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 Michael Lohr interviews Hugh Marsh, a Canadian electric  fiddle player whose music flows over the boundaries of jazz, world, Celtic and rock music.

Hugh Marsh is an accomplished, multifaceted fiddle player. Born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and now residing in Toronto, Hugh seamlessly weaves musical tapestries from Celtic and World music to Jazz, Funk and even Rock and Blues. His specialty is the electric fiddle. He has worked with such Rock music legends as Bruce Cockburn, Robert Palmer, Iggy Pop and Peter Murphy as well as 90s rock icon The Barenaked Ladies and children's troubadour Raffi. Additionally, he has recorded and toured for several years now with Celtic/World music songstress Loreena McKennitt, a gig that has encompassed six multi-platinum albums, several Grammy/Juno nominations and numerous sold out world tours. He has also worked extensively with several Turkish musical artists including Ihsan Ozgen, Kani Karaca and zither player Goksel Baktagir.

When he’s not recording or touring with the above projects, he composes fiddle music for movie soundtracks, and has appeared on a number of blockbusters including The Da Vinci Code, Armageddon, Shrek 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Seraphim Falls and The Chronicles of Narnia. He is a four-time winner of the Jazz Report Award and three-time winner of the Canadian National Jazz Award for fiddle/violin player of the year.

It was indeed a pleasure to sit down with Hugh and discuss his career at length. I hope you enjoy.

 

Q. You played/trained on Classical violin from age 5 to 20. How did this come about? Was playing violin an arbitrary decision by your parents or was there something that attracted you to it at such a young age?

A. I’m an Air Force brat. When I was five we lived on a base near London in southern Ontario.

Every Saturday we’d go into town to do a grocery shop for the coming week. Next to the local A&P was a small music store and in the window was a ¼ size violin. I remember being very drawn to it. On tiptoes and with both hands on a low ledge to hoist myself up, I’d peer into the window and stare endlessly at it. This happened week after week until eventually my parents bought it for me.

Q. You started playing the saxophone in high school. Do you still play? You know, it’s rumored that bassist Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is an excellent jazz trumpeter. You guys should get together and do a record.

A. Unfortunately no, however it has been incredibly important to my development as an improvising musician. It really led me to search out new music in genres I hadn’t investigated previously. R&B, funk, jazz and rock all became vital new listening staples for me.

Oh yeah, it also taught me to breathe. Very important! I got to work with Flea about 10 years ago on a record called “So Many Worlds” by Rambient. This project was collaborative effort between my good friend the film composer Harry Gregson-Williams and Porno for Pyros guitarist Peter DiStefano.

Q. There’s a story about your Father coaxing you to explore sound improvisation on fiddle as you had done with the sax. Can you please tell us about that episode?

A. Sure. I came home from high school one day and there in the living room was a Balilla amp, a DeArmond pickup for my violin and a Vox wah wah pedal. My dad had recognized that I was at a bit of a musical crossroads. Even though I had a lot more chops on the violin I was truly considering dropping it altogether in order to concentrate on the saxophone. I was playing alto and tenor in a rock band at the time and looked upon the violin as a bit of a wimp instrument.

That all changed the moment I plugged in.

From that point forward I became entranced with signal processing and using an organic instrument as a catalyst for some sonic mayhem.

Q. I’ve read were you stated that you were influenced by Miles Davis, Frank Zappa and fiddle player Sugarcane Harris. What other musical influences served as your muse? And what was it about these people that influenced you so?

A. Here begins a long list. Besides the three you’ve already mentioned most certainly Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Jaco Pastorius, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker, Weather Report, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla, The Roots, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell , Jon Hassell Oval, Microstoria, Harco Pront, Frank Bretschneider, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Sly Stone, Graham Central Station, Bob Marley, Bjork, Tanburi Cemil Bey, Kani Karaca Erkan Ogur, Djivan Gasparian, Baba Maal, Salif Keita, Youssou N’dour, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Hermeto Pascoal, Bartok, Stockhausen, J.S. Bach, Berg, Schoenberg. Canadian jazz musicians have always loomed large as far as I’m concerned, especially as a young player coming up. They would include Phil Nimmons, Moe Koffmann, Doug Riley, Don Thompson, Sonny Greenwich and Claude Ranger. The one unifying gem they all possess I believe is the power of their own singular, musical voice. That is the thing that separates them from all others and the most important possession for any musician to obtain.

Q. You have played with many of Canada’s most famous Jazz musicians over the years, including Moe Koffman, Claude Ranger and Sonny Greenwich. How difficult of a transition was it to go from Classical violin to Jazz fiddle? What is the primary difference in performing Jazz fiddle as it is related to other genres?

A. I think having played the saxophone really stood me in good stead transitioning from classical music to jazz. As I mentioned before, breathing and approaching phrasing thinking more like a horn player became very important to me. I also spent a great deal of time listening only to horn players, transcribing lots of trumpet and saxophone solos. I think the main thing that really changed for me was my approach to bowing. Staying on the string the whole time and utilizing much less of the bow in an effort to emulate a horn like turn of phrase.

Q. You spent many years as a member of Bruce Cockburn’s recording and touring band. This was a result of a chance meeting in Ottawa in 1979. Could you tell us the story of how this long term collaboration came about and was sustained?

A. Christmas of 1979 I had returned to my folks home in Ottawa fully expecting to stay a while, as my dream of “making it” as a jazz musician in Toronto seemed to have run it’s course. I was back in town for a couple of days and my friend, jazz guitarist Roddy Elias rang me up and asked if I wouldn’t mind performing with him at a local Children’s Hospital telethon. Bruce Cockburn was on camera doing his thing when we arrived. Roddy and Bruce were old friends and Bruce was kind enough to stick around and listen to us play. Afterwards he invited us to dinner.

We talked for quite some time and Bruce asked me if I was playing anywhere in town in the next week. It just so happened that I had a gig at a club in two days with Roddy, pianist Jean Beaudet, bassist Scott Alexander and Claude Ranger. Bruce came to gig and after the first set walked up to me and said “How would you feel about going on the road?” I immediately turned around and headed back to Toronto to begin rehearsals with Bruce, bassist Dennis Pendrith and drummer Bob Disalle. This was the beginning of an 8 year musical collaboration that encompassed numerous world tours and several recordings starting with “Humans” in 1980 and ending with “Big Circumstance” in 1988. I’ve returned to work on a couple of recordings over the years.

“Christmas” in 1993 and “You’ve Never Seen Everything” in 2003. Bruce has always been one of those great artists who facilitates independence and allows you to maintain your own voice, while simultaneously serving his music.

Q. What is your favorite moment from your touring days with Canadian legend Mary Margaret O’ Hara?

A.I guess I’d have to cite two moments. The actual recording process for the “Miss America” album being one. Great musicians and friends were involved. Guitarists Rusty McCarthy and Don Rooke, bassist David Piltch and drummer Michael Sloski being the core band. I have such fond memories of those sessions which took place at Rockfield Studios in Wales. Robert Plant was recording a solo project at the same time in the big room adjacent. Producer number one (Andy Partridge of XTC) had left by the time I had arrived. Producer number two (Joe Boyd of Nick Drake fame) showed up soon after me (Producer number three Michael Brook arrived during the mixing stage). I also have a great memory of an absolutely fabulous live midnight gig with M2OH at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. Playing whilst having Guinness delivered to the stage in milkshake sized containers, yum!

Q. Besides your Jazz career, I am most familiar with your work with Loreena McKennitt. In fact I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you perform with her ensemble at The Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, which was a magnificent and mesmerizing performance to say the least. Is there a moment with Loreena McKennitt’s troupe that stands out for you? What’s your favorite song of hers to play live?

A. With Loreena it’s always a great adventure at the beginning of any recording project in no small part due to the fact that most of her recordings have taken place at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. It’s such an inspiring space, very conducive to creativity. Loreena loves it there as do we all. My favorite versions of the band have always included some of the great “world” musicians we’ve been fortunate enough to tour and travel with. As such I think the “Live at the Alhambra” ensemble was pretty special. As far as a favorite song goes I have the feeling most people would figure I would say “Santiago”, but I’d have to go with either “Penelope” or “Never Ending Road”.

Q. What is your favorite fiddle brand to play? Do you use different types of fiddles for recording and touring and is there a fiddle that works better for Celtic than say Jazz, or vice-versa?

A. I have three early 1970’s Barcus Berry electric violins which I’ve used for everything I’ve ever done. They’re pretty much a mainstay for me. The only thing that changes for me gear wise is the amount of processing I use which varies greatly depending on the gig. A little amount for gigs like Loreena’s to masses of it for my film score work or my own recordings. I should also say that I’m a huge fan of the following FX companies because they all play a huge role in what I do now. Anything by Moog, Eventide, Strymon, Hexe, Metasonix, Zvex, Folktek, Iron Ether, Neunaber and Teenage Engineering on the hardware end of things are all amazingly inspirational tools. I use them every day.

Q. One fact that readers may not know about you is that you have worked on the soundtracks for many big-budget movies such as “Armageddon,” “Shrek 2,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and The Chronicles of Narnia films. You also were the soloist on Hans Zimmer’s score for “The Da Vinci Code.” How did this potentially lucrative gig working on film scores arise?

A. This is the story as I know it. I was in Los Angeles at the Universal Amphitheatre. It was the final date of a North American tour with Loreena in 1998. Jerry Bruckheimer’s wife was in attendance and passed on a copy of Loreena’s CD to Jerry who in turn passed it on to co- composers Harry Gregson-Williams and Trevor Rabin along with the suggestion they hire the violinist on the recording for some solo bits in the film. Very luckily they called me and I was in Santa Monica recording a couple of days later. Both Harry and Trevor had studios at Hans Zimmers Media Ventures (now Remote Control Productions) complex at the time. This has led to working on numerous scores with Harry as well as a couple of projects with Hans, Steve Jablonsky, David Buckley and Paul Haslinger. Up in Toronto I work on a lot of scores with my friend Jonathan Goldsmith.

Q. Do you have any venue or festival that is your favorite to play? Any outstanding recent gigs come to mind? Why do they stand out?

A. Very easy. I love playing Massey Hall in Toronto. That beautiful wooden stage is absolutely steeped in musical history. A few years ago Loreena did a series of outdoor concerts in ancient amphitheaters all throughout the Mediterranean which was fantastic. Oh yeah, I finally got to play Carnegie Hall this past December. That was fun

Q. One aspect about your career that I didn’t realize was that you worked with British rock icon and recent Turkish citizen/convert to Islam, Peter Murphy. How did that gig manifest?

A. This musical connect came about while I was working in Turkey on a collaboration between the Sufi DJ Mercan Dede and MDT (Modern Dance Turkey) called Seyhatname. It so happened that the director and choreographer for MDT was Peter Murphy’s wife Beyhan. Peter ended up coming to a Secret Tribe gig and we got to talking. I ended up doing a handful of tours with him and two recordings, “A Live Just for Love” and “Dust”.

Q. You’re an ongoing member of Turkish DJ Mercan Dede’s Secret Tribe project. How did this gig come about?

A. Well, I haven’t worked with Mercan for some time now though I spoke to him on the phone quite recently. He called me after hearing a Loreena track on the CBC. He was playing with the great Turkish kemence player Ihsan Ozgen in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and wanted to know if I would care to sit in with them. I was quite nervous about this knowing absolutely nothing about Turkish music at the time but Arkin (Mercan) assured me Ihsan was only interested in having me play the way I play and seeing how we could interact. Things worked out splendidly and I ended up being invited to Istanbul to play a series of concerts with Ihsan and Mercan. This has led to many tours and recordings with many of my favorite musicians in the world.

Q. Several years ago you had a hit single with a cover version of Jimi Hendrix’s classic song, “Purple Haze,” with vocals by the late great British singer Robert Palmer? How did you decide to do a cover of such an iconic song? Did any Hendrix fans give you static for recording the song?

A. That’s really simple. I love Hendrix, I love the song and Robert was into doing it. Yeah, we got a certain amount of flack from some hardcore Hendrix fans, but you can’t please everyone.

Q. Your last solo release was the Juno award nominated “Hugmars,” in 2006. Are you planning any solo projects soon? Do you have any other fiddle projects in the pipeline now?

A. There are two solo projects I’m hoping to get done very soon. One an actual solo violin project called “Violinvocations” and the other a bit of an alter ego project called “Hug the Modulator”. In a perfect world the lineup for the latter will include Roots alum Ursula Rucker and Black Thought, pianists David Virelles and Craig Taborn, bassist Rich Brown, drummer Gene Lake, clarinetist Don Byron and harmonica player Gregoire Maret. In time, all will be revealed.

Q. What has been the oddest thing either onstage or off that you’ve seen/experienced while on tour? You know, your ‘Spinal Tap’ moment.

A. The first Bruce Cockburn tour was very hectic. We were promoting the “Dancing in the Dragons Jaws” recording and especially the single “Wondering Where the Lions Are”. We did a lot of shows, lots of radio promo and TV spots, including Saturday Night Live. Anyway, we were in Los Angeles playing the Roxy on Sunset and doing a double show. Over the course of the previous weeks I had managed to not take very good care of myself and ended up completely dehydrated. By the second show, I was throwing up between each song as discretely as possible into a bucket behind my amps. As soon as the show ended it was straight to Cedars Sinai for me and a date with a saline drip. Needless to say I take a bit more care of myself these days.

Q. What additional projects and/or tour dates are you planning in the future?

A. I have a few new projects in the works. I’m part of two wonderful but very different bands based in Toronto. One is a group called Nick Buzz which consists of myself, ex Rheostatics singer/guitarist Martin Tielli, pianist/film composer Jonathan Goldsmith and guitarist Rob Piltch. We’ve just finished our second recording tentatively entitled “A Quiet Evening at Home” (with Nick Buzz). I guess it could be described as a Sonic Circus of sorts. The other is a Folk/Roots/Americana trio with myself, singer and portable pump organist Michelle Willis and the great slide guitarist Don Rooke of The Henrys notoriety. It’s called “Three Metre Day.” We released our initial recording a couple years ago called “Coasting Notes” and we’re now in the process of writing for a new EP. We’ve had quite an interesting year as a trio. Almost nothing in the way of gigs but we did (through our friend and guardian angel guitarist James Williamson) manage to get ourselves playing on a track on the new Iggy and the Stooges record “Ready to Die”. We also spent a great deal of last year working on and writing the film score for “Still Mine” for which we received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for achievement in Film Scoring, -the True North’s version of the Oscar. Besides these concerns I suspect there will be the occasional film score with as well as some touring with Loreena McKennitt who is also making new recording overtures. I’ll also be releasing a solo recording “Songs for My Mother and Father” and the aforementioned “Hugmars” on iTunes for the first time.

To learn more about Hugh Marsh and his music, please go to these official websites:

 

Hugh Marsh’s Official Website: www.hughmarsh.net/

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hugh-Marsh/95937533059

MySpace Page: https://myspace.com/hughmarsh

Last FM: www.last.fm/music/Hugh+Marsh

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/shaking-the-pumpkin/id210737095

Soundcloud: soundcloud.com/hugh-marsh