranging and recording. I’ve learned a lot, working with him for 20 years now. We do a lot of the work together (also during the recording process), but he’s the one who makes it sound great in the end, our musical mastermind.”
With so many people recording their own albums these days, often at home, I wondered if Jürgen had any words of wisdom to impart for those attempting it. “Well firstly,” he said, “home-recording nowadays is a very different thing than home-recording 20 or even 10 years ago. The technical possibilities are developing so fast, and it’s possible to make some really good recordings without having to rent an expensive studio. And this is just as well, because with the CD going slowly but surely out of fashion, and streaming providers not paying enough for the artists’ work, if we didn’t have this development a lot of great musicians simply wouldn’t be able to afford making an album. So it is a good thing, in a way.” A lot of Jürgen’s work over the last few years has been mixing and mastering albums for bands who have home-recorded their tracks and then sent them to him. That’s a way forward that he feels can work quite well if the musicians know what they want to achieve while playing.
“However, one thing is very hard to achieve when home-recording in good audio quality,” he said, “and that is having a whole group of musicians playing together and recording that without spill-over soundwise… And, of course, that is where lots of the magic usually happens - when great musicians just play together! That’s something you lose when overdubbing in layers.”
“Also, it can be hugely beneficial to have a pair of independent ears in the form of a sound engineer, or even a producer (which is a job that in the trad scene has almost gone out of fashion) – because some things you just don’t realise if you’re too immersed in playing. Bottom line is: there is no right way or wrong way to record an album, but it’s definitely worth sitting down and thinking about the process a bit more. For accomplished musicians, it might be a much nicer experience to spend more time on rehearsals and preparation rather than learn how to home-record, and go into a good studio well-prepared and, once there, just play music as good as they can, and let someone else deal with all the techie stuff! For other musicians, it might just be the thing they need to be able to record at any hour of the day when creativity strikes and then build a song up from a really inspired basis track.” In terms of words of wisdom, Jürgen says: “If it’s a good arrangement, it will also sound good.” (Though Gudrun explains that what he also means is that if the arrangement/music doesn’t work, it won’t sound great, even if it is recorded with very expensive equipment.)
So, what’s next on the horizon for Cara? “Gigs, gigs, gigs!!!” says Gudrun with obvious excitement. “It’s going to be a hectic year for us, so many gigs have been rescheduled, some others were planned a long time ahead, and some new ones are still being added. Also, in 2023 we will celebrate our 20th anniversary as a band, so we have started working on that!”
The band members all have other projects on the go too. Kim has just launched a venture where she will work with 12 different songwriters from all over the world in a one-song-per-month project. The first collaborator is Ron Sexsmith. Jürgen and Gudrun are working on a new project that will hopefully see them collaborating with some of their favourite musicians. Gudrun and Jürgen have also been playing for many years with Aaron Jones and Claire Mann in 2Duos (later called Litha). They’ve been quiet as a foursome of late, but Gudrun said that they are just laying low for a while, waiting for the right time to hit the road again. Gudrun and Jürgen also play in Deitsch with Barbara Hintermeier on fiddle and viola and Steffen Gabriel on flutes and German bagpipes. This group has more of a focus on German traditional music, something that can be difficult to get a good audience for, but that Gudrun finds people always enjoy when they come across it – a situation that the band is trying to work on.
In recent years a lot of manuscripts containing German dance tunes have resurfaced and have been digitised – something that’s of great interest to Gudrun and Deitsch. “Since we’re all tune players, that was the thing that we were missing until then - repertoire to choose from! It electrified us and we have spent many hours playing through all those tunes and picking and choosing the ones we loved. For me in particular, this was the missing link between me and my musician-great-granddad. He had all his dance repertoire in his head and died when I was only two years old, and since the post-WW2-generation of my parents was dancing to other music, nobody bothered to learn his tunes – although they played instruments! What a shame. Anyway, this is all very exciting and we are hoping to see more and more musicians turning to this repertoire and working with it. Youth work, in particular, is very important, and we’re trying to build this up. We will see in a couple of years how successful we have been, we’re just starting out.”
With all these different things happening, and life after lockdown beginning to look a bit more promising, it looks like the members of Cara will be back to being as busy as ever. “At the moment, things are actually totally insane,” said Gudrun. “Everything culminates: all the rescheduled gigs; the projects that we applied for funding for when everyone thought gigs might not be back for much longer; the projects we’ve built to get us through the gig-less time that are too dear to our heart to just stop now; plus Hendrik and his partner just had their first baby. But it is an exciting time as well because some really great collaborations have come, and will come, out of this time in which we had to learn how to work on creative projects remotely. So – we are very busy, but loving every minute of it!”
Photo: Louise Mather
Published in Issue 141 of The Living Tradition – December 2021.